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IT giants' business more feudalism than capitalism, says bestselling Japanese critic

Kohei Sato is seen in Kita Ward, Osaka, on Sept. 9, 2020. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Onishi)

TOKYO -- Increased internet usage due to the coronavirus pandemic has led to people growing more and more dependent on the giant information technology firms referred to as "platformers" in Japan. With the concentration of wealth toward them seeming to be accelerating, how should we cope in this new era?

    Now, "Capital in the Anthropocene" a Shueisha Inc. published book exposing the harmful effects of an endless pursuit of growth, has become a bestseller. The Mainichi Shimbun interviewed its author, Kohei Saito, 34, an associate professor at Osaka City University.

    The following is an excerpt from that interview.


    Mainichi: Mr. Saito, you experienced what it's like delivering food for Uber Eats. What did you take away from that?

    Saito: I experienced what it's like being a delivery person in March last year, just before the first coronavirus state of emergency was declared. But after that, Uber Eats quickly became a major service.

    At the time, when you reached a specific number of deliveries, you would get an additional reward called a "quest," and in busy areas there was a reward rate "boost," which some riders said paid well. I heard a story about a former motorcycle courier who changed jobs and earned a million yen (about $9,200) a month.

    Kohei Saito is seen in this March 6, 2020 photo as an Uber Eats delivery person in Osaka. (Mainichi/Rei Kubo)

    But I thought the generous treatment wouldn't last, because platform companies can change the rules without consent, like altering their reward systems. As the number of people doing deliveries increases, competition intensifies and incomes get more unstable.

    Mainichi: In addition to Uber, IT giants like Google and Amazon are generating high profits while the economy as a whole has dipped significantly. Why is this?

    Saito: The more we are at home, the more opportunities we have to order food, shop online, watch videos, and so on. Under such circumstances in the U.S., billionaires like IT company managers have increased their wealth by about 50%. The same is true in Japan, where the wealthy invest their earnings in stocks and other assets, and their fortunes continue growing through these money games.

    On the other hand, ordinary hardworking people are suffering in the pandemic. Part-time jobs are disappearing, and more and more people are forced to accept poor working conditions as "gig workers" who are self-employed on one-time "contracts" with these platformers. The gap between rich and poor is only going to widen.

    Mainichi: But many people enjoy the convenience provided by the various services of platformers. Isn't it true our lives have become richer in this respect?

    Saito: Of course, they are convenient. I don't mean to say that we should go back to a time before the internet. But there is no sweet story where a convenient service is offered for free without recompense. Obviously, they're running businesses out of it.

    Their business is to collect data on what users search for, what they "like," what photos they upload, and so on.

    Personal data is called the "oil of the 21st century," and platformers are sucking up user data, and analyzing and processing it in various ways we don't know about to turn it into products. In this sense we've become "workers" for Facebook as we play on it.

    Every move we make can be tracked 24/7 and the data analyzed. Eventually, our emotions and desires will be controlled based on this data, and our behavior changed. When this happens, we will no longer be able to tell if our desires are real or fake.

    To stop this world coming, we need to reclaim our "data sovereignty," where we decide for ourselves whether or not to hand over our information.

    Mainichi: In your book, "Capital in the Anthropocene," you say platforms should be "wealth that is socially shared and managed by the people." What do you mean by that?

    Saito: A platform is essentially a "common ground" for everyone. In the beginning, the concept of the internet was a "horizontal and democratic space," and the idea of the sharing economy was also about people sharing goods and services on a horizontal basis without relying on large corporations.

    But what is happening now is the "enclosure" of platforms by giant IT companies. We have to pay to access services within the platform, and even if services are free, our data is taken from us. And they only give jobs for the roles artificial intelligence can't fulfill, like the low-wage labor at Uber.

    Some say this model in which platformers occupy our entire lives with data and subscriptions is more like feudalism (where a lord takes rent for the land from peasants) than capitalism.

    As a counter to this is a movement to share benefits and services by managing platforms like cooperatives. One typical example is Barcelona; once, it was famous for being a "smart city" (one that uses IT to manage the city efficiently and increase convenience). But with the election of its current mayor, the city's goal now is to "democratize information infrastructure" by moving away from the smart city model of giving over the whole system to platformers and collecting more and more information.

    They instead made an open platform where citizens could participate and discuss how to create their own city planning. Plus, they regulate Uber ride-sharing and Airbnb apartment rentals, and launched localized services to compete with them. These movements are called "platform cooperatives."

    Mainichi: In your book, you advocate rethinking the nature of capitalism to pursue unlimited growth.

    Saito: Capitalism tries to develop new frontiers wherever it can while exploiting people and the global environment. But the markets in developed countries have matured now to the point there is no expansion in new demand, so they are pushing forward into digital and even into outer space. This is where giant corporations are trying to create an enclosed system that creates monopoly profits.

    But digital technology doesn't create as many jobs as expected. While a few engineers are earning tens of millions (of yen, or six-digit figures in dollars), the middle class is shrinking, and the disparity is becoming very serious. The nature of capitalism has changed considerably from the model of everyone contributing to making something, as it used to be, to a few people sucking up wealth. Furthermore, fake news and cyberattacks threaten democracy. We have to put a stop to these developments somehow.

    Mainichi: In terms of the global environment, it is becoming increasingly difficult to pursue unlimited growth, isn't it?

    Saito: There is an illusion that going digital will reduce the impact on the environment, but in reality, electricity is consumed in huge amounts to cool servers, and as long as we depend on cars, electric vehicles will still cause the same problems like traffic jams, accidents, noise, and waste. Large amounts of rare-earth elements like lithium and cobalt are consumed to manufacture computers and electric cars, and it has led to competition over resources in developing countries, just as in 20th century imperialism.

    In this era of environmental crisis known as the Anthropocene, when human activities have covered the entire Earth, it is not enough to only reduce our environmental impact while maintaining the same lifestyle as before. We need to rethink what wealth means to us. To shift to a sustainable economy and stop the crisis our planet faces, we have no choice but to take drastic measures that correct capitalism itself, which relies on economic growth.


    Kohei Saito

    Born in 1987, Kohei Saito is a Doctor of Philosophy at Humboldt University of Berlin and specializes in philosophy of economics. He is the youngest person to win the Deutscher Memorial Prize, for his book "Karl Marx's Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy," which has been published in six languages. His latest book, "Capital in the Anthropocene," won Japan's new book award 2021 and has sold 270,000 copies.

    (Japanese original by Akira Murao, Business News Department)

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