Complex Control and the Governmentality of Digital Platforms

Petter Törnberg and Justus Uitermark

Front. Sustain. Cities


Digital platforms are reshaping cities in the twenty-first century, providing not only new ways of seeing and navigating the world, but also new ways of organizing the economy, our cities and social lives. They bring great promises, claiming to facilitate a new “sharing” economy, outside of the exploitation of the market and the inefficiencies of the state. This paper reflects on this promise, and its associated notion of “self-organization,” by situating digital platforms in a longer history of control, discipline and surveillance. Using Foucault, Deleuze, and Bauman, we scrutinize the theoretical and political notion of “self-organization” and unpack its idealistic connotations: To what extent does self-organization actually imply empowerment or freedom? Who is the “self” in “self-organization,” and who is the user on urban digital platforms? Is self-organization necessarily an expression of the interests of the constituent participants? In this way, the paper broadens the analysis of neoliberal governmentalities to reveal the forms of power concealed under the narratives of “sharing” and “self-organization” of the platform era. We find that control is increasingly moving to lower-level strata, operating by setting the context and conditions for self-organization. Thus, the order of things emerge seemingly naturally from the rules of the game. This points to an emerging form of complex control, which has gone beyond the fast and flexible forms of digital control theorized by Deleuze.