What is a Research Platform?

Coordinator June 08, 2010

Anja Kanngieser, Brett Neilson, Ned Rossiter


For a brief moment in 2007 it seemed that everything was a platform. Seemingly a ubiquitous moniker in the world of tech marketing, the term platform became a substitute for the word product. The idea was to add an air of strategy and Web 2.0 savvy to the tireless rollout of software solutions and business objects that marked this particular moment in internet history. Indeed, at the first Web 2.0 conference in October 2004, Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle declared that one of the preliminary principles defining Web 2.0 was ‘The web as a platform’. Technically a platform is something you build upon. But it can also describe a declaration of principles (e.g. by a political candidate) or a piece of infrastructure dedicated to public discussion. In the computing world its most basic meaning is a piece of equipment or computer architecture that runs a particular operating system. But as a term of business jargon, its sense has run beyond this to describe what one technological consulting company calls the creation of ‘an environment of promiscuous integration as a way to accelerate operations, get closer to customers and partners, unlock innovation, and discover efficiencies’.

This paper explores a counter-posed notion of platform that has its roots in the worlds of art and activism. More specifically, it asks how the organisation of platforms can serve as a research tool for transcultural mapping. The paper takes as its focus a currently unfolding project entitled 'Transit Labour: Circuits, Regions, Borders'. This project investigates changing material and conceptual connections between labour, mobility and subjectivity in the whirlwind of Asian capitalism. Moving across three cities – Shanghai (2010), Kolkata (2011) and Sydney (2012) – it employs a platform methodology to move beyond both the activities of the monastic scholar who writes theory and the sole researcher who does fieldwork. Each city becomes the site of a research platform that combines online and offline methods to gather researchers from across the world and bring them into collaborative relation with local participants through workshops, site visits, symposia, exhibitions, mailing lists, blogs and publishing. There is an emphasis on processes of inter-referencing between the three cities. The aim is to flee the data-mined, self-referential universe of social networking sites by building a multilingual environment for collaborative invention and the common production of knowledge.


It is important to emphasise the differences between this platform methodology and the boosterish employment of the term by the advocates of Web 2.0, crowd sourcing and the like. As mentioned above, it is in art and activist worlds that the construction of platforms has precedents that work against these tendencies. Olga Guriunova and Alexei Shulgin use the term 'art platform' to describe a 'platform that differentiates itself from other websites by the relations of creative, social, instrumental, educational and historical character it establishes and is involved into'. Such platforms, as opposed to blogs or social networking sites, are 'single interface'. In other words, they are 'devoted to a single "theme", a shared aesthetic, creative, even political horizon'. Furthermore, they are administered or 'moderated by a small group of people (usually 1-5)'. Contrary to the libertarian ideology of openness and horizontality that characterises Web 2.0 hype, they create focus by applying 'mechanisms rooted in the offline histories of power and institutions'. Guriunova writes:


For instance, with art platforms, the technical bottlenecks of moderating, featuring, voting and making comments that channel the collective effort help create an artistic or cultural phenomenon. An art platform works as an art institution – it allows for the bias of the curator or editor; it allows for the storage and exhibition of works, as do museums or libraries with journals; it allows for contextualising, as do publications or conferences; it allows for feedback and peer review, as do magazines. An art platform produces histories, identities, knowledge and social clusters, exactly in the manner of those interrelations constituting power which Foucault grasped. It represents a quite centred power model that is seemingly not characteristic of platforms considered to be Web 2.0 services.


While agreeing that the vertical aspects of 'single interface' platforms contrast the supposed horizontality of Web 2.0, we are less comfortable with the assertion that this verticality reproduces the workings of ingrained institutions such as museums, libraries or peer reviewed publications. Rather, we view platforms as social-technical means for experimenting with new institutional forms that connect highly distributed modes of digital communication with offline worlds. In this sense, our understanding of the term resonates with that developed in activist communities. Long before the term platform was appropriated by Web 2.0 enthusiasts, it was deployed in political contexts. For instance, the 1926 text entitled 'The Organizational Platform of the Libertarian Communists' argues for a new set of 'organizational principles and practices'. More recently, platforms have become a feature of political organisation for social movements, activist collectives and other non-governmental actors. Often crossing with art worlds, examples include Global Project, Sarai, Edufactory, Fadaiat, Transit Migration, Preclab and the European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies.


The common element of these platforms is an attempt to invent new institutional forms that do not inhere solely in the digital domain. As Emil Sotirov writes, the platform is 'the thing we want to enable ... and not the web media by which we would enable it'. Moreover, there is an effort to work with networked, unstable structures that deliberately contrast the kind of centralised institutions mentioned by Guriunova. We can understand the difference between these established modern institutions and the new institutional forms enabled by the platform by referring to the distinction drawn by Lovink and Rossiter between networked organisations and organised networks.


Networked organisations are formal institutional bodies such as museums, universities, newspapers and governments that seek to confront the difficulties presented by the rise of digital media and informatized society by integrating its processes into their structures. Newspapers begin to run blogs, universities set up research networks, parliamentarians send tweets and so on. These efforts of networking are driven by top-down systems of command compared with those of organised networks, which are initiated within digital media but face the challenges of governance and sustainability associated with online environments prone to weak social ties, uncertain funding, a reliance on free labour and ephemeral relations between participants. Platforms bring a strategic logic to network cultures that otherwise tend toward tactical short-termism. They also seek to provide a means of scaling up digitally based projects without compromising their distributed architectures in the name of stability and longevity.


Returning to the Transit Labour project, there are a number of complexities, problems and ambivalences that characterise the platform method. The first concerns the ambition to operate across different cities and geographical spaces. What kind of methods can be employed for such a transcultural and transdisciplinary project beyond the traditional methods of the social sciences? John Law writes: 'while standard methods are often extremely good at what they do, they are badly adapted to the study of the ephemeral, the indefinite and the irregular'. This is particularly the case for a project that examines the transformations of subjectivity associated with precarious labour regimes in the creative and cultural industries. There are problems not only of making the platform worthwhile for local participants in each of the three cities but also of bringing actors in the different sites into meaningful interaction through online exchanges.


One key challenge is how to communicate the logic of platform as method among participants coming from diverse disciplinary, social and cultural backgrounds. In our experience, it helps enormously to combine long term research participants with more recently met participants. In this way, a productive environment of mutual testing of constitutive limits or tension is created, where the risk of entrenched practices and dispositions is set against the at times sceptical interventions and queries of more recent project researchers.


These difficulties are compounded by the fact that the choice of cities is arbitrary, based more on the existence of previous research ties than the particularities of culture, labour and geography in the various sites. The latter is a problem familiar to anthropologists of distributed phenomena. Christopher Kelty writes:


The study of distributed phenomena does not necessarily imply the detailed, local study of each instance of a phenomenon, nor does it necessitate visiting every relevant geographical site – indeed, such a project is not only extremely difficult, but confuses map and territory ... The decisions about where to go, whom to study, and how to think ... are arbitrary in the precise sense that because the phenomena are so widely distributed, it is possible to make any given node into a source of rich and detailed knowledge about the distributed phenomena itself, not only about the local site.


The hope is that the visits of researchers from across and beyond the arbitrarily chosen sites can galvanise participation in each of the cities. But there is a delicate dynamic in which the costs of transporting researchers across the sites mitigate against the remuneration of precarious workers who might contribute to the project in any one locality. This raises the question of free labour within networked settings that has been explored by Tiziana Terranova among others. For Terranova, there is always a danger in 'open systems' that 'qualitative, intensive differences' turn into 'quantitative relations of exchange and equivalence' that 'reimpose hierarchical relations at the service of social reproduction and the production of surplus value'. This danger is further amplified in a project like Transit Labour that operates across the economic, cultural and racial divides that separate and connect Australia, India and China.


That the project, which has attracted funding from organisations such as the Australian Research Council and the Asia-Europe Foundation, has the financial resources to modestly reimburse participants does not necessarily provide a way out of this dilemma. This is because these bodies impose ideologically informed restrictions on how funds can be committed, the former in a nationalist frame. There is a need to negotiate or circumvent these restrictions as part of the platform methodology. This negotiation, in itself, is part of the ongoing tension between networked organisations and organised networks. The staging of a research platform cannot and should not be imagined as a means of escaping or avoiding this discord, which is one of the defining conflicts of our times.


Something more needs to be said about how the tension between networked organisations and organised networks crosses the problematic of transcultural mapping. Transit Labour is a project that questions the classical division between labour and culture. In so doing, it approaches the globalisation of culture as inseparable from the mobility and precariousness of labour. There are three points we wish to make about this in conclusion.


First, there is a need to recognise that regionalism has become the decisive scale in the world today. A focus on the nexus of labour and culture means understanding the role of borders, both those that limit political spaces and those that traverse them, in establishing and sustaining regional formations of cognition and culture. Second, the precariousness of labour, particularly in the cultural sectors, needs to be studied vis-à-vis the claims for culture and creativity as engines of innovation in the contemporary global economy. Finally, the business of transcultural mapping cannot be separated from the question of labour. This is not merely a question of the relation between theory and practice or the ethics of the transcultural encounter. The organisation of a research platform involves a necessary confrontation with the question of labour, and how it crosses borders as well as differential levels of pay. Collaboration is not a process that can be separated from the politics that joins labour to life. Only by working through these politics is it possible to invent conceptual tools and institutional forms adequate to the task of translation and the mapping of future tendencies in social, economic and political organisation.