Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Laura Lee reviews The Platform Economy

Marc Steinberg. The Platform Economy: How Japan Transformed the Consumer Internet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019. 297 pp.

Review by Laura Lee

26 August 2020

Marc Steinberg’s The Platform Economy is a significant new entry in what has become a rich and rapidly growing literature on platforms. Marking a welcome shift away from the field’s frequent emphasis on the technological or material dimension of the platform phenomenon, and its Silicon Valley frame of reference, Steinberg investigates the historical specificities of the concept of platform by utilizing Japan’s telecom industry in the late 1990s as an origin point from which platform discourse and practice emerged. Importantly, this Japan-based perspective does not illustrate the varied dispersal of platform development—assuming a movement outward from the United States that gives rise to global multiplicity—but rather underscores the need to recognize Japan as the progenitor of the worldwide platform phenomenon. This approach permits the excavation of a prehistory of the platform as it is understood today, as it also directs attention to its comparative development and its national, international, and regional particularities.

To grapple with the slipperiness of platform as a concept and in practice, Steinberg riffs on Maurizio Lazzarato's play on the French words mode and monde (world) to relate modes of production to the production of worlds. Performing a similar fusion of word and world, Steinberg begins with the premise that language exposes decisive strategies and practices and inscribes ways of thinking about the world. This interest in exploring how words unfold in practice and thus shape the world provides the basis for the structure of the book, which is divided into two somewhat discrete parts: the first three chapters sketch the historical development of platform discourse, and Chapters 4 and 5, as well as the Conclusion, transition from this conceptual and discursive genesis of platform to its practical deployment.                                                                                                       

Steinberg begins by analyzing the emergence of the term “contents” (kontentsu) in Japan against a backdrop of transmedia consumption that was increasingly becoming digitally mediated. The indeterminate contours of “contents” exceeded the distinction between hardware and software and the materiality of medium-specific types of content, ultimately designating the convergence and convertibility of previously singular media forms as cultural goods. In this way, “contents” gave bounded form to these goods at the moment when they were becoming dematerialized through digitization, thereby shaping data into cultural commodities. Platforms arose in a symbiotic relationship with this new supple class of information to regulate its circulation and monetization, and Steinberg turns next to the ensuing development of platform discourse.

He elaborates a three-fold typology of platform through a synthetic overview of prominent and often competing definitions of platform and the contexts in which these shifted historically. Chapter 2 spotlights the first two types—“product-technology platforms” and “contents platforms”—as it traces how “platform” became a keyword in various industries, including computing, automobile manufacturing and gaming consoles, in both Japan and North America. The discussion integrates technological discourse, management and business literature, game studies, and media studies to isolate the term’s definitional parameters and better understand its diversity of meanings. Steinberg follows this in Chapter 3 with focus on “transactional or mediation platforms” via a close study of the Japanese theorization of platform in management discourse in the 1990s, through which he notes striking parallels to ideas that emerged in France and the United States in the early twenty-first century. In these first three chapters, Steinberg charts Japan’s role in the genesis of platform discourse as he investigates the development of platform theory in its geographic and historical multiplicity and, in so doing, builds on efforts to globalize media theory and internet studies. These chapters additionally widen the scope of media industry studies into fields rarely discussed, in particular management theory, as they expound this sophisticated genealogy.  

Whereas these first chapters suggest Japan’s profound role in the conceptualization of platforms, the second part of the book analyzes how these three types of platform were unified into a single paradigm and put into practice beginning with the pioneering of the mobile internet in the late 1990s. Steinberg centers the discussion around Docomo’s i-mode, which revolutionized the cell phone into a multimedia device, in effect innovating the mobile internet as a platform-based economic system that distributes digital contents. He thus positions i-mode and Japan’s nationally-circumscribed telecom industry of the 1990s as precursor to the globally-diffused smartphone (which reproduces i-mode’s concept and functionality) and in turn to the global rise of United States-based content platforms. Steinberg then shifts attention to i-mode’s impact on the formation of the mobile and fixed internet landscape within Japan and in East Asia: Chapter 5 focuses on i-mode’s transformation of Japan’s contents ecosystem, with special emphasis on the popular video sharing platform Niconico Video and the integration of platforms and contents; and Steinberg concludes with analysis of the platformization of chat apps in East Asia, which at once inherit the i-mode platform concept and exhibit unique regional features.

Through these concrete examples, the last chapters of the book cement the study’s range as national, international, comparative, and regional, and provide fascinating insight into the actualization of the platforms that surround us. Some may find that reading these final chapters of platforms-in-practice gives them a firmer stake in the discursive analysis that precedes it. Through its nuanced examination, The Platform Economy adds a significant dimension to the study of platforms and urges us to think deeply about platformization, as well as the multidirectionality of cultural circulation more broadly. It will no doubt serve as a basis for future work across the wide range of fields that it engages.