- Regionalizing Platform Globalization
Remember back in the early 2000s, before the debut of Apple and Android smartphones, when feature-packed Japanese flip phones looked like the wave of the future? Marc Steinberg's new book The Platform Economy reminds us of this regional media history, offering a valuable supplement to present-tense and often universalizing popular accounts of the global mobile phone and app industries. Steinberg compellingly localizes the emergence of the contemporary "platformization" paradigm associated with mobile phones within Japan and East Asia. His book is moreover unique for the degree to which it engages specifically with the business of media: he takes management theory, business literature, and related government policy papers seriously. The book approaches management theory as a productive discourse that directly influences the practices shaping media industry phenomena and in turn is shaped by these phenomena. The business literature is an object of study here, but Steinberg also treats it to an extent as continuous with the theoretical work of media studies scholarship itself. This makes the project novel but is potentially also a barrier to entry for readers who are outsiders to management studies as a genre. The first section of the book is a granular historicization of terms and [End Page 171] management theories, undoubtedly essential as a contribution to the study of contemporary media business. I will address this section before turning to the book's exciting second section, which deals with specific Japanese and East Asian mobile Internet and smart phone platforms.
The first chapters of The Platform Economy are dedicated to tracing the genealogy of two industry keywords: "content" and "platform." This endeavor brings to mind Raymond Williams's classic study of cultural keywords. But Steinberg's careful and authoritative analysis of these two important terms is documentary in nature by comparison, and the historical development it traces is more constrained by the management context than Williams's analysis of competing historical systems of thought and signification. For example, we learn that "content" as a media business term emerged in the mid-1990s with the rise of Internet-connected digital services, part of a shift in industry focus from hardware development to software and "multimedia" production and distribution. Whereas under the hardware regime message and medium had been closely linked (movies with specialized film or video delivery systems, music with audio systems, news with print newspaper), the advent of computer and Internet-based multimedia made the message "medium-agnostic": news, songs, and video were henceforth data (content) delivered by increasingly versatile media systems (which in the process evolved into "platforms" in their own right). In the multimedia era content was "king," as Bill Gates put it.
But we could overlook in this analysis other historical valances that have informed the keyword "content." For example, a recent book by John Patrick Leary that revives Williams's keywords project to analyze specifically the "new language of capitalism" traces a similar history of "content" but includes in its contexts various other discourses.1 Leary highlights the existence of resistance among those who have felt that this content represents the "degradation" of artistic and creative works: to think of artworks as "content" is to treat them as "things like any other." In this critical view, subsuming art into the immaterial data of content demonstrates the tendency of digitization to intensify the "commodification of all forms of culture." Leary reminds us also of Tipper Gore's 1990s campaign against "explicit content" in music. Here "content" functioned as a euphemism for the "elements" within a work of art by which it could be "judged and condemned without any attempt at interpretation." In Internet marketing discourse, content has named indifferent "immaterial substance" to be stockpiled and exploited, as in the case of "content farms" producing listicles and click bait to sell ads. And in education, "content areas" have designated curriculum [End Page 172] standards: "quantifiable" substance capable of being "measured, repeated, and reliably delivered at the lowest cost." These contexts (themselves chosen to serve a specific critique of neoliberalism) do...