Data as asset? The measurement, governance, and valuation of digital personal data by Big Tech
York University, Kanada
Digital personal data is increasingly framed as the basis of contemporary, digital economies, representing an important new asset class. Control over these data assets seems to explain the emergence and dominance of so-called ‘Big Tech’ firms, consisting of Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google/Alphabet, and Facebook. These Big Tech firms are the largest firms in the world by market capitalization, a position that they retain despite growing policy and public condemnation – or ‘techlash’ – of their market power based on their monopolistic control of personal data. Our aim in this paper is to analyse the transformation of personal data into an asset, or capitalized property. We analyse how personal data is accounted for, governed, and valued by Big Tech firms and other political-economic actors (e.g. investors, financial analysts). Our findings show that Big Tech firms turn ‘users’ and ‘user engagement’ into assets through the performative measurement, governance, and valuation of user metrics (e.g. user numbers, user engagement), rather than extending ownership and control rights over personal data. We conceptualize this as a form of ‘techcraft’ which Big Tech firms deploy in order to make users and user data measurable and legible as future revenue streams.
The asset economy in the music streaming business
Ulster University, UK
Music streaming has brought an end to the economic downturn which persisted since the seemingly unstoppable wave of free music prompted by P2P file-sharing technology such as Napster. Although the increasing revenue generated from streaming music business has contributed to the overall growth of the industry, the different economics underpinning streaming’s subscription-based model has provoked debate on how to appropriate the value of music.
This article aims to explicate different forms of valuation processes taking place in the music market prompted by streaming music businesses. The music business has long been characterised by the exploitation of copyright through which an artificial scarcity is created as a rival good as a means to maximise the dissemination of creative contents by granting exclusive rights for the rights holders to control the way their works are used. Through a series of merger and acquisition, an oligopoly of a few big multinational corporations has been created, leading to their tight grip over the global market. Whilst this is not new, what sets the current economics of streaming apart from the conventional music valuation is the change in the way value is extracted. In a situation where pay-per-unit consumption has been replaced with subscription as the main forms of market exchange value, the extraction of music value is taking a new form.
In order to understand this change in the economic structure, this article pays particular attention to the rise of techno-conglomerates, such as Apple, Amazon, and YouTube, the increasing importance of intellectual property ownership and its influence on the way music is valued. It draws insight from the perspective of the technoscientific capitalism which treats assets as the principal form of contemporary capitalism (Birch 2020). In this approach, assets, not the commodity itself, are the means to derive value from the rent by controlling intellectual property rights as well as the ownership of an asset. Of particular relevance to this article is a concept of ‘rentiership’ (Birch, 2020; Birch and Muniesa, 2020; Zeller, 2007) through which the valuation is driven by expectation rather than the traditional concept of economic valuation built around consumption of physical artefacts.
In Pandemic Times: ‘Platform Assetization’ and Automation in Healthcare
London School of Economics and Political Science, Vereinigtes Königreich
Techno-utopians promise that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will (partly) replace human doctors with intelligent machines and improve healthcare services for the betterment of society. This paper critically examines how entrepreneurs and venture capitalists turn health data into a ‘platform asset’ to enable the automation of medical diagnosis and what the societal consequences of this process are. The paper is situated at the interface of STS and political economy, and seeks to contribute to our understanding of how digital platforms are made and contested, and how economic rent relations are created. To do that, the paper draws on recent work on assetization (Birch & Muniesa 2020), rentiership (Birch, 2020), and platform capitalism (Langley & Leyshon 2017; Srnicek 2017).
As part of my PhD research, this study is based on 2 years of multi-sided ethnographic fieldwork in London and Cambridge (UK) in the entrepreneurial space called “digital health” and draws on data from participant observation, interviews and documents. This paper takes the UK-based AI start-up Babylon Health as a case study to explore how a ‘digital health platform’ is made in and through the venture capital accumulation regime, which channeled over USD 550 million in capital flows into the company leading to a valuation of more than USD 3 billion at the end of 2020. The paper finds that this ‘platform assetization’ includes 1) the construction of a digital infrastructure to enroll patients, as well as to generate and appropriate patients’ health data through a ‘AI’ triage system, and 2) different strategies to extract rent from the publicly funded UK National Health Service (NHS) based on the imperative to cut costs in primary care through a shift to smartphone-based self-treatment and self-management. The paper also highlights how the Covid-19 pandemic reinforced the shift in the healthcare sector to adopting ‘digital health’ technologies and how this led Babylon to adopt strategies of rent extraction through expanding to the US. Finally, the paper discusses the negative societal consequences of this process for patients, the NHS, and society more broadly by shedding light on how assetization of health data reinforces existing and creates new economic and health inequalities.
Testing Values: Financialization, Assetization and the Emergence of Impairment Rules
1LSE - London School of Economics and Political Science, Vereinigtes Königreich; 2Warwick University - Warwick Business School
Inherent to assets being realized is the issue of their valuation. The ability to generate a legitimate knowledge claim about asset valuation depends on successfully relating a body of knowledge to a would-be asset. How do organizations develop and justify calculations through which assets are valued? This paper uses the case of asset impairment testing to draw out a specific historical episode of the ways in which the boundaries between markets and organizations are being blurred and new categories for asset valuation are being established. Tracing the history of impairment testing rules in the UK, based on archival research and interviews, we argue that standardized impairment tests are an important vehicle in the financialization of asset valuation, and organizations respectively. Combining managerial and market-based valuation approaches, impairment tests put the accounting for asset value at the interface between markets and organizations. Managers are being made aware of the importance of markets through the implication of market-based information in organizational impairment valuations. At the same time, market-based information becomes more managerialized. In tracing the intertwinement of managerial knowledge and market-based information in asset impairment tests, we highlight that financialization is not a one-way process, where finance and financial markets capture and colonize organizations. In impairment tests, market-generated numbers are combined and hybridized with organizationally generated managerial estimates. We highlight the eclectic nature of asset impairment valuations and the relevance of accounting technologies for bringing marketoriented assetization about. In so doing, the paper adds not only to our understanding of the dynamics underlying the emergence and change of asset conceptualizations. It also contributes more broadly to the sociology of economic valuation, by shedding light on the different forms of calculability engrained in the establishment of asset value.
Rewilding the asset economy
Uppsala University, Schweden
Not all assets are equal. Neither are the visions and understandings of what the source of their value may be. A striking example of this ambiguous state of the asset economy can be found in the asset class par excellence: land. Far from being reduced to a mere source of economic rent, the nostalgia of the “green and pleasant land” is often viewed as an asset itself that is worth preserving for future generations as a cultural legacy. As of recent, however, a new coalition of land owners, economists, and conservationists have started to contest the old ways as outdated, destructive, and economically short-sighted.
Drawing on a case study of land valuation in the Lake District (UK), this paper traces the politics of value that shapes the remaking of land as a new asset class in rural England. Looking to enhance and secure future income streams in response to sustained austerity and market liberalisation, new ways of thinking about the link between value and land as natural capital including radical visions of “rewilding” as form of decommodification have found their ways into the mainstream of property valuers, land managers, and influential landowners such as the National Trust and the Lake District National Park – not always to the pleasure of their more “conventional” tenants and adjacent land owners. The paper closes with some thoughts about the contested nature of natural assets and the political origins of their value.
Keywords: natural capital, rewilding, property valuation, assetisation
The Metaphor of Capital as a Cultural Engine
Ecole des Mines de Paris, Frankreich
Research on the asset condition can develop along different paths. One possibility consists in asserting the problem in the terms of political economy and examining the forms of value that this condition affords. Another possibility consists in circumventing the economic vernaculars that sustain this condition and adopting instead a perspective of anthropological critique. The performative power of the metaphor of capital can then be examined in a number of domains (from money to self, from time to nature) with attention to how it configures things in the terms of value to be, at once, put to fruition in the future and protected from its enemies in the present.