Recently, Elon Musk told X employees that he wants the platform to become a WeChat-style super app, a one-stop shop for social media, communication, travel, on-demand labor, payments, and more. But the realities of our tech ecosystem—in which the largest players seem committed to surveillance, labor exploitation, weaponizing tech, algorithmic discrimination, and privatizing every part of the public sphere in the name of profit—indicate that a new super app might not be such a great idea.
At the moment, the US tech sector is all too eager to play up fears about an impending Cold War 2.0 with China, and snuffing out the competition has long been one of Silicon Valley’s favorite plays. And yet, each sermon by a patriotic tech executive preaching the gospel of techno-nationalism (we can’t trust anyone but ourselves to build X or Y tech), each blog post by a doe-eyed venture capitalist about the threats of “Chinese AI”, makes it that much easier to secure contracts with police departments and militaries and government agencies, to rationalize self-regulation here or abroad in the name of outpacing China, and to reframe the ongoing privatization of state infrastructure and public life with sleek, dynamic digitization. These processes and rationalizations often result in American technologies that can be deployed to augment racial discrimination, corporate and government surveillance, social control, worker immiseration, and above all else, profit maximization—an inconvenient fact that doesn’t matter until it does.
Still, if you ignore this reality, you can understand some of the super app hype. For some tech firms like Microsoft, super apps may provide an opportunity to break the hold of more established monopolies like Apple or Google. And for consumers, one application with a core function brings together a diverse array of services such as calling a cab, investing money, or even making a quick buck.
But app-based solutions to structural problems are just shining examples of insisting the disease is the cure. Silicon Valley has long exploited existing societal and infrastructural gaps. Ride-hail platforms have savaged public transit and the taxi industry, but the need for drivers in cities without adequate transport options remains. The same goes for platforms offering app-based solutions to housing or financial services: Their popularity is less a testament to their innovation than to how desiccated the nonmarket alternatives were, thanks to older deregulatory campaigns stretching back to the ascent of neoliberal governance in the 1970s. In the end, they perpetuate problems with the systems they claim to hack. The crypto industry preys on nonwhite communities without access to the traditional financial system, and on-demand labor platforms have been hard at work eroding this country’s threadbare labor laws.
Looking overseas, it’s easy to see how super apps could give tech companies further grounds to take advantage of existing structural holes. In China, Tencent’s WeChat started as an instant messaging chat but eventually grew to include food delivery, utility payments, social media, banking, urban transit, health care appointments, air travel, biometrics, news, and more. This has led to the explosive growth of digital infrastructure focused largely on government and corporate surveillance, social control, and the creation of new markets. The sleek integration of various apps into a larger ecosystem may provide convenience, but these are still apps concerned with extracting as much as they can out of each one of us either by labor exploitation or endless commodification.
In the US, where social welfare and public goods are, at best, neglected, there’s little reason to think the launch of super apps would go any differently. All too often, app-based platforms just make it easier for companies to skirt regulations and realize profits. They attract users with temporary below-cost prices (that are eventually hiked) and regulators with the promise of reducing public expense (in exchange for some sort of public subsidy). When investors look at these apps, they see an opportunity to keep users locked in and consuming goods and services that should be publicly provisioned.
Some of the odious investor logic underwriting super apps can be further explained by the concept of “luxury surveillance,”, which Chris Gilliard and David Golumbia introduced in an article for Real Life in 2021. Luxury surveillance is a phenomenon where “some people pay to subject themselves to surveillance that others are forced to endure and would, if anything, pay to be free of.” You might buy a GPS bracelet to track your biometric data (which will be used by other firms), while others might be forced to wear one (and still pay for it) as part of their parole agreement. When you agree to surveillance, you are exercising discipline and control over yourself and affirming your sovereignty. When others are subjected to surveillance, it is for their own good because they’ve demonstrated a need to be controlled. The super app’s vision is an intensification of this approach: Luxury surveillance lets you opt into a regime that gives corporations greater latitude to reorganize the city, our social relations, our cultural production, the horizon of our politics and imagination—allegedly to help us realize our best selves, and for our own good.