Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso teaches and writes on the Commons, P2P politics and economics, open culture, post-gr

Last Night A Distributed Cooperative Organization Saved My Life: A brief introduction to DisCOs

By Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel
Have you ever gone out dancing with a bunch of friends? If so, chances are you went to a disco, at least once or twice. How does a group of friends dance at a disco? Everyone knows, or learns by observation, some basic rules of social cooperation — avoid stepping on anyone’s feet, watch out that you don’t slam into people sharing the space around you, and please don’t micromanage the dj. But everyone can decide when and how they want to dance, whether solo, in pairs or in larger groupings. The aim is to have a good time together, and to care about each other’s well-being, too.
Doing things like going dancing with friends or colleagues can be fun and spontaneous, with nothing more than some informal or unspoken rules. Of course, if you want to achieve a more defined collective goal, that takes time, patience and more explicit guidelines — and if you really want to be cooperative about it all, it’s even better if you debate and create those guidelines together.
When we were writing up our organisational model for cooperative groups, we thought about how to name it. Acronyms or initials are popular for models with multi-word titles, and can sometimes also hint at some characteristic of the ideas behind the name. So, what do we mean by a DisCO?
It stands for Distributed Cooperative Organizations, and it’s a set of organisational tools and practices for groups of people who want to work together in a cooperative, commons-oriented, and feminist economic form. DisCO is also an alternative to another form called the Decentralized Autonomous Organizations, or DAO. If you're not familiar with DAOs, they are blockchain-based entities that can execute payments, levy penalties, and enforce terms and contracts without human interaction. Think of a virtual robot that can automate governance processes and execute investments and payments for an organization and you're on the right track. [1] 
While there are many exciting aspects to this technology, DAO projects have mostly prioritised focus on speculative assets, tokenization and grandiose promises of disruption, while reproducing many of the power dynamics of the normative systems they aim to disrupt and decentralise. There is also a distinct lack of political and historical awareness of other movements which have prefigured the dynamics of decentralisation and who could benefit from the advantages offered by DAOs. [2]
By design, DAOs can earn their own money, and contract and pay for services — they can actually create and wield their own economic power, according to the interests of their programmers. That’s a crucial point to recognize - technology doesn’t develop itself, it’s built by people and companies with specific worldviews and intentions which underlie the aims of the code. With blockchain investments in the billions of USD being made by mega-corporations like IBM, HSBC, Facebook, Goldman Sachs and others, there is a very real danger that the future of these decentralised autonomous organizations will reproduce and amplify existing inequalities and power dynamics. Image DAOs that automate and hyper-boost things like mass surveillance, economic tyranny and the suppression of dissent. Sound dystopian? Take a look at the list of investors above and engage in some speculative thinking about their means, motives and objectives. 
After analysing the situation, it’s clear that we need counter-cultural alternatives to leverage the positive aspects of DAOs for radically different economic and social ends. Our proposal is the DisCO framework.

Feminist economic, commons-oriented, cooperative, and value sovereign: The DNA of DisCOs

DisCOs are a cultural and structural framework combining influences from other forms and movements into a practical toolkit that benefits from the potential of Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLTs) [3]. Despite boasts of decentralization and challenges to existing power structures, many of these aspects are curiously absent from most blockchain projects. These are: [4]
Harnessing the potential of the blockchain while addressing its deficits, DiSCOs prototype and permit tailoring of the Distributed Cooperative Organization (DisCO) Governance Model originally developed for Guerrilla Translation, a radical translation collective/cooperative and the first pilot project for DisCOs. These initial DisCO experiences can be greatly amplified to make DAO technologies accessible to common people, cooperators and the economically disadvantaged, breaking the monopoly of a white/male tech elite's involvement and benefit.

The Seven DisCO principles

DisCOs are distributed cooperatives based on the original seven cooperative principles, but cooperatives have their shortcomings. The seven DisCO principles build on the existing cooperative tradition, as well as Platform and Open Cooperativism to arrive at a series of guidelines for highly efficient, socially and environmentally-oriented organizations.
  1. Geared toward positive outcomes in key areas: In DisCOs, production is guided not by profit but by social and environmental priorities. Individual organizations embed these values in their cultural, productive and organizational processes, and technical/legal statutes.
  2. Multi-constituent: DisCOs extend decision making and ownership to all contributors whether present in all value chains or affected by the coop’s actions. Beyond workers, this may include neighbouring communities, suppliers, clients, reproductive and affective labour, financial backers, etc. as constituents.
  3. Active creators of commons: Unlike the typical behavior of market enterprises that exploit shared resources, DisCOs steward existing common wealth and generate new forms of shared resources. These new commons are created through market and value-tracked pro bono work. Commons may be digital (code, design, documentation, legal protocols and best practices, etc.) or physical (productive infrastructure, deliberation spaces, machinery, etc.) 
  4. Transnational: While physical production is kept local and needs-based following the “Design Global, Manufacture Local” logic, knowledge, resources and value flows are shared at the global level with like-minded enterprises to create political and cultural counterpower to the prevailing corporate/capitalist economy.
  5. Centered on care work: We distinguish between two types of care work: that performed for the health of the collective (where the collective is seen as a living entity that needs commitment, material inputs and fidelity to its social mission) and care work performed for the individual persons within the DisCO (mutual trust and intimacy support structures). 
  6. Reimagining the origin and flows of value: Three types of value — productive market value, pro-bono/commons-generating value, and care work value — are tracked through complementary value metrics. Value tracking is applied to all DisCO members, in turn influencing decision making, payments, work priorities, and more.
  7. Primed for federation: While networks may or may not share common goals, federations are held together by shared commitments. Scaling extends a worldview from a center and forces everything in its path to conform to the animating logic. By contrast, DisCOs, as distributed and differentiated structures, replicate themselves through a standard federation protocol that allows the federation to achieve critical mass without regimenting all parts. This dynamic resembles how TCP/IP allows a network of networks, the Internet, to function. Each node can be based on small group trust, intimacy and mutual support while still achieving a larger impact through federation.

Prototyping DisCOs in the field: The DisCO Project

Moving beyond whitepaper culture (the tendency for blockchain/DAO projects to over promise on technical specifications before there is any solid, lived experiences to a project or proposal), DisCOs are based on the practices of the four movements mentioned earlier (Commons/P2P; Open Cooperativism; Feminist Economics; Open Value Accounting) as well as the concrete experience of Guerrilla Translation and its fully developed DisCO governance model.
The DisCO project has been created to cooperatively develop, prototype and popularize DisCOs, and provide integrated resources for those wanting to take part in their development. Here we intend to mature, codify and open source our cultural practices for other collectives practising contributive accounting. We are also co-developing a modular legal/technical infrastructure for other commons-oriented collectives and businesses to adapt. This culture/structure distinction is expressed through two complementary components to the project: The DisCO Framework and the DisCO Stack.
The DisCO Framework (Culture) is predicated on care work, and prototypes real world practices. It includes resources such as an educational portal; handbooks; audiovisual materials; infographics; DiSCO-thons and workshops to engage communities in developing and prototyping the model in practice. The purpose is to make DLTs, Contributory Accounting, Feminist Economics and other components accessible to the precariat. 
The DisCO Stack (Structure) will offer plug-and-play systems for the value tracking and online collaboratory dynamics inherent to DisCOs. Utilizing a combination of non-blockchain Distributed Ledger Technologies with public blockchains, the Stack will provide user-friendly, lightweight and energy efficient small node, trustworthy value tracking and economic networking systems.
Together, DisCO culture and structure can allow us to transcend blockchain normativity, bringing a slew of fresh influences to the decentralised space, while making it more accesible to a more diverse and engaged set of users.

Footnotes

[1] This is a gross simplification. For a more in-depth look at Decentralised Autonomous Organizations we recommend this critical overview by Primavera de Filippi.
[2] These can include lowered transactional costs for social interactions within commons-oriented organizations and the potential for value sovereignty. I.e., when done right DAOs can make countercultural, post-capitalists processes cheaper and more efficient.
[3] Distributed Ledger Technologies are, basically, synchronized databases shared among several nodes and without central administrators. Think of these as a broader understanding of a blockchain, although not every DLT is a blockchain.
[4] For a quick overview, here are infographics for P2P and the Commons, Open Cooperativism, Open Value Accounting (1 and 2) and Feminist Economics.
[5] These include adopting capitalist practices to ensure competitiveness as defined by market logics, a disconnected managerial class unfamiliar with cooperative practices and ethics, and, worst case, the demutualization of coops. See more here.
This article has been adapted from If I Only had a Heart: a DisCO manifesto, a forthcoming booklet analysing the role of supposedly disruptive technologies in social change, the potentials and pitfalls of DAO cultures, and how DisCOs can provide a coherent, more socially grounded alternative. The DisCO team plans more to produce more accessible, inclusive reading materials for potential partners and peers.
Art by id iom CC-BY-NC


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August 1st, 2019

The value tracking is super interesting: “productive market value, pro-bono/commons-generating value, and care work value.” @stacco What does this look like in terms of practice? i.e. How do members of the organization report on value?

August 5th, 2019

Hi David,

In the case of Guerrilla Translation you can find more info on value tracking on the Governance Model (which is the base governance/economic model for DisCOs in general).

For the practicalities of “reporting on value”, that will be done through the DisCO Stack. For now it’s spreadsheets all the way. Labour intense and hard to grok at a glimpse, but we’ve got the math pretty sussed out by now.

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