As Mark Zuckerberg repackages Facebook as a product to heal the divide it created, you might be wondering, is having one 32 year old control the web the best method of governance we can think of? He apparently believes it should all just shake out in the long run. If you want a less panglossian approach, co-ops might be the answer.
Open 2017 encompassed two different perspectives on co-ops. If you are British, you might most immediately associate co-ops with funerals and supermarkets. As a legal arrangement where employees are also shareholders, they have been around for centuries. Internationally, they make up a surprisingly large fraction of the global economy; an implacable institutional mountain.
Then there’s Platform Cooperativism, which you make by quarrying a block of the co-op mountain, melting it down, and pouring it into a digital mold. Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider are the founders of the Platform Cooperative movement. Shultz gave the first talk of the conference. As I write, I’m ensconced in Senate House Library, stringing the sentences of a PhD together, as I have been since Christmas. Shultz’s talk was a connection back to the world, a welcome reminder that other people are looking at the same topics as me, even thinking about them in similar ways.
His pragmatism appealed to me. Co-ops are a way to find our way back to the positive political potential of the web — they are a route back to the days when we thought the web was going to ‘democratise’ things. In 2013 the founders of iStock photos launched a platform co-op, called Stocksy United, with 220 contributing photographers, each of whom got a share of any profits the firm made. Now it has 900 members, and is a profitable business — something you can’t say for Uber. It’s a traditional co-op, but coordinated through a digital platform, the ethical face of the gig economy.
‘It’s not not about technology, it’s about people’ is a platitude that anyone can trot out, but there is a specific way in which it’s right. Much of the civic tech discussion is dominated by achieving a perfectly flat hierarchy using blockchain or bitcoin or some other decentralised or distributed system.
Too often, these technologies lead to terrible user experience. I’ve looked in detail at Mastodon.social, an ‘ethical’ Twitter alternative which has many excellent features, but which sacrifices functionality such as search tools because of its distributed approach — there isn’t a central server from which to conduct the search. I predict this flaw, and other similar minor irritations, will limit its traction.
In any case, although there is no centralised power in a limited, technical sense, blockchain and similar technologies have more ambiguous implications in any real world deployment — you can still build centralised institutions on top of a blockchain, which is precisely the reason many established banks are interested.
Rather than a technical solution, co-ops are a legal solution — one that you can use right now and which has a long and successful track record. I’m not saying that blockchain is unimportant, but it seems to me Stocksy is a more promising template than, for example, BlockAI, which is a ‘conceptually pure’ attempt to manage image rights using Bitcoin.
A time may come when a distributed system has the power to underwrite institutional commitments such as membership of a co-op, but you don’t have to wait for that time to make a functional cooperative digital platform.
Scholz’s talk mentioned the Occupy Wall Street movement. Many people have admired the tremendous success of Occupy in articulating a frustration, and the 1% mantra that was so resonant. But Occupy also seemed like movement that knew what it stood against, but couldn’t work out what should replace it (entertaining Adam Curtis interview articulating this view). Shultz presumably hopes that some kind of platform powered egalitarianism is able to step in to that gap. This may be a tall order, young people are more right wing and less interested in democracy than ever before. Platform Cooperatives as scalable Californian hippy commune vs 4chan’s digital McCarthism? I know which sounds better to me.
The other session that stood out for me was a panel with James Tooze (RCA), Justyna Swat and Alastair Parvin’s (Wikihouse) on distributed manufacturing. Alistair Parvin’s introductory remarks positioned Wikihouse as a project between the public, private and cooperative sectors, and the discussion that followed mostly focused on the ethical status of global supply chains and energy inputs for manufacturing. It was a great session because so many people wanted to contribute — unfortunately that meant I never got a chance to make my fascinating, and possibly world changing, contribution.
Had I been called, I would have mentioned my recent experience at the coal face back in Senate House Library, looking for ethical approaches to support my research. I have found that International Development has a rich seam of ethical literature which lends itself very strongly to civic tech discussions. It is often intended to be applied in countries where there public and private sectors are not functional, or where the government has not been democratically elected. In these circumstances, the law is no guide, and instead methods of local consultation have to be developed. This approach could also be useful in designing civic tech approaches, for example cooperative platforms.
Ethical approaches from international development are also ways to get beyond the strictly market-focused ethical frameworks often seen in western ‘neoliberal’ economies.
That’s what I would have said, though probably with more rambling. I might also have noted something that I was itching to get off my chest the whole conference through. There’s an increasing sense that cities are the real political units of the modern world, not countries. With Brexit and Trump, the demographic divide was between mega-city and everywhere else. That is a political shift that might open the door to new kinds of governance, and nothing will matter more to cities than supply chains. Their positions at the nexus of economic factors is what defines them; this could be a real opportunity for projects that look at design from the perspective of the politics of those supply chains.
With that lofty thought, back to the thesis...