This article was originally published on Imperica
High-tech tools of exploitation are being repurposed to build a fairer economy. The digital platforms that have become the connective tissue of our lives – the likes of Airbnb and Google – have proven to tend towards monopolies, monetisation of surveillance and disregard for labour standards.
But what stops us from using the Internet’s power for collective action to usurp them? Last week, an evening hosted by Outlandish outlined the prospects of platform co-operativism. Featuring Felix Weth, Sarah Gold, and Nathan Schneider, it covered ways of truly making the concept happen.
We chatted with Nathan and asked him about the prospects of platform co-operativism in a world of monopolistic brands built on centralised capital.
You write extensively about platform co-operativism in your work. How would you define it in a few words?NS: The simplest explanation, I think, is a question: Can we bring co-operative ownership and governance to the online platforms that we increasingly live by? Are we ready to expect, demand, and practice real democracy on the Internet?
You have been influential in developing the term and concept of platform co-operatives. Why did you feel like it was the right moment to do this?
NS: My colleague Trebor Scholz first coined the term in December 2014. That same month, I published a report with Shareable about entrepreneurs around the world who were already trying to build platforms based on shared ownership and governance. There was already something in the air. By that point, many people who had been excited about the prospects of the so-called “sharing economy” were starting to realize that there wasn’t much actual sharing going on, and that in many cases workers were expected to work without the basic protections—stability, benefits, a living wage—that their predecessors had won through centuries of struggle. The striking Uber drivers; the protests against Google buses in San Francisco; the Snowden revelations—these are all signs, I think, that we need a new social contract for the online economy. And rather than just saying “no,” to the emerging platform society, we need something to say “yes” to.
Internet marketplaces often tend towards monopolies. Is the future of platform co-operatives in opening up new sectors for operation, or in displacing established players from existing sectors?
NS: I’m starting to think that we need a new generation of law and custom for dealing with these rising online monopolies. The old trust-busting logic doesn’t really make sense; Facebook and Google, for instance, are so useful to us because they’re so ubiquitous. Rather than breaking them up, or regulating them so intensely that they can’t innovate, perhaps the most responsible option is to create pathways toward more democratic ownership. Governments, and companies themselves, might help to finance fair buyouts that grant users the ownership stake they need to ensure, for instance, that their personal data is being used responsibly. In some cases, it may be possible for co-operative startups to displace incumbents. But where that is not possible, we should consider strategies for transition.
Companies like Uber and Airbnb are in the news a lot, often because of disputes. What do you think the near future is like for these the dominant platforms?
NS: I don’t like to make predictions; the past and present are hard enough to understand already. But it does appear that cities around the world are testing out different strategies for retaining some meaningful control over the impacts of these companies on their economies. I hope this can be an opportunity for innovation, not just reaction. And, I think that co-operative business models should be part of this innovation. Some communities are already experimenting with co-operative taxi networks as an alternative to Uber – including in Colorado, where I live – and local alternatives to Airbnb. One way or another, it would be very troubling to see global logistics handed over monopolies owned and controlled by unaccountable founders and investors. These alternatives are incredibly important.
Historically, co-operatives have done well in areas such as retail and capital-intensive small-scale business. What do you think are the promising sectors for a take-over by platform co-operatives?
NS: Compared to the industries of a generation or a century ago, online platforms need less startup capital. The trouble is, they’re often riskier. Sharing platforms that depend on connecting people, rather than operating factories or maintaining large workforces, seem like they could be well-suited to shared ownership among the people they connect. I’m particularly interested in identifying ways in which co-operative models can be more competitive than the investor-owned incumbents. Labour platforms like Uber and social platforms like Facebook, for instance, depend on maintaining centralized, one-size-fits-all tools, and they often rely on pretty creepy forms of surveillance for revenue.
Co-operatives might be able to find better revenue models through the trust their members have in them; regional co-ops could also work together by sharing open-source software—introducing global efficiencies while keeping profits local. Co-operatives have long specialized in meeting challenges that capital markets don’t serve, and I’m eager to see how this can transform the landscape of the Internet, rather than merely replacing the existing one.
In response to the concept of platform co-operatives, some say it will be impossible to develop platforms that are comparable to the current commercial ones, without having extensive profit-oriented investment. What do you think are the constraints specific to co-operatives organisations when building platforms?
NS: First, again, I think we should be aspiring to platforms that are better than the existing ones, not merely comparable replacements. To do this, we’ll need better forms of financing. Co-ops represent an opportunity for a “crowdfunding 2.0,” based not just on donations and advance sales, but on genuine shared ownership.
Historically, when co-ops have achieved some success in a region, they set up their own co-operative financial institutions with the know-how and business models to serve them. Already, a few promising experiments in platform co-op financing are underway.
What do you think the role of the state or local government should be in supporting platform co-operatives?
NS: Governments already make extractive business far easier than it should be, and they should recognize the need to make co-operative business at least as easy. It’s in their interest because co-ops, unlike investor-owned corporations, keep jobs and profits (and thus tax revenues) local. Firstly, officials can work with co-op developers to design laws that make the process of incorporating co-ops easy and flexible. Secondly, they can ensure that co-ops are part of their overall economic development strategy and have fair access to contracts for public infrustructure. Thirdly, they can create incentives, or even requirements, for platforms providing public services in their area to practice appropriately democratic ownership and governance.
We’ve already seen some encouraging interest from public officials who are looking for a better option than simply trying (and failing) to say “no” to Airbnb and Uber. Platform co-operativism is something to say “yes” to.
How would you describe recent changes in the public perception around the so-called “sharing economy”?
NS: Who even uses that term any more? Silicon Valley seems to have moved on to calling the “sharing” platforms the “on-demand economy,” which more accurately describes their consumerist, service-oriented tendencies. I hope that, as more and more of the Internet practices shared ownership and governance, we can say “sharing economy” and actually mean it.
You are co-founder of Internet of Ownership, a project that aims to map the ecosystem of platform co-ops. How widespread would you say the phenomena is in the US? Are there any interesting examples that you would like to highlight?
NS: Already, many of the most promising examples are outside my country. Stocksy United, a stock-photo website owned by photographers, is based in Canada. Fairmondo, an online marketplace owned by its vendors, started in Germany and is now spreading to the UK. Great things are also happening in the US, especially thanks to the work of the Sustainable Economies Law Center in Oakland and the Tech Co-op Network.
I suspect that the US might lag behind a bit, since our tech scene is so awash in venture capital. And this wouldn’t be a bad thing; I hope that platform co-operativism can usher in a more truly global tech economy.
What differences are there between the US and Europe in the opportunities and challenges for platform co-operatives?
NS: Probably more of my thinking about the prospects of this model came from inspiration I found in Europe than what I’ve come across in the United States. In the U.S. there’s a wide gulf between entrepreneurs and activists for economic justice; they don’t speak the same language, and that makes for a rigid divide between the builders and the resisters. In Europe, I’ve found it much easier to meet people who have both a rigorous analysis of economic injustice and the know-how for creating practical alternatives. That’s a fearsome combination. And if we can work together across borders, I bet the American propensity for throwing out old rulebooks will come in handy as well.
Is the future of platform co-operatives in the post-industrial developed countries, or in building offerings in developing countries?
NS: Both, I hope. A big question for me is to figure out how to expand this work into hardware co-operativism, call-center co-operativism, and more. We need to account for how global our technology is already. Rather than disguising that globalism, as the dominant tech industry does so well, an imperative for platform co-operativism is to build solidarity. Co-operatives aren’t co-operatives unless they cooperate with each other.
Rewiring the Sharing Economy was a panel discussion from Outlandish, to whom we thank for their assistance in this article.
Main image: Nathan Schneider Main image source/credits: Elizabeth Leitzell