Articles

Review: Ours to Hack and to Own

by Susie Cagle

If you’ve ever wondered about how a new, collaborative, sustainable, and democratic economy might work, Ours to Hack and to Own—The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, A New Vision For the Future of Work and a Fairer Internet is a good place to start.

This collection is edited by Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider, organisers of the Platform Co-operativism conferences in New York City, who have really put this movement on the map. With contributions from scores of journalists and academics, case studies of working platform co-ops, as well as guidance for any would-be platform founders and designers, Ours to Hack and to Own provides the most comprehensive summary of the burgeoning platform co-op movement to date.

The simple claim of platform co-ops is that if ‘we the people’ own and democratically control the platforms we use we all get a better deal; without external investors extracting value every quarter, it can be recycled within the platform so that workers get paid more (and, most importantly, a real living wage), users get better value, and together we set the rules. The profit motive of conventional ‘platform monopolies’ like Uber, Airbnb and Deliveroo are replaced in favour of benefitting the community the platform serves.

This is a model for a completely new economy. That may sound grandiose but, unlike other movements or startups claiming they will disrupt the norm, the platform co-op model genuinely has the potential to kickstart a reorganisation of life around collective ownership.

This ownership revolution is just one aspect of what makes the platform co-op model so enticing and grounds it within a pre-existing legal model, established by the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844. Ours to Hack and to Own is about reinventing the co-op movement for the challenges of the digital era, and equipping ourselves with the right tools to effectively organise.

The book’s editors begin by defining the main tenets of platform co-operativism as “communal ownership and democratic governance.” Susie Cagle then reminds us of the seven co-operative principles and Jessica Gordon Nembhard outlines eight facts about co-operative enterprise—both useful guides to platform co-op startups.

The second section takes us on a whistle-stop tour of ‘platform capitalism’, with insights from a range of authors:

Douglas Rushkoff proposes that “Platform cooperatives—as a direct affront to the platform monopolies characterizing digital industrialism—offer a means of both reclaiming the value we create and forging the solidarity we need to work toward our collective good.”

Juliet B. Schor reminds us that even within existing ‘alternative economy’ communities, such as time banks and food swaps, exclusive behaviour and discrimination can develop and the platform co-op community should be aware of these issues from the outset.

Mckenzie Wark explores the idea that a “third order of commodification,” which he calls “vectorialism,” undermines society through the use of brands, patents, copyrights, trademarks and infrastructures that limit or control flows of information. 

Stephen Hill discusses the “uber-ization” of work and the “race to the bottom in the freelance society,” arguing that “cooperative platforms and greater economic democracy can offer consumers an alternative to runaway capitalism.”

Christopher Spehr co-opts SpongeBob SquarePants to help explain the issues for platform workers. He argues for a “bill of rights for the age of algorithmic capitalism,” including new labour rights, entrepreneurial rights (today’s equivalent of antitrust laws), and a “new legal framework for a new regime of accumulation” that gives the economy “a social purpose and a base in democratic values.”

David Bollier discusses how access to ‘digital commons’ in which groups have the tools for “free and responsible association for common purposes” produces hugely valuable networks, the likes of which make Facebook and You Tube look “rudimentary.” He asserts that “the value potential of the commons has been deliberately stifled as part of the business model” of privately owned platforms, and then goes on to explain how ‘smart contracts’ and ‘open value networks’ will “surpass the value-creating capacities of conventional open platforms.” 

The third section then rattles through case studies of existing, and some successful, platform co-ops: Stocksy United, Fairmondo, Coopify, Gratipay, FairCoop, Member’s Media, TimesFree, Snowdrift.coop, Resonate, Loconomics, NYC Real Estate Investment Cooperative, Robin Hood Collective and Seed.coop are all explained by their co-owners.

The rest of the third section explores how we can build an ‘internet of our own’, with specific guidance for would-be platform founders and designers. It opens with Sharing Economy lawyer Janelle Orsi suggesting that platform designers should enable mechanisms to prevent the platform from being sold, to put a cap on pay-outs and compensation and adopt a staff trusteeship model of governance. 

Caroline Woolard suggests potential platform co-op founders should consider alternative approaches: Can you make a platform for an existing co-op? Who will build the co-operative platform? How much time and money do you have? And what if you ran events instead of building software? Her observation that the knowledge built into real life communities won’t deliver 404 errors a year down the line reads like solid, experience-based advice.

David Carroll provides some extremely valuable observations for which platform co-ops are well placed to take advantage: the bursting ‘content bubble’, the over-crowding of app stores, the advent of chat bots and chat interfaces for apps, the need for co-owned AI, alternatives to private clouds, the need for replicable legal frameworks and new ‘privacy-positivity’ as a competitive advantage over platforms backed by venture capital. 

Marina Gorbis encourages platform designers to incorporate some simple principles to achieve positive outcomes for platform workers including, ‘earnings maximisation’, stability and predictability, transparency, portability of reputation, upskilling, social connectedness, bias elimination and successful feedback mechanisms. 

The final section explores conditions of possibility, and here there is even more guidance for those wishing to escape the trappings of neoliberalism, understand the role of finance and capital, to employ ‘a code for good work’, setup tech co-ops, and develop union co-ops.

Ours to Hack and to Own is an extremely timely publication covering every aspect of the legal, social, technical and economic aspects of the platform co-op movement. Although its focus is on platform co-operativism, it is critical reading for anyone with an interest in creating a more collaborative, equitable and sustainable world. Whether you’re coming from an environmental, social or economic perspective platform co-operativism is the process through which all progressive movements can unite.

Oliver Sylvester-Bradley is part of the team at Open 2017—Platform Co-ops. The topics covered in Ours To Hack and to Own will be discussed and debated at Open 2017, a two day conference at Goldsmiths, University of London on the 16-17 February 2017. Find out more and book at www.open.coop

[Caroline Woolard's] observation that the knowledge built into real life communities won’t deliver 404 errors a year down the line reads like solid, experience-based advice.

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Info & Credits

Published in STIR magazine no.16, winter 2017

Written by Oliver Sylvester-Bradley

Illustration by Susie Cagle.