A Thousand Flowers Blooming

by Bronwen Morgan
Jan 11, 2016
by Kenneth Ho

The Platform Cooperativism conference held in New York in November last year was an exhilarating mix of activist organising and a trade show for the future. Built on a material commons of an infinite supply of bagels and cream cheese, the event showcased dozens of actually existing experiments and initiatives in reconfiguring the online economy, combining them with updates from activist trenches, emerging research findings and open space workshops populated on the day by conference participants. The core of the vision of 'platform cooperativism' is that those who provide and use the services and experiences mediated by internet platforms should own and control the platforms themselves. This core idea was fleshed out and debated by some 500 or so people of diverse ages and with a healthy gender mix for a tech-related event. They mingled and flowed to create two days suffused by a sense of excitement and high energy, with every talk given to packed rooms. The discussion and responses were all redolent of the fact that so many were immersed in practical projects that are grappling with the everyday challenges of bringing to life the vision of a cooperative internet society.

Described by its organisers as a 'coming out party for the cooperative internet', you may wonder what kind of debutantes danced onto the world stage that weekend? Most strikingly, these debutantes were no ingenues in ball gowns, but more like inventive dreamers in overalls with their sleeves rolled up, building pieces of a world they want to see come into being from the ground up. These pieces included apps relevant to low-wage neighbourhoods dominated by precarious work (eg supporting links with school teachers, or backup childcare help from trusted local small business owners, or support in helping non-digital cooperatives to use technology platforms), a worker-owned artists cooperative that produces stock photographs (Stocksy); a multistakeholder music streaming cooperative owned by users, small labels and musicians (Resonate); cooperative versions of Ebay (Fairmondo) and Taskrabbit (Locanomics). There were also many 'ecosystem' projects, particularly on harnessing technology to improve collective decisionmaking (eg Loomio or D-Cent), but also ranging much further afield such as into peer-to-peer tax/gift systems (the External Revenue Service) and open source event management using a crytographic wallet (Inflekt).

Did the conference start to flesh out viable (and diverse) templates that can address the legal, financial and organisational challenges of platform cooperativism? The ethos of the event was very much focused on this - the program structure emphasised the necessity of building the nuts and bolts of a supportive ecosystem that could help multiple and diverse projects to thrive and spread rapidly, and the 'actually existing examples' of specific projects were complemented by sessions on law, finance, incubators for new cooperatives, blockchain technology and other dimensions of larger ecosystems. Despite this, the actual details of how to design and execute ownership and control often got a little lost in the detail of what projects were actually doing (or hoping to do) for their users. In other words, the conference slipped all too easily into a focus on the spirit of cooperation than the mechanics of cooperatives. (Indeed, in the one formal panel on law that was held, the actual legal form discussed in most detail was the limited liability company!). It would have been very productive to have more detailed engagement with tricky questions such as how exactly flows of surplus value might be handled within and across a network of cooperatives. 

The thorny question of profit in general was rather absent, along with the kind of debates on 'how much is enough and for whom' that can be productively sparked by embedding such discussions in the practical concerns of different legal forms. For example, cooperatives distribute decisionmaking power equally and democratically (at least in principle); benefit corporations mandate equal focus on on profit and public interest; some forms of social enterprise structures sequester community assets from being sold for private profit (such as community interest companies in the UK).

On the other hand, admirable attention to practical detail definitely did flourish in the context of questions about how to infuse technology platforms wth more opportunity for voice and participation, especially by and for labour. In general, there was a strong strand of interest in labour protection issues with a lot of emphasis on designing platforms in ways that enhance collective voice as much as the process of exchange. This focus had the advantage of bringing issues of equity and diversity into the centre of platform cooperativism. But this came at a cost of giving a lot more prominence to a protective rather than creative register of building new institutions. The energising sense of agency radiating from the conference at a general level was somewhat attenuated in relation to linking voice with property and finance rights to create a powerful sense of participatory ownership. Voice kept emerging as protest, rather than as (collective) command, illustrating how difficult it is to transmute activism into authority. In this respect, the conference's impressive focus on the infrastructure needed to advance a cooperative vision was full of a promise but not entirely brought to fruition. There was a sense that the greatest energy and passion was reserved for broad visions as well as for specific focused projects - but much less so for collective design processes. This is a paradoxical outcome given that the 'cooperative advantage' surely lies at just this intersection of voice, ownership and governance? Thinking this through is crucial to a gauntlet that was thrown down at the conference by Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar and author of the recent book Peers Inc. Speaking in a panel on 'social infrastructure', she urged participants to prioritise rapid scaling using private sector models (even if not actually venture capital). The ethos of her remarks ran against the grain of the central preoccupation with widely shared ownership, and relegated 'social' considerations to redistribution rather than ownership. She stressed the need for people to fight for basic income, regulation and portable social security - a move resisted by her audience, a somewhat ironic reaction given that these issues fit very well with the labour/voice/participation thread that was so strong. 

This tension reflected my sense of a lingering contradiction between a strong but diffuse desire for the agency of ownership, and the technical challenges of building and securing that in our current landscape so dominated by mega-large organisations and bureaucratic complexity. The unaddressed challenge of the conference was how to marry a felt sense of human connection with the complex organisational interdependencies of the kind of economy/society we’ve built around ourselves. This generates a real tension in the way agency is implicitly imagined – is it about a kind of ‘bigger, faster’ power, or about having faith in the depth of osmotic percolation of a million diverse initiatives?

This was a passionate event with a refreshing aesthetic of substance over style, no glittering ball, yet still a sense that there were guests uninvited or who chose not to turn up. We heard, surprisingly, almost nothing about environment, ecology or sustainable development. Passing exceptions included Janelle Orsi's spirited account of the rationale for reimagining legal frameworks for platform cooperativism in the opening session, and Douglas Rushkoff's brief references to degrowth in his hyper-animated and very stimulating closing address. But these were not threads fleshed out in any practical detail in the meat of the conference. There was also a tension between a sense of localised place that was present in many of the showcase initiatives, yet strangely absent from much of the big-picture ecosystem discussions. In tune with the centrality of the voice of labour to the conference, it almost seemed at times as if the affective undercurrent of the conference was more one of recreating the solidarities of social democracy at diverse scales, than of slowing down, decelerating and crafting a profoundly different economic everyday. And this despite the heartfelt thread of emphasis throughout on ownership and control. 

Something of the contradictory pull inherent in this mix came out in the closing moments of the conference, when the two lead organisers each sketched a very brief picture of what, for them, might come next. For Trebor Scholz, it was the creation of a non-profit foundation that could fund and support the creation of open source kernels for labour-owned platforms in order to avoid constantly reinventing the (technical) wheel that powers platform cooperativism. Nathan Schneider was more attracted by the idea of a federated rhizome of diverse small-scale initiatives and the challenge of connecting them in ways that would enhance their power and effects. Replicable templates or a diverse menagerie? Different pathways to a new ecology for a just and sustainable 21st century economy. These two visions integrate identity, agency and practice in very different ways, with powerful and significant implications for how platform cooperativism might develop. May the dance continue late enough to welcome a new dawn - in the meantime, the thousand flowers blooming in this landscape are welcome - and fragile - seeds of possible alternative economic futures.

Bronwen Morgan is a researcher exploring legal and regulatory support structures for social activists and social enterprises responding to climate change in Australia and the UK, funded by a Future Fellowship from the Australian Research Council. 

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