Interviews

Nathan Schneider

by Jonny Gordon-Farleigh, STIR magazine no.14, Summer 2016
by Kenneth Ho

With the rise of platform capitalism, there is a need for an alternative that expands ownership rights and control. I talked to Nathan Schneider about Platform Co-operativism, the digital commons, and the overlooked challenge of transforming hardware – made using African blood minerals and Asian sweatshops.

Much of your recent work is on the subject of Platform Co-operatives, how would you introduce this relatively new economy?

It’s new and it isn’t. For a while now, much of the world has been shifting to an economy organised less through fixed jobs and state benefits than through online platforms that connect us to each other – from Facebook to Uber to okCupid. It’s starting to matter a great deal how these things are owned and governed, because that determines to what ends the economy of the future is being designed. And right now, many big platforms we depend on exist solely – according to their legal DNA, at least – in order to enrich people who happen to own shares in them. This is quite troubling when you consider how much these things have come to serve, essentially, as public utilities.

There is an alternative. The long-standing legacy of co-operative enterprise – businesses owned and governed by the people whose lives they affect most – needs to come online. If we’re going to pour the data of our personal relationships into Facebook, we need a say and a stake in how that data gets used. If low-wage childcare workers are going to rely on an app to find jobs, they should have a say in determining how it works. This is about finally realising the long-promised democratic potential of the internet.

My colleague Trebor Scholz, who teaches at The New School in New York, coined the term “platform co-operativism” in late 2014. We organised a conference together with that name in November 2015. Soon, we’ll be publishing a book featuring dozens of contributors called Ours to Hack and to Own. And the movement is growing. I’m working with a scattered group to document it in a directory at internetofownership.net, but I keep running into new projects we weren’t yet aware of.

Do you think that platform co-operativism is an opportunity for the historical co-operative movement to embrace more open governance models (such as multi-stakeholder), open data and other organisational changes that are more inclusive?

It’s a two-way street. Internet culture needs to learn from co-ops—in particular, the importance of shared ownership over the engines of the economy and their profits. But offline co-ops can learn a lot from the experience of peer-production online. Free-and-open-source software projects have demonstrated that incredibly complex, coordinated activity can happen among teams spread all over the world. Some tech companies have developed interesting governance structures that offer alternatives to both static hierarchies and consensus-based horizontalism. And, certainly, we need to develop co-op models that are as global and as distributed as the internet itself. There is a lot of innovation going on right now as platform co-op developers try to meet that challenge.

We also need to get serious about the ownership of data. Facebook claims we own our personal data, but it also claims an eternal and highly permissive license to use what we post in ways we probably can’t even imagine. This fuzziness needs to stop. Co-operativism enables people to participate in an economy with both eyes open, and we’re seeing some interesting experiments in enabling people to control their data in ways the existing platforms don’t permit. What if Facebook had to ask us every time it monetises our data, and distribute a fair share of the revenue? What if house-cleaners could take their ratings and reviews from one platform to another? Unfortunately, the investor-driven business models of the online economy have resulted in closed systems that should be transparent, and too much self-exposure where much more security is called for.

You recently argued that certain peer production licenses and other digital commons have largely failed to create livelihoods for workers and contributors, and instead have produced low-cost materials for corporations. Do Platform co-ops provide one answer to this problem? And if so, how?

I love the digital commons. I run Linux on my computer and write in Emacs, community-developed text editor that dates to the 1970s. But the benefits of these wonderful, free-and-open creations have not been evenly distributed. Open-source developers are even more white and male than software developers in general. And existing commons licenses don’t stop a company like Google from taking Linux, for instance, and turning it into a highly invasive corporate surveillance system like Android – while scooping up the profits.

Ever since the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, commoners have had to keep the lords’ greedy hands out of the commons. I think the open-source movement and platform co-operativism need to band together. We’re still figuring out how, and there’s a robust debate forming. One strategy is the P2P Foundation’s “peer production license,” which would allow only co-operative enterprises to commercialise a given piece of content. Others argue that this is too restrictive. One way or another, it’s time that we extend the incredible creativity that tech culture has employed in hacking intellectual-property law to hacking corporate ownership as well.

The question of growth for tech co-operatives is an immediate question. At the Platform Co-operativism event in New York City you suggested that rather than recreating organisational monocultures, we should instead look to federations and localised initiatives. Could you explain these tensions within the movement and what this connected growth might look like?

I suppose there is some tension around how much we should be trying to replicate existing platforms, as opposed to doing things in entirely different ways. I suspect the answer is both/and. Like the offline co-operative movement right now, we need startups that pioneer entirely new kinds of businesses, serving people whom the capital markets have left unserved. But we also need conversions of existing businesses that we know and want to trust into more trustworthy ownership models. Both strategies are being explored, and they’re both transformative.

In general, I think it’s clear that platform co-ops are going to develop in some pretty distinct ways. The taxi drivers who pull out of Uber and are creating their own co-operatives have been organising on a local basis, but the local co-ops are often sharing the same software to reach users. Or take Fairmondo, a Germany-based online marketplace – like Amazon, except owned by its vendors and other users; it’s currently in the process of spreading to the UK, but rather than simply expanding the company, the German founders are collaborating with a separate group in the UK to create their own instance, with a common codebase, in parallel. They aspire not to a monopoly but to a federation. When you’re not just trying to maximise returns for investors, some really organic forms of growth are possible.

Another issue for the movement is that those involved in tech-related innovation, can often overlook, if not ignore, the social and economic hierarchies and privileges that exist in our society – such as the systemic gender bias on Wikipedia. Do you think we are having a significant conversation about the politics of access?

Apart from platform co-operativism, there are some positive developments lately in the U.S. around expanding broadband access and bringing underrepresented communities into software development. This is good. But we should be cautious of merely expanding “access.” When new apps are said to be “democratising” something, what it really means, almost always, is just more widespread access. That’s not good enough, if what we’re accessing is a feudal platform designed to extract data and value from us. (There’s no better example of this than Facebook’s initiative to offer a Facebook-centric, partial internet in poor countries). As we share value more fairly in the online economy, “access” will mean so much more. A wider range of people will be able to participate in practices of peer production like Wikipedia, because they’ll have more opportunities to gain a livelihood through such practices.

A related and also-overlooked challenge is that of hardware. So far, platform co-operativism has focused almost entirely on the software platforms that come from places like Silicon Valley and Berlin. But what about the Asian sweatshops and African blood minerals that these platforms run on? We need to find ways of organising our supply chains so that the co-operativism goes all the way down. Perhaps the global, offline co-op movement can help forge these connections.

While there has been a lot of experimentation, and with it excitement, within the co-operative movement, I feel that we need to be cautious about this impulse to co-operativise everything, and actually start by questioning existing markets – not simply to suggest that since they exist, we should co-operativise them. So how do you see the commons – as a frame for non-market activity—relating to and informing the co-operative movement?

One thing I love about the platform co-op community is how strongly committed people are to cultivating commons – an outgrowth of the free-and-open software movement. These people are interested in ownership and property as a means of ensuring fairness, but for many, it’s the vision of the commons that’s motivating above all. Some, for instance, are calling for not just platform co-ops but “open co-ops” – a model explicitly linked to producing goods for the commons. It’s a wonderful way of developing the oft-neglected co-operative principle of “concern for community.”

It’s also a matter of necessity. Imagine, for instance, a co-operative version of Uber or Airbnb. Who are the appropriate stakeholders? If it were just the drivers and the hosts, they could behave in ways that benefit themselves but harm the infrastructure and community around them. Clearly, cities as a whole – possibly through government, possibly otherwise – would need to have a seat at the table. When we allow ourselves to delve into questions of appropriate ownership-design for platform co-ops, it’s clear that just a narrow range of stakeholders won’t cut it. This challenge is leading toward some really interesting, intricate models for governing our platform commons. In the process, we’re returning the old idea of the “co-operative commonwealth”; not just a few nice co-ops trying to survive in the market in isolation, but an enmeshed, multi-level system of co-operative activity – a revolution.

You were involved in Occupy Wall Street and I can remember you wrote at the time that, “politics is not about choosing from what we are offered, but about creating new political options.” So, though the encampments are no longer there, how would you trace the transformations, and disruptions, of that particular political moment? What is both its visible and disguised legacy?

Those encampments led me here. After the forcible evictions of the camps, people in the Occupy movement found themselves needing to find livelihoods that reflected their values, and many joined the ongoing revival of the co-operative tradition. In New York, Occupiers created a co-op print shop and helped develop worker co-ops in areas that had been devastated by Hurricane Sandy. In New Zealand, Occupiers started Loomio, a worker co-op that produces a decision-making platform now being used by movements, governments, schools, and businesses around the world. The movements of 2011, from Tunis to Wall Street, did so much to remind us that real democracy requires more than an occasional trip to the ballot box. It’s something we need to practice around all the structures and institutions that organise our lives, including the internet.

A challenge, certainly, is to better connect the cultures of resistance and enterprise. Gandhi, though best known for his acts of resistance, insisted that the heart of his work, and what made the resistance possible, was the alternative-building. But especially in the United States, the best protesters tend to look down on the task of creating a successful business, and our best entrepreneurs often seem detached from the reasons that business-as-usual isn’t working for many of their less privileged neighbours. It has been helpful for me to travel to other parts of the world, where that divide feels less intense – likely because the economic inequalities are not so drastic.

As we build a culture around platform co-operativism, I hope we can cultivate a healthy balance—between the builders in us who can work creatively with the world as it is, and the dreamers in us who can imagine and fight for a better world.

To finish, how do you see the future of work?

One of the benefits of being a reporter, primarily, is that it’s not my job to predict the future. The present is hard enough to understand. Anyway, co-operativism is about cultivating a future that’s responsive to the people living in it, that invites them to self-determination, rather than merely living out someone else’s fantasies or business models. A return to feudalism is a live option right now, but I hope we choose self-determination. If we do, perhaps those who follow us will be able to think of themselves less as merely workers, working on someone else’s terms, and more as full human beings. Among the most energetic new models of co-operativism that I’ve had a chance to witness, this is the effect, and it’s beautiful.

Nathan Schneider writes about religion and resistance for publications including Harper’s, The Nation, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times, Religion Dispatches, The Catholic Worker, and is an editor at the online publications KillingTheBuddha.com and WagingNonviolence.org.

His books include Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse and God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet, both published by University of California Press in 2013. He is professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. 

In the process, we’re returning to the old idea of the co-operative commonwealth; not just a few nice co-ops trying to survive in the market in isolation.

Links

Info & Credits

Published in STIR magazine no.14, Summer 2016