Yesterday, I had the pleasure of giving a keynote at Tenerife Colaborativa. As I was sick, I had to cut my comments a bit short. Here is the full-length talk.
If you are more comfortable reading one of my texts in Spanish, you can download the introduction to platform cooperativism here.
It’s exhilarating to be here on the Canary Islands seeing this large group of people committing itself to building a more equitable future of work. I’m also thrilled to see so many young people and especially women. Today, I am bringing you greetings from the platform cooperativism movement. This event follows others in New York, Brussels, Boulder, Milan, Paris, to Toronto, London, and many other cities.(See videos and images of our last conference, The People’ Disruption, at The New School just two weeks ago).
The platform cooperativism movement intervenes at a moment of social crisis in the United States when ninety-four percent of jobs created over the past decade were not in the employment category. In 2016, over twelve million workers have made money on labor platforms. Much of that work is invisible with laborers often exploited, tucked away between algorithms. And over the long-term, as more labor markets shift to the Internet, it also matters that ownership of cloud services and social hangouts on the Internet is highly concentrated.
With two recent books, media campaigns like the #BuyTwitter inspired by Nathan Schneider, and the digital labor conferences that I convened since 2009 at The New School, we affected countless people. There have been innumerable newspaper articles and talks. Platform co-ops were launched, and there are now small platform cooperativism working groups in Berlin, Tokyo, and Melbourne. (Why not watch the two showcase sessions at The People’s Disruption: I and II?)
We must succeed in this endeavor because the workers need us to succeed. “We need us to succeed,” as Palak Shah put it at The People’s Disruption.
Over the next forty minutes, I would like first to give you a bit of context about the roots of platform cooperativism, introduce an example of platform co-ops, and lastly offer some reflections to contribute to your work, locally.
While this is not only a story about the Internet, it starts in 1969 when the first four nodes of the Net were linked up. After three decades of relative income equality after WWII (especially when you were white), in 1972 wages of Americans workers started to stagnate if adjusted for inflation. In 1989, the Socialist republics imploded and many trade unions started to decline. At this point, capitalism lost its most fervent internal and external challengers. The World Wide Web had become a household name by 1995, but it really only caught on as a technology that was used for Internet-mediated labor in 2005. It was then that Amazon introduced its crowdsourcing platform, getting, as filmmaker Alex Rivera put it in his cult hit Sleep Dealer, “all the work without the worker.”
On the heels of the 2008 financial crisis, the sharing economy capitalized on the willingness of people to work for less and give up their rights associated with employment, as guaranteed under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Initially, however, a genuine sharing economy emerged, concerned with resource sharing and ecological devastation (think: Couchsurfing and Blablacar) but this was swiftly hijacked by the extractive logic of venture capital that forced such companies to turn on their turbo vacuum cleaners and extract value from communities. These platforms were like four-dimensional objects arriving in three-dimensional space. They swooshed past regulators like ghosts, and when these policymakers started to pay attention, the companies were already in their third product-cycle. Democracy is slow, but technologists on the ground move with warp speed. Extractive sharing economy startups mobilized the language of peer-to-peer discourses and intimacy. They appropriated the ideology of counterculture of the Sixties and instrumentalized the social capital of cooperatives to sell services through platforms.
Over the past forty years, as the French political scientist Thomas Piketty substantiated, income inequality has spiked. “Super managers” emerged with astronomical salaries while the bottom ninety percent had fewer and fewer life opportunities. Since 1972, the wages of American workers stagnated while their productivity, individually, steadily increased. Today, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffet own more wealth than the poorest half of the United States combined.
Such extreme economic shifts also lead people to identify differently. They are looking for a way out. Some people turn to drugs (just consider the opioid epidemic in the U.S.), to activism or tech, or to building economic alternatives. Parts of the population turned to nationalism; they are radicalizing, becoming a threat to the project of democracy altogether. Cultural schisms became more pronounced as we’ve seen with Brexit where most Britons living outside urban centers and Scotland who opted to leave the European Union.
Income inequality was also a contributing factor when it comes to the rise of xenophobia and nationalism all across Europe and the United States. Just think of the thirteen percent of German voters who made the neo-fascist AFD the third strongest party in Germany.
Building on these problems, the technologies underlying the on-demand economy accelerate the emergence of a neo-feudalism, virtually a new servant culture that puts the bottom ninety percent into the service of the top ten percent.
Facing a social crisis like this, I support anything that makes the situation better for most people. As long as it serves that purpose, align yourself with whichever movement you want or follow whatever strategy or tactic: work with regulators, build alternatives, work with unions. Naturally, we see a broad alliance with cooperatives worldwide, the solidarity economy movement, the pro-commons movement, unions, and labor advocacy groups, policymakers, the employee ownership movement, the Open Source/Free Software movement, and the Creative Commons.
“To outline a different model of consumption, is of a much more real and revolutionary significance than all the abstract speeches about the billions pocketed by monopolies and about the need to nationalize them.” (Gorz, 82)
In an article, written in 2014, I suggested to join the almost two-hundred-year-old economic model of cooperatives with the digital economy. Imagine an Uber owned by its drivers. I called this intellectual framework “platform cooperativism.” (Try to say that three times fast.) I think of it as the intellectual Northstar for an ethical on-demand economy, characterized by two core commitments:
1) The platform is owned by the workers or the workers alongside other people who have a stake in this platform. These might be users or consumers. This is about coming into economic power; it is about the move from the blueprints to actual economic power. You cannot substantially change what you do not own.
2) The platform is democratically governed which means that the people who depend on it most, have a say in what happens on it.Importantly, the idea is not to create a clone of the likes of Airbnb or Uber. It isn’t about creating replicas. But we do rip the algorithmic heart out of these platforms only to put in a different code based on our values: cooperative values.
Platform cooperatives are different in that they embed the seven cooperative principles in the design of platforms. I’ll explain this further when talking about UpandGo.coop. The organizational form of the cooperative is key for platforms if they want to support economic, digital self-defense and autonomy. It allows communities to make a living while also contributing to the greater good. The economic model of platform cooperativism has distinct advantages if compared to investor-based startups.
The importance of inclusive codesign has been one of the central insights for us. Codesign is the opposite of masculine Silicon Valley “waterfall model of software design,” which means that you build a platform and then reach out to potential users. We follow a more feminine approach to building platforms where the people who are meant to populate the platform are part of building it from the very first day. We also design for outliers: disabled people and other people on the margins who don’t fit into the cookie-cutter notions of software design of Silicon Valley.
Let’s talk about Up&Go
Take Up&Go.coop, for example, is an umbrella platform for various cooperatives, designed in New York. Up & Go connects users with professional house cleaning services provided by low-income immigrant women who are organized in local cooperatives. The platform is cooperatively owned and governed by the women who use it. As owners, they decide how they want to provide their services to clients. The low-income immigrant women who are working on Up & Go, are receiving ninety-five percent of the revenue of the platform. For now, Up & Go is able to dedicate no more than five percent of its revenues to operate the platform. What’s important to me about platform co-ops is that they are activating the negative spaces of Trumpism. They are a response to the market failures of the extractive sharing economy. To raise our ambitions, I invite cooperators to think about platform cooperativism as what 1970s French theorist André Gorz called “non-reformist reform.” It acknowledges that “all struggle for reform is not necessarily reformist.” (7) Gorz writes,”A non-reformist reform is determined not in terms of what can be, but what should be. It basis the possibility of attaining this objective on the implementation of fundamental political and economic changes.” (7-8)
Platform cooperatives are projects of transition on the way to a post-capitalist future. They are economic near-term alternatives that can provide the material sustenance that allows workers to build out these platforms as scaffolding on which to build a better future. In Strategy for Labor, Gorz writes
“Instead of dichotomizing the future and the present — future power and present impotence, like Good and Evil — what must be done is to bring the future into the present, to make power tangible now by means of actions which demonstrate to the workers their positive strength, their ability to measure themselves against the power of capital and to impose their will on it.” (11)
Up & Go demonstrates that positive strength of workers through design interventions, too. They differ in many ways. Up & Go refuses an individual reputation system for its workers, for example. In Silicon Valley, we are so used to the narrative of innovation that we often forget that the technological developments that we are describing as innovative are more focused on short-term profits for shareholders instead of sustaining businesses or community value for that matter. We need to build lasting generational wealth that impacts our communities. What was especially interesting talking to the developers and people involved in Up & Go is that the key challenge in the development was more social than not technical. It was about getting the various cooperatives to agree to work with this platform and to accept credit cards. It was important to look beyond day-to-day disagreements; this is about our project, and we will succeed together. Platform cooperativism is not only a political and economical intervention, but it is also a cultural project. This is not only about the fight for new organizational structures but it has to go to the root level. It’s about changing people’s mindsets.
Silicon Valley has its own culture. Platform cooperativism needs its own culture concerned with the necessary shift from the idea of the competitive super worker, the homo economicus who mows down the competition. Instead, this is about an image of us as cooperators who sometimes act out of self-interest but then, too, driven mutual aid and cooperation. A large part of our work is about the shaping of a counter-narrative. Currently, Up & Go’s workforce is small in numbers: just a few dozen women from three cooperatives, but I still think this example can tell us a lot about the potential of worker cooperatives in the platform economy. Worker cooperatives in the United States are few and far between. There are just four hundred of them in the U.S., and they haven’t created very many jobs. Governance and scaling are key challenges. People just can’t agree with one another. While worker cooperatives, in particular, seem to have hit a glass ceiling in the economy, they may be able to grow and have access to nontraditional sources of funding – crowdsourcing, ICOs, and other blockchain experiments. These were not available to traditional worker cooperatives previously, as labor scholar Juliet Schor pointed out at The People’s Disruption. Worker cooperatives have the potential to scale in the platform economy.
Up & Go can also launch us into a discussion about the economic impact of platform co-ops. People who are more inclined to support big capital than I am — like economist Tyler Cowen— dismiss cooperatives because their contribution to the GDP is too small. That’s a fair point. Economically at least, in the United States cooperatives are only a small part of the GDP. Despite the fact that one in three Americans is part of a cooperative, there are impactful cooperatives like ACE Hardware, REI COOP, Ocean Spray, Evergreen Coops, Cabot Cheese, and of course the Associated Press (AP), and internationally, Barcelona Soccer Club, closely followed by Mondragon in the Basque country. (Watch the talk by Jim Kennedy, senior vice president for strategy and corporate development at the AP, at The People’s Disruption).
But in day-to-day life, for most Americans, these cooperatives are hidden in plain sight. In part, the problem may be that these institutions do not project their values outward, or that the co-op is not always consequential when it comes to labor conditions (think: REI COOP is a consumer cooperative but its 12,000 employees are not members). If you study business, with very few exceptions, you will not learn about cooperatives in business schools in the United States. But Cowen is falling prey to what author Chip Ward calls the “tyranny of the quantifiable” (what can be measured almost always takes precedence over what cannot). Platform cooperatives and of course traditional cooperatives create benefits in many unmeasured ways, and it is exactly this peer value, the long-term value that is created for the community, the value that is created among refugees and immigrant populations and their families and relatives that needs to be accounted for, too.
The creeping spread of cyber-empire
The “frightful five” capture more than half of all Internet traffic. This extreme platform power of Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Amazon irreparably tips over power asymmetries between users and platform owners, especially when we consider how their power will be amplified through the stack— the interlinkages between existing web services, AI, the Internet of Things, and smart cities, mobile apps, and cloud services. As the F.C.C. plans to repeal net neutrality, it is urgent to work on alternatives such as the cooperative cloud. MiData.coop, a Swiss platform co-op has plans to federate cooperative cloud storage to facilitate the sharing of health data between patients.
What does all of this mean for your practice?
I flew in here just a few hours ago from New York City. I will not pretend that I know anything about the Canary Islands, this territory off the shore of the Sahara. I do know, however, about Made in Canarias the project of Pablo’s team and the Glocal Network of Platform Cooperatives. There are significant agricultural and housing cooperatives and associations that intend to turn into co-ops. With 28.3%, unemployment here is even higher than on mainland Spain; 34% of women cannot find work. Only ten percent of your food supply is produced locally. Despite the fact that I just helicoptered in on the islands, I have three suggestions. “If you build it with them, they will stay.” As the saying goes, “If you will build it, they will come” but “If you build it with them, they will stay.” We should start by designing these platforms with all stakeholders involved starting on day one (e.g., designers, workers, prospective users, funders, policymakers). The person closest to the problem is the person most qualified to solve it.
Inclusive co-design counters the masculine waterfall model of software design. It is agile and builds on small successes. Technology is a social process. There’s been so much excitement about blockchain technology and artificial intelligence and the opportunities of all of that. There is something extremely important about blockchain technologies. But looking at what blockchain can do right now, this still seems unclear. I don’t need to be a card-carrying blockchain believer to see that. And as I had shown with Up & Go, the social aspects matter at least as much as the technical in the platform co-op design process. “Production is a means and man is the end,” as André Gorz put it (18). Historically, this became also evident with the introduction of TCP/IP, the Internet protocol. Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, the inventors of TCP/IP, had to go from institution to institution, from door-to-door, to convince people to use their protocol. Technology is a social process.
Creating ecosystems of mutual benefit
Next, think about the creation of ecosystems of mutual benefit. How can a food cooperative help local housing cooperatives? How can a union support the agricultural co-op and how a taxi co-op can create profits for an association of service workers? Have a look at Howard Brodsky’s project “Cooperatives for a Better World.” Beyond that, I would also highly recommend you to learn about SMart, which is a mutual risk cooperative now operating in nine European countries creating benefits for freelancers.
Contribute to the commons
My next advice is to wholeheartedly invest in the commons. With platform cooperatives you see those investments in the commons widely. Many platform co-ops share their code base on Github.
Focus on pull markets
Start in markets where no extensive marketing is necessary because clearly, it will be very difficult to compete with the war chest of the likes of Uber or Airbnb. Starting in markets where there is more demand than supply such as social healthcare and home health care will be of strategic importance. Millions of home healthcare workers worldwide will be needed over the next few decades, worldwide. Labor markets such as child care, home health care, food delivery, house cleaning, and data entry are shifting to the Internet where workers toil under conditions they do not choose for CEOs they cannot oust. This is an area where the Platform Cooperativism Consortium in New York will focus most of its efforts going forward.
We need scholars and builders of platforms and culture
We need builders. We need pragmatic utopians. But we also need universities. I’m not suggesting that researchers will be able to determine which platform co-op models will succeed in a given country (I wish it’d be that easy). Scholars can, however, dig deep and trace the intellectual lineage of platform cooperativism. André Gorz is a good start. Second, it’s about ethnography and fieldwork. Third, it’s about organizational theory (i.e., analyzing governance issues). Practical case studies will be needed (what worked, what did not).
But none of that is enough.
We need to focus on sustaining the feeling of a shared project, holding on to our core commitments, while also allowing for diverse perspectives and different takes on what you can do with the platform co-op model— how it should be designed and how it can be used. As Jutta Trevanius said at People’s Disruption, “if you can keep [platform cooperativism] in that state of the impermanent, imperfect and incomplete, then that continually invites more people to help.”
We want participation. We want codesign. We want diverse practices.