Ours to Hack and to Own

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* Book: Ours to Hack and to Own. Ed. by Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider, fall 2016


"dozens of designers, workers, and other participants answer the question of what they’d tell someone who wants to start a platform co-op." [1]


Key Insights from the book

From Antonio Blanco-Gracia:

"1. Centralized platforms’ business models are old wine in new wineskins

“It’s the same old industrialism, being practiced with powerful new digital tools” (Douglas Rushkoff — Renaissance Now).

“Sharing economy companies like Uber and Airbnb, which own no vehicles or real-estate, capture profits from the operators of the cars and apartments for which they provide the marketplace. Neither of these business models is very new” (Dmytri Kleiner — Counterantidisintermediation).

“The decisive question is not who owns any kind of means of production but who owns the dominant means of production. These used to be the factory, the machinery. They are now becoming the big algorithms, the constantly adjusted and ever-developing virtual machinery.” (Christoph Spehr)

2. Centralized platforms disempower its users

“The idea of disintermediation was central to the emancipatory visions of the Internet, yet the landscape today is more mediated than ever before” (Dmytri Kleiner — Counterantidisintermediation).

“Capitalist platforms based on the sale of audience commodity and capturing marketplace rents demand a sacrifice of privacy and autonomy” (Dmytri Kleiner — Counterantidisintermediation).

3. Centralized platforms fake trust environments

“turns out that we act differently when we rate people to when we rate products […] The distorted rating distributions serve the interests of the platform owners, making the platform appear to be a higher-trust environment than it really is […] (Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis)

4. The time for Coop Platforms may have arrived

First, disruption. Things are very much up in the air. Uber is growing dominant in personal-transportation services in the United States, but Uber could still be the Friendster, or at most the LinkedIn, of the on-demand economy if the cooperative movement moves fast into a broad range of services. (Yochai Benkler — The Realism of Cooperativism) Second, we are in the cultural moment of cooperation. Wikipedia, free and open-source software (FOSS), citizen journalism, and other forms of commons-based peer production have made normal people encounter cooperation and its products as a matter of everyday practice. The decades-long insistence of expert economics that we should think of ourselves as self-interested rational actors acting with guile is bumping up against a daily reality that refutes it (Yochai Benkler — The Realism of Cooperativism) Third, commons-based peer production has provided a template and experience with the possibility of large-scale enterprises managing and governing themselves through online cooperative platforms. (Yochai Benkler — The Realism of Cooperativism)

Finally, networks have destabilized the model of the firm. Transaction costs associated with both market exchanges and social sharing have declined; interactions once preserved for firms that combined capital with contractual commitments for labor, materials, and distribution can now be done in a more distributed form (Yochai Benkler — The Realism of Cooperativism)

Platform co-ops can benefit from the bursting of the content bubble (David Carroll — A Different Kind of Startup Is Possible) App store opportunities are drying up (David Carroll — A Different Kind of Startup Is Possible).

5. Coop-Platforms can offer what centralized ones are pretending -but are not able- to deliver

“The dominant players continue to brand themselves as a community, while users experience the systems more like customers. There is an opportunity for platform co-op designers to revive the project of establishing genuine community” (Cameron Tonkinwise — Convenient Solidarity: Designing for Platform Cooperativism)

“In many ways, the platform co-op model is well suited to counteract some of the ownership and sustainability problems intrinsic to venture-backed enterprises that we encountered firsthand. But near-future tech platforms will be built upon rapidly evolving infrastructures and will require sudden adaptations to new capabilities” (David Carroll — A Different Kind of Startup Is Possible)

Platform cooperatives — as a directed affront to the platform of 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” (Douglas Rushkoff — Renaissance Now)

“open cooperatives internalize negative externalities; adopt multi-stakeholder governance models; contribute to the creation of immaterial and material commons; and are socially and politically organized around global concerns, even if they produce locally” (Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis — Why Platform Co-ops Should Be Open Co-ops)

6. However, decentralization does not imply equality.

The last decade has shown us that there is no linear-causal relationship between decentralization in technical systems and egalitarian or equitable practices socially, politically, or economically. This is not only because it is technologically determinist to assume so, or because networks involve layers that exhibit contradictory affordances, but also because there’s zero evidence that features such as decentralization or structurelessness continue to pose any kind of threat to capitalism. In fact, horizontality and decentralization — the very characteristics that peer production prizes so highly — have emerged as an ideal solution to many of the impasses of liberal economics. (Rachel O’Dwyer — Blockchains and Their Pitfalls)

7. New decentralized architectures need to be designed to be counter-anti-disintermediationist

Going back to an early Internet architecture of cooperative, decentralized servers, as projects like Diaspora, GNU Social, and others are attempting to do, will not work. This is precisely the sort of architecture that antidisintermediation was designed to defeat. Decentralized systems need to be designed to be counteranti-disintermediationist. Central to the counterantidisintermediationist design is the end-to-end principle; platforms must not depend on servers and admins, even when cooperatively run, but must, to the greatest degree possible, run on the computers of the platforms users (Dmytri Kleiner — Counterantidisintermediation).

8. Platforms are us: community is what gives value

Platforms are us: Platforms aren’t just software applications and the companies that administer them. What gives a platform value, in most cases, is the community of users that employ the platform, along with the networks, data, and ideas they create (Janelle Orsi — Three Essential Building Blocks for Your Platform Cooperative)

As part of our project, we are developing our own conceptual framework that identifies six dimensions to assess and measure value: 1. Community building 2. Social use-value of the resource created 3. Reputation 4. Achievement of the stated mission 5. Monetary value 6. Ecological value and derivative processes (Mayo Fuster Morell — Toward a Theory of Value for Platform Cooperatives)

9. Coop Platforms are not as much for autonomy and independence as for multi-stakeholder interdependence.

This kind of shift in focus means leaving behind some of the cherished emphasis that the last cooperative wave put on autonomy and independence; instead, cooperative developers have been enthusiastically exploring ways to partner with city governments, labor unions, forward-thinking philanthropy, and impact investors to create mechanisms to finance and support the work of building a more democratic economy. Cooperative purity can easily become an obstacle to achieving meaningful scale and inclusive impact. For instance, insisting that members self-finance their own enterprise risks creating a closed circle of relative economic privilege rather than a movement to truly democratize capital. Similarly, insisting on autonomy from government intervention and support means that the policies behind traditional economic development will continue to grind away, subsidizing corporations and leaving cooperatives to fend for themselves (John Duda — Beyond Luxury Cooperativism).

10. Well designed Coop Platforms can provide dignified and sustainable livelihoods for those who work on them

Based on this research, we’ve begun to identify some principles or rules that should guide designers in order to achieve more positive outcomes for workers: 1. Earnings maximization, 2. Stability and predictability, 3. Transparency, 4. Portability of products and reputations, 5. Upskilling, 6. Social connectedness, 7. Bias elimination, 8. Feedback mechanisms (Marina Gorbis — Designing Positive Platforms)

Those of us who are striving to organize workers in the online economy have to build a theory for reputation portability and protection into our other organizing work (Kati Sipp — Portable Reputation in the On-Demand Economy)

11. Governments cannot remain spectators of the tremendous effects of centralized platforms

“Cities and governments have not yet fully grasped that power lies, today, at the level of data” (Francesca Bria — Public Policies for Digital Sovereignty)

“The scale of the transition to platform capitalism is massive. The builders of emerging online platforms aim to become pervasive across all productive sectors, and to permeate every level of society: the level of the individual (with smartphones and wearable technology, lenses, glasses); the level of the home (“smart homes,” smart power meters and Internet-connected sensors); and the level of “smart cities” (driverless cars, networked transportation services; energy grids, drones, ubiquitous digital services). Platforms are reshaping not just the Internet but the economy as a whole, and governments have a responsibility to ensure that this new economy serves more than the platform-builders’ profits” (Francesca Bria — Public Policies for Digital Sovereignty)

Many of the business models of the “sharing economy” are based on the strategic nullification of the law. Companies knowingly violate city regulations and labor laws. This allows them to undermine the competition and then point to a large customer base to demand legislative changes that benefit their dubious modus operandi. (Trebor Scholz — How Platform Cooperativism Can Unleash the Network)

12. Civil Society and Governments have to co-create an eco-system for Coop Plataforms to flourish

“The big companies that rule the Internet aren’t coming to dominate just because of a good idea and a charismatic founder; they grow out of supportive ecosystems, including investors, lawyers, sympathetic governments, and tech schools. Perhaps most important is their culture — the festivals, the meetups, the memes, the manifestos — that share norms for what kinds of practices are expected and celebrated. To change these norms, we need to cultivate an ecosystem for platform cooperativism” (Editors -Showcase 2: Ecosystem)

The scale of the transition to platform capitalism is massive. The builders of emerging online platforms aim to become pervasive across all productive sectors, and to permeate every level of society: the level of the individual (with smartphones and wearable technology, lenses, glasses); the level of the home (“smart homes,” smart power meters and Internet-connected sensors); and the level of “smart cities” (driverless cars, networked transportation services; energy grids, drones, ubiquitous digital services). Platforms are reshaping not just the Internet but the economy as a whole, and governments have a responsibility to ensure that this new economy serves more than the platform-builders’ profits. ( Francesca Bria — Public Policies for Digital Sovereignty)

13. Some administrations are beginning to realize the potential of cooperative platforms, or at least allowing new opportunities for them to emerge.

A very interesting example of a city that is putting forward alternative policies and forward-looking regulations is Barcelona. (Francesca Bria — Public Policies for Digital Sovereignty)

The Securities and Exchange Commission has enacted new rules on crowdfunding, through the JOBS Act, that are opening up the ways that everyday people can invest in the companies that best align with their values. These new rules allow non-accredited investors to invest, and they also allow for investments to occur without the intervention of brokers. It has become easier, in this way, for us to be responsive to the people we hope to serve and partner with (Karen Gregory — Can Code Schools Go Cooperative?)

14 . Coop Platforms need initially both a core limited multi-skilled team and a wide community to succeed.

I have found that innovation occurs most readily in small teams with shared goals but different skill sets. Big groups, on the other hand, are good for education and organizing work, and for refining existing platforms. But to innovate, I like to work in core teams of three to six people, as this allows for deep relationships, shared memory, and relatively fast decision making, since each person can speak for ten to twenty minutes per hour in meetings (Caroline Woolard — So You Want to Start a Platform Cooperative…). If you can’t raise $300,000 a year for a core team of five, don’t build a demo site that barely works or buggy software that won’t last — organize great events and build community! (Caroline Woolard — So You Want to Start a Platform Cooperative…).

15. In Coop Platforms terms, ownership is what matters.

With less than 10 percent of Americans currently owning their own businesses and workplaces, today’s “new, new organizing” begins to address the skewed imbalances between capital and labor and the power this distortion produces and exercises (Michael Peck — Building the People’s Ownership Economy through Union Co-ops).

Starting in the spring of 2014, 1worker1vote.org set out to demonstrate that widespread workplace equity and democratic participation can return America to its original system of individual and local community ownership (Michael Peck — Building the People’s Ownership Economy through Union Co-ops).

Very few campaigns lead to what Hochschild calls “deep acting” — our genuine emotions at work. Most campaigns fall back on “surface acting,” the kind of behavior associated with fake smiles. These campaigns strain volunteers, scare supporters, and fail at their goals. And if a project does get funded, any future collective action depends on whoever owns and controls the value created. Without emotional investment in a cooperative arrangement, campaigns run the risk of ruining relationships over unmet expectations (Danny Spitzberg — How Crowdfunding Becomes Stewardship).

16. Coop Platforms can offer a wide range of ownership/membership alternatives

These DCOs are connected intellectually to a variety of related decentralized ownership models. They range from the FairShare Model of Karl Sjogren, which proposes a structure of different classes of ownership shares for different contributors — for founders, people with a continuous working role, for users, and for investors — to the Swarm approach to “crypto-equity” crowdfunding developed by Joel Dietz. If the rules for equitable value distribution are well defined, generally accepted, and become “normal” in the same way that employment for salary at a shareholder corporation was in the twentieth century, perhaps the providers can then focus more of their efforts on creating value (Arun Sundararajan — Economic Barriers and Enablers of Distributed Ownership).

17. Coop Platforms will be developed more quickly if depart from what already exists, and traditional cooperativism and unionism experiment with it.

It’s important for folks in the platform-cooperative community to understand that there are existing worker-led organizations that are set up to deal with multi-employer, disaggregated work situations — and that we can build from their model, rather than starting from scratch. (Kati Sipp — Portable Reputation in the On-Demand Economy) What both of these paths signify is the potential for value when organized labor and worker cooperatives team up in the “gig economy.” (Christoph Spehr — SpongeBob, Why Don’t You Work Harder?)

Here is an often-overlooked challenge: try to join and add to existing cooperative platforms, rather than building your own from scratch.(Caroline Woolard — So You Want to Start a Platform Cooperative…)

As a movement, cooperativism will only succeed by moving fast and decisively, learning from the near past, and sharing our experiments and knowledge quickly and repeatedly in a network of cooperatives. (Yochai Benkler — The Realism of Cooperativism)

18. Platform Coops must put “humanizing” emotions into equation (and crowfunding efforts are examples of this).

Elizabeth Hoffman’s 2016 study of worker co-ops found that embracing emotion ultimately benefits democratic participation. As individuals get comfortable expressing themselves, they develop an identity as co-owners — their workplace and co-workers feel like “home” and “family.” Such transformative, humanizing experiences contrast with how we relate to one another through marketing. These are also how investment grows into stewardship. (Danny Spitzberg — How Crowdfunding Becomes Stewardship).

Without emotional investment in a cooperative arrangement, campaigns run the risk of ruining relationships over unmet expectations. For crowdfunding to become stewardship, we need rolling barn-raisers — regular activities in which guests can co-create with the gifts they bring, celebrate their accomplishments, and build again. Marketing strategies extract generosity by developing an audience, message, and call-to-action, leveraging one-way relationships.

A barn-raiser is an organizing strategy for a cooperative alternative that involves people, invitation, and engagement (think p-i-e):

1) Connect with people. Audiences are passive, but people put emotion at the core of cooperation. Learn who might join the effort, and what they’re trying to get done.

2) Make an invitation. Messages are static, but invitations cultivate voluntary and open membership. Define what you want to celebrate, together — in person or online.

3) Sustain engagement. A call-to-action limits inputs, but engagement supports democratic ownership and control. Seek participation more than financial contributions (Danny Spitzberg — How Crowdfunding Becomes Stewardship).

19. Traditional Coops may be in a privileged position for building Coop Platforms, but they have to understand the power of commons first.

In general, cooperatives are not creating, protecting, or producing commons, and they usually function under the patent and copyright system. Further, they may tend to self-enclose around their local or national membership. As a result, the global arena is left open to be dominated by large corporations

20. The best Platform Coops could be envisioned as infrastructures for Open Value Networks built over “natural abundance”.

“In a natural extension of such capacities, open value networks, or OVNs, are attempts to enable bounded networks of participants to carry out crowdfunding, crowdsourcing of knowledge, and co-budgeting among their identifiable participants. OVNs such as Enspiral and Sensorica have been described as an “operating system for a new kind of organization” and a “pilot project for the new economy.” (David Bollier — From Open Access to Digital Commons).

First, it’s important to recognize that closed business models are based on artificial scarcity […] Open cooperatives, in comparison, recognize natural abundance and refuse to generate revenue by making abundant resources artificially scarce. […]

Second, a typical commons-based peer production project involves various distributed tasks, to which individuals can freely contribute […] Open co-ops, therefore, practice open-value accounting or contributory accounting […]

Third, open cooperatives can secure fair distribution and benefit-sharing of commonly created value through “CopyFair” licenses. […]

Fourth, open cooperatives are able to make use of open designs to produce sustainable goods and services […]

Fifth, and relatedly, open cooperatives reduce waste [… ]Sixth, open cooperatives can mutualize not only digital infrastructures but also physical ones (Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis — Why Platform Co-ops Should Be Open Co-ops).

21. Governance of Platform Coops, Open Value Networks and commons requires a distinctive set of management practices

1) Find the right people,

2) Explore different strategies for self-management,

3) Consider conversion,

4) Define the parameters of your cooperative environment,

5) Join a cooperative network (or two),

6) Invest in other cooperatives,

7) Choose free tools to run the business. (Micky Metts — Meet Your Friendly Neighborhood Tech Co-op)

Our Good Work Code is a set of eight simple principles that can serve as a framework:

1) Safety,

2) Stability & Flexibility,

3) Transparency,

4) Shared Prosperity,

5) A Livable Wage,

6) Inclusion & Input,

7) Support & Connection,

8)Growth & Development (Palak Shah — A Code for Good Work).

We considered the following six interrelated factors as determinants and drivers of commons governance:

1) Mission

2) Management of contributions. Greater flexibility of participants seems to be conducive to higher degrees of contribution.

3) Decision-making with regard to community interaction. Consensus-based decision making is frequent in commons-based peer production but the methods differ.

4) Formal policies applied to community interaction.

5) Design of the platform.

6) Platform provision (Mayo Fuster Morell — Toward a Theory of Value for Platform Cooperatives)

22. Blockchain technologies could actually be an opportunity for Coop Platforms, but should not be used for promoting cooperation without trust.

Although Bitcoin itself has been designed to serve familiar capitalist functions (tax avoidance, private accumulation through speculation), the blockchain ledger is significant because it can enable highly reliable, versatile forms of collective action on open networks. It does this by validating the authenticity of a digital object (for example, a bitcoin) without the need for a third-party guarantor such as a bank or government body. This solves a particularly difficult collective-action problem in an open network context: How do you know that a given digital object — a bitcoin, a legal document, digital certificate, dataset, a vote, or a digital identity asserted by an individual — is the real thing and not a forgery? (David Bollier — From Open Access to Digital Commons) In the United States, former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt has proposed using blockchain technology to create distributed networks of solar power on residential houses coordinated as commons (David Bollier — From Open Access to Digital Commons).

This field of experimentation may yield another breakthrough tool for forging digital commons: smart contracts. […] These transactions could, of course, be used to invent new types of markets, but they also could be used to create new types of commons (David Bollier — From Open Access to Digital Commons).

Here the blockchain replaces a trusted third party such as the state or a platform with cryptographic proof. This is why hardcore libertarians and anarcho-communists both favor it. But let’s be clear here — it doesn’t replace all of the functions of an institution, just the function that allows us to trust in our interactions with others because we trust in certain judicial and bureaucratic processes. It doesn’t stand in for all the slow and messy bureaucracy and debate and human processes that go into building cooperation, and it never will (Rachel O’Dwyer — Blockchains and Their Pitfalls).

23. Those that want to build a Coop Platform should get rid of mainstream mindsets

Cooperatives tended to focus too much on how the value would be shared rather than on a compelling offer to create the value in the first place (Arun Sundararajan — Economic Barriers and Enablers of Distributed Ownership)

We embed values into our technologies, and today such values are reflections of Silicon Valley’s ethos and funding models (Marina Gorbis — Designing Positive Platforms).

Platforms don’t need to be treated as commodities: It’s easy to develop a platform fetish as a result of their seemingly magical potential to create billionaires. Yet all along, it is the users themselves, and the rents they pay to platform companies, that enable the billion-dollar valuations (Janelle Orsi — Three Essential Building Blocks for Your Platform Cooperative)"