Open Protocols for a Credit Commons
* Article / Conference Paper: Thwarting an Uber Future for Complementary Currencies: Open Protocols for a Credit Commons. By Jem Bendell and Matthew Slater. Paper prepared for the IV International Conference on Social and Complementary Currencies: Money, Consciousness and Values for Social Change, 10th to 14th May, 2017, Universita Oberta de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain, 2017
The paper explores the rationale and potential for practitoners in both complementary currencies and platform cooperatives, and their associated researchers, to consider the role of open protocols to grow the digital commons and avoid a digital dystopia of platform monopolies. The authors contend that there have been two parallel worlds of practice that have hitherto had little interaction. One the one hand, the largely capitalist-backed fields of cryptographic currency innovation and blockchain development, and on the hand the more community-oriented initiatives with older, less technological complementary currencies. Through a literature review, the same rift is shown to extend to academic literature. The authors suggest this division reflects a more philosophical divide between capitalist interests and those seeking to generate and maintain shared wealth. Based on that analysis the relevance of the concept of “the commons” is discussed, as well as the “digital commons” as a way of framing different approaches.
The importance of developing open protocols in order to create conditions for new entrants to thrive, including “protocol cooperatives” is explained. The argument that a free market in privatelyissued currencies would naturally avoid monopoly, without conscious effort to do so from innovators and regulators is rejected. Instead, the concept of the commons is applied to currencies and credit, with implications for the development of open protocols for complementary currencies. The vision, strategy and roadmap of the new Credit Commons Collective is presented. The methodology for the research is an adaptation of “reflective practice” through a structured use of “thinking partnership” over the years of engagement with the subject matter, complemented with periods of academic literature review, including for this paper."
Jem Bendell and Matthew Slater, from the introduction:
"This paper outlines a rationale for growing a “digital commons” of open protocols and related tools for both platform cooperatives and complementary currencies. It documents findings from 7 years of joint reflective practice and related interdisciplinary study by the two authors, one a professor in management studies and the other a complementary currency engineer.
The paper contends that there have been two parallel worlds of practice that have hitherto had little interaction. One the one hand, the largely capitalist-backed fields of cryptographic currency innovation and blockchain development, and on the hand the more community-oriented initiatives with older, less technological complementary currencies. We find the same rift extending to academic literature, and conclude that the division reflects a more philosophical divide between capitalist interests and those seeking to generate and maintain shared wealth. We note that the field of commercial barter, or reciprocal trade, has received even less attention from researchers, though this may be about to change.
We explore the use of the concept of “the commons” and in particular the digital commons as a way of framing these different approaches. We chronicle the rising concern about multinational corporate domination of the new sector where people rent access to their assets, such as ride sharing or home sharing. We warn that the response to this concern by creating “platform cooperatives” could be flawed, and explain the importance of developing open protocols in order to create conditions for new entrants to thrive, including “protocol cooperatives”. However, we warn that unless more emphasis is placed on developing open protocols within the field of complementary currencies, then this field can be overtaken by multinational enterprises in ways that will make monopolistic practices in the "sharing economy" look insignificant. In doing so, we reject the argument that a free market in privately-issued currencies would naturally avoid monopoly, without conscious effort to do so from innovators and regulators. As innovators, not regulators, we outline how the concept of the commons can be applied to currencies and credit, and introduce the vision and strategy of the new Credit Commons Collective. A roadmap of the next steps for this Collective is presented. " (http://matslats.net/sites/matslats.net/files/Bendell%20and%20Slater%202017.pdf)
Open Protocols are needed for Platform Cooperatives to Thrive
Jem Bendell and Matthew Slater:
"The proper function of an institution is not to crunch algorithms or own infrastructure that could be common, but to manage trust and social relations. In this context drivers might aggregate into cooperatives to present a trusted brand appealing to those who wanted, say, flash cars, women only drivers, criminal record checks, insurance, etc. Moving beyond ridesharing this protocol approach has many domains. Airbnb could be replaced in the same way. Real Estate agency could also change. Why should you have to commit to a single Estate Agent to sell your house and troop around many estate agents to find a house? There could just be a protocol for advertising and searching for residential property. Why is it still necessary in 2017 to advertise a second-hand bicycle on a centralised, censored, platform like craigslist, freecycle or the local supermarket or newspaper? Why isn't there simply common space for that? Open protocols would help pave the way.
The history of open protocols shows they enable efficiencies and economies of scale (e.g. the USB and x86) which reduces prices and waste. Open protocols also wrest control from individual firms with the relevant intellectual property and thus enable competition from new entrants. However, they do not prevent new monopolies from emerging over time. With the internet, capitalist interests, as manifested by venture capital and then investment banks, backed those enterprises that worked out how to build services, private territories and gateways on top of the internet’s open protocols and to build the notion of private property and the means of production into the internet. Only then could companies like Facebook and Google/Alphabet start monetising value for investors, even while the lower layers remain free as designed. The importance of network effects to the value of any platform, whereby they are as useful to the extent they are ubiquitous, it is hard to imagine any platform like minds.com competing head-to-head with Facebook succeeding to become similarly large and influential.
One recent protocol that threatened to democratise everything was Bitcoin. As described earlier, Bitcoin is a protocol for different 'wallet' programmes on different computers to share a common ledger and thus agree how much is in each wallet. It enables a global payment system without the need for a central institution to keep the definitive ledger, and so it allows a money system without states or banks. Bitcoin has turned out to be flawed in that its mass adoption led to an unintended form of centralisation, where computing power is decisive. Better algorithms have long existed, although so far Bitcoin retains its first mover advantage. (Torpey, 2014)
To summarise, we see that platform cooperatives have limited potential unless new open protocols are introduced to enable multiple entrants into a single ecosystem. In absence of benevolent monopolies, utility will be sub optimal unless open protocols enable interoperability. Open software protocols mean that it is more difficult to maintain a monopoly position so, forcing entrepreneurs and investors to focus on competition rather than attempting to monopolise a whole market. . As many new entrants will fail, if there are open protocols, what they have created while failing can add to the ecosystem, rather than adding to the mountain of junk code or leaving users stranded." (http://matslats.net/sites/matslats.net/files/Bendell%20and%20Slater%202017.pdf)
An Open Protocol for the interoperability of complementary currencies
Jem Bendell and Matthew Slater:
"The concept of the commons can be applied to our means of exchange – money and credit. Therefore, with the term “credit commons” we mean our ability, as free individuals and organisations, to issue and honour credit to whomever we choose, in a form and volume that we decide, without having to pay state-sanctioned private intermediaries (Bendell and Greco, 2013). “The key insight from a study of the history of money is that we have allowed the credit commons to be privatized so that it can be accessed only by appealing to some bank to grant a “loan”. Today's monopoly on credit creation by private banks now drives a range of economic, social and environmental problems” (ibid).
As “thinking partners” focused on how to scale collaborative credit systems, we have concluded that open protocols to enable interoperability between complementary currencies is an important next step. In arriving at that view, we have found the concepts of the commons to be helpful and therefore have adopted the name Credit Commons Collective for the group now working towards those aims. In the final sections of this paper, we summarise known attempts at interoperability, the barriers that currently exist, and design principles for a currency exchange system between complementary currencies.
The commercial barter sector and social currency movement have long been at a point of maturity when standards might be expected to emerge (even the same protocol for both), yet the above initiatives are technologically crude and not widely used. The oft-heard lament from users that there is a lack of variety in the marketplace offered on individual exchanges could be quelled by greater interoperability.
Analysing this situation, we have identified some of the obstacles to greater interoperability. First, are technological challenges. We observe how much software today is directed at mobile phones apps, and both the commercial barter sector and social movements are still focused on the users of web browsers. Just as young software engineers are starting their own high risk projects rather than supporting functioning projects, the complementary currency platforms rely on older engineers who know nothing of the technologies of the current decade.
Second is the risk aversion and priorities of incumbents. In conversation with some business barter software providers we found they did not think that interoperability would increase their turnover. We suspect there is a fear also of their captive markets being freed. It is also easier for them to design and run projects internally to organisations, so resources tend to be allocated towards to adding features and competing with other platforms.
Third are the shallow connections in the social movement and profession in complementary currencies. There has been no shortage of online conversations, conferences and proposals for various forms of cooperation, but so far, insufficient money and energy have been committed to enabling the movement and profession, by creating useful umbrella organisations or consulting software experts to draw up open protocols.
Finally, and no less significantly, are challenges in the realm of discourse and philosophy. On the one hand, the well documented investment and enthusiasm about blockchain innovation has barely touched existing economic networks, while the collaborative credit concepts been elbowed aside by the Austrian economics implicit in Bitcoin's design. On the other hand, many users and activists of local currencies conflate local circulation with local issuance. They feel that if a currency goes out of bounds, it begins to resemble the system of global capital they hoped to shelter from. We believe that even the limited adoption of a better protocol (or set of protocols) could change the systemic drivers which now separate value-creators into separate marketplaces. It would make small exchanges much more viable, thus allowing for greater monetary experimentation. It would allow greater convergence around software, thus reducing overall development costs, which should translate into reduced membership costs. And by linking together the major networks into a whole, that whole would become a focal point for collaborative credit initiatives the world over."
Jem Bendell and Matthew Slater:
"We would like to highlight the three most useful interoperability projects we know of.
First, the Universal Currency (UC) was created by the International Reciprocal Trade Association for its members. Not a clearing house between different currencies, the UC is a separate exchange with its own currency which members of all participating exchanges can also join. The exchange is governed by IRTA and since 2015, provided by Bartercard, the largest B2B exchange in the world.
Second, a standard was created for exchanges to publish an RSS feed of offers and wants on their individual exchanges, and to read that feed from other exchanges. This can be used in conjunction with the UC, but technically it has not been sufficient to enable cross-platform searches and sales.
Third, when the Australian LETS moved to a clone of CES in 2012, Tim Jenkin built a system called Clearing Central to allow trade to continue between the two servers. Since then Spain built its own CES platform, called Integral CES, which also connects to Clearing Central, and Community Forge exchange software is connected as well. There is not yet a way to view catalogues on other servers."