Nathan Schneider: Platform cooperatives in the digital age

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Topics: Digitalization

Cooperatives have existed for a long time. People build cooperatives in order to pool their knowledge and resources to achieve certain goals; goals which would perhaps be unrealistic if co-op members tried to meet them individually.

The term ‘sharing economy’ was coined more recently. Initially, it represented the idea to create win-win situations among peers through sharing. This concept has since been high-jacked by powerful for-profit platform companies such as Uber, Airbnb, ebay, Didi, and Yandex. These companies merely use the term ‘sharing economy’ to camouflage profit-seeking and instil in their users the feeling of being part of a greater community centred around values such as caring –“sharing is caring” – and solidarity.

The global platform co-op movement tries to bring the idea of cooperatives into the digital age. It has the aim of creating  ethically fair platforms that are owned by either the people who work on them or by customers.[1] In contrast to powerful tech companies, co-op members have full control over the platform. Platform co-ops are not dependent on shareholders who expect high returns on their investments. Co-ops are therefore able to focus on goals that promote the wellbeing of their community and the common good in general.

One example of a digital platform co-op is American Green Taxi, a taxi app owned by drivers, in contrast to Uber and Didi which are not. Another example is the German Fairmondo, an online market place for ethical goods and an alternative to Amazon and ebay.[2]

One of the leading activist-scholars in the platform co-op movement is Nathan Schneider. He is an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder and has published widely on the issue. His most recent book Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition that Is Shaping the Next Economy, has just been published.

Here, Nathan Schneider shares his view on the development of platform co-ops in an interview with Klemens Witte, research associate at the Dialogue of Civilisations Research Institute.

 

DOC: What is your motivation to be active in the platform co-ops movement?

Nathan Schneider: I started noticing the phenomenon that came to be called ‘platform cooperativism’ as cracks started forming in the so-called ‘sharing economy’. I attended the 2014 OuiShare conference in Paris, where enthusiasm for the big corporate sharing platforms was high, but people were starting to realise that just sharing goods and services wouldn’t be enough. For a sharing economy to be just, it would have to involve sharing ownership in the companies themselves. And even by then there were a few entrepreneurs out there who were already trying to do this – drawing on the long legacy of cooperative enterprise.

Together with Trebor Scholz, I started getting involved in documenting and connecting this kind of work. I became fascinated with the history and possibilities of cooperatives. I learned, for instance, that cooperatives have been crucial to my own family’s story.

DOC: Why do you think platform cooperatives are needed?

NS: There is an accountability crisis across the online economy. How do we deal with a company like Amazon, which seeks to conquer the entire online retail market, and cloud computing, too? Or companies like Facebook or Google, which hold so much personal data on so many of us? We don’t know what the future holds for these companies, but we do know this: More than to most of us, they are accountable to their investors. This is a dangerous situation.

The solution being offered to this crisis is government regulation, such as with the GDPR. This is well-meaning, and it can help, but it can also hurt. More complex regulations may make it harder for new start-ups to compete. And these are intrinsically transnational online networks. We should have strategies for governance better suited to the kind of entities that they are. I think cooperative governance is more appropriate, in many cases, than relying on a hodgepodge of national regulations.

DOC: What would be the best way to promote the establishment of platform co-ops?

NS: Many things at once. The Platform Cooperativism Consortium has been raising philanthropic funds to build open-source software for hard problems, especially in the Global South. I’m working with Start.coop, a new equity accelerator, to support and invest in promising co-op start-ups in the United States. We also need government policies that make co-op formation and financing easier than it currently is.

In the past, when co-ops have been most successful—or any kind of business has, really—it has been because of a convergence of several factors.

DOC: What do you answer people who have a critical stance on large-scale technology in general and that prefer a low-tech and small community focus instead?

NS: I don’t think I would say anything, really. I’m sympathetic to such impulses. Personally, I like keeping alive old machines and using fairly marginal free, open-source software. Such practices are a useful reminder that other ways of relating to tech are possible. At the same time, however, I don’t expect such approaches to meaningfully put brakes on the massive takeover of the economy by tech giants. Therefore, I think working for a more just economy means demanding justice in big tech.

DOC: What is the relationship/difference between platform co-ops and digital capitalism?

NS: I suppose it depends on what you mean by capitalism. If capitalism is entrepreneurship and innovation and market-based pricing and ownership, then platform co-ops are a species of that. But I tend to think of capitalism as a system in which a few very wealthy people own the means of production and a vast number of others work and play for crumbs.

Cooperative business offers a very different option. It’s a way for ordinary people to share much more fully in the wealth they are helping to create. Perhaps this means making more capitalists, or perhaps it means exploding capitalism. Take your pick.

DOC: Are platform co-ops allowed to make profits, or should profits be reinvested in the platforms?

NS: Conventionally, some cooperatives have been non-profit and some have returned surpluses to their members. It really depends on the kind of business, I think. For instance, MIDATA, a medical data co-op in Switzerland, does not return profits to members because it could create a perverse incentive to sell more of their personal data than is safe. But Stocksy United, a stock media co-op designed to pay its artists really well, does return a portion of its surpluses to those artists. Cooperatives are very flexible business structures, and they can be adapted to a variety of contexts.

DOC: What is the relationship between the degrowth movement and the movement you advocate for?

NS: One of the people I profile in my new book, Everything for Everyone, Enric Duran, got involved in cooperatives through the Catalan degrowth movement. There are some strong intersections. In principle, co-ops can be part of the growth economy like any other kind of business. The difference is that co-op members can choose: Do they want to pursue economic growth at all costs, or do they want to pursue something else instead. Investor-dominated companies can’t make this choice.

Co-ops, platform or otherwise, are not a panacea. They don’t guarantee good outcomes. But they do give us a foothold through which we can take more of an active role in making such decisions for ourselves. That’s the promise and trouble of democracy: It’s up to us.

 

Nathan Schneider is a journalist and an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder who writes about economy, technology, and religion. His most recent book is Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition that Is Shaping the Next Economy, published by Nation Books, and two previous books, God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse, were both published in 2013 by University of California Press.

 

 

[1]This comment was made in an interview with activist-scholar Trebor Scholz at netzpolitk.org on 22 August 2017.

[2] More examples on digital platform co-ops can be found at this link.