Trebor Scholz on Platform Cooperatvism

Platform Cooperatvism by Trebor Scholz

“The “sharing economy” wasn’t supposed to be this way.” ([1], p. 1)

Although awkwardly written in many places, Trebor Scholz pulls no punches and minces no words in his full-throated, two-fisted condemnation of the gig economy [1]. The “sharing economy” is a Potemkin Village, he says, of “extractive platform-based business”, which “isn’t merely a continuation of pre-digital capitalism as we know it”, it is a “new level of exploitation and concentration of wealth” which he terms “crowd fleecing.” (p. 4)


But the point isn’t to just beef about the situation (though Scholz does a thorough job on that front), but to offer a better way forward. Not backward to a nostalgic, pre-Thatcher age where workers have jobs, but forward to a world where workers own the “platforms”.

Some of the models that I will describe now, already exist for two or three years while others are still imaginary apps. Some are prototypes, other are experiments; all of them introduce alternative sets of values.” (p. 14)

His section titles will give you his view of the key problems:

  • Every Uber has an Unter
  • New Dependencies and New Command
  • Generating Profits for the Few
  • Illegality as a Method

His soluiton is “platform cooperativism”, which has 3 parts:

  • First, it is about cloning the technologcal heart of Uber, Task Rabbit, Airbnb, or UpWork. It embraces the technology but wants to put it to work with a different ownership model, 
  • “Second, platform cooperativism is about solidarity, “ (not anonymity)
  • “ third, platform cooperativism is built on the reframing of concepts like innovation and efficiency with an eye on benefiting all, not just sucking up profits for the few.” (p. 14)

The main idea here is to use the same technology with a different ownership model. He gives a typology of variations on ownership models, featuring various non-corporate approaches, including worker and consumer ownership.

But these details may not matter if the “platform” is an open protocol that anyone can use. This is technically reasonable, and would mean that, like the World Wide Web, anyone can build their own network with their own rules.

Scholz offer “10 Principles for Platform Cooperativism”.

  1. Ownership – shared ownership
  2. Decent pay and income security
  3. Transparency & Data Portability
  4. Appreciation and Acknowledgement
  5. Co-determined Work – worker designed platforms!
  6. Protective Legal Framework
  7. Portable Worker Protections and Benefits
  8. Protection Against Arbitrary Behavior – historically, the gripe that pushes workers to unionize
  9. Rejection of Excessive Workplace Surveillance:
  10. The Right to Log Off

Two other big challenges exist. “How do you organize distributed workers in the first place?” Obviously, something like the Freelancers Union is a direct response to this question.

A second point is that there needs to be an “ecosystem” of common services to make it easy to boot up a coop platform. (And see Enspiral) This includes

  • Financing
  • Commons licensing
  • Free software
  • Blockchain Technology as Algorithmic Regulator?
  • a platform co-op foundation
  • Democratic Governance
  • Designing for Convenient Solidarity
  • Scale
  • Learning and Education

Scholz mentions blockchain technology here as a potential mechanism for open records and democratic decision making. But he correctly sees that this “trustless” technology might be extremely problematic for his other goal of solidarity. Solidarity is all about trusting your peers, and “peer to peer” without trust is the problem we are trying to solve, in my opinion.

One of the more intriguing challenges is technology design: “UX Design for platform co-ops presents a great opportunity.” (This is interesting because, unlike many of the legal and social challenges, it is actually a new challenge, not the same struggle.) Scholz’s ideas in this area are sketchy and unambitious. We can do a lot better.

Overall, this is a useful summary of the case against “the sharing economy”, and the case for seizing the technology to make something better for ordinary people–as the World Wide Web was originally intended to be.  This is very important balance to the drumbeat of propaganda about the supposed virtues of corporate platforms.  As Anna Bergen Miller comments, “his definition of platform cooperativism offers an important corrective to the current fixation on sharing technology, rather than the potential benefits of sharing behaviors, by placing the emphasis on the second term over the first.

  1. Scholz, Trebor, PLATFORM COOPERATIVISM: Challenging the Corporate Sharing Economy. ROSA LUXEMBURG STIFTUNG: NEW YORK OFFICE, New York, 2016.

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