Book Review: “Ours To Hack And To Own” edited by Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider

Ours To Hack And To Own edited by Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider

Some of the biggest news of the early twenty first century is the rise of digital “platforms”, which have become a major tool for exploitative and extractive capitalism.  Uber is the poster child for this platform capitalism, extracting massive profits from ownership of the platform, while evading liability and regulations by pushing them onto the users.

There are many variations on this theme, including AirBnB lodging and Mechanical Turk and other similar labor markets.  These “platforms” use the contemporary mobile internet to deliver convenient, on-demand service to individual consumers, and to manage resources provided by small contractors.  Sitting in the middle, the platform is owned by its investors, who set the rules and rake off most of the profits.

The whole idea of Platform Cooperativism can be summed up in the simple syllogism:  technologically, there is no reason why there cannot be an “Uber” that is owned by the producers and consumers, rather than capital.

It’s just that simple.

Over the past few years (e.g., here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here), this idea has attracted attention from many people interested in the New Way of Work.  The Platform Cooperativism Consortium (PCC) at the New School has hosted several conferences and produced a number of papers.

Ours To Hack and to Own is a collection of short essays and other materials from major contributors to these ideas [2]. Together, this volume gives a pretty thorough coverage of many important points.

It should be no surprise that there is a strong strain of discontent with contemporary capitalism here, especially digitally enabled capitalism, AKA, “platform capitalism”.  An old Bolshie like myself finds this stuff mostly completely, utterly obvious, but many readers may be shocked by the not-at-all-worshipful attitude toward today’s favorite companies and their rhetoric of “sharing” and “disruption”.

While this book is about digital platforms, much of the discussion is about other stuff: ownership, governance, access to capital, and a variety of moral issues.  Fairness. Trust. Solidarity. Decent working conditions.  In fact, a key take away is that there is no technical solution to fundamental social, political, and economic problems.  Hence, the “cooperativism” part.

I know my way around digital technology, but have little experience in “coop” land.  So I learned quite a bit about the array of possibilities for cooperatives, and about the serious challenges to creating and sustaining a cooperative.

There are many different kinds of coops, e.g., producer coops or consumer coops.  There are different ways to organize a cooperative, and an ugly patchwork of legal structures that help and hinder such a process.  The key is to match the design to the goals and the people involved.

The digital “platform” part is almost secondary to this enterprise. Obviously, we’d all like to have the option to get the convenience of Uber from a locally owned and fairly run operation.  And today’s freelancers might well benefit from a worker owned labor market, rather than the grinding horror of Mechanical Turking.  And we can surely build such technology.

But that’s really only a tiny faction of the problem to be solved.  Some of the problems can be tackled with resources, hence the interest in various cooperative finance projects.  But many of the problems involve creating communities and organizing the unorganized.  This must be done retail, face-to-face.  Getting a neighborhood to participate in a local labor market requires knowing you neighbors.

In short, there is no shortcut.  A “platform” may amplify the cooperation of a community, but you have to create cooperation the old fashioned way.

This book has a bunch of ideas for what should be done and how to do it.  Some example chapter headings alone give a taste.

 “Something to Say Yes To” (p.9)
“Real Sharing, Real Democracy” (p 15)
“Who owns the tools we live by, and how are they governed?” (p. 17)
“The Realism of Cooperativism” (p.91)
“A Different Kind of Startup is Possible” (p. 113)
“How Crowdfunding becomes Stewardship” (p. 135)
“Money is the Root of All Platforms” (p. 187)

And so on.

There are also a couple of dozen blubs on current projects, building real platform coops or components thereof.  Unfortunately, these links are rapidly decaying, and some of them are already gone.  Others are still in “alpha”, even after years—not a good sign.

I’ll note that the chapter by Rachael O’Dwyer one“Blockchains and their pitfalls”  is dead on target.  Her main points are:

“Assumption #1: We can replace messy and time-consuming social processes with elegant technical solutions” (p. 229)
“Assumption #2: The technical can instantiate new social or political processes” (p. 231)

I’ve been saying this for years about blockchains in many contexts, not just platform coops.  In fact, blockchain communities themselves are discovering how these same flawed assumptions underpinning their own governance and development processes.

Overall, this book is a valuable source, and something I’d encourage all digital designers to study.  Even if you aren’t interested in social justice the same way these folks are, you might be interested in ideas for how to create real cooperative platforms, and what kinds of principles lead to platforms that are good for users and workers, not just venture capitalists.  I’d argue that this is something you need to understand, even if you don’t want to build a cooperative economy yourself.

One of the worst things about this book is how out of date it seems. With the US and the world spiralling rapidly in reverse, we’re all in a desperate fight just to defend what little we have and sooth as many of the casualties as we can. Disrupting capitalism looks so far out of reach as to be little more than a cruel fantasy.

On the other hand, there is much in this book to inspire us to do better.  Since we have no choice but to fight on, let’s keep our goals clear.

It’s just that simple.

  1. Trebor Scholz, Platform Cooperativism: Challenging the Corporate Sharing Economy. Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung: New York Office, New York, 2016.
  2. Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider, eds. Ours to Hack and Own: The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, A new Vision for the Future of Work and a Fairer Internet. OR Books: New York, 2017.


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