Tag Archives: Anna Bergren Miller

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)

Ouch!

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. http://www.rosalux-nyc.org/platform-cooperativism-2/

“What is Coworking?” Tools In the Hands of the Workers

An interesting case study of coworking, down Wellington, NZ, way. Enspiral is a coworking space “for entrepreneurs, startups, freelancers, and charities with an ethical focus.” But the coworking space is just one of an array of interlocking enterprises, that constitute “a virtual and physical network of companies and professionals working together to create a thriving society,” under the auspices of the Enspiral Foundation. The enterprises include business services (e.g., accounting and legal consulting), a software consultancy, and several software products supporting their ethical theme.

In the case of Enspiral, it is easy to see coworking as part of a version of “the sharing economy”, as one cog in their ethical machinery. This is less clear for many other coworking spaces (e.g., NextSpace). The difference is in the community.

Enspiral is quite conscious and reflective about social organization. Anna Bergren Miller recounts a fairly detailed history of Enspiral’s organization. Enspiral is  “legally a limited liability company, acts as a cooperative”. The coworking space and other enterprises collect fees and agree to “voluntary revenue sharing and mutual support agreements with Enspiral Foundation”, as do individual members (who may be freelance professionals).

There are no salaried employees, and projects are mostly organized by a “market” that matches skills to needs. Different projects are done differently.

It sounds kind of chaotic, and certainly required “patience and faith” to get this far.

“What is Coworking?”

Enspiral is an example of a cowork space that is one of a suite of cooperative businesses, providing a part of the needed infrastructure for the community.

In other words, cowork spaces are part of the general “tools in the hands of the workers” movement that includes makerspaces and ‘open source X’ projects, as well as community development projects and ‘local source Y’ efforts.

I note that the space itself is very similar to many other cowork spaces, and offers social events (Friday drinks, lunches, etc.). This is part of the growing evidence that the “tools” of the twenty first century proletariat includes break areas, social hours, baked goods, and other “amenities”.

It appears that Enspiral’s community is highly organized, and is key to a pretty well thought out sustainability plan.

It is clear that Enspiral is aimed at software-tech style businesses, and has a fairly clear ideological mission. It’s impossible to be sure from this distance, but the cowork space itself seems to be suited to young, childless workers (though quite a few women). However, the overall enterprise includes hundreds of freelancers, many doubles working from home, and some are surely parents and care takers.

It is interesting to see founder Joshua Vial comment that “Not every company can be Enspiral”. This enterprise appears quite successful, but is not necessarily easily replicable. Obviously, you could replicate the space itself, but that would not replicate the community which is the basis for their success.

It’s not just “about community”, the cowork space is almost an afterthought, given the community.

Enspiral is certainly walking the walk, and we see that, down in Wellington, the revolution is not played out in marches or speeches, but in professional services and meetings. And the revolutionary software isn’t about exotic AI, it is about boring project management. It’s not so romantic, but it is way more believable.

Survey Report: “Freelancing in America: 2015”

Every year the Freelancers Union conducts a survey of Freelancers. This years report “Freelancing in America 2015 Report” was released earlier this month. The report is based on a survey of over 7,000 by Edelman Berland (methods described here).

The main conclusion is that “Freelancing is becoming a more prevalent, viable option for workers, a trend that spans across borders, industries and occupations.

The survey reports that 54 million Americans performed Freelance work in the last year, something like 34% of all workers. 75% of these workers Freelance by choice (younger and older workers are more likely to choose to freelance), and most earn as much or more than earlier conventional jobs.

The survey identifies several (self identified?) categories of “freelancers”:

  • Independent Contractors (36%)
  • Moonlighters (25%) (in addition to “regular” employment)
  • Diversified workers (26%) (who “partly” freelance)
  • Temporary Workers (9%)
  • Freelance Business Owners (5%) (?!)

The “diversified” workers includes participants in the “sharing” economy, a laUber. This category grew the most.

The survey indicates that Freelancing definitely seems to be enabled by digital technology, which enables people to work easily from anywhere. Importantly, digital technology also plays a key role in finding gigs, too. In other words, this socioeconomic phenomenon is heavily dependent on ubiquitous networked digital technology.

This report is clearly “spun” to emphasize the positive. The reported number of “freelancers” is surprisingly high, until you realize that the survey counts anyone who “engaged in supplemental, temporary, project- or contract-based work, within the past 12 months” as a freelancer. If you did any work that you consider “freelancing”—including moonlighting and “freelance business owner”—you count as a freelancer. True, all these workers do share many similar concerns, but there is a big difference between trying to make a living as an independent contractor 100% and, say, moonlighting a few hours a week.

The report about (self-reported) earnings is also surprising, especially considering the proportions of part time and temporary workers in the population. We don’t really know what is included in those figures (e.g., how are benefits and overheads accounted?), or whether freelancers are earning a lot or perhaps abandoning low paying jobs in favor of better, but still low paying freelancing.  Or, we may hope, perhaps many workers are seeing better earnings.

This upbeat report mentions but does not dwell on the challenges of freelance workers, which are similar to those faced by all workers (health care, pensions), as well as insecurity about unpredictable future income and slow payment by clients. While gig-to-gig freelancing is obviously insecure, “permanent” employees probably face similar insecurity.

Of course, the Freelancers Union itself is a direct response to these insecurities: the FU is a twenty first century redesign of the twentieth century industrial union, to serve exactly this new population of freelancers.

Along these lines, the report argues that “We have entered a new era. … Instead of working 9-to-5, more are working project-to-project and gig-to-gig.”  This is important, they say, “…more than an economic change. It’s a cultural and social change on par with the Industrial Revolution.” (p. 5)

[T]his shift to a more independent workforce have major impacts on how Americans conceive of and organize their lives, their communities, and their economic power. (p. 5)

I can’t rally disagree, though this particular report is less than compelling.

Examining the data closely, we could come up with a much smaller number of freelancers by excluding part timers, or by considering “full time equivalents”, or something. We also would want to compare the reported satisfaction and earnings with other workers doing similar work. And most important, we would be concerned about the long term results of gig-to-gig working—which will not show up in any one year survey.

Don’t get me wrong: this is important stuff, and I’m totally on the side of the FU. It is a really good idea, and absolutely needed.  I’m a member myself, even though I have not done any paid freelancing in the last year.  Stronger together!

But this particular survey is a bit of a political fluff piece, and must be taken with a grain of salt.


 

  1. Freelancers Union, Freelancing in America: 2015. Freelancers Unioin and Upwork, New York, 2015. https://fu-web-storage-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/content/filer_public/59/e7/59e70be1-5730-4db8-919f-1d9b5024f939/survey_2015.pdf