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Can platforms be repurposed for progressive ends?

The dream, for platform cooperators, is to supersede these Silicon giants with cooperatively-owned-and-run labour and logistics interfaces, working with local economies rather than against them.

Phoebe Braithwaite
13 March 2017
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Students for Snowden at the New School in New York, where platform cooperativism was theorised in 2015. Trebor Scholz/Wikimedia commons. Some rights reserved.It’s 2064 and Google owns your liver. Facebook owns your fingerprints, eyes, bones and brain, and a new platform called Mismo owns the rest – except your feet: the new global currency exchange circuit, FTSE1000, owns your feet. Feet are now fitted with chips at birth so your movements can be tracked. All of these platforms operate globally because they have replaced countries. There’s no longer any possibility of starting again on Mars, because that’s being used as a petri-dish for the endless regeneration of Richard Branson’s “ego”. He was cryogenically frozen in 2023 – had a heart attack frollicking with hammerhead sharks at former US president Barack Obama’s resort in the Pacific. But how did we get here, and how do we turn back?

In the midst of a growing controversy over the involvement of tech company Cambridge Analytica in the Trump and Brexit campaigns, it’s time a more thorough debate about how our data is used took off. The argument runs that Cambridge Analytica used data about citizens’ political preferences, personalities and habits to more accurately target political advertising, a key factor in the two campaigns’ successes. Cambridge Analytica denies having access to Facebook ‘likes’, despite an analyst at the company claiming they could process this information as early as 2015.

Other voices claim the prowess of this company has been exaggerated; still others argue that placing so much emphasis on what is essentially powerful marketing elides the deeper forces at play in these white nationalist victories. But there is obviously something murky about the fact that its involvement in the Brexit campaign was not declared to the electoral commission. The whole affair gets murkier still when it appears that tech billionaire Robert Mercer, Trump’s single biggest donor, friend to Nigel Farage, and the man behind Breitbart, is also the major financier behind Cambridge Analytica.

At the heart of this unfolding scandal is that the laws and public literacy regulating how tech companies use our data are out of step with what they can actually do. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google are places where we communicate, work, get news, buy things and plan travel; they are where we store pictures of our families. Platforms also enable us to do unusual and wonderful things, like crowdfund court cases (albeit ones that used to be funded by legal aid), keep in contact with people on the other side of the world, or organise ourselves across large distances.

In doing so we make a trade-off: we enter into contracts that say, ‘I’m happy for you to streamline all of these basic, personal activities, mostly for free, and in exchange I surrender my information and the value I create for you to sell in the form of data to advertising companies so they can target me more effectively, and you can strengthen your platform to keep me coming back for more; in this way you may enrich yourselves and consolidate your power.’ Google doesn’t pay its taxes; Uber doesn’t abide by the law; Facebook censors Black Lives Matters’ videos, and the ‘on-demand’ economy is intensifying precarity for low-skilled workers across the board.

There are, however, people who insist this trade-off isn’t inevitable. Abuse of our data is only one strand of what makes these platforms’ monopolies unnerving: Google doesn’t pay its taxes; Uber doesn’t abide by the law; Facebook censors Black Lives Matters’ videos, and the ‘on-demand’ economy is intensifying precarity for low-skilled workers across the board. Those trying to build and promote the ‘platform cooperative’ movement seek to challenge an evolving rentier system in which profits flow back exponentially to those who already have too much.

The dream, for platform cooperators, is to supersede these Silicon giants with cooperatively-owned-and-run labour and logistics interfaces, working with local economies rather than against them. “We have to design for tomorrow’s labour market,” says the co-father of platform coops, New School academic Trebor Scholz, who talks of repurposing the digital economy by welcoming existing technology and embedding new, fair values. “In the absence of rigorous democratic debates, online labour behemoths are producing their version of the future of work right in front of us. We have to move quickly.”

Local ties, global vision

Groups championing alternative systems of value – be they socialist, anarchist, cooperative – have tended to be suspicious of the kind of monopolism which characterises the digital economy. Especially over the last thirty years, as the death of a viable imaginative alternative has permeated out, we have seen more horizontalism, more localism, and more organising beyond the state. We have come to be dogged by a problem of scale.

Felix Weth, founder of Fairmondo – a cooperative, online marketplace hoping eventually to take on Amazon – believes the same thing: “we need platforms that can compete with the very big ones out there,” he told openDemocracy. “We talk about the [technical] problems of scaling, but we also need to talk about the challenges of scaling in terms of keeping your values and sticking to your original idea.”

A recent conference at Goldsmiths University, Open 2017, brought together members of the cooperative movement, who believe in communal ownership and democratic self-governance, and representatives from open tech culture, who practice and reassert the internet’s original, egalitarian aspirations, with a commons-based approach to the production of knowledge and the sharing of information. Participants from culturally distinct sectors thought about points of continuity and spaces for collaboration, with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell painting Labour’s vision to redesign the state, offering opportunities for new alliances at every level, unleashing “creativity on a scale not seen for decades”.

Explaining_the_Sharing_Economy_-_Rachel_Botsman.jpg

Disruption and the rise of the collaborative economy. Cognizant Technology Solutions/Wikimedia commons. Some rights reserved. Platform coops already exist on a small scale, but bringing them into mainstream consciousness will be no small task. We need, argued former general secretary of the Cooperative Party, Karin Christiansen, ways of exciting people about what they could achieve, of communicating that this is about “raw power”: the ability to get money and share it out more evenly.

They are about genuine disruption – disruption from below. A key campaign for platform cooperators is #WeAreTwitter, which aims to see Twitter bought and collectively controlled by its users, saving the platform from its more likely fate of being bought out by one of the vulture corporations currently eyeing up its ailing stock price, and, crucially, seeing users reprise the use of their data.

Also key for cooperators is Fairmondo. Founded in Germany in 2012, it is built on cooperative principles and has seen a partner organisation spring up in the UK. Its founders are keen to scale further internationally, to have autonomous Fairmondos establishing themselves in different corners of the planet. I ask how Fairmondo can challenge Amazon’s hegemony without becoming like it. “For me, this was actually the original challenge: building a model that is resistant to corruption,” Weth tells me.

“In anti-corruption work, you often have three basic elements, which are: transparency; ensuring accountability to stakeholders; and integrity – that means promoting people who have values of integrity and actually live up to those values,” he says. “Incentives change people,” and while it is difficult to safeguard against corruption through your statute, you can structure it in such a way “that nobody has an incentive to join the coop if they are a person who really aspires to get rich.” You can structure it in such a way “that nobody has an incentive to join the coop if they are a person who really aspires to get rich.”

So there are the ethical concerns, but there are also significant practical obstacles. Jack Thorp, of Fairmondo UK, describes the challenges thrown up by being what is essentially a tech startup, “but cooperatively owned… The finance model of traditional startups doesn’t really apply,” he says, since you can’t acquire investment when there aren’t any shares to sell, and there are no lucrative exit strategies for investors. This makes developing code, growing the business, acquiring customers and experimenting with ideas very difficult – and it makes one of the fundamental cooperative principles, cooperation among cooperatives, all the more important for success.

“We approach this as our innovation, as a process of discovery, but we’re very much trying to work out how you can have a tech company that is democratic, where members participate and are represented,” Thorp says. “And that’s not secondary to making the marketplace, it’s very much front and centre. It’s something we want to be constantly considering and experimenting around as we go.”

A repurposed digital ecosystem?

Are platform coops the future – can they grow into a progressive, repurposed digital ecosystem which works for the good of all? Can they really challenge the culture of Silicon valley, or – more importantly – the state of capitalism it reflects? It seems worth hoping they will form at least part of the picture, and cooperators have enough on their plate taking on megafauna like Amazon without potential sympathisers getting in their way.

Maybe they will take off – as Weth told me, “towards sellers, towards producers, we already have a better proposition”. Additionally, or perhaps overarchingly, it’s worth holding out for a publicly-run platform – as argued by social scientist Nick Srnicek – which uses its municipal authority to bring the likes of Uber into line. But, again, it’s difficult to see how the Googles, Facebooks and Amazons of this world can be brought to heel by this kind of initiative – especially given existing collusion between tech corporations and increasingly repressive states in the UK and the US. It makes one of the fundamental cooperative principles, cooperation among cooperatives, all the more important for success.

Critic Evgeny Morozov cautions against “the idea that somehow we can fight our way out of crisis if only we build the right coalitions within various sectors in Silicon Valley”. He refers in particular to Google’s AI service DeepMind, which has signed a five-year-deal with the crisis-riddled NHS to develop a preventative healthcare app for kidney problems, in exchange for access to 1.6 million patients’ data. Speaking at Open 2017 was also an audience member whose young daughter attends an Apple-funded school – all her learning was done through an iPad.

Morozov warns of a dangerous “techno-populism” which sees the state recede further from its responsibility to provide social solutions to social problems, offering up our personal information in exchange for a technological fix in one sphere of social life, while ignoring the problems that same deal creates elsewhere.

Do we really want our public infrastructure and the intimate details of our lives owned and controlled by a group of libertarian oligarchs with primarily, if not exclusively, commercial interests? “What,” Morozov asks, “are the ways of creating alternative structures, instruments, legal regimes, that will not create this massive social dependency on just four or five Silicon Valley firms? I think the only way to do that would be by treating data as a factor of production, and as something... to be owned by us [as] citizens.”

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