We need our platforms to be real democracies

For most of the last decade, I’ve been a reporter, covering stories on how technology is reshaping public life, from debates about God to protests in the streets. One thing I’ve noticed is that Internet culture has an odd way of using a really important word: democracy. When a new app is said to be democratizing something – whether robotic personal assistants or sepia-toned selfies – it means allowing more people to access that something. Just access, along with a big, fat terms of service. Gone are those old associations of town meetings and voting booths; gone are co-ownership, co-governance, and accountability.

Words are the tools of my trade as a writer, so I like to have a handle on what they mean. We rely on them so much. They connect us to each other; they remind us what we’re capable of. And I hope that the Internet can help us make our definitions of democracy more ambitious, rather than redefining it out of existence.
In late 2014 I was reporting a story about Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, a website where users can find entirely online piecework – jobs that might take between seconds and hours, like transcribing a receipt, providing feedback on an ad, or taking a sociological survey. I went to Trebor Scholz’s Digital Labor conference in New York, which included real-life Mechanical Turkers. One was a wife whose husband lost his job, for instance; another was a former cable technician. I heard them describing what working on the platform is like. Employers can review them, but they can’t review employers. Their work can be rejected with no remuneration or recourse. There are no constraints to prevent below-minimum-wage pay. One of them complained in the media and her account was frozen.

Over the course of those days, a kind of question kept coming up among the Turkers, a thought experiment. They wondered aloud: What if we owned the platform? How would we set the rules?

They’d sit with that for a minute or two, batting ideas back and forth about how to make the platform better for themselves – and for Amazon. Reasonable ideas. Clever ones. But then the ideas would fade back into reality again: back to the complaints.

Since then the agonies over the dictionary-altering Internet have only intensified. People have blockaded Google Buses to protest wealth inequality in San Francisco, and Uber drivers have gone on strike around the world. Increasingly this online economy is becoming the economy – the way more and more of us find jobs, relationships, and a roof over our heads. Internet companies aspire to network and monetize everything from our cars to our refrigerators; the companies call this the “Internet of things.” But the Turkers’ questions have kept coming back to me.

Were they on to something? What if the platforms and networks really were ours? What if we had an Internet of ownership?

Real sharing, real democracy

Another word that the Internet has gotten to is sharing. Sharing used to mean something we do with the people we know and trust. In the so-called sharing economy, it means more convenient transactions that take place on distant servers somewhere. Convenience is great, but all along there has been a real sharing economy at work, the cooperative economy.

One can trace the modern cooperative movement to the Rochdale Principles of 1844, in England, though it had precursors among ancient tribes, monasteries, and guilds around the world. The rudiments of this stuff could be basic common sense: shared ownership and governance 16 among people who depend on an enterprise, shared profits, and coordination among enterprises rather than competition.

We might not know it, but co-ops are all around us. In Colorado, where I live, 70 percent of the state’s territory gets its power from cooperative electric companies that date to the 1930s and earlier, owned and governed by the people they serve. The credit union where I’m a member is one of the top mortgage lenders in the region. Up in the mountains west of me, some years back, a group of neighbours started their own co-op Internet service provider. There’s also Land O’Lakes, Organic Valley, and REI.

Co-ops come in all shapes and sizes. They fail less than other businesses, and they often pay better wages (except to top executives). Democracy, it turns out, works – though it can be less lucrative for those just trying to get rich. People in charge are harder to swindle.

I lived in a co-op house once; it followed a certain dirty, organic, folk-music-every-night stereotype. The same couldn’t be said, though, for what I saw at Kenya’s business school for managers of cooperatives. There, co-ops hold about half the GDP, and those students looked like business students anywhere – except that, along with all the marketing and case studies, they were also learning how to run a company where the people who work for you are your bosses. In the area around Barcelona, among the thousands of members of the Catalan Integral Cooperative, I got a glimpse of what twenty-first-century cooperatives might look like. Rather than securing old-fashioned jobs, these independent workers help each other become less dependent on salaries, and more able to rely on the housing, food, childcare, and computer code they hold in common. They trade with their own digital currency. In cases like this, the traditional lines between workers, producers, consumers, and depositors may become harder to draw.

Part of the cooperative legacy has played out in tech culture already. The Internet relies on free, open-source tools built through feats of peer-to-peer self-governance, like Wikipedia and Linux. Visit many tech offices, from a startup’s garage to the Googleplex, and there are self-organizing teams creating projects from the bottom up. Yet somehow this democracy doesn’t seem to make it to the boardroom; things are still pretty twentieth-century corporate in there, with whoever happens to own the most shares calling the shots. There’s a firewall. We can practice democracy everywhere, it seems, except where it really matters.

There are some pretty sci-fi questions before us these days: Will apps and robots replace our jobs? Will any aspect of our digital lives escape the notice of surveillance? Can there be a digital utopia without the dystopias of sweatshops and blood minerals? In each case the cooperative tradition poses necessary questions, which in the onrush of change we may neglect to ask: Who owns the tools we live by, and how are they governed?

Platform commons

Cooperative enterprises of the past and present have relied on two kinds of strategies to gain a foothold in economies and cultures premised on competition. One is the competitive advantage to be found in cooperation – the ability to succeed where conventional markets fail, for instance, and the power latent in solidarity. The second is when the rules of the system are changed to support more cooperative practices – especially through governments that see the value of cooperative enterprise enough to encourage and fund it. For platform cooperativism to flourish, I suspect we need both of these.

We can begin by identifying the competitive advantages of cooperation. Cooperative practices, for instance, are poised to thicken the notoriously loose ties that online connectedness normally offers. And as big tech companies continue having difficulty treating workers and users as – well, people – co-ops can offer positive, ethical alternatives that workers and users can turn to. Hybrid models – combining aspects of a conventional company with aspects of cooperative ownership and governance – seem promising in the short term. Yet the rules of the system remain very much tilted against cooperativism.

This needs to change. Governments should recognize that cooperative platforms will mean more wealth staying in their communities and serving their constituents. Rather than trying (and failing) to say “no” to the likes of Uber, platform co-ops are something public institutions can say “yes” to. We need laws that make it easier to form and finance co-ops, as well as public investment in business development – stuff that extractive businesses get all the time.

This also means thinking differently about the incumbents. The Facebooks, Googles, and Ubers aren’t just regular companies anymore. Their business models are based on how dependent so many of us are on them; their ubiquity, in turn, is what makes them useful. They’re becoming public utilities. The less we have a choice about whether to use them, the more we need democracy to step in. What if a new generation of antitrust laws, instead of breaking up the emerging online utilities, created a pathway to more democratic ownership?

Rather than donating Facebook shares to his own LLC, Mark Zuckerberg could put them into a trust owned and controlled by Facebook users themselves. Then they, too, could have a seat in the boardroom when decisions are made about what to do with all that valuable personal data they pour into the platform – and they’d have a stake in ensuring the platform succeeds. How would you vote?

These aren’t just questions about what kind of Internet we want, or even what kind of world we want; they’re about how we see ourselves. Do we trust ourselves enough to expect democracy from the institutions on which we rely? Are we bold enough to imagine, as the Mechanical Turkers were, what the Internet would look like if we were in charge?

Thirty years ago, when the Internet wasn’t much more than a lab experiment, the social critic Theodore Roszak saw a lot of this coming. “Making the democratic most of the Information Age,” he wrote in The Cult of Information, “is a matter not only of technology but also of the social organization of that technology.”

We forget that. New gizmos come and go so quickly that we hardly notice when the meanings of our words change, and when what we 19 expect of ourselves changes with them. Ordinary people have already made the Internet their own with their hacks, their memes, their protests, and their dreams. The cost of forfeiting control over these things is too high, and too mysterious. We need to expect better, to demand more. It’s time that we own and govern what is ours already.

This is an extract from Ours to Hack and to Own: The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, a new vision for the future of work and a fairer internet, edited by Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider and published by OR Books

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