“Inequality is one of the most important problems facing our society,” said Trebor Scholz, opening the first day of the Open:2017 platform co-operative conference.
“With the decline of the power of unions and the growth of unbridled capitalism and ecological degradation, we have seen extreme intensification and acceleration of inequality.”
Mr Scholz – a scholar-activist and associate professor for culture and media at The New School in New York City – was the first to use the term ‘platform co-operative’. He says that the phrase encompasses the “co-ownership of platforms and data – as well as democratic governance”.
Platform co-ops are digital organisations that are owned and managed by an online member community – but they are also about “ethics and value propositions”, he told Open:2017 delegates.
“The current extractive economy and failing political institutions seem incapable of dealing with current situations,” he said.
What we need now, he argued, is “common sense grounded in an economic model that is good for all”.
He acknowledged there was no “concrete master-plan” for platform co-ops as a solution, but added that they were something that could be used to make small networked changes now.
In post-war United States, there was relatively little inequality with many positive developments, said Mr Scholz, citing the strength of unions and the strong purchasing power of middle classes. But from the late 1970s, things changed: capitalism became too successful for its own good, the productivity of workers increased and wages stagnated, with women becoming increasingly over-represented among those living in poverty.
This inequality now affects technology, too, he warned – asking “A small group of owners will soon be in charge of all artificial intelligence – what can co-ops contribute to the discussion about AI?”
But he added that there was a “huge opportunity” for co-ops on the horizon. “When the baby boomers retire, there will be trillions of dollars in transactions as businesses are sold – some of them will be bought by the likes of [global investment company] Goldman Sachs – but some could be bought by the workers.”
Co-ops aren’t the sole solution – but Mr Scholz believes they are one of them, alongside peer-to-peer networking, new roles for unions and technologists and a commitment to commons open source. These are types of collaboration that see people working together to “respond to the failure seen over the last 40 years”.
“A new society needs new institutions,” he added, highlighting New York’s Platform Co-operativism Consortium as one example of a support network for that ecosystem.
The PCC “supports the co-op platform economy through research, experimentation, education, advocacy, documentation of best practices, technical support, the coordination of funding, and events.”
Looking to the future, Mr Scholz identified seven key elements needed for platform co-ops to grow: Competence, funding, research, incubators, policy, education and solidarity.
In a separate presentation, Laura Hilliger and Josef Davies-Coates spoke about how the co-op movement and the open movement are “forces to be reckoned with”.
“Open source and co-ops have a lot in common, but they use different words talking about the same thing,” said Ms Hilliger.
She gave the example of the open movement’s concept of decentralisation – the process of redistributing or dispersing functions, powers, people or things away from a central location or authority – similar in scope to the co-operative values such as voluntary and open membership, and democratic member control.