Shared ownership needs shared governance: Q&A with Trebor Scholz

We speak to the scholar-activist about governance issues surrounding platform co-ops

As part of our governance edition, Co-op News sent questions to Trebor Scholz, scholar-activist and associate professor for culture and media at The New York School in New York city about issues surrounding platform co-operatives.

What particular challenges do platform co-operatives face when it comes to governance – for instance with regard to rapidly changing technology or the ownership of data?

Co-operativism is not merely about shared ownership, it is most of all, about democratic governance. But as central as shared governance is to the co-operative model, it is also an important challenge for most types of cooperatives, not solely platform co-ops. At times, people in co-ops find it onerous to agree on even the most basic issues of how to run their organisation.

But also the tyranny of distance presents a problem for governance. Take agricultural co-ops in rural Gujarat (India), for instance. It’s not easy for the women who work on far-flung farmlands to really feel as members of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). How can they start to participate in the day-to-day activities of this federation of co-ops? The problem does not disappear when co-ops join the digital economy.

In a democracy, we should all have the opportunity to participate in the shaping of the structures on which we depend most. But one of the pathologies of platform capitalism is that it trains people to be followers; it primes them to think of themselves as workers instead of collective owners. It’s hard to change  mindsets overnight.

How do platform co-ops motivate members to act more like owners?

The producer platform co-op Stocksy runs workshops for its members on the backend of their online stock photography platform, encouraging them to participate in the governance of the co-op.

Online tools like Loomio, LiquidFeedback, and DemocracyOS help dispersed groups to have sustained discussions, shed light on the opinion of the overall group, and then make meaningful decisions. These tools address some but not all of the challenges posed by the dispersed nature of workers in the gig economy and the various existing forms of co-operatives.

More directly in response to your question, I think that the technology matters a great deal but technology alone does solve any social problem. I consider the organisational form of the platform co-operative and its governance model as a crucial intervention in the extractive gig economy where “capital is the corporation, the insider, and labor is the outsider hired to do work.” as Marjorie Kelly puts it in Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution (139). In a platform co-op, other members are co-owners, not your masters.     

The platform co-op model puts producers in the driver’s seat when it comes to their own platform; they can decide how data ownership, algorithmic transparency, and hosting are handled. They can decide whether they are sharing their code base as open source, or not. Distributed ledgers alone cannot substitute for democratic decision-making; it is still people who write the algorithm. In the data co-op, members of the co-operative jointly decide about the algorithm.       

And what advantages do platform co-ops have over conventional ones when it comes to ease of governance?

Let’s start by comparing platform co-ops to “businesses-as-usual companies,” as the sociologist Juliet Schor calls them. With an extractive platform, the focus is inherently limited. You can’t facilitate collective data ownership or algorithmic transparency. It’s not about genuine shared governance in the first place. A co-operative structure, however, facilitates collective and democratic decision making. Platform co-ops like Rchain, Loconomics, and challenge this headon, by sharing their code base on GitHub and by allowing members to directly govern their own platforms.

More to your question, online labour brokerages and apps allow not only for economic activity, they also bring about labour power; they organise workers. Connecting geographically dispersed workers who do not have a chance to meet in the cafeteria or office, is a political act, too. Imagine a platform co-op for thousands of individual child care professionals, for instance. The platform model would allow these freelancers to make their cash flow more predictable, allow for coordinated group purchases, and administrative help. It would allow for skill-building through educational offerings and facilitate the connection with parents.   

What lessons can platform co-ops learn from the wider co-op movement – from its governance failures as well as its successes? And can the platform co-op experience offer any useful lessons to the wider co-op movement in return?

Failure should be welcomed, embraced, and expected. At this point, some platform co-ops still fall short of genuine democratic governance, there is no question about that, but I also notice concerted efforts to change that. Co-ops could embrace tools like Loomio and experiment with governance models like Holacracy, parts of which inspired many platform co-ops. A governance code of practice would be another useful step forward.


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