Take Back The App!

 

 

 

 

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Take Back the App! We need platform co-ops now more than ever. If the 19th and 20th centuries were about storming the factory and taking back the means of production, then the 21st century is about storming the online platforms like Facebook, Google, and Amazon and the apps that increasingly control our economy and our lives. Increasingly, we’re living online, controlled and manipulated by secretive, for-profit companies, but there are alternatives. This week, Laura talks with coders, activists and tech entrepreneurs who are at the forefront of the platform cooperative movement. If we take the cooperative route, they argue that tomorrow’s online world could distribute rather than concentrate power—but will we? Recorded before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, this conversation about the companies that mediate our lives is more relevant now than ever.

 

 


 

 

 

“How about if the future of work does not get answered straight away with automation, but with cowork, with the creation of commons, with putting up productive energies, and the definition of work towards social and environmental ends.”

 

 

 


 

 

In This Episode

 

Stacco Troncoso, Strategic direction steward of the P2P Foundation

 

Micky Metts, Worker/owner of Agaric

 

Ela Kagel, Cofounder and managing director of SUPERMARKT

 

 

 

 

 

 

Transcript

 

 

Laura Flanders:

We’re relying more and more on free online platforms to mediate and inform our lives. But are they really free? As our digital selves are crunched, categorized, and traded, for-profit companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon make out exerting an alarming amount of control over our economy and us in the process. It could get much worse, but there are alternatives. This week on the show, I talk with coders, activists, and tech entrepreneurs who are at the forefront of the platform cooperativism movement. They’ll share their experience with cooperatively owned and operated digital platforms, which distribute rather than concentrate, power and wealth. If we take the cooperative route, they argue tomorrow’s digital economy could shrink inequality rather than exacerbate it and change our lives in the digital world and also on the dance floor. It’s all coming up on the Laura Flanders Show. The place where the people who say it can’t be done, take a back seat to the people who are doing it. Welcome.

Laura Flanders:

Welcome all to the show. Glad to have you. Let’s start with platform cooperativism because I still don’t think people quite understand what we’re talking about. So what is a digital platform and why does it need to be cooperativised?

Micky Metts:

Yes, a digital platform is the type of tool we use every day, as you said, a Facebook is a digital platform, amazon is a digital platform for buying things. We believe in platform cooperativism that people need to own the platforms that we use daily and engage in. We need to be the keepers of our own information and to put forward the goals we want with our platforms. We are now being owned by platforms that we are on and we are so far engaged in them that they own all of our contacts, all of our information. If you were to be shut off of a platform, you would not have any connection with all the people, the thousands of friends that have given you likes and that you know. So for platform cooperativism, people need to build and own the platforms that we use.

Laura Flanders:

So is it as simple, Stacco, as to say maybe once upon a time the marketplace was where we did our business, now it’s some platform online and there’s a problem.

Stacco Troncoso:

Well, they increasingly mediate our daily lives, they mediate our elections, how we relate to each other, and we have no ownership of this. And they’re actually headquartered in the US but they have worldwide reach. So how about we lower the transactional cost of that collaboration and take ownership of the decision making of how they affect us.

Laura Flanders:

Well what’s the cost we’re paying now?

Stacco Troncoso:

The cost we’re paying now is that our digital of you is creating information for advertisers to exacerbate consumerism, to give data to further set political ends, which may not be in accord to you, the data generator.

Laura Flanders:

So that reminds me of what we’ve heard about recently. We saw some of the leaked memos from Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook corporation, literally bargaining with clients based on the currency they had, which is us.

Ela Kagel:

I mean there’s the saying that goes if it’s free, you are the product. And I think that’s true for all the digital platforms where your data is being sold and your privacy rights are just being used.

Laura Flanders:

And just to put a little bit more of a fine pin on it. How is that different from advertising? Because I always say the for-money media is all about delivering people to advertisers, unlike the independent media, which is about delivering people to each other. So is it really different?

Ela Kagel:

I think it’s entirely different because advertising is a way of sending out a message to the world and you can still decide for yourself whether you want to receive it or not. But what we are talking about here is media corporations owning the infrastructure of our society, not only our data but also looking at Airbnb for instance, owning streets, owning neighborhoods, and transforming the way we live and relate to each other. And I think that’s really, that’s a different story.

Laura Flanders:

So what do we do about this? Stacco, you have this extraordinary DisCO manifesto that you’re releasing and you’re on book tour with it now. It is sort of about disco, but not quite.

Stacco Troncoso:

So what is DisCO? DisCO stands for distributed cooperative organizations. They’re a way for people to get together and work, and create, and distribute value in commons oriented, feminist economics, and peer to peer ways. You don’t get to do this at work very much, to exercise this kind of relationships. And there are also critique of this monster called the decentralized autonomous organization, or DAO. They’re basically corporations or organizations that exist on the block chain that can execute contracts, they can levy penalties, they can employ people. So the computer organizations that wield their own economic power, and because technology is far from neutral and it always follows the ideals of those who are investing in it, we’re quite concerned about the deployment of this decentralized autonomous organizations. So we came up with the DisCO as an alternative, which is comparative on solidarity base.

Stacco Troncoso:

This came out of the lift experience of our comparative called the Guerrilla Media Collective, which started with a project based around translation and combining pro bono work and paid work. So we will do social and environmentally aware translations for someone like Ela for example, but then we would also do client work and the income that would come from our agency work would come back to compensate for the pro bono work. And we did this because volunteering, doing pro bono stuff is cool if you have the privilege to do it. But if you’re a mother and you have five kids and you need to get to the end of the month, maybe you want to look into compensatory mechanisms so you can do valuable work. So this was the guerrilla translation, guerrilla media collective story. But as we became, through our work in the P2P foundation, aware of this world of the blockchain, et cetera, we said, “Well, we need a feminist reaction to this,” and why we need that is it’s a movement that talks a lot about decentralization, but it doesn’t really talk about decentralizing power and this trifecta of hierarchy, which is capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy.

Stacco Troncoso:

So how can we operate in the marketplace while articulating those values?

Laura Flanders:

Micky, you’ve worked closely with the Ujima Project in Boston where you’re based, that is also trying to address this problem of testing and where it comes from and where it doesn’t go.

Micky Metts:

Yes. Well, one of the problems with investing is the vetting, of course, and finding out all the underlying ties, et cetera. If you’re not really speaking, today’s language of technology, it is very hard to vet what technology you’re going to invest in. And without consulting the community, you can’t really build the technology they need. So right now we’ve ended up with a bunch of corporations that are tightly tied with corrupt governments doing their bidding and feeding the information directly to the government. So without disengaging from that, there really is nowhere for us to go.

Laura Flanders:

So if you’re making software differently-

Micky Metts:

Yes.

Laura Flanders:

How do you do it?

Micky Metts:

We use free software that allows the people that use it to modify it, change it, sell it, do anything they want with it. When you’re using a corporation’s software, like a Facebook or whatever they build their platforms with, you cannot see into that and you cannot see what they’re doing, which is as Shoshana Zuboff is talking about now, surveillance capitalism, which in a nugget leads right down to predictive analysis.

Micky Metts:

And now there is a bill that William Barr has put up to use predictive analysis to take our social media or a doctor’s records, combine them, and search for signs of mental illness. And then to put us-

Laura Flanders:

As defined by somebody.

Micky Metts:

Yes, who we don’t know who yet, and then to place us in observation against our will. How is this possible? And hardly anyone knows it, but these are platforms that are corrupt, that are all filtering info to the governments.

Laura Flanders:

I highly recommend Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism, if you haven’t read it, people. Ela to you, you don’t only work with artists, but you have worked for a long time in the artistic community in Berlin. How does that fit into this discussion? How do artists engage with the same question?

Ela Kagel:

Well, I’ve seen quite a lot of my artistic friends moving away from contemporary art and rather diving into the world of activism, trying to apply artistic strategies to helping bring about social change. So I think that’s something that is happening because also, the artistic world is subject to a colonialization of people who have the money and the power to acquire arts. But that also brought about a really interesting movement of people applying all sorts of strategies.

Laura Flanders:

You work at the very prosaic level though of people’s daily needs as well, and I understand you’ve been working on a project having to do with food delivery systems.

Ela Kagel:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Laura Flanders:

We’ve got lot of automated food delivery now coming from companies like Amazon, or explicitly Amazon in the US. Is that a similar problem in Berlin?

Ela Kagel:

Yeah, I think it’s starting to be a real problem everywhere. So a lot of these food delivery networks are owned by BlackRock, the world’s largest investment company. So no matter are you trying to build locally? In a sense, you need to compete against this company. But what I think is super interesting when Deliveroo decided to pull out of some European markets, there have been a bunch of writers who decided, “Okay, so we are fed up anyways, we’re going to start our own thing. So we will apply a different ethics to what we do. We will create a platform co-op, something that is owned by us, something that allows us democratic control over what we do.” So there’s an interesting movement emerging now in Europe. It’s happening in Spain with Mensakas, it’s happening in Berlin as well.

Ela Kagel:

And it’s really interesting because this is not so much about taking a sole and entrepreneurial decision about, “Okay, I’m starting a co op or a company,” but this has more of a shared effort because clearly if a bunch of people is trying to build a sustainable food delivery network in a local sense, it’s super, it’s almost impossible to compete against the likes of, you know. So this really requires a shared effort of municipalities of activists, people who know how to build co-ops, it’s super essential. The people who run the business, but also restaurants and potential partners, to really something that is a real alternative to the food delivery as we know it. And I find it so interesting because these meetings, they feel different. This is not the startup situation, but this is really about creating multi-stakeholder models in cities and helping to bring about a real shared effort because all these organizations will only exist if you all want them to be, otherwise it won’t happen.

Laura Flanders:

They won’t be able to compete with the huge multinational. Well that gets to my next question for you, Stacco, the DisCO Manifesto is a lot about what happens online, but it’s also a lot about what happens offline in communities. And I want to just elaborate a little bit on what Ela just said, that co-ops are typically other privately owned organizations. They’re privately owned companies, they just happen to have a lot of private owners. Is there a possibility that you could have accumulation of wealth in cooperative hands that would still be concentrated, would still potentially be manipulated or abusive or surveilling, or are you trying to change the whole ethic of capitalism around accumulation?

Stacco Troncoso:

Despite the issue of private ownership, you can see that co-ops are like this fenced off area to experiment with other models, because co-ops actually overturn the three technologies of capitalism. So private ownership of the means of production becomes collective ownership. Wage labor? There’s no wage labor, you’re the worker and the owner, and an exclusive orientation to what’s profit it’s tempered by the cooperative principles. Now on the subject of comparative, as opposed to capital accumulation, as Ela has said, there’s multi-stakeholder models and you have precedents in Quebec and Emilia Romania where for example, instead of privatizing healthcare, how about we give it to co-ops and we will have four kinds of votes. And one of them, it will be the state or the municipality that putting up the funds, another vote will go to the doctors, another vote will go to the patients, and another vote will go to the family of the patients.

Stacco Troncoso:

So this is the more decision making side, but you can see that it’s emphasizing people who are part of the economic activity beyond the co-op. Co-ops have existed for 150 years, but they having brought about the desired revolution that they could foreshadow, and part of it is because they do not talk to each other, they don’t know how to mutualize, and they don’t know how to mutualize economically for greater ends. You mentioned the big boys and they are boys, which is Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple, they have a market cap collectively of 3 trillion US dollars, but co-ops worldwide have also market cap of $3 trillion but they’re not talking to each other.

Laura Flanders:

You’re nodding and smiling, Micky.

Micky Metts:

Yeah. The most important thing that I see and hear from people we talk with is what the co-op movement needs most is a secure communications platform that is not owned by the Man or by governments. Because without that, our communications are kidnapped. We are not in real communicate, like the WhatsApp app that is just ubiquitous, that is a direct spy mechanism.

Laura Flanders:

You can say that it’s all the problem of capitol orthodoxy and the tendencies of the economy. But isn’t it also our fault, Ela?

Ela Kagel:

I find this a super interesting question, to be honest, but anyway, I think we’ve had a really tiny time window where we actually had a choice. I wonder, if talking about today, if we still have that choice. Coming back to what you just said, you need to have the privilege to have the time to search for an alternative to opt out of these networks. But very often people are not in a position to opt out of Facebook and all these other platforms. WhatsApp, whatever. So that’s the real problem. And it’s not so much about us taking a choice. And I see this rather as a quite dangerous way of framing the situation. I think this is more about building an alternative to what’s there.

Laura Flanders:

Can we build one when Google has, I think, 96% of all the search business at this point? is it too late?

Stacco Troncoso:

I don’t think it’s too late. And if you look at the history of these monsters, they’ve only existed for some 20 odd years, and born out of public money. Here’s the thing, even though they may seem like behemoths, which are impossible to take down, take into account if the revolutionary drive of the 19th and 20th century was let’s take over the factories, let’s take over this massive economies of scale. What about if the means of production are actually in your laptop right now? And what about if we can network those laptops? It is much easier to create the alternatives. With that being said, what is really difficult is to have this network effect because what we need are alternatives, which are easy to use, which are inclusive, where your friends are, and this is where we’re lagging behind because of course we don’t have those massive investments, but the actual technology and to educate people into this knowledge is much simpler.

Micky Metts:

It’s there.

Stacco Troncoso:

Yeah. And it’s beautiful for people to actually know how to make the technology not just have it handed to you.

Laura Flanders:

How do we move forward to make the change that you’re talking about? It’s not going to be sporadic, you over here and you’re over here and maybe one TV show in a million once every 10 years. How do we do it? Do we embed these discussions in schooling and education? Do we fight for a better public media system? What?

Micky Metts:

Well, it’s difficult because the education system now, Microsoft and Apple got in there very early in the days of early computing and they armed all the schools with Apple’s and Macintosh systems, so now people have grown up with these systems and feel a loyalty to them that is beyond the convenience. So for new adopters, it’s the convenience, for the older generations that have grown up with these tools, it’s nearly impossible to get them out of their hands.

Laura Flanders:

Those are the screens that brought them up basically.

Micky Metts:

Yes. So even when you’re pointing out the inequities and how this tool you’re using is your jailer, people don’t really get it or they have to divide their mind and say, “I need this tool to do my work. I can’t work without it, therefore I must use it.” But I caution us all to while you’re using it, think of how inequitable it is. Think of the things that it’s doing to the system.

Laura Flanders:

But that feels like me feeling guilty when I drink out of a plastic water bottle.

Micky Metts:

It starts like that. But then with these movements and platforms, there are actual places to join and make change.

Laura Flanders:

Ela-

Micky Metts:

And to not be alone.

Laura Flanders:

You have one of those places.

Ela Kagel:

I guess we find ourselves in a place where we are constantly competing with others about likes and about visibility, attention, and so forth. So what if we would really work on strengthening our local communities, our municipalities in order to create a sense of where we are, what our communities are, having more opportunities of actually getting together and helping each other with all these questions. Because one of the big problems of the neoliberal past 10, 50 years, 15 I mean, was the fact that people got isolated in a way. So that’s really, that’s proof to be a side effect. So for me a counter strategy is to radically create those opportunities in places where people can come together. That’s the first thing, because that is missing.

Laura Flanders:

So what do you do in Berlin?

Ela Kagel:

Well, there is Supermarkt but also other spaces because Berlin, this is in recent years turned into a hub of people that want to make the world a better place, which is great.

Ela Kagel:

And since space is still sort of available, there are enough people took advantage of that and got a space, rented it, and opening up that space for community events. So that’s what we also do at Supermarkt. So in doing so, just being there, that’s helped a community to emerge and that wasn’t curated by myself or anything, it was just about being there, opening the doors, running regular events, and then things happen automatically. They just emerge by people being in the same spot. And I really think that’s a healthy way to try to counter the current situation, but of course it’s not just the communities there. They also need backing from local politics and they need a solid financing structures, and that finance cannot just come from the classic world of finance, but also that needs a collaborative effort to raise funds from sources that are acceptable and sustainable. I really think these are big tasks we need to tackle and there is no easy solution for that. But at the same time, what I really see, for instance at the Platform Co-op Conference here, I see a lot of people starting initiatives and I see them thriving. So there is hope, but we just need to bring these people together, as Stacco said, we need to build an ecosystem of platform co-ops.

Laura Flanders:

We go to up with one such group at the Platform Cooperative Conference titled Who Owns the World held at the New School in New York in November, 2019. For over 20 years, Smart Co-Op has provided work security for tens of thousands of freelances in over 40 cities in nine European countries. Here’s what they had to say.

Sandrino Graceffa:

.

Tyon Jadoul:

We are pursuing a social model for social transformation. We have a really political dimension to our project that strive to offer the best social protection for the most freelancer as possible.

Sandrino Graceffa:

.

Tyon Jadoul:

You can have a real living democracy participation of the members, even with a big structure like us because we are now about 25,000 cooperators or associate in Belgium. How we do that, we invented or created different possibility for a member to participate into the evolution, the decision making of our cooperative. You could do it by participating to small meetings at night, you can do it by giving your opinions online on a blog, by writing something that you might find interesting, by coming to the general assembly each year, you can watch it online, you can vote online, you can express your voice.

Laura Flanders:

Sharing successful models and innovative ideas is essential if we’re ever going to create a more democratic digital world, cooperatives owned and controlled by their workers look set to play an important part in that evolution.

Laura Flanders:

So we often end this program by asking people what they think the story will be that the future tells of this moment. So Stacco, I’m going to ask you, what do you think is the story the future will tell of us now?

Stacco Troncoso:

Just off hand, it may be the moment where people were doing things that were criticized as folly or useless, but really what we’re doing is to build capacity, and we’re building capacity because there’s people that talk of collapse and you always imagine like the Mad Max sexy collapse, but we’re in an ongoing process of collapse. But we’re doing these things that may not make sense, that call it into the predominant economic logic, but man, they will make sense in the next economic crisis where incidentally, co-ops over all economic crisis have actually thrived, kept to their principles, and being more successful. But it’s not just that, there’s also becoming the alienation that Ela talks about. How about if the future of work does not get answered straight away with automation, but with cowork, with the creation of commons, with putting up productive energies, that being that the definition of work towards social and environmental ends.

Stacco Troncoso:

And I think that we’re in this hinge moment where everything may seem hopeless, but a lot of things are crumbling and those solutions which are being positive, your green growth, your liberal strategies now to tackle climate, they’re not going to work. And again, process of collapse we raised the ground with alternatives.

Laura Flanders:

All right, I’m going to leave it there. Thank you all. Micky, Stacco, Ela, great conversation. You can find out more about the Platform Cooperative’s conference or the Conference on Platform Cooperativism at our website and we’ve been happy to be part of it these last few years.

Ela Kagel:

Thank you.

Micky Metts:

Thank you.

Laura Flanders:

Thanks.

 

 

 

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