January 12, 2016

Platform Cooperativism

Trebor Scholz

Challenging the Corporate Sharing Economy

The “sharing economy” wasn’t supposed to be this way. Aided by the tiny computers most of us carry with us all day, every day, we would be free from the burdens of ownership and making money in our spare time by renting out our unused possessions. The vison was—or at least appeared to be—an idealistic one. Even before they enter kindergarten, every child learns the value of sharing, and here were the beneficent forces of Silicon Valley bringing us innovative new tools to strengthen our communities, disrupt outdated ways of doing business, and maybe even reduce our carbon footprints.

The reality turned out to be a little different. Sure, Uber and its ilk offer remarkable convenience and a nearly magical user experience, but their innovation lies just as much in evading regulations as in developing new technology. Behind the apps lies an army of contract workers without the protections offered to ordinary employees, much less the backing of a union. This new economy is not really about sharing at all. Rather, as Trebor Scholz argues in this study, it is an on-demand service economy that is spreading market relations deeper into our lives.

With these new middlemen sucking profits out of previously un-monetized interactions, creating new forms of hyper-exploitation, and spreading precarity throughout the workforce, what can we do? Scholz insists that we need not just resistance but a positive alternative. He calls this alternative “platform cooperativism,” which encompasses new ownership models for the Internet. Platform cooperativism insists that we’ll only be able to address the myriad ills of the sharing economy—that is to say platform capitalism—by changing ownership, establishing democratic governance, and reinvigorating solidarity. In this paper, Scholz breathes life into this idea by describing both actually existing and possible examples of platform co-ops, outlining basic principles for fairly operating labor platforms on the Internet, and suggesting next steps.

Trebor Scholz has lived and worked in co-ops for over a decade. The author of The Internet as Playground and Factory (2013) and Uberworked and Underpaid: How Workers Are Disrupting the Digital Economy (2016, forthcoming), Scholz is an associate professor at The New School, where he teaches courses on Internet and society. Together with Nathan Schneider, he has been focused on creating a campaign to challenge the system of value extraction that fuels the “sharing economy.” In November 2015, The New School hosted “Platform Cooperativism: The Internet, Ownership, Democracy,” which brought together more than one thousand people to plant the seeds for a new kind of online economy. The results of this conference are reflected in this study.

Platform cooperativism is possible, and it is necessary, but it is by no means inevitable. The current owners of online platforms are willing to offer us seemingly everything except ownership. It is time for us to instead create an online economy based in democracy and solidarity.