Coding for a Fairer World. The Chasqui Platform Story

In framing the concept of platform cooperatives, Professor Scholz suggest cloning the technological core of corporate platforms for the benefit of the public. For me, this idea was a turning point: It was possible and exciting to code our way to a fairer world! But our voyage included more than just fervor. Throughout my decade-long experience in advancing digital technologies within Argentina’s social and solidarity economy—both through Universidad Nacional de Quilmes and the Código Libre tech co-op—the concept of “cloning the technological heart of corporate platforms” repeatedly emerged as a perplexing question: What constitutes the core technology of a platform? This question challenged my perspectives and strategies and I don’;t ahve a ready answer.

But I’d like to share some hypotheses, ideas, and questions fueling my doctoral research. While I don’t have all the answers yet, the ICDE fellowship represents a vital phase in my learning journey.

My PhD research explores the construction and functionality of cooperative platforms from a socio-technical perspective. It is anchored in two case studies, enriched by contributions from FACTTIC‘s broader work on platform co-ops, where currently over ten projects are at various stages of development. I am particularly happy to present the Chasqui Platform case study, a project close to my heart, with which I been involved since its beginning. What desires lie within a “technological heart” and is it inherently pure?

In 2014, the University of Quilmes launched a project via its Social Incubation Program to enhance socio-economic connections in the Social and Solidarity Economy. This initiative focused on creating management and e-commerce tools to facilitate more effective marketing within solidarity networks. The project emerged from the technological needs of various trading organizations to advance their solidarity intermediation processes, facilitating the movement of Social Solidarity and Popular Social Economy products from production sites to urban consumers.

The Chasqui platform, developed from this project to enhance socio-economic networks, supports cooperatives in creating online stores for their products. Launched in 2018, this free e-commerce platform started with 3 organizations and has grown to support 26 across 8 Argentine provinces, focusing on selling groceries from small producers. This development strategically improves the supply chain from dispersed producers to large consumer markets. It includes a management panel for sellers, individual digital storefronts for businesses, and a centralized portal that displays all the stores and detailed information about each project.

Chasqui sets itself apart by offering technological support for group buying and distribution points, digitalizing previously manual, error-prone, and costly operations. It enables features like group invitations, setting delivery locations, managing payments, and viewing each member’s purchases in a collective shopping experience. This approach streamlines the process, making it more efficient and reducing errors associated with traditional methods.

The team initially didn’t foresee the challenges in creating the software. They encountered obstacles such as the lack of suitable features in free corporate platforms and the limitations of existing free software and some smaller projects. Realizing these options were unfeasible, they chose to develop their software from scratch, supported by government funds and the voluntary help of university students and faculty who advocate for Free Software.

Developing the software brought not just technical challenges but also cultural ones, particularly in educating and managing young programmers. These programmers, despite their enthusiasm for the project, struggled with the concept of shared purchases and visible transactions among users, finding these features odd and counterintuitive to program. This revealed a broader discomfort with organized, non-private consumption practices, challenging both the technology and the programmers’ perspectives. The project underscored how truly innovative concepts can sometimes clash with prevailing norms and expectations, highlighting the pioneering yet difficult nature of the endeavor.

The implementation of a rating system on the platform encountered similar philosophical challenges. While the trend towards using star ratings or similar icons was growing, the organizations involved expressed a clear preference against promoting such competitive metrics. Instead, they opted for tags that highlighted different aspects of the products and their producers, such as “agroecological,” “recuperated by workers,” and “cooperative.” This approach aimed to emphasize values aligned with the ethos of the platform and its community.

The platform introduces unique tags next to products, doubling as search filters to align with the values of socially conscious consumers. These tags highlight ethical production aspects usually missing on other e-commerce sites, which often focus on appealing visuals without considering underlying issues like child labor or environmental harm. Creating a platform without traditional star ratings presented challenges, including overcoming resistance to change and redefining consumer rights to rate products. Instead, these tags offer insights into the ethical practices of producers, promoting reflection and appreciation for inclusive work.

The Purity of a Technological Heart
Returning to the initial inquiry: Is the core technology of a platform inherently pure? This question has shaped my research and professional values, highlighting the unbreakable connection between technology and society. This case study illustrates that technology is not isolated from its social context. The research in the sociology of technology highlights that technology and society are deeply connected, with no distinct separation between their social and technological aspects.

The case study reveals that the underlying code of a platform reflects its stance on consumer behavior, where even the allure of ratings can overshadow mindful purchasing. The features of a technology, more than mere navigational tools, are veiled by appealing interfaces yet carry significant political, economic, and cultural consequences. These, in turn, influence and are reinforced by the technology’s algorithms, showcasing the profound impact of seemingly benign functionalities.

This highlights the crucial idea that technologies are not neutral. Contrary to popular belief, which suggests tools like hammers or atomic energy can be good or bad depending on use, that notion is misleading. Our societies are both shaped by technology and influence its development, indicating a deep, reciprocal relationship between technology and societal norms and conditions.

Individual consumption implies a certain kind of person, with specific behaviors: ways of managing time and finances, among other factors. It’s clear; the essence of platforms is not pure. They blend technology and politics, shaping and restricting practices, revealing and concealing product or people features for assessment. Platforms are designed to promote specific socio-economic behaviors over others. Organized consumption challenges us, both technically and personally, making it a valuable area to explore.

If technology isn’t neutral, its development and purpose merit deep reflection. Rather than merely replicating existing technologies, there’s a call for reinterpretation and innovation. Not all solutions require starting from scratch; sometimes, transformation within is possible. Technology cooperatives play a crucial role in this process by emphasizing collective goals over profit. For cooperative platforms, challenging capitalist models like data mining and algorithmic management involves exploring sustainable business models and scalability without merely opposing existing systems. As Professor Bruno Latour suggests, technology encapsulates society’s enduring aspects.

In navigating the intersection of technology and society within the context of cooperative platforms, we uncover the imperative for technology that champions collective well-being. The Chasqui Platform exemplifies this pursuit, challenging us to think beyond conventional tech paradigms towards systems that genuinely serve the community. As we engage in this crucial dialogue, let’s forge a future where technology amplifies social good, guided by collaborative wisdom and a commitment to inclusive progress.

If you are working on these questions, please contact me.