My Journey from Critic to Advocate

My personal backstory is something I get consistently asked about. How did I end up working on economic alternatives for the digital economy? Why academia? And co-ops? A few days ago, I sat down and wrote it out. Thank you to all who asked, it was the prompt I needed!

After studying media art in London in the late-90s, and spending nearly a year in a Buddhist temple in the Mission district in San Francisco, I completed my postgraduate studies in New York City. In the UK, I met Joseph Kosuth, a conceptual artist, who told me that he thinks of art as anything that creates meaning in society. This is still how I think about what I do, even when I subsequently pursued a doctorate, and then ended up working at The New School in New York City.

Around the time I studied in London, Italian theorist and activist Tiziana Terranova published “Free Labor,” focusing on voluntary, exploited, unpaid labor. Perceptive and timely, she noted that this work compromises creative self-expression online and capitalist value-added knowledge. Consequently, we are working without compensation. As Terranova argues, such free labor on the Internet has become fundamental to postindustrial societies. Before her, Italian sociologist Maurizio Lazzarato had described it as “immaterial labor.” But what Terranova had done here was to provide me and others with a valuable starting point for thinking about digital labor. A few years later, when it became more common to think about all that time spent online, and sharing one’s social graph, I became an outspoken critic of how social media platforms exploit the labor of their users.

To advance that debate, in 2004, in Buffalo, the Dutch theorist and activist Geert Lovink and I co-organized an experimental conference that explored alternatives to capitalism based on Christoph Speer’s theory of free cooperation. Our event focused on how to encourage “free cooperation” online. We led months of preparatory discussions, including the official launch of a song, the release of the video “On Blood and Wings,” the publication of a newspaper, and the editing of the book The Art of Free Cooperation. Five years later, now at The New School in NYC, building on that work, I convened the Internet as Playground and Factory conference, which brought together a global network of digital labor researchers. These convenings sparked a lively debate about the role of digital labor in the global economy, and I consequently published the collection “Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory.” 

But then something changed. In 2013, at the re:publica conference in Berlin, I exposed how the digital age has spawned a new wave of crowd-sourced labor, which is sometimes referred to as “digital sweatshops.” I spoke about the various platforms that have been created to facilitate this type of work, such as Amazon Mechanical Turk and 99Designs. I described the ethical and legal implications of digital labor, specifically the ways in which it can exploit workers. For me, the presentation to hundreds of people at the venue was a game changer—I presented the analysis but then felt strongly that, while more and more researchers were writing critical analyses of this strange new world of digital labor, so few people had constructed near-future scenarios that would improve the situation for workers and all people accessing internet services.

That’s why, soon after the re:publica event, I sat down one night, and wrote “Platform Cooperatives vs. the Sharing Economy,” making the case for what I called “platform cooperatives” as an alternative to the so-called sharing economy. The proposition was that cooperative principles can benefit gig economy workers and users of social media services. How? Platform ownership and democratic governance. Referring to early examples like Fairmondo, I suggested that platform cooperatives have the potential to provide a more equitable and sustainable model for the sharing economy, or what you call the “collaborative economy” in Europe. There were many sources for that idea, from Janelle Orsi to Felix Weth and others, as with most or all ideas, but I gave the stray dog a name and called for the development of platform cooperatives.

I was concerned about the growing power of tech heavyweights, particularly large Silicon Valley corporations that subjugated and extracted data from their users. Platform cooperatives are a more democratic and equitable alternative to the traditional VC-backed business model.

In 2015, I co-organized the “Platform Cooperativism: The Internet. Ownership. Democracy. conference on platform cooperatives with University of Colorado professor Nathan Schneider. Next, I published an essay for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation that was widely discussed. The second part of my book, Uberworked and Underpaid, heavily draws on that paper.

A few weeks after the conference, I had just given a talk about platform co-ops to refugees in NYC when a young woman approached me afterwards, brimming with excitement. It was one of those moments that I will never forget. She wanted to know how she could get involved. “Join what?” I asked, somewhat taken aback. “The cause!” she responded. And that’s when I realized that there was a need for an anchor organization for this work. That’s when I established The New School’s Platform Cooperativism Consortium (PCC) with a few friends. As so much of the PCC’s focus is on advocacy, we decided, in 2019, that we also needed a separate research institute, The Institute for the Cooperative Digital Economy, which currently has twelve research fellows, working on a broad range of topics ranging from DAOs to data co-ops for cities.  

Later, together with Schneider, I co-edited “Ours to Hack and to Own: The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, a New Vision for the Future of Work and a Fairer Internet.” The book investigates the need for a new economy based on cooperation. Through the lens of dozens of short essays, it discusses the potential of platform cooperativism. The book is regarded as a must-read for anyone interested in this emerging field.

In their 2017 manifesto, the British Labour Party proposed the use of platform cooperatives as a way to create well-paying jobs and improve working conditions. Workers would be able to share in the profits generated and have more control over their working lives if they owned and controlled their own platforms. The German Social Democratic Party has adopted platform coops as part of its Internet policy, and the Kerala government has included a provision in its government directive that suggests they will create 4,000 platform coops over the next five years. In Turin, I also had the opportunity to present platform co-ops to the labor ministers at the G7. The former President of Brazil just called for the creation of platform worker co-ops. Given their new Cooperative Act, there is also an opportunity to introduce platform co-ops in the United Arab Emirates.

Today, platform co-ops offer a compelling alternative to traditional online businesses, which are often criticized for their monopolistic tendencies, and lack of transparency and accountability. Platform co-ops are based on the cooperative principles of equity, democracy, and solidarity, and they are committed to bringing these values to the digital economy. There are already 540 platform coops in operation around the world, serving a diverse range of needs and industries. There are many examples that demonstrate that it is possible to build businesses that are fair, democratic, and responsive to the needs of their users. As the platform co-op movement continues to grow, it is clear that there is no one-size-fits-all model for success. They are built on the principles of cooperation and the belief that the digital economy should work for everyone, not just a few. Businesses don’t need to call themselves a platform co-op for it to be one. Platform cooperatives are not a single business model but rather a set of principles and values that can be applied to a variety of business models. There are already hundreds of platform coops around the world, from centralized worker platforms to decentralized Web 3 technologies. And there are many more that we don’t even know about.

The Platform Cooperativism Consortium began collaborating with Mondragon University in 2020, at the onset of the pandemic and has been teaching the Platform Coops Now emergency course since then. We’ve taught over 1,300 students from 60 countries across four editions of the course. The course explores different aspects of platform cooperatives and allows students to design their own business models for platform cooperatives in collaboration with dozens of local partners worldwide. The response to the course has been overwhelming, with students describing it as “eye-opening,” “inspiring,” and “the most consequential course I have ever taken.” We are proud to have played a role in spreading knowledge about this important topic and are now thinking about developing new courses.

This backstory is salient to me because it demonstrates the many divergent paths one can take as a researcher. I could not have anticipated all of the twists and turns my journey would take. Every step of the way has been a learning experience, and I hope that my story can provide some inspiration or guidance to others who want to make a difference in the world.