May 13th, 2017

Tags: blockchain

Protocol Cooperativism?

Protocol Cooperativism?

By Matthew Slater

Since ‘political economy’ became a subject in the 18th century, the predominant political dichotomy has been framed as labour versus capital. Marx talked about ‘control of the means of production’ as the essential political power that the workers needed to wrest from the capitalists. A great deal of activism and political theory continues in that vein: Gar Alperowitz work What then must we do? is all about rebuilding worker-owned coops and similar institutions. We have 150 years of history testifying to their effectiveness.

But lets face it, as a strategy, the movement has waxed and waned, but never (yet) overcome its antithesis; capitalists have the power to issue almost unlimited credit, and social movements, however popular, seem always to be on the back foot. I am dubious whether worker-owned institutions will ever dominate the economy. On the one hand we see economic justice trying to break out in many forms and places, and on the other dark and powerful forces are suppressing them: laws are being changed to make coops less competitive, and occasionally a countries swims against the neoliberal flow suffer a CIA-led regime change. The Power that controls property also controls the law, the media, the security forces, the military and the banks.

The industrial age needed machinery and factories and hence empowered those with capital and property to invest. That thinking has carried through to the digital era in which a Silicon Valley start-up needs huge amounts of money to engage a raft of skilled people to create (and create a market for) a plethora of unneeded tools, one of which might survive and be sold for a massive profit. Yet there is nothing about the internet that necessitates that capital-centric way of creating wealth. Platform cooperativism is the notion that the digital ‘means of production’, the platform, should be owned by, governed by and should enrich the participating value creators. As an approach and as a tactic, it is a straight extension of rudimentary 19th Century cooperativism into the digital age and cyberspace. In which case we should anticipate it working as it always has on the sidelines but never to impact the wider economy.

I believe another strategy shows promise. Let us not focus on property and ownership and control, but on relationships and protocols and collaboration. There are plenty of precedents to work with, but I haven’t seen this thinking applied in the platform cooperativism space.

By protocol I mean a language, convention, or standard. Use of such things cannot be restricted, prevented or monetised any more than use of a word, gesture, or social code. The Internet is essentially a set of protocols such as TCP/UDP, http, HTML, which led to a highly egalitarian participative infrastructure. That need not have been so: in a parallel universe, Microsoft R&D invented the web and now every page is a visual-basic-enhanced word document; MS Office is the only tool for authoring web-pages, and it costs $5000 for a licence and still looks wrong on Firefox!

Fortunately that particular dystopia was avoided because we had those open protocols. I think that is why the early Web inspired a great deal of optimism about the levelling of the socio-economic playing field - recall John Perry Barlow:

We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity. Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us… We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge. A Cyberspace Independence Declaration

The basic internet remains free as designed: we still pay nothing for example for sending an email or retrieving a web page but something has gone wrong. The Internet continued to grow, as with all technologies, as new layers were built; the internal logic of each layer is entirely independent of the others just as the stable atomic model of protons, neutrons and electrons owes nothing to the fuzzy quantum reality on which it is based. Gradually the capitalist interests worked out how to replicate their own logic and structures in cyberspace. On top of the open protocols they built pay walls, monetised services and enclosed spaces. The rules are different at every level. In 2017 it seems normal that platforms large and small, own data and control economic territory for the benefit of private investors. The biggest platforms have the most users and the most money and the most political power and that is why I find it hard to imagine any platform like competing head-to-head with Facebook, and winning. I want to expand upon this argument:

A platform cooperative or a platform company model is not one that takes full advantage of the potential to have a truly distributed network. They still have a central platform operator at their core, providing coordination, quality assurance and, most essentially, trust. However, it is possible to go beyond platforms to protocols - to commonly agreed ways of operating. Thus anyone who agrees to the rules can become a part of the network. Mikko Dufva

Ride-sharing is the poster child of the sharing economy, the pressure point chosen by platform cooperatives, and the current fiefdom of Uber. It could be considered a natural monopoly, which is to say it involves infrastructure which need not be duplicated - users don’t want to have multiple identities, apps, user interfaces, price structures etc. So Uber’s near monopoly, won as a direct result of having unimaginable access to money, is an invaluable commercial advantage in itself because without serious competition it can squeeze the market for all it is worth. But be careful what you wish for; should Uber fall from grace, the market would probably splinter into many incompatible pieces, which benefits neither the people with cars nor those who need rides.

A platform cooperative ride-sharing service sounds like an attempt to form a cooperative and compete with Uber by recycling profits and remunerating workers better. Its not a very convincing business plan if only because Uber has resources to undercut its competition until they choke and allegedly acts illegally to sabotage its enemies.

But a protocol for ride-sharing changes the game completely. Anyone could sign up to the network and announce their intention to travel or willingness to chauffeur. A simple algorithm would connect them and at journey’s end they might remunerate each other in cash, Bitcoin, home-brewed cider or anything; the line between giving a friend a favour and earning a crust would be very grey. There would be no middle men collecting rent or dictating how drivers should behave as representatives of the company. The protocol might be extended to support long distance travel, hitch-hiking, pick-up points, packages or even cargo. The open protocol creates a free market - not in the neoliberal sense of Wall Street being able to flush out the economy of any country it likes with imaginary dollars, but in the sense that suppliers and customers can meet with the minimal of mediation and restrictions. This might not be optimal for collecting taxes, but is optimal for granting everyone access to the economy, and probably much more efficient in terms of using our existing transport infrastructure.

So where is the ‘cooperative’ in ‘protocol cooperatives’? In my view such protocols are are fundamentally cooperative, but there is room for any kind of institutional structures on the next layer. Institutions (like co-ops) are not needed to crunch algorithms and own infrastructure that should be public, but to manage trust and social relations. Transport service providers could aggregate to offer services that individuals could not. For example a group might form to co-own a coach, helicopter, or fleet of electric cars. A co-op might provide a 24/7 private ambulance service, or a house removal service complete with furniture-carriers.

Likely such a protocol widely deployed would render our transport ecosystem unrecognizable. It might obviate most full time driver jobs in favor of hitch-hiking 2.0 approach. The free market would level out the full time driving jobs and the unemployment of drivers and costs and revenues, leading presumably to a more equal society (at least until driver-less cars took over!)

The blockchains are already making this happen because blockchains are basically protocols which allow open participation. This article about Arcade City makes it clear:

In the end, Arcade City will be a protocol composed of Ethereum smart contracts supporting a global logistics network with an entire ecosystem of apps and businesses running on top of our infrastructure. What SMTP is to email, Arcade City will become for distributed logistics.

For all the bluster about Arcade City being an upcoming platform coop, to me it seems there is no platform in the sense of a thing which can be owned & sold. What then does the brochure site mean when it claims to be owned and operated by its members? It seems to me that the language is wrong.

The benefits and challenges of co-owning and operating a legal entity such a cooperative within a legal jurisdiction, are quite different to the benefits and challenges of using, governing and stewarding a universal protocol. Regrettably Arcade City has now forked after a disagreement in the board, which poses serious questions about the claim that its members were in control. Technology alone will not create the society we want; at a more fundamental level, we have to learn to work together.

Professor Jem Bendell and I have explored these ideas further in our new paper Thwarting an Uber Future for Complementary Currencies: Open Protocols for a Credit Commons especially as they relate to payment systems, which we argue is the ultimate Death Star platform.

The article first appeared at



blockchain cities commons cooperative data design education free software german labor legal ownership platform cooperative platform cooperativism consortium policy research scholarship spanish union


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