Contentious Moments at the Platform Cooperativism conference

Excerpted from a conference review by Jay Cassano:

“Some of the most exciting developments came from the self-organized breakout sessions, such as one on [email protected] — a proposal for a secure location-sharing app for activists. Other workshops focused on alternative currencies, ethical user interface design, and data science.

The most contentious moments of the gathering were around platform cooperativism’s relationship to capitalism. Cindy Milstein, author of Anarchism and Its Aspirations, and Scott Heiferman, the founder and CEO of MeetUp, passionately debated the merits of a reformed capitalism. Heiferman said that he wanted to “save a certain kind of capitalism” and defended taking money from venture capitalists as a necessary precondition for making platforms that scale. Milstein, on the other hand, argued that even if MeetUp’s goal is laudable, it is part of the Silicon Valley startup culture that is raising rents to exorbitant heights and displacing ordinary people in the San Francisco Bay Area. She said we need to “start with the ethics, not the technology; determine what it is we want to produce, create, and share.”

New York City Council Member Ben Kallos said that he sees his role as a policymaker as working to restore the free market. He was quickly met with a round of criticisms from the audience. Kallos later clarified to me that what he meant by restoring the “free market” was to end corporate welfare and public-private partnerships that equate to “the government handing out monopolies.” But the incident nonetheless highlights these tensions within the formative stages of this movement.

But these disagreements will seem familiar to anyone who has spent time in the U.S. cooperative movement. On the one hand are those who consider cooperatives a kind of “ethical capitalism” and, on the other, are those who see cooperatives a form of dual power: alternative institutions that can exist within capitalism but simultaneously act as a bridge out of it toward a new economy.

At times, panelists and audience members both questioned the premise of the conference, expressing concerns about technology replacing human-to-human interaction and even doubting that a digital platform can ever foster true solidarity. At other times, the conference seemed to meander from its topical focus. Despite the emphasis on governance and ownership at the outset of the conference, there was a lack of nuanced discussion about the finer points of ownership models and what scaling up democratic ownership structures would look like with multi-stakeholder models. There also seemed to be an assumption that someone born into service work will always do service work. A discussion of how to prevent on-demand service jobs (such as those on Uber, TaskRabbit, and Handy) — even democratically controlled ones — from remaining a permanent economic underclass was absent. Perhaps that is outside the scope of the conference, but it seems important to consider. The conference participants were, also, overhwelmingly white and male. Though it is apparent that the organizers worked hard to achieve gender parity among panelists.

Still, these are the kinds of questions and debates that should be happening at the nascent stage of this movement. The incredible turnout and robust discussions that took place, combined with actually existing projects and emerging collaborations suggest that this new movement could pose a real threat to the self-aggrandizing Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.”

3 Comments Contentious Moments at the Platform Cooperativism conference

  1. AvatarTrebor Scholz

    “The conference participants were, also, overhwelmingly white and male”
    That’s factually wrong: the 98 speakers included 47 women and 51 men.
    For a technology/media conference that’s a good ratio.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.