Platform Cooperativism: Trebor Scholz Interview

“How do you rip the algorithmic heart of our Uber and then embed your own values instead?” This is the question that lies at the heart of scholar & activist Trebor Scholz’s work on Platform Cooperativism, a concept that describes “a way of joining the peer-to-peer and co-op movements with online labor markets while insisting on communal ownership and democratic governance.”

In their latest interview, the Upstream team traveled to Brooklyn, NYC, to interview Trebor, who is an Associate Professor of Culture & Media at the New School for Liberal Arts & co-editor of the book Ours to Hack and to Own: The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, a New Vision for the Future of Work and a Fairer Internet. Trebor has a very wide breadth of knowledge in the field of digital labor, and is able to articulate a very strong critique of the modern day digital landscape. He walks us through how the internet has hit rock bottom, exemplified as it is these days by extreme power concentration, high levels of worker exploitation, and a lack of privacy.

“All of the apps that most of us are using on a daily basis are really owned by so few people that you can squeeze them all into a Google bus,” Trebor explains. “We need a stance that doesn’t just open the doors to these monopolies and let’s them rule freely, but that actually thinks about how to also invest in alternatives that can then lead to a more diverse digital landscape. In a climate that is politically and economically hostile to workers, I think that platform cooperatives can insulate–to an extent–from this onslaught…that we are experiencing now.”

Trebor is able to draw a very compelling picture of how things could be different. What would Uber look like if it had cooperative values? What if residents owned Airbnb? This is the idea behind the concept of Platform Cooperativism, which Trebor tells us has really taken off since he first began exploring it a couple of years ago.

“The resonance comes because you have so much uncertainty. And also as you can see from surveys of millennials, that they identify as anti-capitalists to a much larger degree than people would have thought,–in the UK as much as in the US. So they don’t really see a place for themselves in capitalism anymore. It almost sometimes feels like they are sitting in a self-driving car, heading to armageddon.

Something we’re beginning to see in this economy is that younger generations are very skeptical of these big institutions and their hierarchies. They really don’t want to have a boss – they want to think outside the boss, if you will. This has to do with the difference with their parents who had very tangible benefits and perks by these–by all means flawed–institutions. Younger generations don’t experience that. They don’t see those benefits from those institutions, all they see is hierarchies and horribleness.”

The conversation covers many topics within the sphere of digital labor and the economics of the web. How do digital economies operate invisibly, so that we live in a sort of black box society? How is our data being used against us? How are the economic policies of the new Trump administration going to further impact labor and the nature of work? Darkness and uncertainty loom ahead. Trebor’s insights are a flash of light that illuminate and begin to guide us through these tumultuous times.

Upstream Podcast

Upstream is a podcast that invites you to unlearn everything you thought you knew about economics. They specialize in documentaries focusing on cutting-edge themes within the economic and political world. Trebor Scholz will be featured in their upcoming episode on the economics of the digital world, which will be released sometime in 2017. You can find out more at upstreampodcast.org and through the links below.

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