How can we imagine, design, and develop more inclusive and fair alternatives for the digital economy? In Own This! How Platform Cooperatives Help Workers Build a Democratic Internet, Trebor Scholz demonstrates how this is possible and materialized in several concrete projects underway around the world.
Scholz’s new book engages in a dialogue with his previous 2016 text, Platform Cooperativism. Originally published by the Rosa Luxemburg Stitfung’s New York office, it was translated into multiple languages, including Portuguese, and subsequently published in Brazil by Rosa Luxemburg Stitfung’s Brazil-Paraguay office, making a significant impact in the country. While his previous work highlighted the limits of the ‘sharing economy’, presenting the emerging alternatives to the mainstream platform economy, Scholz’s latest publication delves deeper into the ideas and concepts of platform cooperativism, illustrating them through examples. The book is targeted at a diverse audience, not merely on experts on the subject, and serves as an excellent introduction to the topic. Scholz demonstrates how to build alternative digital economies through ongoing experiments in platform cooperativism, highlighting challenges and potentials.
One of the greatest merits of the book is to boost imagination about an alternative digital economy model that is more democratic. Additionally, Scholz illustrates that this imagination extends beyond mere ideas, with numerous practical experiments taking place across the world. Compared to his previous works, in Own This!, Scholz highlights the central role of data – both in terms of data cooperatives and data commons – as an important path for self-managed initiatives. In addition, he offers a more nuanced understanding of the role of scale in platform cooperativism. Another important point the book raises is how shareable global infrastructures and federations can serve as cooperative responses to the platform economy. As Paulo Freire reminds us, imagination is related to our concrete reality and political projects.
One of the greatest merits of the book is to boost imagination about an alternative digital economy model that is more democratic. Additionally, Scholz illustrates that this imagination extends beyond mere ideas, with numerous practical experiments taking place across the world.
We, the authors of this review, are building a collective movement in/from/with Latin America, specifically Brazil, in relation to platform cooperativism, articulating workers, researchers, social movements, and policymakers. In this review, we raise some questions, in a fraternal spirit, with a view to enrich the platform cooperative movement around the world. Although Scholz recognizes the limits of platform cooperativism, underscoring that it cannot address all responsibilities of the digital economy, at times, the argument in the book could have benefitted from highlighting the nuances and dissonances from within the movement itself, in order to present a more self-reflexive story. In our review, we ask how can we build more nuanced histories and analyses of platform cooperativism?
Historicizing and Contextualizing Technologies and Disputes
To move towards a broader and more diverse discussion on the histories and analyses of platform cooperativism, it is crucial to historicize processes pertaining to both the history of the internet as well as the global solidarity economy. This could have been addressed when the author questions, for instance, whether the infrastructure of the internet can be owned publicly or as a public-cooperative hybrid.
Historicization also helps to better understand the elements of the present. A case in point is when Scholz presents mainstream names such as Vint Cerf as a key reference in convincing organizations to use the TCP/IP protocol, especially in the 1970s. However, the book does not mention that the same Cerf is now an important member of Alphabet. This could have been a good reminder that progressive efforts in the history of the internet have continually been co-opted by Big Tech and platform companies.
Another important point to note is the role of technologies in the processes of developing platform cooperativism, including Web3 and blockchain. We understand technology here as a set of processes – following the historical traditions of science and technology studies, including in Latin America – rather than as a digital gadget or a magic solution. Thus, we understand that technology not only means software, apps or codes, but also constitutes processes of social and economic organization from a perspective that is fundamentally political. Recognizing that technologies like these are not neutral is an important step towards building alternative digital economies. We need to ask ourselves what interests and (class) struggles are in dispute, even when we want to build alternative worlds. This is a challenging question for a book that aims to bring together examples and formulations from different regions, with varying political and economic contexts.
Here, Scholz presents the emergence of decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) as a significant avenue for reshaping traditional cooperatives to operate akin to technology-based startups. However, while the author lends critical consideration to the hype surrounding DAOs, (which have been emerging for more than 10 years now), there remains insufficient evidence to establish their genuine significance for platform cooperativism.
Although there are notes on the limitations of the power of platform cooperatives in the current economy, at times the book does not offer the necessary balance between the real potential of cooperative platforms and the role of infrastructural and platform power. For instance, when discussing platformization in rural areas, the book ignores the power of Big Tech and Big Agri. Furthermore, the definitions of platform cooperativism are anchored in some idealisms that do not adequately take into account these power dynamics. For example, Scholz imagines a global ecosystem of cooperative platforms as a well-coordinated system in which digital labor platforms, social media, and web infrastructures operate in perfect synchrony. But does this perfect synchrony in effect exist? What does it mean to understand ‘perfection’ in platform cooperativism? Or what role do conflicts and political economy – or the disputes at stake – play in tensioning this ‘perfect synchrony’? These issues are not adequately fleshed out.
Furthermore, it is essential to contextualize platform cooperativism within the labor economy and its interaction with technologies. What does it mean to build platforms that emulate the practices of dominant platforms, but which are owned by workers or communities? What are the limits of such an approach? What technologies do workers need to govern their workplaces? How can this be significant for worker power? The answers to these questions are not easy and there is no single universal or normative solution to them. What we have researched and experienced is that the answers to these questions have been reworked and reappropriated by local communities in their territories. Similar to the diverse manifestations of platform capitalism encompassing various platform capitalisms and platform cultures, the concept of platform cooperativism is not singular but rather exists in plural forms globally. Therefore, we can “own” these ideas, rather than adhering to just one.
To move towards a broader and more diverse discussion on the histories and analyses of platform cooperativism, it is crucial to historicize processes pertaining to both the history of the internet as well as the global solidarity economy.
Moreover, these responses do not always mean ‘more platforms’ or ‘more platformization’. For example, decentralized protocols that could function as ‘cooperative network effects’ have a logic that is less and less platformized, and one that is customizable to levels of relevance and territory (such as neighborhood, city, region, etc.). Thus, we can think about the role of technologies beyond the platform itself. A non-technosolutionist approach would question whether it is possible to, in effect, understand democratic solutions for the internet imagined around the platform model, given the political, economic, discursive, and epistemic power that this model and its exemplars wield.
We have seen the emergence of groups and movements across the world that agree with various principles of platform cooperativism, but remain unconvinced that the key lies particularly in either ‘platforms’ or ‘cooperativism’. The terms being coined are diverse, including digital solidarity economy, worker-owned technologies, solidarity platformization, platform solidarity cooperativism, etc. While there is agreement with a series of elements that Scholz presents, the trend also points to significant institutional, local, and epistemic diversities. This means that the movement is broader and more diverse than the author himself anticipated. This is another evidence of the plurality of ‘platform cooperativisms’ around the world.
This does not mean that the author does not look at a diversity of experiences. For example, he starts a discussion on more diverse, intersectional, and feminist cooperative platforms. But this debate remains on an abstract level, without presenting concrete practices and principles, or discussions with historical groups that discuss this issue, both among social movements and researchers. It is also imperative for the author to address the commonalities and differences between the principles of the feminist (digital) economy and his own vision of platform cooperativism. Additionally, he should have articulated how, while comprehending these perspectives, he draws inspiration from the traditions of feminist political economy.
Scholz highlights the participation of women in care work and cleaning cooperatives, who are immigrants in the Global North, and the leadership of the Self-Employed Women’s Association in India, SEWA, formed from the convergence of labor, cooperative, and women’s movements. However, there is no substantial information on how these experiences differentiate themselves, steering clear of replicating dominant gender or other intersectional approaches. In addition, the ‘feminist approaches on design’ section contains experiences that do not necessarily present feminist approaches. A case in point is Cataki in Brazil – an important initiative, but one lacking evidence that it is based on principles of feminist economics. There is also no mention, for example, of Black solidarity economies in Africa and the African diaspora, or rotating savings and credit associations (called ROSCAs), as highlighted by collectives such as Diverse Solidarity Economies (DISE) and researchers such as Caroline Hossein.
Although there are notes on the limitations of the power of platform cooperatives in the current economy, at times the book does not offer the necessary balance between the real potential of cooperative platforms and the role of infrastructural and platform power.
Moreover, with regards to Latin America, mentions of initiatives are brief and without the slightest description of how they work. For instance, in the context of feminist economies, there are cooperatives such as Senoritas Courier, a Brazilian delivery cooperative of cis women and trans people who carry out deliveries. The cooperative is governed based on an ethic of care, as well as a gender perspective. Further, they build some coalitions, for instance, learning and developing their own technologies in collaboration with the Technology Division of the Homeless Workers’ Movement in Brazil. Another important tech cooperative made up solely of trans people is Alternativa Laboral Trans (ALT Cooperativa) in Argentina. Therefore, the question to probe is how can queer and trans approaches inform platform cooperativism?
The argument here is that there cannot merely be ‘a platform cooperativism’ that is the ‘ideal’ or ‘original’ with variations of the same phenomenon (such as feminist, Black, queer, or trans approaches) – as if they are ‘alternative’ versions. In fact, the argument here is that all this knowledge needs to be valued against the backdrop of the more plural movement of platform cooperativism.
Another important point to address vis-à-vis plurality is what Scholz correctly terms as “co-design”. This is an important topic of the platform cooperativism agenda that can ensure that these initiatives are truly led by workers and communities. While there is a citation on design justice, an approach theorized by Sasha Costanza-Chock, it could have been better developed throughout the book – we believe it is essential to discuss these aspects more in the coming years, both in scholarly discourse and in everyday community work. A design-justice approach is something that comes from the conception of the product, project, or technology, with the team’s composition, gaze, listening, and conscious choices during development resulting in forms of management and ownership where a break in patriarchal and European hetero-cis standards and norms is identified.
Hence, design justice involves not only comprehending the impact of a particular technology but also – drawing strong inspiration from Paulo Freire’s pedagogy – focuses on social subjects and their practices in everyday life.
Thus, we need to address design justice in the context of platform cooperativism as well as pedagogies, emphasizing critical learning from workers, communities, and researchers in the process. Some of these learnings have been shared by a number of design researchers, such as Udayan Tandon, Vera Khovanskaya, Enrique Arcilla, Mikaiil Haji Hussein, Peter Zschiesche, and Lilly Irani in the case of taxis in San Diego, and Jo Bates, Alessandro Checco, and Elli Gerakopoulou while discussing crowdworkers.
Lastly, although Scholz recognizes the institutional diversity of platform cooperatives, he seems to pay more attention to a corporate approach to tech development than to the appropriation of this knowledge by workers, considering their own ways to design technologies. Thus, there is an absence of a truly grassroots perspective from the point of view of workers, especially of minorities, on the issue. This could be better explored in the author’s next manuscripts, as we also invite the author to learn about more global perspectives on the phenomenon.
Invisibilities and Erasures
Scholz positions himself as a global researcher on platform cooperativism. However, everyone is ‘located’ in the world in some way, and this book reveals some inevitable invisibilities and erasures on account of the same. For example, it reflects a certain understanding of development, by criticizing Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure, but occasionally uses it to gauge ‘development’ despite the existence of alternative measures such as the combination of Gross National Product (GNP) and Purchase Power Parity (PPP). The book also enumerates far more examples from the Global North, as something to be inspired by and, in a way, ‘mirrored’. This so-called global approach also puts a Eurocentric perspective of the ‘formal’ and the ‘informal’ work in a binary way, often looking at what comes from outside the Global North, from the perspectives of ‘exception’ and ‘lack’.
The author would benefit from a greater geographic and gender diversity of theories, epistemologies, and knowledge, which we have already highlighted in the previous section. Since the first writings on platform cooperativism, various researchers and activists have looked into the subject. Although some Southern researchers are cited – such as Anita Gurumurthy and Chenai Chair, two leading researchers on the theme – the vast majority of the citations in the book come from Global North male academics. There is a lack of recognition of the contribution of Latin American researchers, especially women such as Denise Kasparian, or of groups that are pioneers on the subject. Additionally, intersectional feminist perspectives from other parts of the world, including Europe, such as from the Dimmons group and Mayo Fuster Morell in Barcelona is missing. In fact, even in the Global North, the city of Barcelona’s public policy to platformize solidarity economy, MatchImpulsa, is not mentioned. The author discusses some cooperatives in journalism and media, but ignores the research on this subject in places like Greece (such as Eugenia Siapera and Lambrini Papadopoulou), Argentina, Brazil, and even Canada (such as Greig de Peuter, Gemma de Vertuil, Salome Machaka and the Cultural Workers Organizing group), as well as overlooking the fact that cooperatives in journalism and media already existed.
These invisibilities reveal the politics of writing in the book. Every time the author responds to a critique in the book, he does not name people, but only comments “many scholars” or “some researchers”. Through these silences, readers lose the interlocutors of his work itself. For example, the book talks about ‘fair labor’, but does not mention projects about this issue, such as the Fairwork project. It also fails to recognize peers doing similar work. For example, the author ends up defining platform cooperativism as something that can go beyond a platform and also beyond cooperativism (strangely though), but fails to recognize a series of authors who are also conceptualizing the phenomenon in a similar way. All these visibilities would contribute to a platform cooperativism movement with more voices and diversity.
Another important point to address vis-à-vis plurality is what Scholz correctly terms as “co-design”. This is an important topic of the platform cooperativism agenda that can ensure that these initiatives are truly led by workers and communities.
There are some notable errors in the book itself. For example, on page 188, the author states: “That’s why Senoritas Courier in São Paulo, a platform co-op for Black LGBTQIAP+ women, considers joining CoopCycle.” However, Senoritas Courier has never considered a partnership with CoopCycle, nor has it positioned itself as a collective of Black people. At another point in the book, Scholz points out that the Homeless Worker Movement in Brazil self-identifies as “new cooperators”, which demonstrates, at the very least, a lack of knowledge about one of the largest urban social movements in the world, which has been in existence for 25 years.
Another misdiagnosis is on page 6, where the author states: “The recent renaissance of cooperatives can be attributed, at least in part, to the challenges posed by authoritarian regimes and dysfunctional governments in many countries, with cooperative models offering a partial but readily available shield for workers. In Brazil, the police under President Jair Bolsonaro threatened and killed Black people.” In Brazil, this association of far right-wing governments with cooperativism is weak at best, and false at worst. Furthermore, the phrase about Bolsonaro and Black people, although true, ignores the fact that this is a reality of the Brazilian state historically.
A more decentralized vision would also avoid some exoticization in relation to the Global South. For example, on page 188, the author states: “In Latin America and beyond, platform cooperatives will look very different; they’ll focus on providing access to essential services such as health care and education, which are often lacking in these countries.” Firstly, these are not the sectors where cooperatives are flourishing the most in Latin America, and the author provides no details or data on their diagnosis. Secondly, perhaps, the author does not know that a country like Brazil has one of the most acclaimed public health care services in the world, and perhaps he forgets that in the United States itself these health care public policies are lacking.
These examples demonstrate the dangers of invoking a global perspective without adequately knowing and addressing local contexts. In fact, a truly global perspective on platform cooperativism should not think of ‘magical imports’ of concepts or practices, but of the importance of territories – as researcher Denise Kasparian demonstrates in relation to the arrival of the European CoopCycle (a federation of delivery cooperatives) in Argentina and its local challenges. Respect for territories and their concepts is important so as not to erase local experiences and their specificities. Otherwise, there is a risk of framework ‘from above’ with formulas presented as universal, in a simplification that does not embrace the complexity and diversity of such different realities.
Organizing is Key
A central (and warranted) point in Own This! is about the need for greater coordination between cooperatives and unions – as has been advocated by a number of authors, including Canadian researchers Greig de Peuter and Nicole Cohen. However, at certain points in the book, there seems to be an inversion of cause and consequence. On page 101, the author argues that platform cooperatives provide self-organization and autonomy, thus offering an open social digital economy that starts at the workplace level. But a more assertive hypothesis would be the opposite, i.e., it is the self-organizing capacity and true autonomy of workers that make cooperatives possible.
Even with the questions raised here, Own This! remains a good reference for imagining (digital) futures, especially for those who are just starting to familiarize themselves with the debate and have never considered that it is possible for workers to ‘own this’.
Scholz would also benefit from stronger engagement with the literature on worker organizing, which could provide a more precise diagnosis of the relationship between cooperativism and unionism. The author ignores research not only on unionism and platforms, but also the growing literature on emerging forms of platform worker organizing and collectivization, outside of unions: for instance, Lorenzo Cini, Vicenzo Maccarronne, and Maurizio Atzeni. Also, the Leeds Index of Platform Labor Protests has highlighted how the majority of protests around the world have come from associations and collectives, not necessarily institutional unions. This lack of depth on the subject leads to certain conceptual slips, such as sometimes placing cooperativism far above unionism. At times, the author also seems to celebrate the non-unionization of cooperatives, as in the Korean case on page 117. The case of Mensakas in Barcelona itself is not sufficiently explained and contextualized, as it presents a very unique history in the relationship between the union (Riders x Derechos) and the cooperative (Mensakas), and on union organization itself. In presenting cases as “global”, the discussion tends to ignore different countries’ varied legislation and contexts vis-a-vis unionism.
Thinking about both the coalitions and conflicts between unionism and cooperativism is an important reminder of the fact that the key to platform cooperativism – in all its diversity and variations – is organizing. This is the determining factor in its struggles against dominant platforms. The search for articulation within these struggles and worker organizing is central, and can involve more dialogue with social movements, as the Brazilian Homeless Workers’ Movement has demonstrated through its technology division. This also means taking the role of the state more seriously in promoting and fostering platform cooperativism – another point that is weakly addressed in the book, with only examples from Indonesia, without mentioning initiatives underway in countries like Spain and Brazil. Platform cooperative policies should be understood as part of the economic planning of a country or region.
The platform cooperativism agenda needs to continue and grapple with many more challenges. We are arguing for a platform cooperativism that is more inclusive, diverse, nuanced, truly global, and one that relates to a broader vision of social justice, including epistemic justice. We are arguing for a platform cooperativism that problematizes the processes of platformization towards a truly democratic internet. And that this be built on anti-colonial premises, in which international relations take place in the spirit of exchange, cooperation, solidarity, and reciprocity. This is necessary so that even more people around the world can ‘own this’ (or these) project(s).
Even with the questions raised here, Own This! remains a good reference for imagining (digital) futures, especially for those who are just starting to familiarize themselves with the debate and have never considered that it is possible for workers to ‘own this’. The critique we present is therefore constructive and a friendly invitation to share and exchange experiences, expectations, and dreams. We are also here imagining, experimenting, learning, and designing (digital) futures.