Ours to Hack and to Own, book review: Towards a fairer internet economy

This 40-essay collection brings the concept of cooperative ownership up to date, outlining an alternative online economy more in tune with the internet's founding ethos.
Written by Wendy M Grossman, Contributor

Ours to Hack and to Own: The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, A new Vision for the Future of Work and a Fairer Internet • Edited by Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider • OR Books • 252 pages • ISBN: 978-1-68219-062-3 • $17/£14

"The inability to imagine a different life is capital's ultimate triumph," writes Trebor Scholz at Medium in a lengthy posting explaining the difference between platform cooperativism and the rapacious form of the 'sharing economy' promulgated by Silicon Valley. In Ours to Hack and to Own, Scholz and co-editor Nathan Schneider present 40 essays imagining that different life.

What, for example, would Uber be like if the drivers owned the car-sharing platform? What if, Schneider asks in his opening essay: "What if the platform and networks really were ours? What if we had an internet of ownership?"

The idea of cooperative ownership is, of course, nothing new. But the 20-odd years of development since the internet was opened to commercial traffic in 1994 have increasingly favoured centralised commercial approaches that suck up entire sectors -- Facebook, Amazon, Google...

This is not the internet as originally imagined (as Dmytri Kleiner unexpectedly quotes me saying). If you go back to its beginnings you find a mindset much more like the one Scholz and Schneider espouse here. Usenet relied on servers, but those servers exchanged files of news as peers and the fact of common standards meant anyone could set up their own. Email, early file transfer facilities, and even the web itself were also created with the idea of a network of equals. Instead, as Tom Slee laid bare in his 2016 book What's Yours is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy, concepts like the 'sharing economy' have been co-opted to market services that enrich a few venture capitalists at the expense of more-or-less everyone else involved.

Communal ownership and democratic governance

The 40 essays in this book explore different aspects of these issues. In recounting her experience as an Amazon Mechanical Turker, for example, Kristy Milland warns of the threat that badly-paid crowd platforms (in eight hours of taking every job she could, she completed 166 tasks and made $19.64) pose to many traditional jobs traditionally performed by experts. Both she and Tom Slee point out the power imbalance of today's reputation systems and their misleadingly precise scoring. The difference, Slee notes, between an Uber driver rated 4.9 and one rated 4.6 is that the latter is in danger of getting kicked off the platform.

Other essays discuss the realities of building a service, coding, data management, and other issues, such as the tension between the principles involved in creating a cooperative and the demands of crowdfunding. Besides the essays, there is a series of profiles of example apps and platforms in already in progress.

The two main tenets of all this, as Scholz writes at the beginning, are communal ownership and democratic governance. As a market correction, this approach seems overdue.

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