I will be going to a conference this weekend called Platform Cooperativism. Here is the introduction from their website:
The seeds are being planted for a new kind of online economy. For all the wonders the Internet brings us, it is dominated by an economics of monopoly, extraction, and surveillance. Ordinary users retain little control over their personal data, and the digital workplace is creeping into every corner of workers’ lives. Online platforms often exploit and exacerbate existing inequalities in society, even while promising to be the great equalizers. Could the Internet be owned and governed differently?
Aside from my history of techno activism and love for cooperative platforms I see this conference as an opportunity to share Agile Learning Centers (ALC) to an audience that would really “get” it. This post aims to be a brain dump for my ideas around how ALC and cooperative online platforms, as a movement, intersect and overlap. This will probably be a rambling mess, you’ve been warned.
New Terms for a New World
What follows are my interpretations of some of the vocabulary surrounding the Platform Coop event and Agile Learning Centers. By unpacking these terms I hope to highlight how ALC supports these ideas and how these ideas support ALC.
The New Economy
This is what we are preparing kids for in Agile Learning Centers. The new economy is based not on extracting energy and resources from the earth and it’s people. It is an economy that values the sustained healthy existence of the earth as a whole, including (but not limited to) people. This new economy understands the value of all natural systems and social systems on our planet.
The old models of business are already done for and largely only exist through the force of inertia. Top down systems are the way of the past. Command and control, or more simply put, having someone telling you what to do and when to do it are antiquated. ALCs are built around this truth. We have done away with teachers—with it’s implicit hierarchy—and replaced them with facilitators. Children aren’t told what to do but given autonomy and freedom to find their own path, a skill necessary in the New Economy.
A cooperative structure, or coop, in this context refers to a business that is owned and operated cooperatively. These organizations are quite old and were probably the norm by another age before the great experiment of capital and corporations. Simply put, the people doing the work run the business.
In the context of ALCs the people doing the learning (work) run the learning center (business). The cultural tool we use in ALCs are perfectly suited for coops. I feel that the children raised through ALCs are going to be so far out ahead of their “competitors” in state schools, which by and large teach toward the old economy.
Cooperation is a skill like any other. It’s something that must be learned and practiced. In our old paradigm most of us never really get to flex our cooperation muscle and thus when we find ourselves in situations where we must cooperate we are weak and feeble. Consider how cooperation is viewed in most institutions: as cheating.
The Problem with Platforms
I like to equate platforms to fields of play. When one enters into a field of play they are expected to play by a set of rules. These rules and the method for how one plays are typically dictated by the configuration of the field of play. It’s hard to play handball on a football field, there is no wall to bounce the ball off, the ball in play is the wrong shape, and the other players are running around tackling each other.
In most cases someone has set up the field of play before hand. We can draw a parallel here to online platforms. Someone, typically the developers (let’s call them game masters), set up a field of play and then invites players into it. Often the players have no say in how the game is played. The players can not change the rules or how the field is configured.
This isn’t such a problem when we are playing simple games like football and soccer. As we step out of this metaphor it becomes much more limiting. Online platforms can limit the type of interactions through their design. Twitter is a great example with it’s 140 character limit. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that! It’s the game that’s being played and you agree to play it by stepping onto the “Twitter Field”. Things get sticky when the rules change mid play. For example, Twitter has a great way of democratically promoting content through the use of the “re-tweet”. The best content rises to the top and lots of people see it. All fine, but, it costs a lot of money to run all those servers so Twitter has to earn money and they do this by changing the rules of the game in the form of sponsored tweets. These are tweets that get promoted not though democracy but by the influence of money.
The players on Twitter get no say, even though it is them who produce the value. No one would participate in the game of Twitter were it not for the players on the field. Imagine a football game that attracted millions of spectators but the players were not paid (no need, that describes college sports, see John Oliver explain how those players(workers) are being exploited).
Twitter is profiting off the work of it’s “players” yet giving them no way to change the game they are playing.
Enter Platform Coops
So we need to co-own our platforms. If the players owned the field they are playing on then they can change it to suit their play. They can change the game to make it work better for everyone, rather than the owners of the field. That is to say, if the users own the platform they can make it work for them rather than work for the platform.
Imagine this in the game analogy again. Most of us play on these platforms because we love the game. We aren’t playing to win we are playing to play. If we have control we can change the rules to keep the game going.
A small but telling example is that of Google Reader. This RSS reading platform was shut down by Google a few years ago and left all the people using it high and dry. Google didn’t want to support the platform and the people using it couldn’t play there anymore because it belonged to someone other than them.
Cooperation is(n’t) Hard
This weekend’s conference is going to talk about how we can collaboratively own platforms. How we can democratically control them.
Cooperation is hard.There will surly be talk of other platforms like Loomio or ideologies for managing platforms, like free/open source software. I believe that most people will look to digital technology for the answer. If only we had the open source Facebook or the right voting tool. We need digital technology to make cooperation easy some will say.
This isn’t the answer and it strikes at the very heart of why I’m involved with ALC.
Cooperation is easy when you have the skills and tools to do it well. At ALC we are developing cultural technology which makes cooperation easy by teaching the skills needed to do it. Borrowing from ideas old (Quaker meetings) and new (Agile project management) we are adapting tools and practices which don’t need digital technology to operate. Our culture is created, adapted, and changed with not much more than a white board and sticky notes!
This is what we have to offer.
Digital Technology is necessary, it is the difference between trying to do this 20 years ago and doing it today. It is the power multiplier that will free us from the old economy. My point is that we must ground the digital technology in a foundation of good cultural technology.
ALC needs help building the digital technology over our open source tools and practices. We need to do so in a way that doesn’t create another platform that might die with our brand!
I look forward to figuring out how we are going to do this.
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