Co-ops and Cryptos, or Neo-Communitarianism and Techno-Utopianism – Where Next?

Recently I decided to fly halfway across the world to attend Open2017, a two-day conference on the emerging "Platform Cooperativism" movement. For those unfamiliar with the term, simply think 'online platforms + cooperatives'— or to put it another way, "what if Facebook was owned and goverened by the people who used it?".

My interest in platform co-ops came by way of my interest in crypto-economics, piqued specifically by Ethereum. Prior to that I had no real interest in economics or finance, but when confronted with a system which allowed value to be codified I was suddenly all ears. It seemed humanity had developed a system whereby values (as in real values; individual, social & community values rather than financial ones) could be encoded into economic systems. This could easily be a game-changer, I thought. The future seemed bright and interesting.

As to why I'd spend such a large sum of money and burn so much carbon to go talk to a few people, that decision came many months later after continued research into blockchains and crypto-economics. I began to notice a distinct techno-utopian trend among many (not all) Bitcoin maximalists and Ethereum proponents. Which is to say (warning: I'm not a political theorist), lots of people seemed to be of the opinion that all the world's ills could be solved simply by throwing technology at the problem until it went away. "Build it, and they will come" is a phrase I heard a lot on the forums and chatrooms I was frequenting at the time.

The problem is, this sort of thinking is bullshit. If there's one thing I could hope for the geeks reading this opinionated post to take away from it, it's caution in thinking that technology has no will of its own. Artifacts have ethics. You can wax lyrical about the 'trustless', 'open' and 'neutral' nature of blockchains, but the reality is that all technology comes encoded with the will of the designers who engineered it.

In my search for those confronting these issues and hidden biases I found my way through a maze of concepts such as delegative democracy, holocracy, peer production, participatory economics and the commons transition before I eventually uncovered the rich vein of future-thinking in the platform cooperativism movement which seemed to link together all these concepts under a unified vision for positive human progress.

So I flew to London and listened and talked to more people than I could count. I came away with more questions than answers and feeling like I knew less than when I went in. For someone who approached the whole process with a preconcieved idea for what a new economic model might look like and how to build it, this was an extremely positive outcome.

Aside from that, I learned that neither the crypto-economists or the platform-cooperativists really have it 100% right. Both movements are in their infancy and let's face it, no movement in all of history has had things 100% right, so there's no reason to expect them to. But it seems really important that both movements must work together if either is to engender real and lasting change.

Why? The cooperatives are hampered by subservience to the governments and legal systems of today. They are trying to do it all by the book and cautiously lobbying to change the laws as they go, but this won't create change at the pace it is needed. It's a sad indictment of today's world that if you want to run a business which exploits a bunch of people and resources and take all the profits for yourself you get given the green flag to go for it; but if you want to run an organisation which gives back to the environment and returns its profits to all the people who actually do the work then you're told you can only scale up to 100 members* before you're not allowed to hire anybody else and have to register a new company.

(in Australia, but the cap is similar across much of the world)

On the other hand, you have the crypto-economists at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. They say, "fuck the government, they can't stop us" and go ahead to build the platform anyway. The problem is, if you build a global food production system with no government authority or legal guidance and someone on the platform sells poisoned food, somebody's head is going to roll. Will it be the user who sold the food, or the programmers who helped them sell it? If we can learn anything from Uber, it'll probably be both. Even if you believe it will be the former- how will the negative publicity affect your platform, and how does ignoring the human costs of your work make the new world you're attempting to create a positive and ethical one?

For me, as with everything, there's a balance to be found somewhere in the middle. In general, those in the cooperative movement have a real aversion to scale. They often see large-scale operations as toxic and stress that co-ops must be small and community-oriented to be effective. This is why I'm labelling them as vaguely "neo-communitarian" in their attitudes. They see community-building as the primary activity of value, and hold that communities must be small and close-knit in order to be effective. Techno-utopians on the other hand are highly individualistic, often libertarian or free-market thinkers. They want global platforms that empower individuals to act without restriction.

I would say that scale is important, but we don't need platforms at scale, we need protocols. Perhaps this could enable the type of federation that cooperative thinkers put forward as an alternative to large organisations- many small, interconnected communities working together in a self-organising way; coordinated by formal protocols which allow these ecosystems to flourish and work in harmony. It's a sort of halfway house, where you have small-scale operations coordinated by large-scale systems running commonly agreed-upon code to make it all possible. Does this sound familiar? Probably because that's how the internet was designed to work.

But this is still no final answer- even the distinction between 'platform' and 'protocol' becomes messy. What is Ethereum? Is it a platform, because there is one global singleton with a core team of developers governing it; or is it a protocol, because anyone can join, export the data, fork it or contribute to it?

After experiencing the DAO hack, it would seem the answer to that question is more the former. In the end, the central group of engineers and miners respectively responsible for maintaining and running the platform voted to change the rules and reverse the damage. Yes there were more actors involved in that choice than in a closed platform- but the number was still proportionally small compared to the total number of users affected, and the weight some key figures' voices played in that decision should not be underestimated. Yes some people expressed their disagreement in forking to create 'Ethereum Classic'- but network effects left that platform mostly relegated to the shadows and it has since largely faded into obscurity.

Bitcoin is even worse- they can't even agree to change the block size and the thing keeps on plodding along with ever-increasing block times and transaction fees with no real solution in sight.

Interestingly, more 'platform-esque' blockchains are being birthed in the corporate sector. Having worked with many corporate blockchain solutions, including Hyperledger and Corda, I can start to see these technologies abandoning the idea of a single global state and moving to a role more like that of a facilitator which coordinates trust between different actors independent of the rest of the network. Corda was designed like that initially (to much scoffing amongst the blockchain community), and Hyperledger is moving that way with its implementation of 'channels' in version 1.

Even more interesting is that these technologies are not only converging with each other, but converging with the technology of supposingly opposing ideologies out in the open-source world. The current architectural direction of both projects sounds rather like Synero's aborted RChain proposal and even bears many similarities with the cooperative movement's FairCoin project in the way that consensus is implemented.

It seems like the big innovation of the 'blockchain revolution' might be realising that blockchains aren't appropriate in most cases- 1 big platform causes rigidity and uniformity, but a tookit which allows agreements to be made at local and individual levels can provide the flexibility needed for things to scale and coordinate whilst users are free to make their own exchanges independently.

So with all this in mind, where do we go next?

We keep iterating. We keep building experiments. We do everything openly so that others can learn from it. We talk to people instead of designing on their behalf. We take sensible, well researched steps forward without waiting for legislation to catch up to us- policy change will only come readily when pushed by innovation.

It occurs to me that many different and disconnected disciplines are actually all about achieving the same thing. App design, game theory, UX, economic engineering and 'whole systems design' are all about designing behaviour. That is, they're all about continuously and subtly enticing or inhibiting specific actions and movements. In a world where the younger generations experience much of their world through interfaces, it cannot be underestimated how big of an impact the design of those interfaces (and the systems underneath them) has politically, socially and personally.

The odds are stacked against us. The 'Death Star Platforms' of the sharing economy already have their worldviews encoded into our screens. We must take the skills we have and build viable, sustainable alternatives to these dominant systems if our species is to survive. We can fill our phones with interfaces that destroy the world or ones which let us restore it. What will we choose?

The future still seems bright and interesting, but also pretty scary.