The Sharing Game The new “Sharing Economy”

Lots of questions from the audience: the panel discussion Ours to Govern and to Own
Lots of questions from the audience: the panel discussion Ours to Govern and to Own | © Goethe-Institut New York/ Jacobia Dahm

Everyone’s talking about Airbnb and Uber, but platform cooperativism is new. As part of a series called Teilen und Tauschen – The Sharing Game, the Goethe-Institut New York hosted a discussion about how cooperative Internet platforms can enrich the sharing economy with common benefits and fairness.

By Christoph Bartmann

There is not just one sharing economy, but at least two or that is the impression one gets from exploring the rather new phenomenon of platform cooperativism. While the one sharing economy is dominated by Silicon Valley companies like Uber, Lyft and Airbnb, the second one is dedicated to breaking or at least limiting the power of these virtual digital monopolies by means of platforms for the common good. These ideas are made technically possible by open source software. The theoretical framework is provided by concepts that were coined as early as the nineteenth century as “mutualism,” or the mutual use of production means. With such seemingly utopian, yet quite tangible deliberations, today’s platform cooperativism draws on anarchistic ideas and attempts to make them topical again in the era of digital capitalism.
 
The new model of platform cooperativism

 
Professor for media and culture Trebor Scholz Professor for media and culture Trebor Scholz | © Goethe-Institut New York/ Jacobia Dahm Platform cooperativism meets with great interest in New York. A large conference at the New School in November 2015 gathered more than a thousand activists, programmers, Internet entrepreneurs and other participants to discuss the possibilities offered by a cooperative Internet. One of the chief initiators of this discussion is the activist Trebor Scholz, originally from Berlin and now teaching media theory at the New School. It was he, too, who coined the term “platform cooperativism.” In his upcoming book Uberworked and Underpaid: How Workers are Disrupting the Digital Economy, Scholz explains how workers can be hired more fairly and be better paid with self-built and self-administered Internet platforms than is done by, say, Amazon and Uber. While only the owners of those platforms become wealthy and the workforce they place often remain under minimum wage, platform cooperatives are owned by many. As yet it is not known how viable this model will be in the non-virtual world, but it has been tested many times in the digital sphere so a start has been made.
 
Some of the speakers at the November conference met again for the panel discussion “Ours to Govern and to Own” at the Goethe-Institut New York. They included Felix Weth, founder of the German platform Fairmondo, who spoke about his experiences with an alternative anti-Amazon. Emma Yorra from the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, Brooklyn reported on new social policy initiatives in a neighbourhood with a large population of Mexican immigrants. They have set up the United Handymen cooperative, a childcare cooperative called Beyond Care and We Can Do It! for home cleaning services. The alternative to these self-administered service collectives in New York and elsewhere is called Handy.com. Handy was created to be for paid domestic work what Uber is for taxi services. It promises users all-round convenience but the workers it places have to be exceedingly flexible and are poorly paid.
 
Fair working conditions at the click of a mouse?
 
Emma Yorra Emma Yorra | © Goethe-Institut New York/ Jacobia Dahm Emma Yorra’s Center for Family Life, for instance, works according to an entirely different principle. The Center is not a public authority although it recently began receiving support from the local government. Rather, it is the central contact point for questions and problems that people in this neighbourhood commonly have: legal counselling, English language courses, courses of all kinds and employment services – all of that from an institution that sees itself neither as a public authority nor as a mere social station.
 
Places like this are experimenting with alternative models for the service industry. If for many men and women there are hardly any alternatives to low-paid, unskilled service jobs, such employment should at least be somewhat fairer and have more legal safeguards. Thanks to mobile phones and other platform services customers want to be able to book workers with just one click, therefore these cooperatives must learn to be user-friendly. Their success or failure will largely depend on the quality of the apps they design. Unlike the founders of Uber or Airbnb, they have no venture capital at their disposal for this purpose. The programmers we met in Brooklyn seemed confident, though. Whether the old dreams of cooperative benefit and fairness can actually be transferred in the Internet Age is mainly up to them.