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Democratic platforms

Not all platforms seek to impose a hierarchical and exploitative structure over their users. Author Trebor Scholz has long theorized the impact of digital labor27 and the possibility of using platforms as collaborative enterprises.28 Scholz calls this approach “platform cooperativism.” Platform cooperativism places value on the ownership of the network and the content being produced, ensuring that the value produced by users to grow a network remains in the hands of users, generating a virtuous cycle. Platform cooperativism attempts to subvert practices of extractivism and exploitation that are commonplace in contemporary hierarchical networks by redefining the operating system of platforms as being aligned with the traditions of cooperative labor practices. As Scholz presents it:

In opposition to the black-box systems of the Snowden-era Internet, these platforms need to distinguish themselves by making their data flows transparent. Platform co-ops should consider the following principles. The first one, which I explained already, is communal ownership of platforms and protocols. Second, platform co-ops have to be able to offer income security and good pay for all people working for the co-op.2*'

For Scholz, it is not enough to engage in a cooperative business model. He is attempting to reenergize this historic tradition with the power of digital networks, explaining that platforms are the places where we hang out, work and create value. In his studies of platform cooperatives that are already in operation, such as Fair-mondo, Stocksy or Coopify, he advocates for the user ownership model of the network, allowing for any profits, commercial or otherwise, to remain in the hands of members.

Current digital platforms operate following the guidelines of a privately owned infrastructure, behaving much like a dictatorship imposing rules and protocols over its users. From social networks to video games, the dictatorial model prevails, not allowing a feedback loop between developers and communities, as the ulterior motives of networks are grounded on the extraction of capital through manipulating behavior. Scholz’s proposition can be understood as promoting democracy within digital platforms, where members have rights and can participate in the decisions that dictate how the network operates. Democratic platforms could allow users to vote and actively engage in the protocols that govern the network. Imagine Facebook offering public elections to its users for representatives who will determine which features or privacy policies should be available in the platform. This could allow for collectives to engage in campaigns in favor of data encryption or resisting the commercialization of user data to third parties. This scenario presents a vision of how platforms could open channels of feedback that have been in place in other forms of governance.

Technologies such as peer-to-peer networks or blockchain technology attempt to resolve the asymmetry of power through software architecture. The implementation of distributed systems anticipates the coercive power of centralized networks. Still, stronger regulation and oversight over centralized networks is needed, incentivizing platforms to become more democratic and enforce fair compensation for the value generated by users. The paradigm of user agency defined by a network can drastically change by design, effectively defining what we could call “digital citizenship.” The central ethical issues surrounding digital platforms are linked to data collection from users and the rightful ownership of such data. Data authorship and ownership, under the contemporary “Big Data” paradigm, can be traced with fine detail, but it is up to user agreements to establish protocols that are productive and beneficial for both users and platform providers without inheriting asymmetries. Today, Big Data has been extracted through illegitimate means through surveillance strategies. Nevertheless, users celebrate the convenience and performance achieved by data aggregating applications such as Uber or Google. It seems unlikely that we would unroll the series of logistical innovations that have been achieved by Big Data infrastructure, but perhaps we can devise means to legitimize the production and regulate the usage of what ought to be a common and public infrastructure.

In the recent discussions regarding platforms as extractive practices, computer scientist Jaron Lanier has resurfaced the ideas of Internet pioneer Ted Nelson, bringing attention to the value of tracing data’s provenance. Lanier attempts to conceptualize a humanistic computing network, one that would care about the prosperity of its members and would not exercise an asymmetric cohesive power over its members. In such a network, every action of every user would be tracked, allowing for a highly granular account of the role of multiple players in any given process. As he explains:

The foundational idea of humanistic computing is that provenance is valuable. Information is people in disguise, and people ought to be paid for value they contribute that can be sent or stored on a digital network. In humanistic information economics, provenance is treated as a basic right, similar to the way civil rights and property rights were given a universal stature in order to make democracy and market capitalism viable.31

Lanier envisions a network that would utilize the two-way links that were proposed by Ted Nelson in the early days of the Internet. For Lanier, a two-way link is fundamental to trace data provenance. Having a two-way cartography could trace the members of a network who contributed to its creation. This could allow a form of micro-payment system to distribute capital to the users.

Within the realm of architectural design, architect and software designer Panagiotis Michalatos has been able to anticipate a transition from file-based sharing to a model where databases store user actions that allow models to be reconstructed from such information.32 This proposition has profound implications, as it suggests moving away from a model that considers an object or file as output and replaces it with a form of ledger for labor. Users’ inputs could define amount to units of value, in which case such value could remain linked to the author who developed it. Lanier has put forward speculative versions of a humanistic network that could generate micro-payments to the creator of value in a network, generating incentives for users to generate and proliferate new content in the hope that over time an accumulation of micro-payments could become something like a pension scheme. As he explains:

In a humanistic information economy, as people age, they will collect royalties on value they brought into the world when they were younger. This seems to me to be a highly moral use of information technology. It remembers the right data.The very idea that our world is construed in such a way that the lifetime contributions of hardworking, creative people can be forgotten, that they can be sent perpetually back to the starting gate, is a deep injustice. Putting it that way makes the complaint sound leftist. But today there’s also an erasure of what should be legitimate capital. The right should be just as outraged. The proposal here is not redistributionist or socialist. Royalties based on creative contributions from a whole lifetime would always be flowing freshly. It would be wealth earned, not entitlement.33

Lanier’s proposition has been challenged by authors like Zuboff, who bring to the foreground the unethical objectives behind the accumulation of such data, extracted or paid for. The problem for Zuboff is that behavioral data, the raw material of surveillance capitalism, becomes the instrument for the erosion of democracy through behavior modification. As she laments:

The remarkable questions here concern the facts that our lives are rendered as behavioral data in the first place; that ignorance is a condition of this ubiquitous rendition; that decision rights vanish before one even knows that there is a decision to make; that there are consequences to this diminishment of rights that we can neither see nor foretell; that there is no exit, no voice, and no loyalty, only helplessness, resignation, and psychic numbing; and that encryption is the only positive action left to discuss when we sit around the dinner table and casually ponder how to hide from the forces that hide from us.34

Like Assange, Zuboff evokes the need for instruments such as encryption to regulate the illegitimate extraction of user data. The question that emerges is whether there are design protocols to ensure the production of common repositories of data that can serve in the production of prosperity as a public infrastructure while regulating the practice of behavioral modification.

Independent of the software architecture that allows or enforces the production and distribution of value, there is still the issue of allowing for platforms to remain open for alterations. A closed system will always treat the public as users, bound to operate into a predefined playing field.

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