Based on post-industrial and post-capitalist ideas, the Californian ideology represented the spirit of optimism of the young internet in the 1990s. Knowledge-based economies and the empowerment of individuals would dissolve existing structures of power and herald the end of large corporations and governments (Barbrook and Cameron 1996).
Thirty years later, we know that this optimistic vision did not come true. The internet, originally conceived as democratic and liberal, has become a transcendent version of physical capitalism due to deregulation: Large corporations dominate the bulk of digital transactions and take advantage of the platform economy to consistently assert and expand market share. Due to the quasi-monopolistic distribution of power, a few internet corporations are to be understood as gatekeepers. They define markets – independent of regulatory influences – and determine the social rules of the digital space. For example, the owner of a platform decides which interactions are incentivised or sanctioned. The goal here is to encourage users to maximise the duration of their use. Based on psychological principles, applications are implemented that follow the logic of usage time equals revenue (Dolata 2019). It remains to be said: Profit orientation shapes the digital space.
The quasi-monopolistic market structures and the consistent manipulation of users based on profit-oriented paradigms must be understood as a motivation to rethink the structures of the internet. Different organisational models are needed that focus on people and not on the exploitation of the consumer.
One possible alternative to the current organisational forms of internet companies is the cooperative. This association of several people aims to promote the individual and society through a joint business operation. Although cooperatives are known as a utopian type of collaboration, their basic principles function according to “classical” market logics but focus on human needs at the same time. The ownership of a cooperative is in the hands of the members, yet this legal form is comparable to a cooperation, as similar organisational structures exist (e.g. board of directors, supervisory board or general assembly) (Notz 2021).
To understand cooperatives more fully, it is worth looking at the values and principles of the International Cooperative Alliance. Cooperatives are defined by several principles: 1) voluntary and open membership, 2) democratic control (one person, one vote), 3) equal economic participation of members, 4) autonomy and independence, 5) education, training and information, 6) cooperation within the cooperative movement, and 7) common good orientation (International Cooperative Alliance 2022).
Cooperatives in the Digital Space
But why should the cooperative principle be applied to internet corporations or even to existing digital platforms? As already explained, the existing market is determined by neoliberal structures. This situation leads to profit orientation and the exploitation of human needs. Consequently, cooperative values would make the internet, degenerated as a billboard, somewhat more human-friendly.
Furthermore, the digital space offers suitable conditions for the management of cooperatives. If the values of the International Cooperative Alliance are compared with those of a digital platform, parallels can be seen. For example, the voluntary and open membership of actors. Or the (partial) democratic control of digital artefacts: recently observable with Elon Musk’s vote on Twitter (“Should I step down as head of Twitter?”).
Loss of Control and Actor Empowerment
If cooperative structures are appropriately transferred to the digital space, a reduced dominance by individual entities can be expected because platform owners would lose control. Decisions would be made in the interest of users and cooperative members – not in the interest of shareholders or focal actors. Again, the Elon Musk poll serves as an example.
However, the reinforcement of humanistic values must be understood as a key outcome. Cooperative platforms would imply turning away from the paradigm of profit maximisation and consequently prevent the exploitation of psychological vulnerabilities. For example, in line with the principles of the International Cooperative Alliance, the end of passive consumption of digital contributions is conceivable. Meaningless, purely hedonistic content became a phenomenon of the past. Instead, the education of users could be targeted to strengthen their digital literacy and empowerment. Sovereign cooperators benefit the digital community, because creating high-quality content should be understood as a parameter for the success of platforms.
It is time to revisit the internet’s past values and put democratic principles back on the agenda. In this respect, current initiatives give some hope for the deregulated, profit-oriented internet world. Examples include the EU’s Data Governance Act, in which digital intermediaries act as associations, or the open-source community of the social media platform Mastodon. Future initiatives should also consider the concept of cooperatives to make the digital space more human again.
- Barbrook, Richard, and Andy Cameron. (1996). “The californian ideology.” Science as culture 6.1.
- Dolata, Ulrich. (2019). “Privatization, curation, commodification.” Österreichische Zeitschrift für Soziologie 44.1.
- International Cooperative Alliance (2022). Cooperative identity, values & principles. ICA COOP. https://www.ica.coop/en/cooperatives/cooperative-identity. (Accessed: 29.12.2022).
- Notz, G. (2021). Genossenschaften: Geschichte, Aktualität und Renaissance. Schmetterling Stuttgart.