I’ve followed what The Humane Tech has been doing for some time, and it seems to me that lot of the problems come down to the shareholder model. Few quotes from @tristanh that seem to make this case:
"Their (tech companies with business models based on advertising) stock price is too hinged on a certain amount of usage. How do we decouple the link between the stock price and how much attention is extracted? This is the thing that I’m actually most alarmed about in the current system. "
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“Supercomputers play chess against your mind to extract the attention out of you. The stock price has to keep going up, so they point it at your kid and start extracting the attention out of them. You don’t want an extraction-based economy powered by AI, playing chess against people’s minds. We cannot win in that world.”
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It seems to me that the core of the problem is a conflict of interest between the owners and the users of the platforms. For example, it might be in the interest of the users of Facebook to make the platform more suitable for organizing sport events. However, if this will lead into people spending more time exercising instead of using Facebook, it’s not in the interest of the owners.
I think the solution to this conflict of interest between users and owners is to make users into owners of the platform. Cooperatives are businesses owned by the customers or the workers, with each member owning one share. They already exist around the world, with over 1 billion members. They are highly successful: for example, cooperative banks (such as credit unions in the US) and worker-owned cooperatives were less likely to go bust during the financial crisis than otherwise comparable companies.
There is a movement called platform cooperativism that I’m deeply involved (I started the Wikipedia article about it and am currently working for one) that seeks to create user owned online platforms. While not a cooperative, the largely user-governed Wikimedia is an example of a massive online platform that is not shareholder owned. It has also not engaged in the unethical practices that we Humane Tech folks are so concerned about.
There are two problems that platform cooperatives face:
It’s difficult for small cooperatives to operate on a loss while developing and spreading innovations. Facebook made losses up until 2012. It could do this by covering the losses with venture capital investment. It’s harder for a user-owned cooperative to do the same: because everyone owns one share in a cooperative, equity investment to cover the losses is trickier.
One-member-one-share principle can also make founders who put a lot of initial effort into the company reluctant on adopting the cooperative model, as it makes giving sweat-equity more tricky.
I do not wish to make this post seem like promotion of my own projects, so I’m not gonna mention by name the two platform cooperatives I’m involved in, but I will give few concrete examples of how they differ in practice.
I’m working for a cooperative that is about to launch an app that will allow anyone to invest in cooperatives around the world. It fixes the two problems mentioned above by enabling cooperatives to issue investor and founder shares. These two type of shares give a dividend of the profits, but no voting rights. The members have full and democratic ownership, but they can accept investment from anyone across the world and reward the founders. Our goal is to offer start-ups an alternative to venture capital, and enable democratic user-ownership of online platforms.
I’m involved in an online discussion and link-sharing platform cooperative that allows users to become a member-owners, with every owner (including us founders) owning one share. Users democratically propose and approve new features. The platform only advertises other coops that seek investment in the coop mentioned above. There is no targeted advertisement. Instead, users will vote each week what coop they find, and the coop receives exposure according to how many votes it receives from the users.