Nathan Schneider is an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he leads the Media Enterprise Design Lab and the MA program in Media and Public Engagement. He is the author of Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition that Is Shaping the Next Economy, published by Nation Books, and two previous books, God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse, both published by University of California Press. Recent scholarship has been published in New Media & Society, Feminist Media Studies, the Georgetown Law Technology Review, and Media, Culture & Society, among other journals. He has also reported for publications including Harper’s, The Nation, The New Republic, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and others, along with regular columns for America, a national Catholic magazine. He has lectured at universities including Columbia, Fordham, Harvard, MIT, NYU, the University of Bologna, and Yale. In 2015, he co-organized “Platform Cooperativism,” a pioneering conference on democratic online platforms at The New School, and co-edited the subsequent book, Ours to Hack and to Own: The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, a New Vision for the Future of Work and a Fairer Internet. Follow his work on social media at @ntnsndr or at his website, nathanschneider.info.
Dustin Breitling: Your book, Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition that Is Shaping the Next Economy, undertook an extensive survey of cooperatives or the focus on democratically controlled enterprises. First, can you speak to the historical genesis of cooperativism up to the present day whether through Acts 2:44 to concepts such as ‘transnational affinity groupings’ or ‘neo-tribes.’ What are some key tenets of cooperativism, and perhaps you can elaborate for us on some particular places you focused on in the book as exemplary of such?
Nathan Schneider: Yeah, absolutely. In many ways, this is an ancient tradition that we can point to that has biblical roots. This also led me to see how many different cultures have adopted cooperative practices. But, you know, most relevant in this respect is the fact that the cooperative movement is a kind of counter-tradition that has grown up alongside the legacy of the modern investor-owned business. So at around the same time, in the mid-19th century, the modern investor-owned corporation was thinking in particular about North American law. There were cooperatives forming at the same time, and these cooperatives were inscribed in British law. This is similar to understanding how, before the stock corporation in its modern form, there was a kind of parallel tradition and practice of a kind of business in which people who participated in it didn’t just invest as direct participants, as workers, as consumers, or like a CEO who owns a business. And it’s a legacy that has gotten so much less support in terms of the development of law as well as financing.
It is a tradition that has accomplished extraordinary things, and in working on the book, I learned so much, actually, about how my own family history was shaped by this cooperative movement. For instance, on my father’s farm, where he grew up with no electricity because no investor in an electric company would bother going there, he got electricity only when the Rural Electric Cooperative became available, starting in the 1930s. And so this is the legacy that, I think is important to look back on and to revive in the context of the online economy, where we have over and over again these deep accountability crises. This is kind of at the root of so many of the problems we see with online platforms today, I think. And so I’ve been working for years with people trying to build a new generation of online platforms that grow out of this cooperative tradition.
DB: I’d like to focus on maybe some of the misgivings you have as well related to cryptoeconomics, because you do highlight that you see that it’s moving or that there’s a tendency for it to start reflecting plutocratic patterns as well. And you see elements of invasive forms of enclosure—artificial scarcity—which, you know, in general, is already reflecting a system that in itself is exclusionary; perhaps you could talk about this? Conversely, you point to 1Hive, where there are these types of tokens that can influence decisions based on someone’s commitment as opposed to, say, how much of a native crypto token they own. So I guess my second question here is, do you see these kinds of reputation tokens as also aligning with your concept of ‘exit to community’?
NS: To rollback on that, I got into this cooperative tradition, in my kind of recent work around the time that I also got fascinated by the possibilities of crypto, around 2012–2013. I was watching activists from the 2011 uprisings get into the cooperative movement. And then, in early 2014, I learned about the Ethereum white paper that came out at that time. I really got interested in the possibilities Ethereum presented as a kind of operating system for designing, redesigning organizations, and redesigning an economy. These tools can amplify a cooperative movement, and in some respects, crypto could be seen as a tool of community ownership. But at the same time, the same tools can be used to deepen and accelerate the commodification of everything and the intrusion of investor ownership into all aspects of our lives. So it’s a deeply ambivalent technology. And I think it’s really important to enter this kind of emerging moment with that recognition. This forces us to not view everything equally as inevitable and to understand that the nature of this technology is bound up with the way you program what it does. And so the kinds of assumptions are that the kind of social outcomes that we program, these tools can determine and provide a new opportunity to rewrite the economic operating system. And so I’ve been really interested over these years in trying to bring that core group tradition into conversation with the crypto world, and to some degree, we’ve seen some successes there. There’s a lot of creativity in forms of democratic practice going on in crypto, more than what I currently see in the cooperative movement. And that’s one reason I’m really fascinated by the crypto world: there’s so much experimentation. We just had the huge ETH Denver conference.
The conference DAO is actually incorporated as a cooperative. We had our governor there speaking about how Colorado is both a welcoming place for cooperatives and for crypto, and let’s put these together. So there’s that narrative where that connection has been growing, but at the same time, I think it’s still kind of dwarfed by that kind of DeFi, investor-driven, whale-controlled behemoth of the crypto movement. I think there’s a very profound danger of actually replicating and putting the emphasis on investor ownership as opposed to participant ownership. The window is still open, I think, but particularly as the regulatory environment starts to be clarified, and as norms start establishing themselves as patterns and habits, then this kind of watery universe starts forming. I think it’s going to become harder and harder to change. This is a critical element for getting the foundations for enabling community ownership in this emerging space. And so it’s all-important, I found, to lift up the examples that are doing that, to emphasize that this is something we need to build on and work toward, and stress that it’s not inevitable. And we need to take that challenge seriously.
DB: You have also undertaken studies to look at this idea about ‘implicit feudalism’ could you expound on this topic?
NS: This is where I think there are a number of opportunities where crypto could make a real difference. Thus, ‘implicit feudalism’ emerges from a particular kind of design that dates way back. I found that it stems back to the early bulletin board systems that preceded the modern internet. This is where people would meet in chats and on these servers that were often hosted in people’s homes, and whoever had the sphere in their home had a kind of absolute control over it. You could pull the plug at any time and kind of acted, you know, as if you were all guests at my home. And so it’s created a norm where the software was developed around the logic of control by that admin over the space. In the same way, when we have guests over at our home, we kind of want to be able to manage this to some degree. And, as opposed to creating tools to facilitate community and democratic governance, those kinds of norms that formed early, really got deeply incorporated into how every online space that we use, is set up. And it all kind of derives from things like the structure of the Unix operating system, permissions control, and ultimately who owns the server and whatever the service is running on. Instead of basic democratic governance, where people can remove a person in authority, we instead have a model where people in power are basically immovable and where the main way of dealing with conflict is censorship or exile, you know, being banned, or having posts removed. But in other respects, I think it’s deeply corrosive of the kinds of daily democratic practice that aren’t necessary for upholding a democratic society. You know, in the same way, that neighborhoods and civic organizations have always, since the rise of democratic politics, have been central to upholding a democratic culture. And we’re missing that, I think, in large part because of the design of the tools that people are using every day.
I am doing a project with my lab along with colleagues in my department, this year called Sacred Stacks. And it’s an effort to bring the emerging Web3 and distributed decentralized web tools into spaces that might not otherwise be early adopters. Essentially, it’s communities that are interested in having more power over their technology but don’t necessarily have the skills to be those early adopters. And to make all of this is bringing so many of the people who are leading the development of Web3 and Metaverse, are kind of a highly privileged group who are kind of the usual suspects with new technology, and we’ve seen the assumptions of developers end up creating some terrible outcomes for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. And so, in my lab, and in MetaGov, we’re undertaking projects this year that are really focused on doing co-design. Communities that are less likely to be the early adopters on their own and really being intentional in our design, by incorporating and collaborating with people you know, who potentially stand to benefit most from participatory design models, Here, we need to learn from the kinds of practices that those communities are already undertaking themselves, and from the wisdom that they bring to the design process of technology. So that’s really a major focus for me. Now, I’m starting work on a book that explores this idea of governable spaces and the tools for self-governance in more problematic phases of our world. How do we see self-governance through technology and otherwise as a kind of means of problem-solving, rather than assuming that our problems can be solved from the top down through regulatory interventions or other kinds of platform policies made by the powerful? Rather, we want to use this as a framework for thinking about the logic of creating more democratic spaces and to instead respond to the challenges we face with different forms of participatory democracy rather than a top-down type of control.
We’re missing opportunities to practice our democratic skills and really have an opportunity to design systems with these practices, which now, I think, offer an opportunity to do things differently. It’s unlike those earlier systems. It’s a kind of technology that’s not based on centralized servers ultimately controlling everything. It’s a little more interesting in that it enables a kind of community governance—distributed governance as a primitive post too, assuming no one can unplug the server at any time. Thus, it opens the door for something different; it doesn’t mean that we’ll see different storms emerging, but already, we’re seeing that people are taking advantage of this technology to develop more democratic, more participatory forms of governance in online spaces. And I think that’s something that’s really important to notice, to build on, and to recognize that this technological shift is a really important opportunity to do things differently than what we’ve seen in previous iterations of online space.
DB: I think this also ties in quite well with your involvement with the MetaGovernance project. This is a project that dovetails with your focus on warding off these kinds of rigid hierarchies or possibilities of ‘implicit feudalism” as well as furnishing tools to be utilized for purposes of trying out different governance schemes and mechanisms, and so forth. So, could you first maybe talk about that and the connection with Modular Politics?
NS: Yeah, it emerged initially, before my time, when a game company, based in Germany, I believe approached Lawrence Lessig, a kind of eminent tech legal scholar at Harvard, about designing in-game governance. This started a process of exploration, the project has been kind of taken over by a group of younger scholars, builders, and designers. And, it has turned into this community of people exploring the possibilities of online governance. We have a seminar, every week, we have speakers, we have been developing software, several experiments, we’re working with DAOs, on developing standards for online governance focused on trying to tackle this challenge of ‘implicit feudalism’ but it goes much beyond that. Early on, we developed this paper concerning the concept of Modular Politics. And that basically tried to articulate what a kind of sophisticated governance framework could look like in online spaces where rather than assuming that there’s an admin without control, instead to have spaces where people can build and mix and match different governance tools and create optimized appropriate environments. So that provided a kind of initial foray into what we’re trying to accomplish together. Of course, as you start building tools, you start learning all sorts of ways in which you know, the theory runs into its limits. It’s been motivating several projects including a gateway tool that was designed to kind of connect different online spaces where people are so it works in Slack and Discourse.
Also, it connects to an open collective, so you could make a decision in your Discourse forum, and it would automatically unlock funds in the open collective. In the meanwhile, my lab has been working on a tool called Community Rule that has an authoring web app for designing governance mechanisms, which is again very much a work in progress. And then there is a game mod called Modpool, that tries to implement modular politics, both consensually and as a game mod written in Lua. It was initially designed for the game Minetest, which is a Minecraft clone, but because it’s written in Lua, the core of this work can be added to a wide variety of gaming platforms. So, you know, we’re looking to build that up right now. All of this is tempting to explore what does it take to build real tools to enable democratic governance? You know, it’s not an elementary problem in many respects. And, you know, we’ve run into some real challenges in ensuring the tools are both flexible, reliable, and functional. Nevertheless, it’s a really helpful set of experiments. And we’re starting to make some really exciting progress.
DB: To extend on that, a paper you co-authored espouses these four principles, which I think are really relevant to your focus on Modular Politics. First, you focus on Modularity where you are thinking about how platform operators and community members can construct systems? What can they import? What can they export? Also, you incorporate these ideas of Composability, Expressiveness, Portability, Interoperability. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Moving Castles concept that has been developed by a couple of members at Trust Network, which has a strong emphasis on gaming. So I’d really be interested in considering that gaming itself has become ubiquitous. How do you see this kind of concept of Moving Castles as a vehicle that fleshes out the idea of Modular Politics?
NS: Absolutely. I mean, when I first saw the Moving Castles idea, I was just thrilled, I do think gaming is a really important space to work on here, and the approach that you’re taking, seeing gaming as a site of experimentation, is something I resonate with. I played too many computer games as a kid and went cold turkey when I was like sixteen or seventeen and just stopped playing computer games entirely. It was only during a lockdown when I was stuck in the house with two small kids that I started experimenting again, particularly with this game, Minetest. There was an open-source community that developed and started kind of hacking around with it, seeing what it would take to build governance into it. But this is a moment where it does seem like, this world is becoming the real world more and more. This is a strategic place to work from, and I think a lot about theories that go back many decades where humans are playing wherever they are and whatever they’re doing. And the more you explore that question of political life as gaming. It’s kind of a natural fit to see games as a potentially really powerful space for reimagining our everyday political and social lives. Also, there’s this illusory sense that the games are kind of low stakes.
So, for instance, a lot of people are building software for cities to implement resource allocation decisions, I have no interest in it, I’m a very bad software developer, I studied computer science in college, where I dropped out due to religious study. And so I don’t trust myself as a software developer for political purposes. But I can play around in games where people have a little more tolerance for error. And it’s the kind of space where you can explore much more than in some of those other high stakes environments. And I think that the future of politics could be written right now in the game spaces. And so Moving Castles is kind of the beginning of gaming as a space for exploration, something I deeply appreciate.
DB: Would you mind just expanding regarding how your project synergizes with Minetest?
NS: It’s really kind of a game engine. And so it has a community full of modders making their own games on it, this is a mod that kind of sits on whatever game you’re playing and gives you the capacity to form groups, which are called orgs. And within those groups, you can make decisions about who can join, and everything, every action you can take within those orgs are defined by modules, which are kind of little snippets. You still have to build everything in code, unfortunately, right now, but modules are relatively brief; most of them would be less than a pitch on a paper, if printed out. They enable you to do simple things like join an org or decide whether somebody can join, or assign in-game powers to fellow members of an org. You can alter the rules that are available in an organization. So you can define a distinctive governance environment for a particular group. And the possibilities are really just bounded by what people can write, and we’re trying to build up a module library right now that enables different kinds of finality right now, we have a kind of consensus-based mechanism at the core of a lot of the modules available now. So right now you’ve got a kind of dashboard, which you can scroll through and see what processes are waiting for you to participate in, and what kinds of processes you could achieve within the orgs that you’re part of.
And so it’s the beginning of what it could look like to have a kind of democratic set of online spaces where the assumption is that you’re making decisions as a group together, rather than them an admin is making decisions for you. You can also develop a kind of Admin Control Framework, certainly possible in this system, but it does have a bit of a bias against that into how the system is designed. It’s still in its early stages; the interface is strange; and we’re learning a lot about the kinds of gaps and challenges we hadn’t anticipated in building this kind of governance flexibility. I think it is more challenging than building a very rigid, one fits all system. But I think ultimately, we’re already seeing that it’s perfectly possible to develop software for participatory governance and to create a flexible arrangement. And hopefully, the experiments we are doing now will pave the way for much more sophisticated software projects, to recognize this should be able to build this capability into our tools. We are not going to accept that ‘implicit feudalism’.