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The Art of Free Cooperation

Editor: Geert Lovink, Trebor Scholz
Publisher: Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2007
Review Published: May 2009

 REVIEW 1: Jason Del Gandio
 REVIEW 2: Amanda Rotondo
 REVIEW 3: Heath Row

The Art of Free Cooperation, edited by Geert Lovink and Trebor Scholz, emerged from a conference by the same name and organized by the same people. The conference took place at the State University of New York, Buffalo, in late April, 2004 and focused upon "the art of (online) collaboration." The book has three basic purposes. First, it investigates, debates, and promotes notions of non-coerced interaction of all kinds and at all levels of social life. This is known as free cooperation, and the editors and authors are most concerned with its relationship to our use of communication technologies. How can we utilize such technologies to create a more egalitarian, radically democratic, and bottom-up world? Second, the book exposes Anglophone audiences to Christopher Spehr's essay, which is entitled "Free Cooperation." That essay provides the raison d'etre for the budding field of free cooperation studies and thus motivates and anchors the entire book (and conference). And third, following this line of thought, the book advocates for livelier, riskier, and more experimental approaches to the exchange of ideas. This is especially so for academic conferences, which are often too traditional, humdrum, and laden with talking head intellectual celebrities.

Beginning with the last point, the editors use the preface and final chapter to discuss, reflect upon, and passionately yet respectfully critique the "paperism" and "panelism" of mainstream academic conferencing. There's no doubt that traditional conferences can be unexciting affairs laden with monological presentations by celebrity academics. The Free Cooperation Conference consciously resisted that model and followed a Brechtian format, involving open mics, performances, workshops, experiments, and all things risky and unconventional. Based on the organizers' own descriptions, it seems that they wanted the attendees to be hyper-aware of the conference's own constructed nature. The implication then becomes obvious: we are free to construct other forms of conferencing -- forms that break new ground, that create new modes of interaction, and that free us from the traditional bureaucratic-esque, top-down presentations. This rejection of traditional conferencing is an attempt to do rather than simply theorize about free cooperation. The editors help us envision free cooperation by including the conference program, which is found at the very end of the book. This inclusion does at least two things: it proves that alternative modes of intellectual exchange are not only possible but even better suited for exploring and dialoguing ideas; and it acts as a resource for other conference organizers who want to take the risk and develop similar or even more radical environments.

This experimental conferencing sets the stage for Christopher Spehr's marathon essay, "Free Cooperation." Coming in at approximately one-hundred and fifteen pages, this essay expounds upon the political (and radical) praxis of free cooperation: the idea that we should free ourselves from all forced interaction and consciously create a world of free interaction. In a nutshell, free cooperation is based on creating non-hierarchical and non-authoritarian relationships in every aspect of life. No one has more or less power than another and everyone must continually reflect upon, discuss, debate, and negotiate their wants, needs, and expectations with everyone else. This may sound utopian, but it is not. Spehr makes no promises of human or social perfection. In fact, free cooperation highlights our imperfections, making us hyper-cognizant of communicative and existential difficulties. For Spehr, true freedom is based on one's willingness and ability to freely participate in (and/or withdraw from) every social, political, economic, and interpersonal interaction. Each of us, in conjunction with others, mandates the conditions of our interactions. This type of socio-political foundation radically alters our lives: work is no longer something we must do but rather something we do for personal and collective fulfillment; representational democracy gives way to direct/participatory democracy; both capitalism and State-administered socialism are uprooted and replaced by a decentered, mutually beneficiary economy run by everyone; education is guided by radical individualism rather than socio-economic expectations and management; and our ongoing interpersonal relationships are bonds of and opportunities for growth, support, and rigorous (and perhaps endless) discussion/debate.

Spehr's essay is best understood as revolutionary rather than idealist, as it aligns with a long tradition of radicalism: Emma Goldman, Cornelius Castoriadis, Guy Debord, Raoul Vaneigem, Post-Workerism, Autonomous-Marxism, and, more recently, Michael Albert, John Holloway, and the Zapatistas, envision and advocate for a decentered world of radical equality. Free cooperation might be difficult to accept and even a bit shocking to some readers, but Spehr provides a well-reasoned and intellectually justified account. If nothing else, it challenges us to confront a very important question: Why do we continually accept and participate in a social system that is by its very nature oppressive? We might answer by saying that "there is no alternative." But if that's the case, then Spehr provides a compelling contribution to a possible alternative.

The other major essay in this book is by Howard Rheingold, an established thinker concerned with the social implications of technology. His essay, entitled "Technologies of Cooperation," provides a long and detailed taxonomy of current social communication media. Three major concerns underlie that taxonomy. First, Rheingold focuses upon the nature of human cooperation in our age of global digital technology. He provides brief but detailed definitions, examples, rules of use, and implications and thresholds of the newest technologies, including self-organizing mesh networks like peer-to-peer file exchanges, community computing grids like ensemble forecasting, group-forming networks like wikis, and social software like blogs. Second, Rheingold argues that the expansion and advancement of social communication media increases our capacity to cooperate in more complex ways. A reflexive relationship is at work: advanced communication technologies create more complex cooperation amongst humans, and as our interactions become more complex we necessitate more advanced technologies. This argument strengthens the commonplace belief that our (technological) world is becoming increasingly complex at a dizzying speed. Third and last, Rheingold considers how our newest social/communication technologies might help us address social concerns and problems. These technologies, for instance, allow us to communicate and to share and develop knowledge across space and time; allow greater numbers of people to directly participate in decision making processes; increase our capacity to store greater amounts of information, thus expanding our collective "memory"; and exponentially compound our technological and thus social and political power. Given the overall framing of this book, it is safe to assume that our newest technological advancements enhance, but never guarantee, the possibility of free cooperation.

The book also includes smaller contributions: a brief call to action by prominent cultural critic and activist Brian Holmes; snippets of pre-conference email exchanges that lay bare some of the motivations, frustrations, and insights of actually doing free cooperation; and lastly, a DVD of interviews, performances, and talks from the conference. All in all, The Art of Free Cooperation provides a small glimpse into the emerging field of free cooperation studies and raises interesting questions about some relationships among the newest media technologies, radical social change, individual and collective freedom, and new forms of social interaction. Before concluding, there are two projects that emerged from the conference worth noting: the Institute for Distributed Creativity and the Institute for Network Cultures. Both provide interesting and often cutting edge dialogue about media technologies, political theory, and social change.

Jason Del Gandio:
Jason Del Gandio is a writer, thinker, activist, and teacher dedicated to local and global justice. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Public Communication at Temple University (Philadelphia), specializing in rhetoric, the philosophy of communication, and critical studies. His first book, Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists, was recently published by New Society Publishers.  <rhetoric4radicals@gmail.com>

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