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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

Talk about effective cooperation, collaboration, and communication is reaching fever pitch in both scholarly and non-scholarly realms as the world's economic structure gets turned further and further upside-down. Increased hours at work, tightening belts, and growing pressure on kids to achieve prompt families to consider ways to work together to turn their home life into a well-oiled machine. Increased overhead causes businesses to find ways for both in-person and computer-mediated collaborations to become more effective and efficient. Everyone is worried and aware that something needs to start working soon for us to even stay afloat.

In our panicked search to find new ways to approach problems, be they home-based, work-related, or global in scale, we often turn to the notion of "working together" as a way to pull through difficult times. But isn't working together what got us in to this mess? US banks colluded with sketchy back-room investors to create a false market on which we pinned our retirements, and executives worked together to amass nauseating wealth for themselves while their workforces fell further and further behind on their bills. Many at the "top" worked together and went to unbelievable lengths to create laws, bureaucracies, and convoluted social ideals to keep the system running in a way that siphoned all the power up to them and away from the rest of us. Isn't "cooperation" just the optimistic side of the same coin as "collusion?"

If collaboration as we know it puts us right back in the same situation that has caused us so much grief, it seems our three options are: 1) Continue the cycle and set ourselves up for another disaster (no thank you); 2) Throw out collaboration completely and live purely as individuals (not likely); or 3) Consider the model proposed by Geert Lovink and Trebor Scholz in their book The Art of Free Cooperation. Through their ideas, we can begin to see in the distance the part of the road where "collaboration" and "collusion" split off and careen away in opposite directions.

The essay "Free Cooperation" by Christopher Spehr, which occupies the bulk of the book and is responsible for the majority of the explanation of the idea of free cooperation, proposes that the large majority of the cooperations we engage in every day -- from functioning within our families to holding down a job to civic activities -- are in fact forced cooperations. Forced cooperations have three defining features. First, the rules of a forced cooperation are neither negotiable nor flexible. For example, if an office worker (given that offices are collaborations where team members work together to solve business problems and produce profits) is having problems with a co-worker, he must go to his boss, then his boss either deals with the matter or tells him the next person "up the ladder" who needs to become involved. The rules state that the boss is the person he must go to first, and many companies have elaborate human resources policies in place to ensure that this protocol is followed, whether or not it makes clear sense for each situation. Following this protocol is really the only reasonable first step this worker can take.

The second feature of forced collaborations is that the machine never turns off. Continuing with the original example, while our office worker is trying to get a resolution for his problem, the office keeps running. He keeps working in his potentially uncomfortable situation, and business progresses as usual. Nothing stops despite the system showing apparent signs of trouble. Thirdly, the office worker cannot leave the collaboration or defy the rules of the collaboration without facing considerable consequences. Here, he may finally need to quit or even be fired, pushed aside for promotions after being branded a troublemaker, or face ostracism from his coworkers. Hence the worker is forced to continue to play his role in this collaboration, as he has no way to stop his situation or remove himself from it without potentially devastating career, financial, social, legal, etc, consequences.

Free cooperation rejects these realities and offers an opposing triad of cooperation features. In free cooperation, the plight of our troubled office worker would look quite different. First, the rules around how to handle an at-work issue would be up for negotiation. In fact, they would not even exist in the first place without the equal input of all the members of the cooperation. The boss' opinion would matter as much as the opinion of the person who emptied the trash cans at the end of the day. The expected power hierarchy would not be present. Even if old rules were in place that did not work for this situation, our worker would have the power to renegotiate the rules so that they did in fact work for him. The rules are not set in stone. Therefore, the rules never get in the way.

Secondly, our worker would be free to limit, retract, or put conditions on his participation. He would be free to say that he will not be coming in to work until his situation is addressed or that every time his trouble with the co-worker flares up, he will stop producing. He is the sole owner of that which he contributes to the cooperative team. Progressing from this, he has the power to make such restrictions because of the third feature of free cooperation. This states that the price for leaving the cooperation is equal and bearable for all parties. Here, our worker can leave the office because doing so will not throw his world or the world of his co-workers into unbearable turmoil. Specifically, his leaving will not cause any more or any less disruption than if any of his other co-workers left. No one person holds the power card, and conversely no one person is considered useless to the group.

This last feature of free cooperation is most thought-provoking given current times. In the current economic crisis, multi-millionaire CEOs can retire and live luxuriously for decades if they walk away from a troublesome job (as many have.) They will likely keep their friends and their standard of living, and they will still be largely looked upon as "successful" for having amassed so much money and power in a lifetime regardless of how that career ended. Meanwhile, should the accountants, administrators, marketers, etc that worked under that same CEO choose to leave, they will lose the income they require to live day to day. They will lose their health insurance, their children's educational and enrichment opportunities will constrict, and they may experience decreased social capital for losing their job (more so if they stay unemployed for some time.) They will not even be able to collect government unemployment assistance because they left their jobs "voluntarily." Just this one striking disparity illustrates the need for attention to be given to ideas like free cooperation.

The definitions of and theory behind the dichotomy of forced and free cooperations are the pith of this book. Beyond those components, the book does offer chapters up front in which participants in the conference upon which this book was based offer insights on technologies of cooperation and different paths taken to understand the nature of cooperation. The end of the book features the program of this same conference, and abbreviated quotes and insights from the participants. Additionally, the book comes with a chart of the technologies involved in cooperation and a DVD with conference footage and a very entertaining and informative short movie by Christopher Spehr and Jorg Windszus on the nature of free cooperation. While these components are helpful in contextualizing and situating the formulation of free cooperation itself, this book's main contribution to the greater body of literature to which it belongs is its exposing the nature of the forced cooperations to which so many of us have become completely blind, and offering an alternative to this problematic norm.

While clearly proposing a system for improving our daily collaborations, this book also invites many questions about the feasibility and effectiveness of the system laid out. Anyone who has been a part of a collaboration (which is nearly everyone) knows that there are innumerable ways in which a collaboration can go sour. Something as simple as one person not pulling their weight, a disagreement on a fundamental piece of the intended product, one person with a hidden agenda, or even basic time and resource troubles can throw what initially looked like a wonderful collaborative opportunity into an anxiety-producing tailspin. The most inviting and open collaborators can shut down as deadlines loom and outside stresses take their toll. Can't these things happen in any cooperation, even one that follows the principles of free cooperation?

Lovink and Scholz offer us a thought-provoking, insightful, and multifaceted alternative to the way most of us have experienced cooperations in both our personal and professional lives. By outlining the ways in which forced cooperations fail us and the way the alternative free cooperations can help us be successful, they catalyze our brains thinking about where in our own lives free cooperation might work, and how we can instigate such a system with the people around us.

Amanda Rotondo:
Amanda Rotondo is a Ph.D. student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Her research deals with using value sensitive design practices to improve computer-mediated communication practices and technologies.  <rotona2@rpi.edu>

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