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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

Even though the editors contend that this book isn't about the conference proceedings of the Free Cooperation Conference they organized at the State University of New York at Buffalo in late April 2004, it very much is. Christoph Spehr's essay, "Free Cooperation," which serves as the cornerstone for this collection, was translated for and introduced to English-speaking media scholars at the event. The text also contains the conference program, biographical sketches of participants, and some comments by event organizers on "The Semiotics of Conferencing," a brief consideration of the need for alternative forms of such gatherings. There's also a companion DVD that features additional material on and documentation of the event, including video footage of conference sessions. The book might not be about the 2004 event, but it is as much a representation of the conference as it is an outcome of the conference -- or the active embodiment of the ideas behind the conference.

Readers who want to cut to the quick of the book, rather than the event, should concentrate their attention and energy on Spehr's contribution and the other dominant selection from the book, "Technologies of Cooperation," a reprint of an Institute for the Future report by Howard Rheingold. Both could have been published singly as pamphlets or reports -- indeed, were -- and their combination and juxtaposition makes the overall work's primary point better than the book as a whole does in the end.

Spehr, a political theorist, writer, and media artist in Germany, wrote his essay as an entry in a competition held by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Berlin in which organizers posed the question, "Under which conditions can social equality and political freedom be compatible?" The resulting essay won, and it's also where you should start.

Referencing Jean-Jacques Rousseau's A Discourse upon the Origin and the Foundation of the Inequality Among Mankind, originally published in 1754, Spehr addresses different forms of domination and proposes that people can be free and equal only in a framework of free cooperation. He contrasts the "cynical freedom" of democratic capitalism and the "disempowered equality" of socialism (88) as two limited extremes of social reality, offering free cooperation -- real-time utopia -- as a radical response. In its most simple form, free cooperation has three qualities. First of all, any rules or operating principles for those cooperating can be renegotiated by members at any time. Secondly, people are free to leave -- or limit their involvement in -- the partnership. And finally, the cost of renegotiating rules or leaving is the same, regardless of scale, for each participant.

The essayist outlines how free cooperation can be applied to five politics: existing power structures, social relationships, capacities for action, a critique of democracy, and organizing principles. This section moves from the realm of theory to action, and the remarks on the appropriation of spaces and connectivity are an appropriate transition to Rheingold's paper. "To re-distribute spaces, to appropriate them autonomously 'from below,' is a substantial criterion of a politics of free cooperation," Spehr writes. "Connectivity is no less important than space ... That's why the loss of a formal work place is also experienced as social exclusion" (132).

Rheingold's report, "Technologies of Cooperation," then, examines the state and potential of eight types of cooperative and collaborative technologies: mesh networks, community computing grids, peer production networks, social mobile networks, group-forming networks, social software, social accounting tools, and knowledge collectives. In the paper, as well as a wonderfully dense foldout included as an insert, Rheingold details the structure, rules, resources, thresholds, feedback mechanisms, memory, and identity aspects of each.

That portion of the book is rife with tool-based examples of technology-supported forms of free cooperation -- while Spehr's piece primarily comments on the theoretical bases of revolutionary social movements such as the Zapatista Liberation Army and worker cooperatives. That juxtaposition -- and capability gap -- poses the most challenging questions in terms of the need to bridge those largely offline social movements and the rarified air of online social media, which is dependent on centralized and occasionally corporate structures of coordination, as well as technologies more readily accessible to an educated, monied elite.

The editors allude to that contradiction in "The Semiotics of Conferencing" when they bemoan the limitations of open source software tools such as OpenOffice when compared to PowerPoint or Keynote, the more dominant (and dominating) commercial-grade tools. Regardless, Rheingold's survey is a wide-ranging and insightful indication that online tools can and are already empowering free cooperation. But are the technologies as free as the processes and projects they support?

Despite the book being a catchall of sorts for everything contributing to, transpiring at, and resulting from the Free Cooperation Conference, somewhat mysteriously absent is Lovink's essay "Axioms of Free Cooperation," which was included in his 2007 book Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture. Those 16 pages might be the missing bridge between Spehr's essay and Rheingold's report. "The more people work online, the more important it is to understand that the technical architecture of the tools we use is shaping our social experiences," Lovink writes in that volume. "But we should not separate the technical and put it outside of social interactions" (214).

To their credit, the people behind the book and conference advocating and exploring free cooperation attempted to leverage aspects of the practice in the development of both. Lovink and Scholz's opening comments, "Collaboration on the Fence," are paralleled by excerpts from emails sent to the Free Cooperation Listserv. Event organizers used mailing lists, blogs, wikis, streaming audio, video conferencing, and turntablism over the course of the conference planning and staging. And they tried to avoid keynote speeches and panels in the name of debates, discussions, and roundtables. That said, they don't spend any time considering Open Space Technology, much less unconferences, as an alternative mode of conference organizing.

The multimedia mélange that came out of the conference proceedings -- be sure to watch Spehr and Jorg Windszus's short film On Rules and Monsters for another, more playful take on Spehr's ideas -- is an occasionally confusing and contradictory encapsulation of free cooperation. Tightly pairing Spehr and Rheingold's contributions helps lend some clarity to the potential of the concept. In the end, then, those tensions -- the leap from collaboration to collaborative technologies, the balance between centrally controlled tools (the Internet) and free cooperation, and the need to include a diversity of voices while lending filters and focus -- might be real-time examples of the best and worst of free cooperation in action. It's just like Lovink and Scholz say in their introduction: "Collaboration always already happens, forced or not, tense or joyful, stomachaches or hot rushes" (15).

Geert Lovink, Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Heath Row:
Heath Row works as a research manager for Google. Previously, he served as an editor for Fast Company magazine, where he founded the Company of Friends, a prototypical social network of innovative business leaders. He's also active in the papernet, participating in several amateur press associations and exploring other offline modes of correspondence culture.  <kalel@well.com>

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