Book review: Ours to Hack and to Own

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It seems like the age of ownership is over, and I'm not just talking about the devices and software that many of us bring into our homes and our lives. I'm also talking about the platforms and services on which those devices and apps rely.

While many of the services that we use are free, we don't have any control over them. The firms that do, in essence, control what we see, what we hear, and what we read. Not only that, but many of them are also changing the nature of work. They're using closed platforms to power a shift away from full-time work to the gig economy, one that offers little in the way of security or certainty.

This move has wide-ranging implications for the Internet and for everyone who uses and relies on it. The vision of the open Internet from just 20-odd-years ago is fading and is rapidly being replaced by an impenetrable curtain.

One remedy that's becoming popular is building platform cooperatives, which are digital platforms that their users own. The idea behind platform cooperatives has many of the same roots as open source, as the book "Ours to Hack and to Own" explains.

Scholar Trebor Scholz and writer Nathan Schneider have collected 40 essays discussing the rise of, and the need for, platform cooperatives as tools ordinary people can use to promote openness, and to counter the opaqueness and the restrictions of closed systems.

Where open source fits in

At or near the core of any platform cooperative lies open source; not necessarily open source technologies, but the principles and the ethos that underlie open source—openness, transparency, cooperation, collaboration, and sharing.

In his introduction to the book, Trebor Scholz points out that:

In opposition to the black-box systems of the Snowden-era Internet, these platforms need to distinguish themselves by making their data flows transparent. They need to show where the data about customers and workers are stored, to whom they are sold, and for what purpose.

It's that transparency, so essential to open source, which helps make platform cooperatives so appealing and a refreshing change from much of what exists now.

Open source software can definitely play a part in the vision of platform cooperatives that "Ours to Hack and to Own" shares. Open source software can provide a fast, inexpensive way for groups to build the technical infrastructure that can power their cooperatives.

Mickey Metts illustrates this in the essay, "Meet Your Friendly Neighborhood Tech Co-Op." Metts works for a firm called Agaric, which uses Drupal to build for groups and small business what they otherwise couldn't do for themselves. On top of that, Metts encourages anyone wanting to build and run their own business or co-op to embrace free and open source software. Why? It's high quality, it's inexpensive, you can customize it, and you can connect with large communities of helpful, passionate people.

Not always about open source, but open source is always there

Not all of the essays in this book focus or touch on open source; however, the key elements of the open source way—cooperation, community, open governance, and digital freedom—are always on or just below the surface.

In fact, as many of the essays in "Ours to Hack and to Own" argue, platform cooperatives can be important building blocks of a more open, commons-based economy and society. That can be, in Douglas Rushkoff's words, organizations like Creative Commons compensating "for the privatization of shared intellectual resources." It can also be what Francesca Bria, Barcelona's CTO, describes as cities running their own "distributed common data infrastructures with systems that ensure the security and privacy and sovereignty of citizens' data."

Final thought

If you're looking for a blueprint for changing the Internet and the way we work, "Ours to Hack and to Own" isn't it. The book is more a manifesto than user guide. Having said that, "Ours to Hack and to Own" offers a glimpse at what we can do if we apply the principles of the open source way to society and to the wider world.

That idiot Scott Nesbitt ...
I'm a long-time user of free/open source software, and write various things for both fun and profit. I don't take myself all that seriously and I do all of my own stunts.

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