Who is Wellness For? Interview with Fariha Róisín

Fariha Róisín is a multidisciplinary artist, born in Ontario, Canada. She was raised in Sydney, Australia, and is based in Los Angeles, California. As a Muslim queer Bangladeshi, she is interested in the margins, liminality, otherness, and the mercurial nature of being. Her work has pioneered a refreshing and renewed conversation about wellness, contemporary Islam, and queer identities and has appeared in The New York Times, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Vice, Village Voice, and others. Her first work of non-fiction is titled “Who Is Wellness For? An Examination of Wellness Culture and Who it Leaves Behind”. Fariha shared her thoughts and insights on ethical approaches to collective wellbeing in December 2022, answering questions prepared by Marianne Abbott from Soul Collective Berlin and Ola Kohut from JOY Space.

What does “wellness”, experienced as a collective, mean to you?

To me, wellness experienced as a collective means taking care of one another, it means that the most underprivileged or disadvantaged people in society: disabled folks or chronically ill folks, child sexual abuse survivors, survivors or war, Black and Brown and indigenous folks – experience care. Because our livelihood is such that most definitely, in most cases, we have experienced deep ancestral trauma, such as genocide. My parents survived genocide in 1971 in Bangladesh, where 3 million people were murdered, and nobody talks about it. It’s one of the biggest acts of genocidal rape known or documented in history – and these things are passed down. There is a concept of epigenetics, where [trauma can leave a chemical mark on a person’s genes, which can then be passed down to future generations] – that’s why to me it’s really important for us to consider this as a society – what does it mean to take care of one another? The people who don’t have an opportunity to take care of themselves, poor people, people that are immigrants, people that don’t have accessibility, people that have blocks to having a better life than others. I think equity, living within equitable terms – is the best way for us to move forward as a society, and that’s what wellness looks like to me.

What are the 3 things you think every wellness practitioner should do to create more integrity in their practice, to truly contribute to a greater good in their community and of our planet?

I think every wellness practitioner should know the context of what they are teaching, I do stand behind this in the book. Right now, we have so many yogis around the world and so many people that own yoga studios who are not of Indian and South Asian descent. And this is highly dangerous given the fact that in India alone estimated 450 million people live below the poverty line. This is what we are tackling when we talk about context. It is important to know where does the money go, and how does this money help the communities from whom these practices have been extracted from, in the first place. So it’s about the context, and it’s also about redistribution of wealth. I don’t think we talk about this enough, and I don’t think we consider it enough – mutual aid is very important. How do we take care of our communities financially, especially if we have better financial opportunities, or we have financial privilege, then we have a responsibility to give back and to be generous. And I think that having a relationship with the land whether it’s through composting, which is a big one for me, or just tending to the land – having a garden, having access to the land – means that we’ll manage to shift our relationship to this planet. And I think that’s a really important practice that any wellness practitioner should bring into their understanding – how important it is to be in service to land. Many people in wellness seem to be in service to themselves and their ego – but what would it mean to be in service to each other, and this planet?

One of the most surprising things while reading your book was how deeply personal it is. Why was it important to you to share your personal healing journey as you conducted the examination of wellness culture? 

I wouldn’t be healing myself if I wasn’t immensely abused as a child. I think that’s really  important for us to acknowledge as a society. How many of us – whether it’s cancer, whether is IBS, fibromyalgia, whether it’s other chronic illnesses or terminal illnesses, whether it’s being in a disabled body – a lot of us had to experience these things because of what’s in our ancestral patterning, meaning – what happened to us as children, or what kind of trauma that we carry for our ancestors. And again, that comes down to our epigenetics, and goes back to very scientific research that is backed by thousands of years of studies from not only Indian or Muslim culture, but many native cultures, indigenous Native American or indigenous Native Australian cultures – there’s an awareness of the impact of trauma. And obviously we have shifted a lot as a society, but there’s still not a lot of space to talk about pain and grief. And I think this was my chance to share my own story, of why I’m on this deeply difficult and arduous healing journey, and what are the reasons behind that. I am not able-bodied, I haven’t been my entire life because of a very horrific thing that happened to me as a child. And I think all of those things are connected, and the more that we can understand that they are all connected, the more we can get closer to actually healing ourselves, and each other. 

Is there anything you gained a new perspective on since publishing your book?

I feel very strongly that this book needed to be written and I feel immensely privileged. It was a book of many years in the working and in the making, and I’m very grateful that I could write it. I have found that the teaching and the wisdom that is not mine – it’s only wisdom that I’m collecting through a lot of research, moving through a lot of information, reading a lot – it’s imperative for us to talk about what is wellness for is talking about, and to have difficult conversations with one another, and to have accountability between each other – accountability, whether or not we’re talking about yoga, accountability whether or not we’re talking about abuse. All of these things are connected. I’ve heard from a lot of child sexual survivors because I know I’m not alone – and I’m happy and grateful I could write a book that is resonating with these folks. 

Are there any people, organizations or collectives that you’re inspired about and would like to give a shoutout to? 

I love Céline Semaan, the founder of Slow Factory [a nonprofit dedicated to advancing climate justice and social equity]. I feel really grateful to have her friendship and to be involved in Slow Factory in any way that I can be. The thinkers that have shaped me – Robin Wall Kimmerer, Arundhati Roy, Vandana Shiva, Gabor Mate –  these are the voices of the collective. A lot of the people I reference in Who Is Wellness For?, and their work was poured over to bring this book to the world. And I feel a lot of gratitude for the teachings and wisdom of the elders that I look up to.

What gives us hope and joy these days? 

It’s a question that I think a lot of us are trying to remember. What brings us joy? For me personally it’s tending to myself and – funnily enough – being diligent about my routine, being diligent about taking care of myself. Being sick and someone who always needs to, for example, make sure that I’m eating, steps that I have to take in order to just get through my day – all of this is actually really satisfying just to do it, to not resist, to just be in the flow of the day. I’m grateful for my relationship with God and divine, and relationship to my earthly pleasures. I love ceramics, golden milk lattes, cooking for friends, and having a good connection and good communication with people that I love, sharing not only my highs but also my lows, and being heard. I think that those things don’t necessarily bring me joy but bring me satisfaction. 

Thank you so much Fariha! 

Confessions of An Ecovillage Founder: Lessons Learned from the Los Angeles Eco-Village

Artwork: Danielle “Bhavya” Winter, Following the Moon “Blossom”

In a time of cascading crises, many paths can lead us to the exploration of ecovillages. My personal curiosity regarding the lore of the ecovillage started when I began working on decentralized currencies in 2016 and, by proxy, found myself wondering about the praxis of decentralized governance. The rabbit-holes there are many, and run deep. A few of them led me to long-standing contemporary intentional communities – including Tamera, Damanhur, Auroville, and the LA Ecovillage (LAEV). 

The fantasy of exiting society to turn a desert into a verdant food forest alongside a like-minded commune grows more rational every day, but ultimately presents a complex, many-step process. It’s natural to want to run a comparative analysis to feel grounded when stepping toward such a dramatic alternative. This is why I’m so grateful for the wisdom of Lois Arkin, the woman who started the LAEV and the CRSP Institute for Urban Ecovillages.

Lois, now 85, is an elder who like many of us felt that call, and now has over 40 years of hard-won lessons to share from having persistently followed it. In the text below she reflects on some of her most challenging experiences and offers them as confessions, or reflections on some of the human aspects of coordinating community in our failing age of independence. I asked her permission to share these confessions. You can check out a summary of what LAEV is like, and highlights from my visit here.

(Introduction by Saraswathi Subbaraman)

Entry to the wild “lawn” surrounding the LAEV.

Confessions of an Ecovillage Founder: Lessons Learned from the LA Ecovillage

A case study in structural conflict* in community

By Lois Arkin, CRSP Institute for Urban Ecovillages at Los Angeles Eco-Village. Originally written in 7/25/07 for a workshop. Updated January 2015, and October 2017

Problem: No Long-Term Commitment from Founding Group.

There was no long term commitment from a founding group, but I charged ahead anyway.  Several early volunteers became co-founders and contributed enormously. But ultimately it was quite lonely as they moved on to other interests, though I never would have admitted that in the early years.  I was too busy and engaged to know that I was also lonely.


Although I am the only member of the founding group still in residence, most of our now 40 resident members and visitors provide pro-active leadership of the community in more than a dozen committees, and meet weekly as a plenary to make decisions.  I think most founders share the dream that someday their communities will function independently, that, should they leave or die, it will live happily ever after without them.  Mission accomplished, and it feels great not to be needed.  

Problem: Lack of a Common Definition, Vision, History, LAEV Culture.

There was a disconnect between what I thought was a shared common vision and what others perceived as our vision and purpose, and still others who didn’t really think about such things or thought that having a vision at all was irrelevant.  Contentiousness began to rear its ugly head  between those who felt most of our efforts should be targeted toward social justice, and those who felt that ecological issues were the most important.  I was always on the “No ecology, no planet; no planet, no Justice” part of the argument.  Of course, several were simply satisfied to live in affordable housing where everyone knew your name, you felt safe, and people didn’t think you were weird if you recycled or composted or didn’t own a car.  

And then there was the painful reality of the tensions between founders and those that come after.  I was wearing over a dozen hats in those early years, and, often there was no clear communication about what hat I was wearing, a recipe for repeated disasters, not atypical of people who are driven.  For years, members called me a “control freak,” and I would feel so unloved and unappreciated, until much later I realized that “If I wasn’t, we wouldn’t be here,” and that it was my gift!  And I developed a sense of humor about it to remind folks how fortunate they were that I was a control freak.

There was no commonly understood definition of an “ecovillage,” other than something “Lois goes off at the mouth about on the tours.”  Our worldwide reputation as an urban ecovillage long preceded our on-the-ground development activities, so I was always hoping that my early community mates would learn that their neighborhood was famous from someone other than me.  Occasionally, that actually happened. A vacationing community member would return and tell me how they met someone in an airport in London that knew all about LAEV!”  It felt good.


With lots of hard work and heartache over the years, our three nonprofit development organizations share the common vision of “reinventing how we live in the city.”  Our members understand that they are part of a world wide ecovillage movement, and many have visited other ecovillages.  Our mission of  “Demonstrating higher quality living patterns at a lower environmental impact” is commonly understood by our members.  Community members quite naturally participate in the on-going development of the Village, knowing that it is dynamic, fluid and always changing depending on who is here and what gifts and challenges each brings to the community.   

Problem: Membership Process Fuzziness.

Initially the membership process was so fuzzy, that all you had to do is say you wanted to live more ecologically and cooperatively, and pass a credit check.  I naively felt that if we just collected enough people who felt that way, we would figure out how to live that way together.  Several years later, my hard earned wisdom informed me that one had to “demonstrate” that commitment to more ecological and cooperative living patterns.  However, what constituted a demonstration was also rather vague, and it was, by that time, up to those who were already here to determine who would be accepted for membership, most of whom had fuzzy criteria for their own admission to the community. 

Conflict and divisiveness took their toll on me, and others in the community, as well.  I knew academically that communities go through stages just like children (and adults too); but was just too busy wearing too many confusing hats for the community to learn from anything academic sounding.  It was more or less eyeball rolling time when Lois brought out books and magazine articles about the very problems we would be struggling with and how other intentional communities resolved them.  It was clear that the LAEV community wanted to reinvent the wheel at every turn.  The fuzziness began to untangle during our second decade with the help of several retreats facilitated by excellent intentional community process consultants, and, of course, substantial budgeting for their services, which I was greatly relieved to authorize.  

There were often tear filled sessions during those retreats.  Often I would escape to my apartment  for my tears which were sometimes coming from joy because folks were growing and resolving so many issues, and sometimes of pain because of the incessant critical feedback I would regularly receive during such sessions.  And later I recall one of our members to whom I was closest to telling me how important it was to show the depth of my emotions to the community.  To this day, I am uncertain about what personal growth issues that would have fostered for the community, most of whom, imo, have an abundance of empathy already. 


In spite of a fairly tight eight person membership and visitor committee plus well written and consensed upon membership application policies and process, we may be edging toward the opposite direction, that is, being overly tight and less flexible in our membership and visitor process), This often happens, as we have been reminded in Diana Leafe Christian’s books on ecovillages and intentional communities:  The entry gate gets tighter and tighter with each bad experience.  I feel confident, though, that we are striking a good balance as long as we can keep giving one another helpful feedback.

Problem: No Member Participation Policy or Requirement. No Structure for New Members.

Early co-founders were all dedicated volunteers, including me.   I made the faulty assumption that future members would be dedicated volunteers as well.  So every aspect of the community moved very slowly, because there was no mandate for participation, no accountability or consequences for those who didn’t participate, and no paid staff.  Whoever showed up, we’d figure out something to do together. Having a clear structure with a manual of written roles, responsibilities and accountability for new members would have been a great help, and, I believe, have allowed much more rapid progress.  And it is this resource of experience of 100s of intentional communities today that are collected on a series of websites, and shared at several conferences and gatherings for intentional communities across the country and the world. 

Definition of an Ecovillage by Robert Gilman.


To get through our membership process generally takes about six months during which time one cannot live in our buildings, so as to avoid the divisiveness that has occurred in the past when the community was split between those who were in favor and those opposed to someone’s membership. Although our participation requirements are still somewhat minimal, we expect much more from our members.  We get to know folks pretty well through their regular participation during this six month “candidate” phase of our process.  But we don’t schedule a decision on their membership until everyone has gotten to know them well enough to agree on their membership.  Essentially, no surprises for the community or the candidate, when their membership comes up for consideration on our weekly agenda.

Los Angeles Ecovillage Core Values

Problem: Pre-Existing Neighbors.  

I clearly did not want to see any involuntary displacement of tenants when we bought each of our three buildings.  Having been unfairly threatened with eviction many years earlier in my prior neighborhood when a new landlord wanted to unfairly raise my rent, CRSP even lowered rents when we acquired our first building.  This first acquisition of ours, a 40 unit building, was half empty and in near slum-like conditions.  I exuded wide-eyed and bushy-tailed enthusiasm for “transforming” our existing building tenants into LAEV intentional community members.  I tried to entice them into gardening, recycling, bike riding, composting, energy and water conservation, our local currency, veggie potluck dinners, and more.  Many had already lived in our buildings for many years and were already good neighbors, and in some cases, friends with one another, so that was a good sign, but I made no requirement that they join the intentional community, and none ever did.  

As new intentional community members began to populate the building, they, too, encouraged the participation of our long term pre-existing renters, but to no avail.  Nonetheless, the long term tenants were a friendly presence in our buildings, and I had enough of what to do with building management, recruitment of new members, training, special events, tours, and increasingly painful contentiousness between me and several intentional community members. 


Most of our long term renters have moved on. In our now 50 units of housing in three buildings surrounding the intersection of our two main streets, six units are still occupied by the long term renters in our two Urban Soil-Tierra Urbana (USTU) Co-op buildings.  Many, of course, have become good neighbors, and some do helpful contract work with our housing co-op* and our land trust* management.  Several of them have even taken to gardening, composting, bringing their cloth bags to the market.  It still warms my heart and fuels my hope when I see them engaged in such activities.  But none have participated in our regular activities: meetings, weekly potlucks, work parties, special events.

Urban Soil-Tierra Urbana (USTU) Co-op building

Problem: During a Decade of Contentiousness, No Requirement for People in Conflict to Resolve It.

Some people moved here without ever going on an LAEV tour.  Some showed no interest in our history or how we got to be and did not show any particular interest in the tours or any of the effort it took to come as far as we had come.  Several came to be residents who were anarchistic in negative ways, who, from my perspective, had issues with me or CRSP, our founding organization, that were of the “bottomless pit” variety, including personality disorders.  

Some people in conflict would avoid passing one another in the halls or avoid going through certain parts of the buildings or land to avoid the possibility of bumping into someone whom they did not like or were in conflict with.  There was endless negative gossip.  There were people that tried to set one person against each other, vicious backstabbing and worse.  People wrote nasty hurtful attacks on the community listserve and on our public activities schedule white board.  

Because I lived in the community, and because I had, from my perspective, transferred decision making authority to the LAEV Intentional Community from the very beginning, and saw myself as just one among many, I did not put a halt to any of this, even though I had the legal authority to do so.  And the conflicts affected the quality of life of many other residents.  As a result, there were many painful years for me as well as others, and some of our most skilled and congenial members simply moved on, rather than live in such an environment. 

Eventually, I learned the difficult lesson: there’s no opting out of responsibility; when the “buck stops here,” you’ve got to deal with it.  Being in denial about being responsible is no excuse.


Six members have been trained and certified in Conflict Resolution and comprise our CRT (Conflict Resolution Team).  Several of us also have been trained in Nonviolent Communications and try to help one another practice it when anyone gets a little hot under the collar.  Folks are expected to resolve their conflicts one on one, but if they can’t, they are responsible to have the CRT help them.  Generally, members do not tolerate negative gossip, but will be quick to re-direct any attempt to the person they’re having a problem with.  Nonetheless, members will lend a helpful ear and advise one another on problem solving with other members.   

Problem: Using Consensus Decision Making and Allowing Untrained People to Be Decision Makers.  

This was probably the biggest mistake that I made over the years.  I was an idealistic romantic about consensus decision making.  I had been on the Fellowship for Intentional Community  board for about a decade by the time LAEV got fully underway, and had observed the finest consensus process going on in the U.S. at the time (most of those board members are professional process trainers today).  So, I was insistent that we use this process, even when several early LAEV members did not like the idea.  “Why can’t we just vote?” I would often hear.  I was immobilized by my ideology, and paid the price for it.  It resulted in as much as a decade of very slow growth while folks learned how to make decisions together, and until enough of them got enough training and sufficiently empowered to lay down effective rules about our meeting process and hold members accountable to them.  But I could have saved myself and a lot of other people a lot of heartache by mandating the trainings earlier as a condition for being part of the decision making group.  


Several of our members hold regular workshops on consensus for both our incoming members and visitors and the general public.  Our Membership Committee holds comprehensive orientation meetings for candidates for membership and potential visitors.  We have rotating facilitation teams at our weekly community meetings.  Today, I find our unanimity rule for consensus annoying.  I believe  we spend far too much time on minutiae that could easily be delegated to the appropriate committee.  Sometimes, it seems that there are so many LAEV committee meetings that that is the main way people relate to one another, yet something seems to be going on all the time.  Sociocracy is the up and coming decision making process spreading throughout our intentional community, cohousing and ecovillage movements, and I expect it won’t be long before we’re using more of it.  I find it frustrating that many members avoid discussing potentially contentious issues outside of a meeting, and yet I think that’s where most of the discussion should take place: informally and without an agenda and without a time constraint!  Ultimately, I believe that the more trust there is, the less bureaucracy, so I’d just like to see us work more on that.  Though, given what we’ve been through, I’m not complaining.

Problem: Lack of Strategic Planning and Needed Diversity of Expertise and Interests.

Many wonderful people moved to LAEV during our first dozen years; however, we (me, my board, LAEV Intentional Community members) never collectively planned for our future nor tried to specifically recruit people with the skills to implement such a plan. Growing up in my parents’ real estate development business, it kind of seeped into my genes to be a planner, and I made lots of plans, but I just had to let go of that part of me, and let blossom what might. Little by little, I realized this was wonderful.  Members were bringing amazing skills, learning, researching, trying different things, so many people doing so many different things and no integrated plan.  Members loved each other, got married, had kids, formed close friendships, had fun together.  Still in all, good things might have happened much more quickly, had there been strategic planning and strategic member recruitment.


And many pieces of LAEV did indeed happen with individual initiatives in no way controlled by me: woo hoo!  By year 25, there is a limited equity housing co-op and a community land trust, a multi-school learning garden, a food co-op, a self-help bicycle repair shop, a toy loan library, a childcare service, an art studio, a sewing studio, a tool shop, permaculture gardens and food forest, greywater systems, a weekly music group, 10 pro-active committees, a variety of workshops and public events, a dozen or so members employed within the community, either self-employed or working with our nonprofit organizations.  Often, I am the last person to know what’s going on.  And I feel great about that!  


Lois Arkin in LAEV


from the book by Diana Leafe Christian – Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities, pp 7-8.

1.  Identify your community vision and create vision documents

2.  Choose a fair, participatory decision making process appropriate for your group.  And if you choose consensus, get trained in it.

3.  Make clear agreements in writing. 

4.  Learn good communication and group process skills.  Make clear communication and resolving conflicts a priority.

5.  In choosing cofounders and new members, select for emotional maturity.

6.  Learn the head skills and the heart skills you need to know

Nebula is a publication showcasing people and projects at the edge of reality, put together by koholaa & saraswathi & multi. Together, we are exploring the intricacies of the collective, the cooperative, the anarchist and the utopian, alongside strategies for decentralization. If you like what we do, support us on Gitcoin!

On Patience, Perseverance, the Present Moment (& the Internet) in Gaza, Palestine.

Anam Raheem has spent the past 5 years in Gaza, Palestine, working at a local startup accelerator and a coding academy Gaza Sky Geeks which is changing lives of one of the most vulnerable communities in the world. Anam told us about her experiences in Gaza, the daily lives of its residents and how Internet access is providing them with an opportunity to connect and participate beyond the confinement. We also talked about the role of dreaming and imagination for people in Gaza in their particular circumstances, the need for healing on an individual and community level, and the ongoing need for international support and solidarity.

Hi Anam! Where are you from and what’s your relationship to Palestine? 

My parents are immigrants from Pakistan, so that makes me a first-generation American. In terms of my relationship to Palestine, I’d say it’s probably multi-faceted – I grew up in a very diverse Muslim community here in New Jersey, and I gained some consciousness about the Palestinian cause through that community, through prayer for the people who are oppressed and prayer for when things escalate. That would be at the forefront of our minds. And even within my home it’s just part of our culture to talk about and know about Palestine – so I always was aware that Palestine and its geopolitical issues do exist, and that there’s a “right” and a “wrong” dynamic that’s happening here. That’s one level, and one of my entry points to Palestine.

Another point is through studying Arabic – I loved learning languages growing up, I studied French and Spanish, and I was interested in language academically. Because of my background, I learned Arabic to read the Qur’an and when I went to university I studied in an Arabic program – and I absolutely loved it! I actually dropped a medicine track to study linguistics, and that brought me to study abroad in Jordan. At the time I went , which was before the Arab Spring, I could do things like taking a bus to Syria which is unimaginable right now. 

Living in Jordan, geographically, socially and politically I got very close to understanding the Palestinian cause and understanding more about the realities of the situation. That was my first time in 2010 going to Palestine just to visit. I saw parts of Israel and Palestine – such a stark contrast of realities. Fast forward a little bit and then I started working in economic development in non-profits focused on the Middle East. That took me back and forth to the region, and eventually I got a job at Gaza Sky Geeks, which is a tech hub in Gaza City. I moved to Palestine full time in 2017. I had a little bit of an idea of what I was getting into, I thought this would be a year or two, and just something to try out – but it really quickly turned into 5 years. Now I’m on the other side of this experience – back in the States as of two months ago. 

Tell us more about Gaza Sky Geeks, your workplace in Gaza. 

Gaza Sky Geeks is a program of Mercy Corps – an international humanitarian aid organization headquartered in the States. Mercy Corps have programs all around the world, they work in fragile economies, providing disaster assistance and economic development. Gaza Sky Geeks is something that Mercy Corps founded in Palestine, originally with Google.org. It’s an organization that seeks to use the Internet as a means to support Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank to earn incomes through tech. We provide physical spaces for people to convene, co-working spaces, we run coding bootcamps and a startup accelerator, programs to help people get into online freelancing. All of that is going towards Palestinians, allowing them to earn incomes and to participate in the global economy. GSG started in 2011, and I joined as a volunteer first in 2016 and moved there in 2017. 

How did your regular week in Gaza looked like? 

On the weekends, I would be in the West Bank. Every week I’d drive to Gaza, I’d have my own car, drive through checkpoints and go through Israel to arrive at the Israeli-Gaza border crossing, and that’s as far as I can drive. I leave my car in that parking lot for a week and then I have to do the rest of the crossing, which takes about an hour. The first step is the Israeli part of the crossing, where you show your permits and your paperwork, doing your bag scan, and then you have to cross into Gaza by going through a kilometer long tunnel that is caged and meanders through a no-man’s land, which separates Israel from Gaza. Then you have a few more checkpoints – Palestinian Authority Checkpoint, the border between Hamas and Israel – you register with them, and then you find a taxi or driver and you do the Hamas checkpoint. This takes about an hour, and door to door from Ramallah to my office in Gaza City takes 4 hours. The actual distance is actually only about 40 km. You drive through Gaza City, there’s crazy traffic – you see buildings that are destroyed from previous wars, streets are so crowded. The office is a bustling, modern, hip, co-working space with graffiti on the walls and young people chatting and coding, it’s very vibrant. It’s such a juxtaposition but at the same time it also matches the hustle and bustle of the streets. 

My job specifically was running the coding program – constantly bringing in mentors for that program, escorting in international mentors who were in Gaza for first time, making sure their schedule is met, tons of meetings, receiving a lot of visitors e.g. diplomats and other organizations that are interested in learning about our work. I was also spending a lot of time talking to tech companies around the world, pitching the case to hire our graduates as junior engineers, walking through the mechanics of what it means to hire someone in Palestine and how GSG could help with that. All in all, there was no such thing as a typical week – I’d stay in Gaza for 5 days and then cross out, go back to Ramallah, spend the weekend in the West Bank and do it all over again the next week. 

What was your first impression upon entering Gaza? 

Crossing into Gaza is an electrifying experience. First driving through Israel, a fully developed country, paved roads, skyscrapers – everything is as you imagine in a Western country, and then all of the sudden the road ends and you’re at a giant structure that looks like an airport. You see huge concrete walls, a barbed wire, there’s a security balloon hovering above with surveillance cameras on it, there’s a tank in a parking lot – it’s all very surreal. When you’re actually crossing into Gaza – it feels like a maximum security prison. In terms of the vibe of it, but also the mechanism. There’s a lot of fully armed guards, it’s just a very secured location. Walking through that cage into Gaza it really makes me think: what does it say about the people who erect these kind of structures, what does it say about the 2 million people who are behind it? I did that every week for several years and it became very routine for me. It can be chaotic, the rules are always changing, but something I promised myself when I first crossed in – this will become routine, but it should never feel normal that something like this exists in the world, and that we’re letting this happen. It should never feel normal that 2 million people are being left behind these walls, and left behind this mechanism that keeps them trapped in there. Even until the last day, every time I walked through that cage, I thought to myself – “this isn’t normal, this isn’t normal”. I’m a regular here, and I was very comfortable doing this crossing but I really worked hard for this to never become something I was asleep during. I was always thinking – this is wrong. 

How did it feel to meet the community there for the first time? 

I started as a volunteer remotely, helping them with fundraising. I was with GSG from the early stages in this remote volunteer capacity. So I wasn’t starting from complete scratch when I moved there. At that point of my life I wanted to leave the States and gain some work experience abroad, and I was very clear that if I move away to work, it has to be for something that has a real impact on real people’s lives. I don’t respond well to  bureaucracy, and the people working at GSG are trying to build something for other people, and are awesome. I knew it was a right decision, it was so exciting, and everything I wanted. 

Meeting the community there was so nice, they are so welcoming. They don’t have a lot of exposure to people outside of Gaza, so they do take a lot of interest in you and want to learn what brought you here etc. I remember being taken into a theatre where an art performance was live-streamed between London and Gaza, it blew my mind. There’s so many underground events happening, there’s a lot of life and art and innovation happening in Gaza and I was excited to discover it all. 

That’s really fascinating – we’d love to learn more the culture in Gaza. But perhaps let’s dive in first into Gaza Sky Geeks. What are some of the projects that this organization is working on? 

There is a coding bootcamp, taking people from zero skills in engineering to graduating them into junior developer so they can get their first jobs in tech. There’s a freelancing program – taking people who have some kind of skill, engineering, design or anything you can monetize on the Internet, and become competitive on platforms like Upwork. The third one is a startup accelerator, teaching them how to get their first users and talk to their first investors. Alongside we have mentor programs, bringing mentors with expertise interested in mentoring. We applied for permits for those mentors coming to Gaza and we’d facilitate their workshops, and 1-1 mentoring sessions. The goal was to increase people’s awareness and exposure to the tech scene in Gaza, and those people became our biggest champions and supporters all around the world, spreading the word. 

Another area is community building – how do we get people to support each other, how to facilitate the internal give and take in the community. We also focused on inclusivity. Because we were building this tech community from scratch, we could learn from the shortcomings and mistakes of other tech communities outside of Palestine, realizing that this is our chance to get women’s inclusivity at the forefront. We built in mechanisms, invested money, hired a dedicated team member who is just focused on conducting outreach and activities for women.

What are some examples of startups and applications being built? 

The target audience is Gaza itself – solving problems in Gaza, for example things like ridesharing. But also targeting the Arabic speaking world. There was a really successful startup focused on Arabic tourism in Turkey. People are solving local problems but also thinking more broadly about the Arab-speaking world. 

Are coders in Gaza able to secure a livable wage? 

Yes they are! We set up a mechanism to link people to jobs. I led a talent matching team for the last 2 years. We built a network of hiring partners in Palestine and all around the world – tech companies who have the willingness and capacity to hire junior developers from Palestine remotely, all around the world. It was successful – it took time, we really had to figure out the marketing, value proposition and the legal structure – since we’re the gateway for the company to send salaries into Gaza, because it’s very difficult to get money into Gaza otherwise. We had companies from everywhere, all the way from Singapore, Canada, etc. This is the one of the most exciting areas GSG is breaking ground in – creating access to the global job market, earning revenue, putting Palestine on the map as a destination for great engineers – and I can’t wait to see how the team grows it. 

Coming back to the context in Gaza – it seems like it’s a really special opportunity to be able to learn to code, work at a startup or even work abroad, given the local circumstances that people are in. Could you tell us more about those circumstances for any regular person in Gaza? 

The context is super important! Gaza is one of the most densely populated regions in the world. There’s 2 million people in a 365 sq km piece of land. It’s a very young population, 70% of people are under the age of 35. The population is very well educated, there’s 5 universities just in Gaza City alone. The literacy rate in Palestine is somewhere near 96%. The quality of education is a different story, people have access to education and study things like computer science but it’s a very outdated curriculum, it’s focused on theory, and not enough experiential elements that promotes things like team work, problem solving, or critical thinking. There’s a very well educated young population but very little job opportunities, because Gaza has been under a blockade for over a decade now, an economic blockade, physical blockade – there are physical walls around Gaza, and it has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, around 65%. So there’s all these educated, hungry and ambitious young people but literally nowhere to go and no jobs for them to access. So this is what makes GSG pretty relevant and urgent – we’re trying to solve that problem not just in the long term but in the short term. We’re putting up this promise – if you do this bootcamp and training it increases your chances of getting a job. The demand for these programs became super high. We started off in a windowless apartment, then moved to a 500 square meter co-working space, opened a second space in the south of Gaza, and we’re moving into an even bigger one in a mall. 

What is the difference in terms of building technology for Palestinian audience? 

The coding bootcamp is very experiential and all about self-learning, working in teams, and learning how to solve problems through tech. We focus on building in empathy that’s needed to solve these problems – not just for the engineers, but the clients as well.  For example, there’s no airport in Gaza and most people in Gaza have never been on a plane and don’t know what it means to go through an airport. We had this client from Kenya who wanted to build an app focused on airport communications. We had to take time to let developers understand what it even means to go through an airport, what is the flow. There’s a level of pretty profound empathy that goes into that. I don’t have any technology background but that’s something I always think about – a lot of clients don’t realize that they need to have empathy for developers, and explain the requirements from the point of view of what they have access to, what is the reality in which they operate in.

Do you encounter any issues with teaching and implementing the solutions from the Western startup culture in the context of Gaza?

There’s some mentors who’d come in and perhaps some of the startups they work at wouldn’t be relevant given the local context. For example, an alcohol delivery app or even a dating app – those things are just not relevant in Gaza. But even from those examples there’s still lessons learned that you can apply. There’s definitely a context and even things like setting up a payment gateway are a big challenge. There’s no PayPal in Gaza. There’s a lot of barriers – and as much as we can learn from the “outside” world, there’s also a lot of innovation within Gaza, and the world can learn from them.

We ran a hackathon once that was all about offline solutions, because the electricity situation in Gaza is so bad, there’s not always electricity to access the Internet, so people are exploring  offline apps. So it goes both ways. I’ve been listening to the podcast called “Tech Won’t Save Us” and really it’s important to be cognizant of the fact that while GSG and harnessing technology is a great solution for some problems in Gaza, there’s a much bigger issue going on – a military occupation, and there’s some apps that will make life a little bit easier within that but that’s not going to liberate Gaza. We’re solving very specific problems and helping people to breathe a little bit easier, but the prison walls are not going to come down because of some app. People come with the best intentions and that’s awesome but we’re solving problems of a different nature and on a different scale with tech. 

What is the role of the Internet and social media in Gaza? 

Internet access is a lifeline in Gaza. Thinking about Kashmir, a place that’s also under occupation but doesn’t have Internet access – it’s striking what a difference it makes. The Internet is a key piece of infrastructure to create economic opportunities but also just to stay connected to the world. Gazans are so isolated, most of them have never been more than 15 kilometers from their home, their whole life. But they are so savvy on social media, Instagram etc. Even beyond globalization, culture, accessing information and Netflix – during the last war in May 2021 social media was huge, it had a huge impact on raising awareness and harnessing international solidarity in a way that I have never ever seen before for Palestine. More people were talking about it and speaking up about it, and sharing information about it. That was because of social media and started from people who were on the ground in Gaza, filming while being bombed, young people were speaking in English on Instagram Live – “look, this is what it’s like to live under war, this is why we need awareness”. Social media has allowed us to  break down the Palestinian struggle in a way that never happened before  – it used to be just CNN and other major news outlets or academia talking about it, now it’s people speaking for themselves. So the Internet is a lifeline, it will have big part in moving the needle in terms of lifting this occupation and shifting what the world puts up with – the more people know, the more people become outraged, the more they realize what’s true versus what’s a lie – I think social media will play a big role in that. 

Yes. We noticed that as well. Another thing is whether this will have a tangible impact on the situation? 

I don’t think it will happen overnight – but spreading the word and awareness are definitely important things to start with. 

What are the things that you think Western audience should know about the situation in Gaza but they’re not hearing on the news? 

It’s very easy for us to say that Palestinians are so resilient, or that war torn countries in general are so resilient – but I really don’t like that. I don’t like that word, resilience – because it makes it seem that people who are in these oppressive environments are born with a gene that allows  them to put up with oppression. I hope that people learn that Palestinians in Gaza are suffering, there’s a monumental health crisis in Gaza, there’s huge spike in suicide after this war. People in Gaza are suffering, people in Gaza are human and no one should have to put up with what they are putting up with. That all being said I will say that people in Gaza are still staying strong, they push through and they persevere. Thinking about our team at GSG – they also needed time to recover from this war, but they are now back and they’re thinking: “how can we open our doors so we can help our people get back on their feet too”. And that’s a level of strength and perseverance that I think is absolutely mindblowing.

So there’s resilience but I don’t like to make it seem like Gazans can just handle it – they are pushing through because that’s what humans do when they are put into a pressure cooker. And so I think that the Western audience should know that while people are back at it – they are struggling still. The solidarity needs to continue. It’s one thing about having a social media frenzy – but what happens after that? How do you have conversations with your community about it? How do you organize around it? How do you support organizers that are trying to raise awareness even beyond the wars? So I think their humanity shouldn’t just come into play when a bomb is falling on their head. The world has gone away now and Gaza is still in ruins, and people lost homes and businesses and family. They keep going because that’s what humans do  – they don’t give up. But dispelling the notion of resilience – they need support and solidarity. 

What kind of psychological help do people receive? 

By and large there’s no big culture of mental health. It’s very stigmatized, it’s very taboo to talk about mental health issues. But in moments of extreme danger like that war for example, there’s something that shifted when people in Gaza knew they needed this. I put out a call on Instagram for an Arabic speaking trauma informed therapist – that’s the only responsible thing to be doing right now, to be helping people heal as much as possible. The demand was huge. Men and women, people saying that they are still in shock, they can’t sleep at night and wondering how to get their lives back on track after this. So there was a huge demand for it, and very fortunately a supply of great therapists that reached out wanting to offer pro bono support – so we were able to set up all these sessions and engage them. So while there wasn’t a culture of mental health, this war shifted something. It was just that bad that people realized they need any help they can get. 

Even having a community space like GSG provides can be a space for healing and support, right? 

I went to Gaza after the war and in the GSG office people would be hanging out, playing video games and charades and just talking, sitting in the chairs in a circle, oscillating between tears and laughter. Togetherness is part of the healing. It’s both beautiful and devastating to see. Seeing the desire to heal and support others in healing – that’s another thing I want to be part of, and I want the world to be part of that. 

What were some of your most memorable moments in Gaza? 

Every graduation of the coding academy made me so happy, and seeing where some of these students have ended up. Just seeing that transformation of when they come in, interviewing for a spot and pushing themselves and experiencing something they couldn’t access anywhere else in Gaza, and seeing them starting businesses. For example 2 developers in Gaza paired with developers in London and started a cooperative agency called Yalla. Seeing where they have started and where they are now – that’s a very memorable experience.

Beyond work it’s just about finding those little community spaces – for example, I was part of this small women’s yoga group, we would just meet in the basement of their home, she turned it into a yoga studio and it was such a beautiful place for women to just stretch and laugh together. So for me it was all about finding those spaces that we take for granted in the West, and are so rare in Gaza, and how much release one experiences  when you find those spaces – whether it’s an art space or a yoga spot or a co-working space. 

Other memorable things are just joyriding around with the team and going on little adventures. Every sunset in Gaza was very memorable!

You’ve mentioned that Gaza has a thriving art scene, can you tell us more about it?
I’ve been to a fine art gallery in Gaza, but what always struck me was street art in Gaza, there’s a big culture of street art and especially in the wake of the war – it’s about how do we reclaim the space that’s been destroyed. The port of Gaza is packed with rubble from the wars and it’s all painted in different colours and it’s turned into an art installation. Even in this past war they held a concert on the top of rubble. Everywhere you go in Gaza there’s murals everywhere, some of them show the suffering in Gaza, some are just beautiful Arabic calligraphy. There’s a huge art culture in Gaza, and so many mediums. There is a huge literature movement and so much art in general. People in cafes are singing together, pretty much everywhere you go – there’s art. 

How’s the daily life in Gaza, do things “go back to normal” after the conflict? 

There’s definitely suffering, even underneath the impression that people just go with the flow. There’s this Palestinian saying: we teach life. I have been through escalations when the bombs were falling, no one could leave their home, it was very intense, and the next day the markets were busy and bustling again. So they teach life – it’s beyond fucked up what’s happening, but they also have their joy to attend to. I remember the UN came up with a report saying that by 2020 Gaza would be uninhabitable, and it’s like.. I don’t know what that means? Apparently this is a dead place but all I see is life here, bustling life. There is joy but it coexists with all the suffering and devastation as well. 

We’ve seen works of sustainable architecture students in Gaza, envisioning the future city of Gaza…

Gaza is getting smashed every couple of years, but then it comes back. And then it gets smashed again but then it comes back. One of my closest friends in Gaza is an architect, who joined Gaza Sky Geeks and now runs the coding bootcamp. I’ve seen some of the buildings that she designed there – just because it is so fragile, there’s still care to make things beautiful. There’s this present moment and we should make it as beautiful as we can. 

I’ve been thinking about the role of imagining, about how your thoughts and feelings can create your reality – I think there’s a lot of application of that in the social justice movement. Imagine the future in which a group of people are free, are liberated. In order for this to actually happen, you need to first envision it. And that exists in Gaza, people are future-focused. The people who are there are holding on, imagining a future that’s better than this occupation. There’s this book called Palestine +100, where 12 writers from Palestine were asked to imagine the world in 2048, a hundred years after the tragedy of Nakba. So it’s like a sci-effort that embraces the culture of imagining, and holding on and being part of building that future Palestine. No matter if it’s an architect designing a new space, or a girl learning to code, or a TikTok artist doing makeup tutorials – there’s hope for the future. It gets tested a lot but it’s there. 

Can you talk about some lessons learned personally and professionally from your 5 years stay in Gaza? 

I learned so much! I think I learned a lot about patience. I have the word “patience” in Arabic tattooed on my back. We have the same word in Urdu and it gets invoked a lot in times of hardship. I learned about patience on so many levels. Because of my Muslim-Pakistani origins, I got treated differently than my white colleagues. Anytime I went in and out of Gaza I had to sit and be “detained” for hours at a time, because they had to run my name across a terrorist database, and give me a harder time. So all my colleagues could get their passport and just leave and I would have my passport taken away and had to wait. I remember sitting then and thinking, this is a very, very, very tiny fraction of what Palestinians endure, if they’re even lucky enough to go to the checkpoint and get a chance to travel. It made me think of the profound levels of patience Palestinians embody to not constantly lose their mind in this oppressive system. Even the patience we’re talking about – the imagining and waiting for a better future – this is what you have to do to not give up, to not throw in the towel. 

Another thing I learned is resourcefulness, operating in Gaza we needed a plan A,B, C and D and I think being creative about finding solutions to things, even organizing batteries to power our internet routers at home, it required resourcefulness. We applied that in our work in so many ways, even when all our hands were tied behind our backs. 

We were telling people that they can get any job they want in tech, people who didn’t have college education would be able to get jobs at London-based startups. I think this helped to shift my mind around career narratives and the corporate career ladder – to not feel stuck in an artificial path motivated by title. I’ve realized I’m much more motivated by experience and joy. 

What are the ways in which we can support Gazans at the moment? 

There’s so many ways. In terms of Gaza Sky Geeks, you can apply to be a mentor (remote for now but it will be possible to visit Gaza again), you can donate to keep us going, you can hire a developer from Gaza, you can advocate for the company your work at to create internship opportunities for GSG graduates – not just out of charity, but there’s so much innovation that Gazans can give to the world. They are creating solutions to problems that we don’t even think about and the business case for hiring diversely is already proven.

On the advocacy front – if you don’t know about what’s going on in Palestine, educate yourself. It’s not acceptable anymore to sit on the sidelines and let this thing be “too complicated” for you to have a perspective on it. Especially if you’re in the Western world, your tax money is paying for this oppression. Educate yourself, ask questions, be willing to have your mind changed, learn and understand how we are complicit in this. If anyone has the means to visit – then go there. I think it’s important for people to see it and bear witness. This is the best way to learn. 

There’s also tons of organisations doing amazing work – Al-Haq is an amazing human rights organization led by Palestinian lawyers. They’re documenting legal violations and doing all they can to hold the violators accountable. Another organisation worth supporting is 7amleh, a Palestinian digital rights organization. 

There’s also a need for humanitarian aid to help Gaza rebuild, medical aid, hospitals here are also dealing with covid with very limited resources. There’s no shortage of ways to get involved but in the very least – find a solidarity group and start getting involved, go to events and protests and listen to what people are saying. Start to build consciousness around Palestine beyond what’s in the headlines and mainstream media.

How do you feel now about Gaza and its future? 

I’m an optimist by nature and I’m hopeful. I believe that what’s happening to Palestine is evil, and I believe that evil is unsustainable. We’ve seen very evil eras happen in the past and those things collapse over time. I think the truth will be revealed, and the truth is on the side of Palestinians. And you see it in lots of magical ways. Even just recently 6 Palestinian political prisoners dug their way out of a high security Israeli prison and that too me really encompasses the spirit of Palestinian perserverance and patience. Israel has billions of dollars in military funding and the most advanced army in the world – and these guys dug a tunnel with spoons. This is how house of cards will fall – I’m not sure if this will happen in our lifetime, but I’m sure Palestine will be liberated from this. The role of imagination for me is powerful and it keeps me going, especially when things get so bad like during that war in May. It’s also human nature to believe that so many oppressive mind boggling structures will eventually fall, perhaps not completely but we can rid ourselves of pure evil and reckon with its remnants. 

Systems of oppression are being uncovered everywhere now, and people are becoming more conscious and aware...

Sure, there’s a connection between a police officer’s knee on the neck of a Black man in the US is directly related to an Israeli soldier pointing a gun at a young Palestinian holding a rock. These situations are not happening in a vacuum, the forces of evil are definitely in cahoots – but that means that the forces of solidarity and progressivism should also be in cahoots. If you’re marching for Black Lives Matter, you should know that it’s intrinsically related to Free Palestine movements. After the most recent war, I’ve seen unprecedented levels of solidarity, and this gives me hope. 

What’s next for you?
I don’t have a plan, I’m resting and trying to unlearn tying productivity to my self-worth. I’m trying to practice calming the reflex in my mind that when I’m not working, I’m wasting time. I recently decided in my heart that I’m going to write something – a novel or collection of short stories – that honours my experience in Palestine. I was actually recently shortlisted for the Wasifiri New Writer’s Prize and my short story that takes place in Gaza will be published soon! I spend my days dreaming and writing ideas and being hopeful that this will become a project that I can share with others. I have so many memories and so many feelings and also overwhelming sadness, but Gaza is both a devastating and loving and hilarious place at the same time. I want to be able to capture the spirit of it – a place where I laughed harder than I ever laughed in my life, but also want people to know that it’s a terribly wrong situation and there’s an urgency to it that we need to empathize with, immediately. 

Thank you Anam!

This interview was carried out by koholaa and saraswathi. Support Nebula magazine on Gitcoin!

On Returning to the Commons & Digitally Distributed Carework

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic hitting Europe – uniting and socially isolating us all – we caught up (virtually) with Stacco Troncoso, a project lead for the Commons Transition. We talk about the DisCO Manifesto, a novel approach towards forming Distributed Open Cooperatives that provides guidelines for collectives of self-organised people on how to incorporate and become empowered through more distributed forms of governance. We also talk about the role of decommodification, returning to the commons and radical workplace democracy in practice.

Hi Stacco, what are your key research interests and issues you’ve been exploring?

I was part of the P2P Foundation for many years, as an organizer in advocacy and strategy roles. My background politically was more aligned with anarcho-communism, but that shifted during the 2011 protest movements — 15M in Spain, and Occupy worldwide. Since then, the bulk of my work has been focused on advocating for commons-oriented solutions. I have also followed the evolution of the blockchain ecosystem very closely. Bringing all these influences together, the place where I found a coherent narrative with the ecologic side of my concerns along with the possibilities of technology — without getting starry-eyed about them — was the commons. Apart from that, since 2013 I have been part of a cooperative called Guerrilla Translation — the pilot project for Distributed Cooperative Organizations (DisCOs). The advocacy work of the P2P Foundation and the practical work of the Guerrilla Translation form a symbiotic relation — we put in practice many of the initiatives and ideas that were proposed by the foundation.

Can you tell us a bit more about the origins of DisCO Manifesto, how did it come together?

The DisCO Manifesto is a result of many conversations among members of the Guerrilla Media Collective and other close friends and mentors. We wanted to reimagine the future of Guerrilla Media, applying our interest in DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations), while also being critical of them. One of the tendencies we see in what we call whitepaper culture is to imagine really good systems which distribute value before considering the place of humans. If you think about it, a key system where value distribution takes place is the workplace, and here is where we already have 175 years of cooperative tradition to draw from. We wanted to apply our experiences to the design of another kind of DAO that starts from real world experience. It eventually evolved into the concept of distributed cooperative organization (DisCO). We like the name, as we think that — beyond the wordplay — it symbolises the playfulness, fun, conviviality and approachability that are missing from the blockchain world, CryptoKitties aside. The Manifesto is a conversation, as we didn’t want to start with a whitepaper or technological architecture. Even though we already came up with a detailed and technical governance model, we wanted to tell a good story, based on our experience and our needs, things that excite us. We aspired to create it in an inclusive, journalistic manner and wanted for people to read it — all people, other than the usual suspects in the decentralized space. We also imagined it as a meeting place between various groups — commons, P2P, cooperatives, and social solidarity economy tradition, the feminist economics tradition and the open value decentralized world. Even though these groups have a lot in common, they don’t necessarily talk to each other. We hope to create a conversational space. We want to think carefully about having those conversations and making them accessible to people, also to encourage those who don’t have the loudest voices to participate.

What went wrong with the first iteration of decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs)? What are the key lessons learned?

DAOs that have been deployed so far are very primitive, used more as a vehicle for financial speculative assets rather than real tools for decentralized collaboration. It’s very easy to make a caricature of the DAO space — incredible amounts of money flowing into a movement that speaks of the new ways of reimagining value. The value system that is based on accumulation is predominant. Even though there have been extensive discussions differentiating “blockchain” from “what you can do on the blockchain”, a lot of the politics that underlie blockchain are symptomatic of accumulatory micro-capitalism or libertarianism, which have been prevalent in the design of many DAOs. The DAO was a cautionary tale of what can happen — and I remember that before the DAO attack, there was a feeling of gold rush, or fear of missing out — similar to the developments of the mid-90s dotcom bubble. When there’s a gold rush things are not done carefully, and also politically they tend to replicate the existing power structures.

We don’t believe that you can build decentralization from the top down, by white males with programming backgrounds designing this great decentralized architecture where they just want to fit humans in. There’s an impatience or not letting other people be part of this process, and a lot of it has been speculative. It’s sci-fi, but maybe not in the exciting sense, somehow removed from reality space. In the DAO space there’s a lot of unchecked privilege, while many other types of people are missing — they’re being mentioned but not included in the design process. There are solutions being designed for people without those people being present.

What are the main differences between DAO and DisCO design?

DisCOs are based on human interactions. There’s a tendency in the DAO space to try and do away with human imperfections. The thinking seems to be that if we just get the math right, all the other stuff will get sorted out on its own. I resonate with the statement that “the soft stuff is the hard stuff”, meaning that we can’t bypass the difficult conversations, they need to take place. While there’s excitement about auto-executable organizations with programmable parameters, what DAO technology can do for us is value tracking: tracking things such as livelihood work, pro bono work to create and maintain commons, and also carework, which is usually invisible and hard to quantify. I mean: how do you put love on the blockchain? Can we? Would we even want to? You can see different DAOs trying to tokenize all social interactions. DAOs can let us network and transact value among different DisCO nodes. You can still talk about decentralization, but if you don’t check the power of certain nodes, those nodes can become prevalent and imitate the preexisting power dynamics.The technology we want to develop is an enabler for better conversations, never a substitute. In our value tracking system we don’t foresee that it will be a setup where “this is how many tokens you have accrued and this is the value equation so this person gets paid this much, and that’s it”. Frankly, if you’re working with a group of only 10 to 15 people, why not have a discussion first?.

Value tracking is especially important because notions of value are so subjective. When we get into an agreement with a group of people where we say together that this is the type of value sovereignty that we want to practice, and it doesn’t work out after a certain period of time — we are not locked into that system, we can change it. While when you have a big DAO with, say, 400 stakeholder participants it’s very difficult to make exceptions. Those people who can afford to live an immutable lifestyle and are not subject to the back and forth of the material conditions and daily lives may be able to participate in those systems. We also see DisCO as a way to educate people, for example about feminist economics. If you’re not talking about the decentralization of power, or explicitly addressing the trifecta of centralization — colonialism, capitalism and the patriarchy — then your decentralization is very select within a bounded paradigm. DisCOs can provide a space where people can learn about the cooperative tradition, and people from the feminist economics field can take advantage of DAOs.

What are the key lessons can we learn from old models of cooperatives and commons for the decentralised Web movement?

When it comes to cooperatives, it’s simple — they work. In times of an economic downturn, cooperatives always perform much better than regular businesses. They are also much better for the environment in general. Even the happiness index of people working within them is higher than in traditional companies.

When it comes to the lessons learned from the commons, let’s explain first where they begin. We can say that commons are a mode of social organization — before agriculture, before feudalism and of course before capitalism. Even though they are often invisible, the commons are always present. Especially with the collapsing systems now it’s more important than ever to have an understanding of the commons. A commons is a social process, and for there to be a commons we need 3 elements — we need a resource, we need a community that gathers around this resource, and we need a set of rules to govern this commons. A lot of work that has been done since the 90s in the commons has influenced free software and open source and that in turn has influenced the phenomena in the blockchain ecosystem — but perhaps there’s not that much familiarity with those influences. You can also think of it as of social conscience — to get away from replicating normative power dynamics — privileged people who have early access. Why would we need privilege to obtain the initial access?

DisCOs need to produce commons, which leads to decommodification. Let’s give an example. People need houses and people get paid to build houses. In a DisCO setup people could build open source houses. This can turn into a process from commodification to decommodification, from products to commons. This is where distributed ledgers are interesting because we can measure all sorts of values to make sure that no one gets exploited, no one is freeriding.

What about tracking and quantifying carework?

Carework is tricky. Tokenizing something like affection is a very difficult thing. We need to have a lot of small scale conversations where people really feel comfortable about sharing their values and the things they care about, and they want to be rewarded for that — and getting rewarded doesn’t necessarily mean getting paid in crypto tokens.

Let’s come back to the path towards decommodification, how does it take place?

Anything that gets distributed digitally leans towards decommodification. Wikipedia is a great example of decommodifying knowledge. Economic historian Karl Polyani wrote a number of books on this topic, the main among them is the Great Transition where he coined the term “false commodities” — land, money and labour. Land would be a commons, labour is your productive energy and money is a social agreement, with other agreements put on top of it to keep it scarce. All of those should be decommodified. I’d also add another false commodity, which is knowledge. We want to decouple knowledge and wealth from material realities, but this knowledge economy thrives on legal artefacts such as copyrights and patents to create artificial scarcity. If you’re using an app, why do you need to pay extra for these features? Usually because there’s a number of investors who need a return on investment. In the sense we’re privy to this whole debt structure. What if we really shared things? What if we decommodified? Decommodification brings about a number of challenges. Simply put, when stuff becomes “free” to make and consume, the taxable base which finances social services crumbles. How do we tackle this? These are political challenges that have to be included in the conversation.

In order to decommodify we need different types of economics and politics. Distributed ledgers can be an answer but the design of whatever DAOs we build on top of them really need to be distributed, socially and power-wise. There are other considerations beyond server connectivity and information being replicated and consented to. There’s a much bigger social layer that needs to be taken into account.

Image for post
DisCO Manifesto. Visual design by: Mireia De Juan Cuco

What are your recommendations then?

If you don’t include the people that you’re designing the solutions for in your design process, if you don’t talk to them, treat them with respect, you’re doing them an intellectual disservice. Let’s take a good look at what distributed means and let’s try to walk the talk. Let’s take responsibility. Let’s not become crypto billionaire philanthropists designing for those who can benefit from whatever wealth we’ve accumulated later down the line, while exacerbating existing power systems.

Let’s learn from the Wikipedia example — which, despite its shortcomings, not only democratized access to knowledge but also democratized the production of knowledge. You don’t need to be a professor to write about a subject as long as you’re passionate and knowledgeable about it.

How do you envision “radical workplace democracy”, in practice?

The notion of radical workplace democracy is very prevalent in the work on cooperatives. I’d recommend checking the work of Marjorie Kelly, and Richard Wolff on the topic. We have supposedly democratic political systems, but in the workplace all these democratic ideals are thrown out of the window. Here you are subject to your boss and your boss is subject to the investors. So in your workplace, unless you are a cooperative, you don’t get to decide what to produce, how much to produce and how to go about it. A common example being used is that a cooperative-owned enterprise would never choose to, say, pollute a local river or outsource work overseas. That’s the basic workplace democracy being talked about in co-ops. In DisCOs we talk about radical workplace democracy because we add the feminist and the carework dimensions, beyond what’s in the contract or beyond legal agreements. Co-ops can be totally socially regressive — there’s many conservative co-ops, with chauvinistic dynamics, that may not be as democractic. Just because you have really good legal statutes that talk about equality, does not mean that equality is being practiced. Descriptive equality is not the same as equality of outcomes. Having spaces for deliberations, for conversations, for carework — is essential. Having spaces for those who may not have the loudest voice, or those who may not be the most influential or eloquent — making sure that those people are being heard is important.

We’ve all been through this at Guerilla Media, Enspiral or Loomio. It’s a new kind of cooperativism that addresses one of the shortcomings of co-ops: sure, you can have workplace democracy, but the activities of the co-op might not be socially or environmentally beneficial. The other part of radical workplace democracy is acknowledging and accounting for carework, including providing emotional support or so called “emotional labour”. We try to incorporate all those aspects so that people who are benefiting from carework at least are not blind to that, at least it’s recognized. We plan to do workshops with communities and projects to help them figure out their governance models, help them have difficult conversations about values. If you don’t have those difficult conversations, tensions inevitably arise, and the person with the most tokens gets to decide — that’s not radical, or any kind of, workplace democracy.

How can we define “carework” in the digital distributed work context? Can it and should it be quantified? What about commoditisation of care in formal and informal networks, is this something we should worry about?

Sure — value tracking can feel invasive. That’s why we insist on small groups. This needs to be based on consent. It’s also uncomfortable, and especially uncomfortable for those who are privileged already do not want some of their privileges questioned. My hope is that this all makes for happier workplaces. The way we do it at Guerilla Media is by what we call community rhythms.We have daily check-ins, biweekly and monthly assessments following adaptable templates. When someone has emotional or family problems we make sure that this person is really supported.

Just having a conversation about care is a radical step. What you can do is to define among your group as to what constitutes carework. We decided to make everything that you would call admin — carework. Because we don’t want an admin layer. This idea comes from Parecon, participatory economics — which is an anarchist economist proposal. Part of their proposal calls for balanced job complexes, meaning that, say, one day you’re programming but another day you’re cleaning the toilets. And everyone gets to clean the toilets, so to speak. It’s about fairness.

We also have a mutual support system in which we support each other via regular check-ins. Once a month or so we have a call. When the person assigned to me takes care of me, they call me and listen to how I feel, and I do the same for the one I support. It’s just about being there for another person. We also think that organizations need to have certain boundaries — or otherwise they would be communes.

Some people say that having relationships like this will take so much time — sure, it will take time but these can be some of the best times of the day. We managed to create a safe online space, which is an increasing rarity. Everyone’s happy and if someone is not happy — everyone knows straight away and does something about it.

It seems like these processes are incredibly important for digital organizations too, where these social aspects need to be introduced as well.

These processes need to be co-designed. The cultural and structural aspects of projects are vitally important. We provide relevant resources for people but we don’t want people to copy and paste our solutions, but instead to challenge them and create better solutions for their individual circumstances. The more use cases we have, the more solutions we have that can work for other people in other contexts, thus creating a commons of DisCO pattern solutions. If you want to become a DisCO, you can but you don’t need to follow our governance model, the only thing you really need to do is to follow the 7 DiSCO principles, which are simple but also surprisingly demanding, they give you a set of constraints that can be really creative challenges. I’ll run them down:

First of all, you need to be oriented towards socio-economic outcomes in your statutes. Secondly, the projects should be multistakeholder, there should be different types of constituents. Thirdly, projects need to actively create the commons — don’t just take from the commons but make sure that you’re creating shared resources. The fourth principle is that they need to be transnational in nature — this is something where the DAO space has excelled now, and this is where legislation needs to follow. The fifth one — they need to be incorporating carework. The sixth one is that they reimagine the flows of value — including pro bono work, livelihood work, carework. You may want to measure carework, but not tokenize it. The final one is that they are designed for federation, sitting on top of a distributed architecture. We just need to remember that behind those nodes, behind those servers, behind those computers are human beings, and they need to be cared for. The best way to care for people — intellectually, spiritually — however you want to qualify that — is to be able to have a cognitive bandwidth to get to know those people, and to listen to them. According to the Dunbar number, 150 is the number of people with whom you can have meaningful social interactions with — but that doesn’t tell you what the intensity of the bandwidth of those interactions are. Make sure that the home DisCO is 15–20 people and then just federate and create different “nodes”, which can do regular check-ins. The value models need to be informed by proximity, -for a group of 15 people you don’t need a blockchain. We’re talking about a spectrum from trustless to trustworthy — blockchains excell at trustless interactions, but do we want all interactions to be trustless? Or do we want to empower trust in small groups?

Can DisCOs create profit?

They can create livelihoods for member-owners. When we critique profit, we mean to critique absentee shareholder profit. For a for-profit corporation, as Milton Friedman would say, their only responsibility is not to the society but to the shareholders. You can argue that tokenholders in DAOs are the equivalent of shareholders — have they really created the value that informs the profit? The question is what do you do with this profit, is it being centralized or is it being recirculated? Guerilla Media Collective is legally constituted as a non-profit, socially oriented coop. This means that we have to reinvest all profit — in education, development and creating commons, doing pro bono work and sharing it with others. The value model pays for this. Internally we pay ourselves the same rates while profits enable the pro bono activities.

Let’s talk about the role of trust in the digital distributed organization and how to account for it.

Beyond onchain and offchain, everything happens “onlife”. What we’re doing with DAOs in the strictest sense is subjecting trust to agreed-on algorithms. But the fidelity of this algorithm is very brute — you’re encouraging trust in monetary transactions, whether this is fiat money, crypto or digital assets. Why? Because you don’t want to get taken advantage of and want to transact with strangers without third party intermediaries — so you create a third party which is technology. But technology is not neutral.

What does it mean that DisCOs are associationist rather than individualistic?

The DisCO Manifesto is the result of many conversations. It was written by my partner Ann Marie Utratel and I, and many people contributed and helped edit it. This includes our closest collaborators in the DisCO sphere: Ruth Catlow (FurtherfieldDecal), Ela Kagel (SUPERMARKT), Irene López de Vallejo (AIOTIBDVABlueSpecs) and Phoebe Tickell (DGov FoundationEnspiral), as well as people like David Bollier (Commons Strategies Group) Jaya Klara Brekke (Durham UniversityDECODE), Pat Conaty (Synergia InstituteNew Economics FoundationCo-operatives UK), Primavera De Filippi (Berkman Klein CentreCNRSCOALADaoStack), Eleftherios Diakomichalis (OsCoinRadicle), Lynn Foster (MikorizalValue Flows), Sam Hart (Avant.org), Bob Haugen (MikorizalValue Flows), Julio Linares (Circles UBI), Elena Martínez Vicente and Silvia Molina Díaz (P2P Models), Nathan Schneider (Internet of Ownership) and Lisha Sterling (Geeks Without Bounds).

When we say “associationist”, we are referring to the notion of associative democracy. This describes the community effort of people who want to associate together and who want to actively share ideas, feelings and things, unlike in a DAO where you don’t have to get to know people, you just anonymously transact.

Do you believe that businesses globally, as we know them, can become socially responsible? How to bring about a necessary shift on a global level?

My feeling is that the change needs to come from the bottom up. As long as there’s a for-profit orientation and the need to keep the shareholders happy, inequality will keep driving up, a lot of green-washing or decentra-washing will happen and nothing will change. What I advocate for is a lot of more power for grassroots activism, and DisCOs are a way for people to do this. What’s an eye opening figure is that co-operatives globally have an annual turnover of USD 3 trillion, which is the same as the market cap as Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google combined. Co-ops worldwide have this significant power economically and if we could have new kinds of value accounting, and if we could use blockchain and DLT for social causes, and if we can make sure that we’re using this technology for advancing of planetary priorities — rather than priorities of IBM, Goldman Sachs etc. who are investing massive figures into blockchains, and if we learned how to federate, then we would create this more distributed future. We need to create more commons and we need to have people less and less dependent on the big institutional and corporate players. And of course the latter will resist it as much as they can, but it’s a losing fight because shit is collapsing. We’re waiting for some kind of Mad Max type of collapse where everyone gets a gun but collapse is already happening and will continue. When you think of big corporations as technologies, they will not introduce radical workplace democracy. Legislation is written by those with the most power, so a corporation will have much more beneficial legislation that a co-op. How about we push for a change in legislation so that we can run this cooperative experiment? This is the vision for our commons transition and we think that DisCOs are an approachable way to get into this.

To answer your question: can businesses become socially responsible? To me the definition of business is transactional by nature. Again, the infamous quote by Friedman reads: “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits”. I think a better question is whether “work” can become socially responsible. In that case yes, but it won’t happen through systems which are structurally oriented toward absentee profiteering and normalized exploitation.

What are the realistic solutions to the pitfalls of the gig economy?

Platform co-ops! Breaking down the big players and turning them into co-ops. They are an easy solution but they also face challenges: investors don’t want to invest into co-ops, it’s very difficult for them. To give an example, FairMondo, the online marketplace, or FairBnB, the platform coop alternative to Airbnb who are launching now, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Stocksy is a platform coop for photography or stock art. SMart is mutual / coop for freelance workers who get social security, financial advice… There’s lots of them. You can check them out on the Platform Coop directory. Are they successful? Yes, because they exist but they do face massive challenges which are easily dodged by their platform capitalist counterparts. Platform co-ops are more ethical and future minded, yet don’t have the impact of the big, venture-capital backed online platforms. Ironically the economy is not friendly to co-ops but co-ops, despite co-ops being demonstrably better for the “real” economy.

What would you advise to investors these days, in the crypto space and beyond?

This is what I’d advise venture capitalists: if we have perhaps 10 to 15 years left of the current order, instead of doing things that rely on mass computing power to keep furthering inequality, you may want to invest in systems that are future-proof, that address the collapse of our ecological order and the collapse of our social relationships. Invest in the future — and the future is the survival of the species and the biosphere. Read feminist economics and feminist literature, and be okay with being uncomfortable. Being challenged and becoming a more rounded person can be a beautiful and rewarding process.

Read about the commons — check out commonstransition.org — sign up for our commons newsletter. Read the book Free, Fair, and Alive by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, a wonderful introduction to the commons or Peer to Peer: a Commons Manifesto. For people from technological backgrounds, my advice is to get into the “soft stuff”, and be aware of your power and privilege — don’t see that recognition as an affront to your identity but maybe as something you can use to help enrich others.

Thank you for your interesting insights. What’s the best place to get in touch for those who are interested in collaborating or exploring DisCOs?

E-mail us at hello@disco.coop. If anyone wants to contact me: stacco (at) stacco (dot) works. You can also sign up to our newsletter for updates.

Digital Tools for Self-Organized Change

Gemma Copeland is an interdependent digital designer building digital tools that facilitate and empower grassroots movements and organizations. She is part of a London-based nonprofit workers cooperative of software engineers, designers and organizers called Common Knowledge. In this interview, I talked to Gemma about the ins and outs of running a grassroots activism focused co-op, about the nature and best practices for contemporary protest and political organizing, as well as about saving ourselves from a dystopian future.

Hi Gemma! What’s your professional background and what are the key areas you’ve been working on?

Gemma Copeland: I’m a digital designer, originally from Australia, but I’ve spent most of my career working in the Netherlands and the UK. I have mainly been working within the cultural, educational and social innovation sectors. I’m particularly interested in organizations that have social engagement element in their work. I’m also part of the self-organized education and design collective in London, called Evening Class. The idea behind which is providing a space for self-education outside of industry and academy. Over time, it has evolved into a space for solidarity and consciousness-raising, as well as prototyping alternative practices within design. We collaborate on projects together and often work with other activist groups. Being part of that collective got me interested in self-organized and cooperative structures. It’s important to focus on not just the type of work you do, but also to look at how you do the work, how you structure the organization. Through Evening Class, I found Common Knowledge earlier this year, and have recently joined them.

What kind of organization is Common Knowledge?
Common Knowledge is a nonprofit workers cooperative building digital tools for direct politics. It started last October in London. There are seven members, four of whom are active at the moment. We are a mix of software engineers, product designers and researchers. We all move between various skills and specialities, and we all in some way or another come from an activist background as well. We are specifically focused on designing and building tools that enable direct rather than representational politics. We collaborate with grassroots activists — for example, with people having problems in their workplace, facing housing crises or responding to racism — rather than traditional political organizations. This kind of direct activism is about people coming together and collectively responding to those problems within their own communities.

Are you working with individuals or communities and existing organizations?
We are doing a broad range of work. One of the products we are developing is an app called Catalyst, which is focused on connecting people who want to get involved in political activism but aren’t already. The app asks them what they are concerned about and then connects them to different organizations in their area that are addressing these concerns. Our next step is to partner with the organizers of these existing groups themselves, and to co-design tools that improve their processes. The final aim is to give people the tools, confidence and network to start groups themselves.

What are the groups that you’re engaging with?
Some of the groups we’re currently working with are the Left Book Club, a radical book club in the UK founded by Pluto Press; London Renters Union, which demands better housing rights for Londoners; and United Voices of the World, a workplace rights union. The idea is to research and build tools with them in a democratic and bottom-up way, rather than relying on our assumptions and imposing these on them. Eventually we’ll make it into a generic program that we will be able to roll out more broadly. The idea is to document everything as we go and eventually make it open source, so that others can build upon what we make.

What are the organizational practices and the roles and responsibilities within Common Knowledge coop?
We endeavour to enact the cooperative and democratic processes that we recommend to others in everything that we do. We have four active members at the moment, each with different areas of expertise, who take on a range of different roles within the co-op.

In terms of digital tools, we use Notion — it has become our collective brain and we find it much better other than using something like Slack. With Notion you’re building a knowledge base, a wiki, collectively. You can have conversations, but they are made directly in the context of the specific documentation you’re creating. It’s also interesting to watch this gradually build up as people contribute to different areas. You can see what people are working on, without having to communicate it all the time. It’s also great for onboarding new people.

In terms of other practices we apply, one of them is following agile sprints and build-measure-learn cycles. What we really want to do is to harness the power of technology to democractic ends, which includes the organizational practices favoured by start-ups. We believe that the Agile methodology is inherently really democratic — gives people lots of autonomy, is quite non-hierarchical and demands open communication between individuals. Agile teams, if implemented well, are efficient self-organized groups. Another example would be the Sprint book methodology — doing a week of concentrated work, focused on prototyping very quickly, and directly learning from your users.

How do you make decisions within the co-op?
For decision-making, we use a process called sociocracy, which I really like. The idea is that decisions are made through consent rather than consensus. Rather than looking for everyone to be completely onboard with every decision, someone makes a proposal that is directly discussed within the group. People can ask questions about the proposal and state their “critical concerns”. If someone has a critical concern, it means that they believe the proposal diverges from the core vision, aims or ethics of the group. Otherwise, the framework for deciding whether we should go ahead is “is it good enough for now and safe enough to try?” This idea of “good enough for now” is also about experimenting, trying to see if things work, and reflecting, which is also related to the build-measure-learn cycle.

What are the digital tools that enable this way of working?
We use Loomio quite a lot, it’s one of my favourite digital tools. It’s quite simple but it can be super powerful. You can make decisions together and there’s a range of options for how decisions are structured — a poll, ranking options and so on. Everyone can vote and add comments, and in the end you have both the outcome of the decision and a digital record of it. This works very well as a means of practicing sociocracy. Loomio grew out of Occupy Wall Street, when activists and social entrepreneurs realised they needed to solve the same problem: fast, inclusive, effective decision-making without meetings. It’s really interesting to see a tool that itself has these autonomous, self-organized origins.

Can you talk more about the transition from someone learning about the co-op and starting to volunteer to then becoming a member and participating in the decision making and financial planning process?
I can only speak from my own experience, and I think that with any collective, it’s very important to make sure that there’s a good personal match and affinity, even more so than what you can technically bring to the group. It’s so much about whether you can trust a person. When I joined Common Knowledge, we had a bunch of meetings and we were working out how I could fit. They also asked me what I wanted to get out of it, rather as in the traditional hierarchical structure which is all about what value you can bring to the company.

Once I joined, I was able to participate in organizational and financial decisions straight away. The reasoning behind this was that making decisions together is an important part of acting together and working together — it seems strange to have less input just because you’re a new member. It feels like a lot of the systems that we use, like sociocracy, provide necessary safeguards anyways. The outcome is that each person has a lot of autonomy within the collective, which is empowering but also quite interesting as an exercise.

Are you planning to grow the cooperative and include more people in it, including the communities you are serving?
That’s the eventual aim but, in my opinion, bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. The co-founder of Loomio, Richard Bartlett, proposed the idea of “microsolidarity” in 2018. He argues that there is so much that can be achieved by small groups of people and that it’s better to build multiple small teams to work together and share knowledge directly, rather than to build huge co-ops. These teams can then connect and work in solidarity with a wider network. They can can also include collaborators in a non-hierarchical way, rather than just acting in traditional roles of client and service-provider.

Can you talk more about your general financial management — do people get paid for their work maintaining the co-op, or is it mainly for direct consultancy work?
One of our principles is that people should be paid fairly for their work, and our eventual intention is for this to cover the labour that goes into running the co-op as well. When doing consultancy tasks, we have a flat financial structure — everyone gets paid the same. We have transparent finances within the co-op at the moment and the goal is to also make these public.

Do you have a written set of rules?
The key part of any self-organized groups is having a shared vision but also a very clear protocol. Everything needs to be well-documented and explicit. It’s also important to note that while it’s explicit, it’s not fixed. Everything is open to change, proposals can be adjusted. It enables a way more fluid collaboration — everything is on the table and nothing is hidden. In general, I think it’s very important to spend time thinking about organizational rules and principles. I really like this way of working — you don’t define the rules before you do the thing, but instead you try it out, then document it and adjust this as you go

Are there any best practices for running a co-op that you could share?
Establishing clear communication and openness around freely questioning and discussing everything. Actively giving members autonomy and ownership from the outset.

That makes sense. Let’s talk about the projects you’re working on in detail.
The main project so far is called Catalyst, which I mentioned before. We’ve been working on it for about a year, in five concentrated sprints. We started with a mix of ethnographic research and rapid prototyping in Hackney, London, where we interviewed a bunch of organizers about their own path towards activism, and the tools they use in organizing. We built an experimental service based on existing software, such as Typeform, WhatsApp, Airtable. The prototype asked people “what issues are you concerned about and what’s your capacity?” and then connected them directly to relevant events and organizers. This was definitely an interesting process, both the interview and prototyping stages. It confirmed a couple of hypotheses throughout the process. Organizers are using existing consumer technology but are limited by it, and frustrated. We learned a lot about what gets people actively engaged in politics. We also found out that, yes, it is possible to use digital tools to get people to go to events. The surprising aspect was that it’s almost easier than expected to get people to go to events, but that you also need a buy-in from the organizers themselves. Based on that, we decided that the next focus of work will be on organizers, and how to improve their capacity.

Can you talk a little bit about Extinction Rebellion, the fastest growing direct action climate change organization?
Extinction Rebellion (XR) is interesting — it has had a global viral growth and has a different demographic to the norm. I think that part of the reason is that climate crisis affects everyone, it’s widespread and we really have to work together to address it. Part of it is also the urgency of the situation. Politics these days is so chaotic, constant crisis is normal and people don’t trust the usual institutions, or even what we were taught is real or true. The outcome is that people are alienated from politics, and they are scared. These are perhaps the reasons why there have been so many global climate strikes. XR has been clever with having clear demands. It’s also great that anyone can use their banner in their own in an independent, non-hierarchical way.

Do you have any other examples of any other contemporary protest movements that stand out in terms of their organizational practices?

The protest movement in Hong Kong is very interesting in the context of self-organization and technology. There are Telegram groups with tens of thousands of people where they use polls to collectively decide where to go next, whether they should assemble somewhere or disperse. They have been using Airdrop to create ad hoc peer-to-peer networks where they can share instructions, which is really cool. These types of communication tools have a huge importance within activist organizations. “Misusing” these technologies in a non-hierarchical and ad hoc way, that’s really clever.

It’s interesting how far we’ve come from the Arab Spring, which marked the onset of social media powered protests.

Yes, right now there seems to be so many more private group chats, rather than broadcasts or public Facebook communities. I have so many apps on my phone for various political organizing. Telegram, Signal, WhatsApp, Mattermost, Slack, Discord, RocketChat… that’s way too many!
Apart from Signal and Mattermost, there are major security and privacy concerns with most of them, as well as fundamental UX problems. If you have a group with thousands of people, so much messaging gets lost, you can’t tell who you are talking to. Even though there’s a use case for appropriating these tools, everything has to be retrofitted for political organizing. It is kind of crazy that an organization like XR is using Basecamp — it seems not fit for purpose and also not secure. Same with all these different groups using Google Drive, which seems so antithetical to their principles… I’ve talked to a number of different organizers and noticed they use Google Drive, but a lot of the time is the same answer — everyone is already there, it’s easy, it’s free. Companies like Google and Facebook have so much unfair advantage when creating tools like this — they have so much money from advertising that they can offer products for free. At the end of the day, it’s not working in your best interest at all to use them, as a political organizer.

Yes, that’s a big challenge. Speaking of which — what are the characteristics of the digital tools and platforms suited for political organizing?

End-to-end encryption is a huge one. Making it open source too, as this is the way we create a commons and build networks, as well as give people the ability to understand what they’re working with. The ability to have control over the tool you are using, that’s a pretty fundamental aspect.

Is there any other protest movement that sparked your attention lately?
The Fck Boris protest in London against the election of Boris Johnson as the UK Prime Minister was very interesting — it was organized by a coalition of different groups in London. They were able to mobilize very quickly and get a huge turnout (about 10,000), especially among young people. It’s a really good example of different grassroots organizations working together and pooling their knowledge, and acting much more efficiently because of this. The protest had a very clear visual language and atmosphere — it was almost like a flash festival. I was very impressed at what they managed to put together in such a short time.

Perhaps, in the end, it’s not only about the tools that people have but also the energy behind it, the levels of anger and frustration..?

One of the things we come back to a lot is that yes, we want to make digital tools, but that’s not really our end goal. What it really comes down to is about people, and connecting people with other people. The tool itself is not really important if you don’t have the social and political will behind it.

It’s interesting to see how the nature of protest evolved in the digital space. There used to be a time where people engaged in “clicktivism” from the comfort of their smartphones, which gave them a feel-good illusion that clicking “like” on a Facebook page or tweeting incendiary messages is equivalent to activism that effects change. It seems that now the time has come to walk out on the streets.

Yes, it seems like there’s a widespread rejection of major digital platforms. People are really wanting to move away from them and to show up physically. I personally first heard about Extinction Rebellion because I saw their stickers around London, it wasn’t through social media.

Let’s talk about another issue area you are focusing on — workers rights in the digital economy and the fate of employees of digital platforms. According to recent data, between 2016 and 2019 the number of people working for digital platforms in the UK doubled to 4.7 million, one in ten of the entire workforce. Millions of people are now in some form of precarious work, their wages fail to keep pace with the rising living cost, they’re facing lower pay and poor working conditions… Is this something that you also address? What are the ways to empower these people?

When I think about the key challenges facing those people… it’s so many! It’s hard to pinpoint one issue to talk about, and it all feels dystopian and depressing. You have the layer of surveillance, which applies to everyone. People are just exhausted and accept this as a given. Then you look at the gig economy and how technology is used to dehumanize these workers… Under surveillance capitalism, we are all forced to be these isolated consumers, operating in a competitive environment, while everything around us is monitored and harvested for data. In a way, technology is confining us and keeping us separate from each other. It makes it difficult to have self-determination or form strong social groups. What we really want to do is to give workers, and people more generally, access to knowledge and tools — in a sense, consciousness-raising. It also comes back to connecting them with others, building networks, connecting them with unions and helping unions to connect with them — getting them to work in collaboration and in solidarity with others in order to collectively change their situation. In Training for Exploitation?, Precarious Workers Brigade frame self-organized groups as a way of not just dealing with capitalism, but also of creating an alternative to capitalism, building places of identity, solidarity and education, in parallel to the structures that already exist.

Where does the accountability lie? We can empower workers, but in this marketplace situation we also need awareness on the side of the consumer and technology companies.

Definitely, there needs to be solidarity between workers and consumers, recognizing that we are all basically in the same situation under capitalism. A company like Uber for example, the way that its enabled by technology — it really lends itself to be a platform co-op. It feels like the “sharing economy” has interesting foundations, but because it was made in Silicon Valley for venture capitalists, it went a certain way. But we need to take these things back and build them in a way that the workers own them instead. A huge problem for platform co-ops is that it’s expensive to start those things — how do you get the initial seed funding if you can’t go to a venture capitalist? One of the things we want to look at and share knowledge about is financial structures, how can we make these things sustainable.

In order to shed light on those issues and effect change, do you want to exert pressure directly on the companies? Are we giving up on policymakers and regulation? What’s the ideal route?

Our focus at Common Knowledge is not about regulation. I recently read The Shock Doctrine of the Left by Graham Jones, which has informed a lot of my thinking about these approaches. It describes different ways of direct political action: Smashing: protest and disobedience; Building: building viable alternatives next to mainstream ones (which I would say is our main focus); Taming, which is about regulation and working within the electoral political system; and Healing, which is about reproductive labour. You can approach problems in all these different ways. For such complex and society-wide problems, there’s no one single answer or approach. The way we have strength is having lots of different people trying lots of different things. Regulation should still be a focus, it’s just not ours.

Can you share some examples of various groups working together towards shared goals, for example from one of your political action communities on Telegram?

From the environmental perspective, I’ve gone to a few meetings run by a group called Divest Islington, focused on divestment campaigns specifically for Islington (a borough of London). They succeed in getting Islington council to divest from fossil fuels, and have now been looking at what a Green New Deal could look like, specifically for Islington. More recently, they organized a meeting with representatives of different local campaigns — other divestment groups, general environmental activism groups and groups focused specifically on air pollution around schools. Each group has a different focus, whether it is lobbying or direct action, but in the end they all recognize that we have the same aims. In the meeting we spoke about how we could support each other and work together. The strength comes from having a really broad range of groups and recognizing the solidarity amongst them.

Final question: Given the general perception of an impending dystopian techno-capitalist doom, are you optimistic about the future?

I think optimism is a very interesting thing to talk about. On one hand I’m very sceptical of techno-optimism and believing that technology will save us. I really don’t believe that and I think it’s what has led us to a lot of trouble in the past. Technology on its own is not going to solve anything, but I do think that technology can be a very powerful tool.

In some ways the situation is very bleak, especially in terms of the environment, and this sometimes can get very overwhelming. I was reading this great article the other day, called Beyond Hope. The general argument is that hope is not actually useful — if you’re hoping for something you think that some external factor is going to solve it for you. Whereas if you realise that you have agency over something, you just do the work. I agree that it’s a much more powerful mentality. We do actually have agency and we all just need to do something. A crucial part of it is moving from individual mindset to a collective mindset — rather than getting overwhelmed and thinking that there’s nothing one can do, and seeing oneself as a very small part of a much greater whole. There’s something more comforting and powerful, to instead think of oneself within a context of a global movement.

Thank you!

This interview was conducted by Ola Kohut in Berlin on 12th September 2019.