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The Art of Free Cooperation

(Institute for Distributed Creativity)

I admit it; I’m a cynic.  I assume that the other drivers are angry or not paying attention.  I don’t leave anything other than my coffee on the table when I go to the bathroom at coffee shops.  I wear thick enough boots to walk in the muck because that stroller mom is certainly not going to yield any sidewalk to me. Most people, I assume, are oblivious to the existence, or at least the shared humanity of others.


Because I’m right 90 percent of the time, it’s delightful when someone proves me wrong.  For example, my neighbors, who are incapable of responding to greetings and making eye contact, regularly deliver my misdirected mail, including The Art of Free Cooperation, which I found in a K-mart bag on my apartment door.  It’s us against the Post Office, after all. 


But who could blame the postal carrier?  Chicago’s weather is brutal nine months out of the year, and the postal worker’s only human contact usually involves crazy people who want 13 stamps instead of 20.  I can’t say I would have a penchant for accuracy in that case.  I mention this because it’s one of those delightful surprises when an antisocial neighbor will act just because it’s the right thing to do, while the paid worker let it slide.


The reason, of course, is that we all would like to believe we are masters of our own destinies that, if given the chance to decide, we would take care of each other.  No one wants to be bossed around; yet, for most of us, that’s the day-to-day situation.  We are compelled to do things to earn the wages we need to live.  According to the contributors to The Art of Free Cooperation, we are in a situation of forced cooperation.


The text comprises a paperback book, a DVD, and a chart of the technologies of free cooperation.  These documents were edited by and born out of a conference organized by Geert Lovink and Trebor Schulz at the State University of New York in Buffalo.  According to these organizers, we are all familiar with forced cooperation.  There is a system of sacred rules that cannot be tampered with by group members, forward progress must not be stopped, and you must either cooperate or suffer consequences. 


So if your boss has a terrible policy, you can’t question it or stop working on your widget to deal with it, and if you decide to leave the company, your boss still has his job and position of power and you have nothing.  So you cooperate.  Lovink, Trebor, and their collaborators set out to find out what free cooperation would look like.


Several issues complicate their theories.  In Lovink and Trebor’s formulation, for cooperation to be free, all those cooperating must be able to leave the work scenario, above, with equal consequences for all group members; the group cannot be left with all the resources while the worker is left with nothing.  So to start with, free cooperation needs to be completely divorced from money.  One cannot cooperate freely if one needs the wages.  So what is at stake if you’re not doing the work to earn money?  What would work done freely look like?


DVD interviews with conference participants showed drastically different ideas.  One woman described something like a rave: ecstatic dancing, she said, followed a long day of intellectual stimulation.  Another said that “free” meant absolutely no limits, which meant the project had no value.  If there’s nothing at stake and no limit, what can be gained?


The other issue that most contributors agreed upon was that free cooperation could not exist, or at least would be challenging to implement under current government philosophies, including capitalism and what they called really-existing communism.  In both systems, wealth is supposed to be evenly distributed (especially in communism at its ideal).  But we all know that in both capitalism and communism as they are practiced, money winds up in the hands of wealthy elites, and the rest of us are compelled to work for a living. 


As I mentioned earlier, cooperation, the decision to work with others, can never be a “free” decision so long as work is attached to wages.  So in order for this system to work, you have to slowly dismantle the old boys clubs that control resources and make sure that everyone has a fixed income so that they can focus on doing real and meaningful work instead of holding down multiple “McJobs” just to make ends meet.  The cynic in me desperately wants to make fun of this book.  Can someone throw out the word “utopia” again?


But, the contributors do have a point.  The input of many voices, and the co-requisite conflict, ultimately yields a richer product in many ventures.  Case in point: the collaborative DVD that was included with this book.  The interviews and much of the conference material was so terribly boring that I had to hold my eyelids up with my fingers – a lot of black turtlenecks and nary a public speaking class in sight. 


However, it also included a short film explaining the relationship between that ancient, powerful monster, “cooperation”, and the rule of cities that try to contain it.  I won’t spoil it for you, but the old science fiction footage it uses is awesome. Similarly, the first essay in the book is one of the worst.  Start with the monster video, skip to Christopher Spehr’s essay, then go back to watch and read the other material.  I wouldn’t have gotten through either first point of contact if I wasn’t obliged, but once I got to the good stuff, I was able to see the drier material in a more positive and productive light.


Lovink and Trebor, et. al., provide nothing less than a new ideology, a roadmap for a different way of working with other people that can be applied to any mode of production, from art-making to government.  But are any of us brave enough to try it?

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