September 8, 2022

Movement is the message: a conversation with DisCO

The following interview was conducted by NKC Productions and transcribed by Anjali Prashar-Savoie for inclusion in Radical Spreadsheets, a zine curated by Sodaa Club, the first DisCO disco (yes, you read that right). It is available now published by Moon Press.

A Distributed Cooperative Organisation – aka DisCO – is a framework for organising communities, collectives and enterprises, created as an alternative to its more crypto-centric counterpart, the Decentralised Autonomous Organisation – or DAO. It was developed by a transnational crew of DisCOnauts, predominantly women, as a Feminist Economic, commons-focused cooperative enterprise. In 2019, having road-tested their model through their own work, they began publishing a trilogy of writings, setting out their vision. This started with If Only I Had a Heart: a DisCO Manifesto and was followed up with Groove is in the Heart: DisCO Elements in 2020. Their forthcoming PinkPaper, which will put forward more details of how they envisage technology assisting distributed cooperativism, is currently in progress.

The DisCO Project is ambitious, proposing DisCOs as a radical, global and federated experiment in economics and social-political organisation. It reboots the conventional cooperative structure for a world of expanded connectivity, remote working and blockchain technologies. As part of their DisCO LABS, they support newly created and established DisCOs, like Guerrilla Media Collective, Cooperation Jackson, Laneras and others, in applying and developing their Peer Governance model, defining forms of work in their organisation (referred to as livelihood work, care work, and love work), and creating their Community Algorithmic Trust (their CAT).

Although serious about political economy, DisCO simultaneously keeps things light. The Manifesto and Elements are littered with memes, playful designs and sketches that make its critiques of techno-determinism and explanations of Feminist Economics accessible. The writing contains countless neologisms, metaphors and lyrical references, lending the project a sense of musicality and rhythm that embodies its hopeful utopian spirit.

As a collective attempting to become part of a counter-economy, resisting profit incentives and top-down management in favour of solidarity and decentralised governance, SODAA is aligned with DisCO’s vision for cooperation and its focus on the commons. SODAA has similarly taken a technologically agnostic approach, recognising the potentials and promises of the ideas proposed by ‘web3,’ whilst maintaining a healthy scepticism towards the crypto-evangelizing techno-determinism and blockchain maximalism that often come with it. Like DisCO, SODAA prioritises the tools, trust and experiments that a collaborative project undertakes on its way, over and above more narrow conceptions of its end goals. On the dancefloor, the movement is the message.

For this issue of Moon Press, I spoke to two members of the DisCO crew, Ann Marie Utratel and Stacco Troncoso, about open value accounting, contemporary networked technologies, and how DisCOs interface with markets, capitalism and the state.

Moon Press Issue 10, Radical Spreadsheets. Click here to access or download.

In the DisCO writing you talk about the tension between ‘structure’ and ‘culture.’ You seem to prioritise building organisational structures from existing self-organised formations. How do you balance proposing a structure that aligns with your resistance to top-down governance?

Stacco: DisCO itself presents certain structures and an offer towards a cultural simpatico, meaning that, if you read the DisCO stuff and it resonates, then it’s your turn to figure out how you’re a DisCO. It is about creating your own narrative. Structure can mean technical background, but it can also mean legal structures. That’s always going to vary. We cannot assume what technology you will be using or what your current local economic legislation is. These are all context-dependent, so we strive for flexible templates rather than a one-size fits all model.

Having said that, there is a shared DisCO culture of mutual recognition, of ‘okay, we don’t want to be like that, or we don’t want to be a DAO, or we don’t want to add to the ongoing damage to the structure of the planet. We want to do something else with our talents.’ Within that I think that there’s lots of room and scope for people and groups to think out their individuality.

This is the thing about the DisCO journey – it’s not about us downloading the information and then everyone becomes like Brave New World DisCOs, perfectly shaped. It’s about asking what it means to you? What does it mean to your crew? What does it mean to your community? What we ask of DisCOs is that they report back, because that enriches DisCO as a whole. Meaning, the more examples of DisCOs that we have, the more exists that people can draw from. We can learn a lot from each other, so this element of sharing information is crucial.

Ann Marie: We often get contacted by a wide array of individuals, or pre-existing collectives, or folks who want to begin a collective. Because we are hearing from folks from all over the globe, there are a lot of different considerations in what we even mean by culture. When we talk about culture, we’re talking of culture versus structure in a small group, but there’s also lots of different people from different cultures talking with us and they have different aims. We’re adjusting and learning how we work and advise and learn from those people. Our models are always in flux depending on who is adapting them.

An important part of DisCO is advocating for an accounting system that can quantify and weight contributions of care and care work, and not just financial or time-based contributions –  which is standard in most organisational models. How do you suggest people record and quantify care work in a meaningful way?

Stacco: Before we even begin recording contributions, there first needs to be a recognition and understanding of what different types of labour even look like. It is a process of unlearning current dominant understandings of work. We offer a governance model and we’re in the process of making other governance models, but these are just templates. We think it’s much more important for the group to say, ‘what do we value, what are we putting time into?’ And then you can get as granular as you want, or you can have it be fuzzy.

If you’re doing value-tracking or time-tracking, intuitively it feels invasive. It feels invasive because we’ve grown up, or grown with, an internet that increasingly turns towards surveillance capitalism. You can extend that to the physical reality of the horror of working in an Amazon warehouse, where you cannot pee for two hours, or if you take more than seven minutes to go to the bathroom, you will be penalised.

The important thing to highlight is that these kinds of data are usually owned by someone else with their own interests, which are monetary interests. Within a DisCO you want to own your own data. That doesn’t have to be online – look, here’s a sandclock [Stacco picks up a sandclock on the desk], how many times do we turn the sandclock around? It’s more important to agree on how to use that information and get to a point where we can consent to what that information is being used for.

Ann Marie: I really want to highlight that the most important thing is for a group to define what care work is for themselves. This is about understanding what’s not always visible within that particular group.

Another important part is translating. That is the first thing we did when we began Guerrilla Media Collective. Translation operates on a per word basis, so for the love work and livelihood work there was a very easy metric. But for care work, it’s not per word, it would be something that you understand about time. So there were going to be different types of metrics, different types of things for every different possibility. So the collective process of defining and the conversations around what these things mean in your context is key here. Then the next part is to record this.

You have labelled three different strands of work – livelihood work, love work, care work. Do you find that people tend to fall back into social and cultural norms even when these strands of work are defined in your model?

Ann Marie: Of course, we all do. It’s inevitable that you’re not extracting yourself entirely from the world that you’re immersed in. So there is a continuous unlearning, an unschooling, there is always a need to remember ‘wait, that’s not the logic we’re applying here’ – and that does take time.

Stacco: Care work is a big thing, because care work is usually invisibilised. In the DisCO framework, things which are considered admin, we call care work. They’re not externalised to a management class or position, but they’re shared within the group. I think that this can give groups a lot more life, because if an organisation is an organism, if you know how all the parts work – even if you’re not directly involved in all of them – I think you work better. And I think that you feed that organism in a much more healthy way.

I’m thinking of the one-to-one meetings that you usually have with your line manager in the corporate world – in a DisCO, is that responsibility democratised to the rest of the group in any way?

Stacco: Management, historically, is a professional class imposed by capitalism to extract value from workers. But when there are no capitalists per se, because you are a co-op, because you are a collective, you need to figure out how to reorganise each other. And also what we’ve found is that sometimes there’s a vacuum of management because, you know, we’re not educated for this. So, you’re always expecting that there’s a boss that will tell you off, or will guide you towards the line or whatever. You have to figure this out for yourself and that’s very, very difficult, especially collectively when it’s not just put upon one person. It is a kind of economic experimentation that has to be continuously shaped.

Ann Marie: There’s a big opening there for talking about individuals, and every group will have different skillsets. And some folks will come into a situation with a lot of experience with something like accounting, or bookkeeping – let’s call it basic accounting – and they will step up and handle it for the group if everyone else is terrified of doing it. And that becomes a bit troubling sometimes because there are logics involved in that which do come from an earlier and malfunctioning systemic thinking. There is often tension when you bring the skills you have but also are trying to redefine them and help others lose the fear of being involved with those skills.

DisCO was ahead of the social curve in questioning ‘web3’ technologies like blockchain, DAOs and crypto. There’s been a bit more of a resistance to that recently in music and art worlds, especially in discourse around NFTs. Has the popularity of these discussions made it easier or more difficult for you to articulate a DisCO vision that involves these technologies?

Stacco: It is easier. While we cautioned against some of the way these tools were being used, we certainly were not the first to question them. The NFT crash or the crypto-winter lead to conversations about what the beneficial parts of these technologies are, or who designs these technologies? And, how necessary are they, and up to what point?

Within a group, you want to build trust. Building trust takes time and this is an art that humans have perfected over hundreds of thousands of years, and not worth just chucking away and externalising. Obviously you do not have the cognitive capacity to build trust with everyone. This is when you have to, judiciously, start using technology.

Ann Marie: I like to think of this moment as the awkward teenage years for these types of technologies…

Stacco: Too much testosterone!

Ann Marie: …and they haven’t found their style, they haven’t found their purpose. I think we were a bit snotty, a little bratty, in some of our words about tech when we wrote our manifesto. We are now more in dialogue with music, art or culture collectives and we’re more interested in the people who want to break some of these trends.

We are in favour of understanding more what the need is before building a product that only satisfies a narrow niche and just looks like a lot of other things that are trying to get rich quickly. We’re listening to artists, musicians and other cultural practitioners and talking to folks who say ‘yeah there’s limitations but there’s also some potentials, let’s just see what we can do, by joining forces.’ That’s more inspiring to us now, a few years post-manifesto.

DisCO people. L to R: Sara Escribano, Ann Marie Utratel, Stacco Troncoso, Kadallah Burrowes and Irene López de Vallejo

How does music and rhythm fit into DisCO?

Stacco: From a sound design perspective, I find it helpful to think about economics like signal flows. So you have a carrier wave, you have an original signal – you can split that, you can multiply that, you can distort it, you can delay it, you can do all these sorts of things. It’s a useful metaphor.

Ann Marie and I really like free jazz, which is the perfect music for chucking people out of a party – you put on a free jazz record and people will go away running, and we love it. But the bit about free jazz is the listening, this very intent listening. And when you’re a listener, when you’re not a musician, you have to become like a musician because you have to listen in. I think that that beautiful space where you’re making music, you kind of lose yourself, you’re not just receiving or emitting, but you’re becoming part of it – I think that groups that are alive and that thrive have to be artistic.

Our view of economics is that it’s a field that has been abstracted, given away to technocrats. But I think there’s an art to it, there’s a magic to it. What is this thing called money that can mobilise billions of people to do certain things, and not do other things, and rewards certain things and doesn’t reward others? In DisCO we wanted to go just beyond what was logically feasible to what was emotionally feasible, and that’s one of the great potencies of music.

We wrote the manifesto and it wasn’t an academic paper, we wanted to make it funkier. We also want to do comics and more animations as a way to communicate in a different way.

Ann Marie: One of the things that inspired me in thinking about how our musical tastes influenced the project, is that, before I was born – my parents’ generation or older – music was a cultural project that happened in a community, where people would sing together in a pub, or there would be folk music of the region. Today that sounds very antiquated. Music went from a cultural practice to a consumer product at some point.

What we are saying with our project, is that you can change this,  ‘you can do this too.’ That’s why we joke and call our approach ‘punk rock economics,’ – where all you need is, ‘three chords and a spreadsheet.’ Because you can, and why not reintegrate that feeling of doing it together, a feeling that we’ve lost, and that we can bridge that with people who are already doing that in art and music right now.

You’re quite straightforward in the Manifesto and Elements about the potential threat of blockchain and cryptocurrencies in the hands of the hegemonic order. You say these tools could “be deployed by the existing power structures to lock down the current hegemony into an inescapable, cybernetic one.” How do you stay positive about the strength of small-scale communities when you can also see these tools being used to exploit people?

Stacco: In the web3 space and web3 conferences there is a democratisation of ownership, but it’s ownership for those that can afford it, which is very different from the democratisation of ownership that comes from the cooperative moment. So I think that we need more communities that want to engage in post-capitalist practices. Not as theory, but as practice.

The question is, who designs the tech and what for? When there’s a lot of monetary interest we may see those dystopian technologies being deployed initially with a much friendlier face, which is, you know, ‘this is what people want’ or ‘this is so easy.’ But we’re complicit in the uses of… I don’t know, we may use Google, or we may use Facebook because it’s extremely convenient, and the user-interfaces are extremely easy. They save you care work and effort.

So how can we make technology that is owned by us (this is a very fuzzy, take it as you will ‘us’) but that is also cognitively manageable? Because there is a lot of stuff in the Fediverse, it’s great, but it’s incomprehensible to the average user. You want to have good interfaces, you want to have technology that saves you time, or saves you energy so you can get more outputs from a lower energy input. The problem with a lot of free software stuff is you’re either already very cognisant of that language or very technically-enabled, or it will take you more time. So there has to be a concerted effort just to make the skills more accessible.

Ann Marie: What I’m hoping for is just as more and more of us have access to all of these sorts of tools, but also the logic behind them, that we can also start to capture people who are interested in working on technology from the same point of view as us, people who have excellent UX experience, and excellent design experience. We’re not trying to compete with the whole world’s best technology, but we do want people to not feel alienated from the get-go.

Stacco: And we want people who could make really good UX, because it’s an art, and to me it opens up more collaboration between the art-world and technologists. Not just people with a very specific technological profile and a privilege of class, race, geography, etc. You can end up with a very homogenous coding class, which may be coding for good instead of coding for capital, but still a lot of voices are missing from that conversation.

DisCO writes about livelihood work as work that funds the love work and the internal care work that maintains an organisation. Would you advise DisCOs against doing livelihood work for external parties that don’t share the same anti-capitalist values?

Stacco: In the original model there was a pricing tier that depended on who was approaching us for work. For example, if Google reached out to us, instead of 12 cents a word, it was going to be 20. But of course we never got contracted by Google!

But that sliding scale is more nuanced. For example, there can be a large well-funded NGO that has a good social mission who have the financial wherewithal to be able to contribute more towards love work. So having a sliding scale pricing is important to take into account varying situations.

There’s also a concept of ‘transvestment,’ which is a concept by Dmytri Kleiner and Baruch Gottlieb, which is like transfusing blood from the capitalist system. You do a transfusion and once it’s in the commons, once we have value sovereignty, we don’t give it back. Or we argue that by extracting value from what capitalism considers as value, we’re actually doing the work that capitalism is externalising and is forgetting about, which is ecological restoration, social restoration, you know, like the real work, the non-bullshit work that needs to be done.

We can get more sci-fi and we can get more speculative with our political economy, like yeah, ideally, we’d all do love work. But at the same time, if you have to pay the rent and you have no other option, you know, this a little bit of a cheat – keep the day job, while doing activism as part of the day job. And if the conditions are right for doing more activism, and less of the commission work, go for it.

Ann Marie: Yeah I think we don’t need an economic purity test here. It’s just not going to work. What we found in the original practice was that people in this type of more wealth-privileged organisation were really happy to pay our higher tier rates in order to support our love work because we were transparent about what that extra rate was going for. And against all odds, we consistently had more work, more business than we knew what to do with, and had to team-build regularly over the years. That was really interesting, that there was a lot of solidarity with more well-endowed businesses.

With ‘transvestment’ you’re taking blood out of the capitalist economy and putting it into a counter-economy. Is your ultimate aim to take enough blood that the capitalist economy dies?

Stacco: Rather than a vampire, I like to think about mosquitos, because there’s lots of them. When illustrating the image between two bodies – like ours – that would be another sort of centralisation. The future is not for just one group to determine. The whole growth with DisCOs is like, this is a structure, this is something for people to identify with.

Short term we may be doing work in the market, but maybe we’re working to transcend some markets, or to de-commodify up to the extent that’s possible.

What would the ideal vision of the state be for the DisCO  – would it be a federation of DisCOs?

Stacco: My own personal vision comes from anarchism, but it’s not something that I would impose on DisCO per se. I think that the state is a technology, and a technology can work for those that design it and those that have a vested interest. How can we have a more open source state? Experiments in statelessness have mostly happened in the context of wars. Whether it’s the Spanish Revolution during the Civil War, whether it’s Ukraine Free Territory in 1918, whether it’s Rojava, the state didn’t wither away on its own, but in very tragic circumstances people had to step up, quite capably, and then they were crushed by another state, or by another interest.

So I think that the state is a theatre of struggle, and what I would like the state to do is to manage economic subsidiarity that goes to communities, making the figure of a state that has the privilege to lock you up or torture you or shoot you down if you say the wrong thing stop existing. But at the same time, we will need some institutions that go up from the more local to the bioregional level. I don’t believe in nation states per se, I think that they are propagandistic constructs.

There was the concept of ‘phyles,’ which also came from Neal Stephenson, but this Spanish cyber group called Las Indias were talking about them. Communities are not only place-based, but they are also culture based. On the internet, you have micro-states that can have their own economic interactions. State is probably not the best metaphor, community would be.

The things that you can get away with also have to do with the permissiveness of your state. So it is worth fighting for rights from the state, and it is worth fighting for those who cannot take care of themselves.

In the UK, there are quite a lot of alternatives to the corporation – cooperatives, community interest companies, community benefit structures. Have you found any DisCOs have had to operate outside of legal structures, because there isn’t a legal structure in their nation that would make it possible to realise their aims and values?

Ann Marie: The best thing we could talk about is our own experience. We had to do a lot of research to find an appropriate-enough legal structure for us to modify in Spain, for those of us who are Spanish residents, which does make it a little bit exclusive to Spain for our home-base DisCO. But we found one in another region, not one that we live in, but one we could register in, that allowed us to make our own statutes law. Basically, what happens is by registering our co-op with our statutes, we’ve made DisCO legal here.

Other places are finding their own struggles. We’re hoping to amass information and put a bit of a clearing house together, with help from other projects, to map what kind of legal forms are starting-point places that are cooperatives with specific kinds of capacity. That’s a work in progress at the moment.

Could you give us a teaser about new technologies you’re working on?

Stacco: With the current group of DisCOs we’re more concerned with the user interface and with making something that is creative enough for DisCOs to adapt, and then let other DisCOs that are working in technology figure out the best protocols. Ideally we’ll develop a front end that can run on different back-end technologies, some of them blockchain-based, others just federated or federated software. It’s more about what goes on than where it takes place.

Ann Marie: The last thing I’d say is that we’d love to have a tech-focused DisCO. A DisCO that helps build DisCO. This has always been the dream, a coding collective. That’s something that we’re still feeling out, for that to coalesce.

That’s a good call out to end on, to get more people involved!

Disco Queen and Heart images by id-iom.