To breathe easy and dance light: Embracing revolution with the DisCO Manifesto

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To breathe easy and dance light: Embracing revolution with the DisCO Manifesto

Anita Gurumurthy and Nandini Chami

Long ago, and when we were still tentative in our vocabulary, Dalit women’s collectives in Mysuru – with very little material wherewithal, but the immense largeness of being – taught us how small is made beautiful. They ran a community radio station, maintained their own civic information registry, and lent meaning to convivial democracy. We have learnt with them the to-dos for feminist digitality’s ice bucket challenge; the modes and methods of sense-making, place-making and claims-making for a humane and just digital world.

The Disco Manifesto resonates deeply with us. We are terrified by digital utopianism. The negation of lived experience and systematic domination programmed into tech and its “abstract, dangerously necrotic mechanisms” tell us that tech is far from any fix. We don’t think we need “smart”; on the contrary, we – the sum total of co-dependent, co-implicated, planetary beings – need the easy rhythm of the heart. The omnipotent narrative of “machine-porn”, of “self-sufficient artificial intelligence running autonomously on a decentralized system” and advancing trustless trust through immutable programming would seem patently absurd to anyone. Only, in an unfeeling, synthetic world fashioned and foisted by autocratic tech messiahs drunk on power, the joke, sadly, is on the commoner and their commons.

Re-reading the Manifesto today, in a world redefined by the Covid pandemic and its aftermath for the destiny of tech, is important. We see in the many stories of demise, including the recent collapse of cryptoexchange FTX, that a decentralised, peer-to-peer economy built on DAO-based Web 3.0 is just smoke and mirrors. But we also see – in the resurgence of venture capital funding for the new hot potato that is AI – yet another addictive path into the labyrinth of financialisation.

How, then, must we imagine a new digital order outside of capitalism? This is the quest that propels the DisCO Manifesto – which shows us how the patchwork quilt of a posthuman sociality can be a synchronised, yet, diverse, space of multiple universes. Where the human instinct to cooperate, nurture mutuality and value the visceral are woven into the tapestry. The Manifesto recognises that despite a broad commonness in the culture-structure DNA of the infinite worlds that make up the radical tomorrow of planetary flourishing, there is still no one prescribed route to post-capitalist transformation. In its call for a corporeal and historically situated politics that acknowledges the “irreducible human plurality” of visions of change, the Manifesto avows an abiding feminist politics.

Last year, at IT for Change, we were privileged to bring over 35 feminist scholar-practitioners from across the globe to deliberate upon a new vision for digitality. The group co-evolved a Declaration of Feminist Digital Justice rooted in distributed cooperativism – network infrastructures that enable thriving communities of belonging tied together through interconnections akin to the mutualistic underground forest networks of plant roots and fungi. Such feminist communication infrastructures that overturn the centralised server-client paradigm of the mainstream Internet are imagined as the architectural backbone. This is quite similar to the DisCO Manifesto’s Community Algorithmic Trust (CAT) platform that acts as a register for capturing productive market value, pro-bono/commons-generating value, and care work value.

We are currently exploring the contours of a blueprint for a data cooperative to support agricultural cooperatives of the iconic Self-employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a trade union of 2.5 million members, all labouring women from 18 states in India. Working with SEWA’s cooperative enterprises poised to go digital, we hope to co-shape the ethos of platform, data and AI technologies that will renew the organisation’s mission. As Ela Bhatt, the founder of SEWA and the North star for feminist economics, argues, the Gandhian ideal of Swaraj/self-governing community is not to be interpreted as one which is “inward turning” but instead, one where “local markets can and do link into national and international ones and local ownership of resources link into larger systems of ownership”. Emboldened by this vision, we wish to ask, “Can cooperatives govern their data resources collectively? How can women producers reclaim their data sovereignty? How can they manage digital intelligence collectively? How must they interpret their own practices, and ‘the skills, knowledge, resources and opportunities available outside the community’(as Ela Bhatt urges), through a wisdom that is rooted?”

We see in the DisCO Manifesto’s exhortation to recover a new political subject in “the commoner” echoes of Ambedkar – re-reading whose work in current conjuncture provides the precious hope we so badly need. B. R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution, a feminist ahead of his time, wrote presciently about rebuilding the social relationality of a nation ravaged not just by colonialism, but the deep structures of caste. Ambedkar sought a society of liberty, equality and fraternity. Everyone needs to be guaranteed their full personhood – the right to be fully human. Which is the basis of “fraternity”, that Ambedkar submits, is another name for democracy. He asserts, “Democracy is not merely a form of government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint, communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards one’s fellow men,” a society of true commonsification.

Ambedkar saw in his mind’s eye the weaknesses of the Hobbsian traditions of the social contract theory and its simplistic reciprocity. In a society of mindboggling pluralism (and its richness) and extreme stratification (and its inherent poverty), he made extended proposals for the Indian nation’s new constitution to protect the citizen against economic exploitation. He etched radical models for Indian agriculture and industry, founded on cooperativism. Ambedkar’s thesis on trust – rejection of parochialism, of the state’s “guardianship” (even as he argued the need for public investment crucial to people-managed enterprises), and a call back to a fraternal society and economy – presents a powerful cartography for the complexity we must navigate.

In the plantationocene that is the digital society, the march of techno-capital has displaced the essential intimacy on which social being-and-becoming is predicated. We are under siege today by a culture of impunity – of Big Tech and the political class they ingratiate gone rogue. The enslavement of society and suffocation of nature is no cliché. To reinstate the denormalised humane, to destabilise the singularity of digital imagination, to restore the idea of a mutually affirming plural, we need new tools. We want for “love work” – the elimination of oppression everywhere and for everyone through a mutually engaged and accountable practice of solidarity – to be affirmed. Let’s DisCO so everyone and earth can breathe and dance.

The DisCO Manifesto is a deep dive into the world of Distributed Cooperative Organizations. It shows how DisCOs are a P2P/Commons, cooperative and Feminist Economic alternative to Decentralised Autonomous Organisations (or DAOs). The DisCO Manifesto also includes some background on topics like blockchain, AI, the commons, feminism, cooperatives, cyberpunk, and more.

Anita Gurumurthy is a founding member and executive director of IT for Change where she leads research and advocacy on data and AI governance, platform regulation, and feminist frameworks on digital justice. She contributes regularly to academic and media spaces and serves as an expert on various bodies including the United Nations Secretary-General’s 10-Member Group on Technology Facilitation, Council of the Platform Cooperativism Consortium at The New School, New York, and has been on the Paris Peace Forum’s working group on algorithmic governance.

Nandini Chami is Deputy Director and Fellow of IT for Change. Her work largely focuses on research and policy advocacy in the domains of digital rights and development, and the political economy of women’s rights in the information society She is part of the organisation’s advocacy efforts around the 2030 development agenda on issues of ‘data for development’ and digital technologies and gender justice. She also provides strategic support to IT for Change’s field centre, Prakriye. This includes training programmes for women’s rights groups on adopting digital tools in their field practice, and critical ‘education for empowerment’ for rural adolescent girls. She has a Master’s in Urban and Rural Community Development from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.