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The future of technology is the central political question of our age. Our co-operative movement can shape the answer for public good.

The co-operative movement has taken its biggest leaps in moments of crisis.

Out of the Industrial Revolution’s brutal technological shift came the heroic co-operative leap of 1844’s Rochdale Pioneers.

And out of the crushing impact of War rationing came the foundational moment of our Co-operative Party in 1917.

We are at another such moment now.

The central challenges of our age – inequality, climate, health, security, democracy itself – have coincided in this moment of crisis. Those challenges are now more and more tied together by a common thread: the impact of technology.

Harnessed well, technology gives us new vaccines in record time and cheaper renewable energy to aid our planet. Wielded poorly, technology undercuts our job security and our national security.

I believe that a renewed co-operative movement is our best chance at harnessing technology well and wielding it for public good. That co-operative future must start with the engine of modern technology: data.

Why? Because when it comes to data, we are much stronger together than apart. My data alone isn’t valuable enough to warrant my thoughtful control of it. Relying on my individual consent to how companies use my data has not worked for me and I suspect it has not worked for most of us.

Yet, combined together, your and my data are more valuable than the individual parts: suddenly, through contrast and commonality, we can draw patterns and trends that enlighten us. That is what modern online advertising is based on. Want to sell comfy slippers to the middle-aged man working from home? Or promote the latest sports equipment to the upwardly mobile 20-something living in Inner London? Or push political messages to women living in ‘Red Wall’ seats? Targeted online advertising is often the contemporary answer. What you enter in search engines, what you post on social media outlets, which places you browse from are all automatically analysed and become an instant commodity.

That is why data is the engine of modern technology. And it is why, when it comes to data, we are so much stronger together than we are clicking on consent buttons alone.

To use that engine for public good, we need a new model of data control that is genuinely co-operative for individuals and communities.

 The default today is outsourced control to large private firms engaging with dispersed private individuals. A vast company, Meta, can now access data from my Facebook account, my Instagram photos and my WhatsApp messages to target content at me.

Is there any alternative? The most commonly posed one is to give control of data to government. Many have downloaded the NHS Covid App out of both self-interest and a collective sense of community spirit, but there was considerable debate about the important and legitimate civil liberties challenges to a centralised government controlling my (and your) personal data. It is perhaps harder to see many people being happy with government knowing what we’re searching for online, what we’re buying, and what we’re posting online.

Between the current private free market and a potential public data state is a third way: a co-operative data trust. A new way for us to control who uses our data, when, and for what purposes.

A data trust could involve an independent ‘steward’ managing someone’s data on their behalf. With a trust, we avoid placing the entire burden of decision-making on the individual, and by pooling data from various sources into a data trust, we unlock the ability for a data trustee to negotiate on behalf of the group, not the individual. It sounds all very…co-operative.

This isn’t just theory. It’s an idea that many are working on in practice. And data co-operation is now much more feasible than before. Just look at what modern technology has done for Wikipedia: over three hundred thousand editors have curated over seven million articles in three hundred and twenty five languages for a hundred million users. Co-operation online is much cheaper, quicker and easier than cooperation offline.

These are the perfect conditions for a renewed co-operative movement. And, like in the key milestones of our past, there could be no greater motivation for a co-operative leap than our present moment of crisis.