Cooperative Work

It is impossible to talk about cooperation in the context of the actualizing individual without exploring its role in our productive work. Productive activity has long played a significant role in defining human experience. It shapes us through the information inputs associated with our tasks and cultures dictating how we interact with our peers. For many, our coworkers become a second family—groups of individuals we have no choice but to associate with. The word “work” brings with it a variety of emotions and opinions drawing from our individual time experiences. For most, it is a drudgery that we have learned to tolerate. We engage in efforts that lack purpose and meaning and invest our focus and energy in directions that bring us no closer to our personal visions of the good. For others, it is a necessary but enjoyable time sink. For a fortunate few, present-day productivity is an opportunity to breathe life into creative vision. No matter where your personal journey has placed you in this moment, reimagining human work within a universe of exponential growth is vital to the process of scaling individual actualization. 

For most of history, human work was highly cooperative. We roamed the Earth looking for things to eat, attempting to avoid being eaten. Our success relied heavily on trusting those around us to cooperate toward shared goals. The ancestors of anatomically modern humans were generalists, individuals who could adapt to circumstances through the mastery of a wide range of habits.22 Within a tribe, each could perform a variety of tasks. Our transition to agriculture redirected the scope of our activities, but our focus on generalism remained the same: plowing the fields, harvesting crops, raising livestock, maintaining equipment, and more. No farmhand could survive by understanding some of the tasks but not others. Then came the industrial era, and the nature of work shifted dramatically. Mass production produced occupations that were rigid, repetitive, and independent of others. So began the crisis of productivity and participation. We reduce the individual into a component of the machine, a resource to be exploited for the benefit of the organization. Despite recent shifts in the most productive forms of work, from the industrial to the knowledge economy, the belief in human expendability remains largely unchanged. 

Our most productive verticals today exist within the knowledge economy, where organizations rapidly solve problems at scale. Work is cooperative, experimental, and in many ways enriching for the participating individuals. Learning, experimentation, and iteration are all standard processes. Failure is not something to be penalized; it is leveraged as a learning experience. Innovation and progress become intertwined, with each new advancement opening doorways to the next. In this way, the standard operation of the organization becomes primarily about rejecting existing practices in favor of new. Unfortunately, most knowledge economy start-ups rely primarily on venture capitalists, those with the capital necessary to scale growth. Monopolizing a niche is very lucrative yet forces individuals and groups to inhabit specific practices and philosophies in order to generate adequate returns on these initial investments. In this, the potential power and scope of our creations is stifled significantly. We confine the divinity of humanity to a very specific mode of being, one that many pursue as it contains the possibility of freedom of material need. This is not to say that private investment is inherently bad; it is not. There will always be a need for independent investors to bet on individuals and groups creating in directions that the majority do not believe in or support. It does, however, highlight our self-imposed constraints. Private investment seeks ideas that can generate generous returns on initial investments and therefore prioritizes investments that they believe will generate significant capital. It creates a gap for creators seeking to develop public works projects and continues to reinforce a single vision of organization. For cooperative work to flourish, there must be alternative frameworks of operation. 

In 2017 I founded a civic technology nonprofit that invented the first free election campaign platform for municipal elections. Our team focused on eliminating the financial barriers to participation in local elections, which are economically prohibitive to many but especially Black and Brown people within the local communities. We had intended it to be a public good, owned by the participating municipalities and their constituents. We built and launched a successful pilot that our community users were excited to see grow. Funding was difficult because as a nonprofit, traditional venture firms weren’t interested in funding us, and philanthropy wasn’t yet ready for such an idea. There was also pushback from municipal officials, who were not interested in having more robust engagement in their local elections and community governance. Eventually, we ran out of cash and the experiment came to a close. It’s a single example of how a project prioritizing the advancement of individual and community agency struggled under the weight of the present systems and philosophies surrounding our shared progress. For cooperative work to proliferate, we must develop more robust pathways of opportunity for those building outside the traditional profit-seeking frameworks.

We speak of cooperation as a defining feature of knowledge economy organizations, but this ethos only extends as far as leadership encourages. Cooperative work requires high trust environments rooted in high degrees of flexibility, traditionally out of alignment with corporate profit milestones, or my personal favorite—“our goals.” Embracing the individual and system as a single self is a journey toward the mass elevation of people who, by the very nature of their being, will demand and develop new waves of automation for things we do not want to do. Our objective is not to achieve record productivity, but that will be a side effect. We seek radical freedom in our work that is entirely on the individual’s terms. Individuals should be able to work as much or as little as they choose. The elevation of the collective is a widespread reclamation of moments where everyone can inhabit a more expansive humanity through productivity participation within the degrees and directions of their choice. When we consider the expansion of free time for the individual, there is a common critique that people will opt out of the productive agenda of society. It is an assumption that is both correct and incorrect. It is correct because decoupling individual survival from occupation will significantly reduce the number of people willing to subject themselves to demanding and hostile work environments. It restructures the power dynamics inherent in work and empowers the individual to leave or avoid organizations and groups whose values do not align with their own. Organizations may still attempt to police thought and speech among their members but will find themselves often losing talent for the plentiful opportunities that do not. It is incorrect because when people are free to pursue their passions, they more often than not consume themselves in learning and creation. By all current standards of measure, the most productive people in society today are those who find deep meaning and passion in their work. Empowering more people into the access and agency necessary to direct their focus and energy toward solving problems that matter to them is the most direct path toward unleashing our imagination upon the universe. At the same time, these frameworks are likely to encourage many to pursue opportunities with a higher degree of stakeholdership. In these organizations, their contributions reward them with a percentage of governance and reward rights. Organizing ourselves around cooperative work creates many benefits for the individual but is likely to disrupt the hierarchical status quo so popular today. 

Consider also how technological innovations shift the nature of work. Technology already allows us to automate the repetitive and is increasingly overtaking the analytical. Where in the past it was industrial, the future of automation is increasingly technical. Today, machine learning algorithms are becoming excellent predictors of cancer,23 are actively being used in antitrust law,24 and perhaps most fascinating, are being used to cut their own energy expenditure.25 

No present-day occupation is beyond the influence of our creations, which is why the crisis demands alternative arrangements to decouple personal security from employment. If we do not align our productivity practices with the single truth, many more will be thrust into rapid insecurity. Some will adapt quickly; others will struggle. The changing nature of work will not be solved by reactionary politicians and the institutions they seek to retain. Will the question of our collective security be delayed until our technology reduces the value of a 200,000-dollar law school degree to zero? We embrace cooperative work as an act of empathy toward ourselves and others. In a universe of exponentially expanding information, there is no telling which breakthroughs will leave human devastation in their wake, but we can be certain that these shifts will happen. This is not inherently bad or something to be avoided, but it does require a more proactive and empathy-based approach toward the management and dissemination of cooperative work opportunities. 

So how does persistent industry disruption factor into our development of cooperative work? Our alignment with the single truth and the relational universe demands an equitable alternative to our present arrangements, where each is materially and emotionally secure, healthy, and possesses access to the resources necessary to redirect their lives. Developing frameworks and pathways toward more cooperative forms of work leads directly to the realization of our individual and collective powers. Our immediate present and the changing nature of time ensure that the disruption of traditional work methods will continue. In the past, leadership has been reactionary and focused on the bare minimum. How we approach these issues depends on the frameworks of meaning and value that guide our efforts. Nothing will fundamentally change if we maintain our present dogmas of hierarchy and denial of our divinity. Alternatively, aligning ourselves with the relational universe forces us to prioritize a more proactive solution through systemic actualization.

Cooperative work is apolitical in theory and political in its implementation. The idea that the individual bears some degree of responsibility to others within society beyond their immediate families and networks strikes the heart of the rabid cult of individuality our present systems propagate. Yet what is true for even the staunchest individualist is true for the global collectivist. The most direct path toward our personal goals is best realized through highly cooperative effort. The state is a tool to be used, a technology. The age of crisis is upon us, and we must choose whether to continue our blindfolded march toward catastrophe or reimagine our systems to maximize each individual's latent potential. Through the scaling of cooperative efforts to raise the floor of social protection of every individual, we set the stage for tapping into creative energy yet unknown to humanity. To hate the state is to hate a hammer. There is no denying that present global leadership is dominated by a generation seeking to maintain crumbling power structures, primarily motivated by their own self-interest. Truly cooperative work, the type of system that infuses meaningful existence on the masses, requires each individual to place a higher value on demanding the systems necessary to expand opportunities for all. Our varying preferences of how to live have been framed as mutually exclusive—one vision of the good is in absolute conflict with another. It is pure falsehood and a failure of imagination. We have explored how cooperative work expands our creative powers, but what of those who simply prefer to live a life of higher leisure? They also benefit from expanding the knowledge economy and the freedom it provides. 

We seek to encourage creative productivity and participation not as some new dogma to which everyone must conform but as an alternative pathway presently unavailable. For those prioritizing personal moments, there will remain plenty of opportunities for selective and creative work within the knowledge economy. Even those who prefer manual labor will benefit. There is still a significant need to build in order to create the infrastructures necessary for systemic actualization. The difference within sets of cooperative work arrangements is a higher quality of life and a greater degree of flexibility for those undertaking manual labor. Individual actualization as an aspect of self-actualization requires us to believe in the expanded humanity of others while simultaneously recognizing their right to create their lives in their own vision. None of us will be truly free to accomplish this until we embrace systemic actualization as the foundation upon which we expand our individual greatness. 

So what traits does the individual best suited for cooperative work possess, and how can we encourage them within ourselves and those around us? Cooperative work rewards egoless effort, not in the sense of having no personal pride in our work, but through the active effort of perpetually seeking improvement. Criticisms, critiques, feedback, and more are actively heard and acted upon. They do not reflect a weakness within the individual but rather an opportunity to expand their abilities and potential. Within the framework of our productive efforts, perpetual improvement is a worthy undertaking. Egoless individuality is fostered through personal practices and the belief systems that support them. Some of us have been conditioned to fear failure or become angry and despondent at our failings. Failure is nothing but a momentary misalignment, where the results of our actions do not match our expectations. The future of work demands we treat it as such, both to align with the nature of the universe and encourage the rapid development of individual human capacity. Cooperative work also encompasses several interpersonal skills such as effective listening, dialogue, and the ability to consider and evaluate perspectives outside of one’s personal perspective. As we’ll discuss further in the text, these are characteristics ideally developed in youth through public education systems. This type of dialectic approach to problem-solving is the cornerstone of successful knowledge economy organizations and accurately reflects the changing nature of work. Most importantly, individuals engaging in cooperative work possess the ability to rapidly learn and apply new methodologies to their workflows. Gone are the days when individual mastery of a single subject or technology could be considered a reliable and secure career path. 

The speed of change ensures that mastery in a vertical is now a continuous process of learning, relearning, and embracing new directions as innovations push us beyond established thresholds. In parallel with the ability to learn quickly, each individual embraces various degrees of generalism within their productive paths. Ultimately, the highest priority for any individual embracing cooperative work is the ability to imagine expansively. Humanity’s ability to adapt has always been our strength, but now it must take a new form in order to transition from what has historically been a universe of linear time experience to our present exponential universe. Our vision is a form of humanity where every individual is equipped with the knowledge and mastery necessary to innovate in the directions of their choosing. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer put it best when he wrote, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.” 

When we talk about cooperative work, our goal is not limited to encouraging the adaptive individual. It’s about a larger vision of humanity, aligning ourselves with the single truth and the relational universe, so we treat our work as an extension of ourselves. At the same time, it cannot be only about the individual. We align our shared efforts toward a larger vision of human experience and meaning. Systemic actualization is a step-by-step process rooted in our shared alignment with nature and others. There is no higher form of our commitment to each other than cooperative work toward a shared vision of the good. By surrounding ourselves with systems that increase our power, we expand our abilities to manipulate our time experiences. Cooperative work as an aspect of individual actualization is a rejection of any previous notion of what work should be in favor of what work is. Our choice to believe in our ability to radically reimagine our humanity is a commitment that we must make. To do that, we must rely on the power of cooperative work to bring about systemic actualization and trigger the flywheel effect of greatly expanding human consciousness. We redefine the systems governing our participation and productivity to better equip ourselves to transcend the crisis.

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Cooperative Systems
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