Governing the Chain – A report from the Grüner Salon, Volksbühne

  • 20.08.2019

Before stepping into Erik Bordeleau’s seminar on Cryptoeconomics at the School of Disobedience (1), Hallie Frost was already assuming the evening would not include an new ICO pitch. A report from the Grüner Salon, Volksbühne.

In a moment where the Blockchain tool is being overshadowed by its fantastic applications and championed by an army of Bitcoin Billionaires, Eric Bordeleau, of the Economic Space Agency, seems to think the mechanism enabling cryptocurrency is actually the topic worth discussing.The following is an investigation inspired by Bordeleau’s radical position on this new technology which has the potential for system disruption if lead by collective-centered design. We are in a moment before design continues within the current political and economic paradigm.

Cryptoeconomics, as a field of study concerned with operating P2P (Peer to Peer) networks of the data-sharing age, is less than ten years old. While these networks have existed since the birth of the internet in the form of file-sharing applications such a Napster or BitTorrent, they are often harassed to the point of dissolution by the laws outside the code. When their use ultimately threatens private industry profits and they are taken down by copyright enforcement.

P2P systems are generally exchange systems in which users trade value. This value, as in the commodity realm, derives its quality from the social collective. Collectives will trust, or value, that which creates stability. Currencies accrue value based on their presumed longevity or their stable economic base. If the value of currency assumes collective trust in a system, BitCoin raised Blockchain to the level of influence as most Nation States. How the protocols are designed determines how users interact with the system and how much value can be shared or created. This nascent field of Cryptoeconomics, barely older than Bitcoin, is the foundation of the ethics and functions of these decentralized networks and their interaction with the world outside Magic Computer (2). Governance of these systems and their relation to the material world will become sites of radical de-structuring, decentralizing and rethinking what we communally belong to and risk. As States are designed, constitutions written and institutions imposed, these systems are designed by coding protocols. Code is law. While state law is imposed and enforced by threat of state-sanctioned violence, code is ratified through trust. You opt into these systems which make questions of governance revolve around incentivizing and sustaining rather than control and collusion.

When designing the code-law, programmers theorize how the protocols will be used or potentially threatened by bad actors. Building a system that is based on p2p collaboration means the incentive to add value to the system must greatly exceed the trouble, energy and time it would take to break the code. The etymology of Cryptoeconomics is a combination of the effort to first keep messages secure then to encourage all actors to add value to the network.

On the Crypto side, this ledger must achieve convergence (one block follows another, no breaks or unintentional forks in the blockchain), fast finality of transactions including timestamping (to determine sequence and transaction validity), and validity (each entry is assumed to valid to avoid, in the case of currency, double-spending). The last two conditions of cryptoeconomics, availability of the network to all and transparency of data both fall under the same goal of decentralization. This ambition has been the root of p2p networks since the late 90’s, the raison d'etre of hundreds of anarchic or libertarian hackers who imagined the frontier to be unhindered by corruptible, exploitive governing.

Decentralization is also crucial for the multiple proofs and faults that are considered in the writing of Protocol. In a system that requires multiple, independent nodes all coordinate to produce a unified value, how many of those nodes can be malignant? What percentage of actors on a network can be attacking vs. sustaining without breaking the code? This system of faults is founded in Game Theory and explained more thoroughly by Georgios Konstantopoulos (3). The Byzantine Fault Tolerance, paramount in protocol design is similarly used in the design of multiple jet engines, anything requiring various, independent sensors be responsible for getting a very expensive endeavor off the ground.

Decentralization is the Achille's heel of the Blockchain tool, as it stands. A stone to throw for anyone who has figured out that architectural decentralization or where, geographically, the physical computers are owned and who owns them, is a material world access problem. This politically-decentralized ledger, organizational tool without ownership, was created with the greatest ambition of rendering corruptible, centralized power superfluous. Without addressing this access issue, the Blockchain will remain the toy of the factions that are always privileged under corrupt power systems. In the spirit of Johan Sjerpstra’s refrain, “The best way to rob a bank is to design a currency,” the Blockchain tool offers the opportunity of autonomy to radical and separate collectives. Why stay in a game, to lose slowly and be painfully exploited? A holiday round of Monopoly with a sadistic cousin who continues his slow economic domination for hours. This tool offers another option of simply quitting that game.

The Macao collective started in 2012 by occupying the Torre Galfa skyscraper in the heart of Milano, the commercial capital of fashion. From there the collective of visual artists, intellectuals, gardeners, electricians, musicians, designers, art managers and activists organized and unified by another radical creed, “Artist as Worker” (4) began the construction of their own art museum. In the six years since, the collective has also moved to adopt their own coin, Commoncoin, in the hopes of self-financing and distributing a basic income. While using the decentralized ledger with the hope of serving the collective community, the democratic governances Macao develops will no doubt become the ground for other collectives that reject all law but code.

Macao as well as Decode, a project developed by the municipality of Barcelona, are also developing one of Blockchain’s pillars Data transparency, with a decentralized system of data storage located on dispersed hardware within a political network (5). While central governments have managed Data protection, most notably the EU’s GDPR, these collectives are not only requiring the ownership of citizen’s data but the use of said data in citizen’s self-governance.

Questions of governance are the sysophian challenge of collective living and as technology makes the world bigger or smaller or whatever it’s doing, their implementation can no longer be abdicated. Cryptoeconomics may be based in highly technical fields. It may be populated with self-made experts, university philosophers and Libertarians in stained high school Speech and Debate sweatshirts, but it will reach its radical potential by the imagination of artists, designers, gardeners and activists. Hito Steyerl (6) for e-Flux, “to expect any kind of progressive transformation to happen by itself—just because the infrastructure or technology exists—would be like expecting the internet to create socialism or automation to evenly benefit all humankind. The internet spawned Uber and Amazon, not the Paris Commune.” The potency of these chains to create lasting, sustainable value is in their creation of a Commons (7). The data, the trust, the skyscrapers and the risk is still all of ours to take.