At the Crypto Crossroads
Software is infinitely reproducible, but good software remains scarce. When software for a specific task is required, options are limited and there is no guarantee of their quality. Access to this software may come at a cost, denominated in money or one’s personal data.
Cryptocurrencies have shown anyone who’s paying attention that the digital commons offers new affordances for producing digital money or assets. My thesis is that the means of production of these common pool resources is as significant as the resources themselves, when considering the trajectory of blockchain technology or the cryptocurrency movement over the long term.
In my view we are at something of a crossroads in the crypto space, where major players in the “legacy” economy are starting to take an interest in blockchains. They may throw significant resources into their own blockchain-based efforts, to try and claim mind and market share from the more commons-native upstarts. They may attempt to capture established projects by buying key organizations or infrastructure providers.
Libra is an effort instigated by Facebook to apply the principles of blockchain to decentralize control of a currency among 100 corporations, each paying $10 million and being approved by the Libra Association. Telegram (messaging app) are running an ICO which has already taken in $1.7 billion in private investment before opening for a limited public sale. The bet which investors in these projects are making is that tech companies which have already captured significant numbers of users on social platforms will be able to leverage this to funnel their users into adopting their cryptocurrency or blockchain offerings.
The combination of significant VC funding and ICOs with big roles for the VC-backed entity also serves as a way to transplant the established players and ways of doing things (and their capital) onto the crypto commons.
In my view the VC-style approach is ill-suited to the crypto commons. Projects that grow organically and build out their commons-based infrastructure as they do so have a natural advantage because it is easier for them to become (more) decentralized.
However, these projects feed on attention, and it is possible that good projects will be starved while poor projects persist because they have assets which can be used to capture mindshare and market cap. If people predominantly follow and buy assets with shaky foundations which subsequently deteriorate or reveal themselves as centralized - this would be a setback for the whole concept.
States are increasingly making their presence felt on the crypto commons, with regulation (or lack thereof) being seen to cause issues in some jurisdictions and domains. Some states also now seem to be taking a more proactive stance, discussing ways to adopt blockchain technology or even state-issued cryptocurrencies.
The potential for the blockchain-enabled commons is huge, and there are any number of possibilities for how this new technology could be used. We are witnessing a Cambrian explosion in experiments with this technology and digitally native organizational forms to go with those experiments. Most of these experiments will likely fizzle out, they all have global ambitions and cannot simultaneously realize these. By 2025, most of 2019’s experiments will likely be forgotten, some concepts will be written off entirely, and there will no doubt be new experiments pushing new boundaries that we cannot yet foresee.
Blockchain projects that are still expanding their commons productively in 2030 will I expect be highly significant, perhaps as much as the tech giants are today or on the road to that kind of importance to human society.
To the extent that these projects are truly commons-based, everyone is permitted to observe how their experiments play out and learn from their observations. The nature of the commons limits the power of gatekeepers to control who can participate in these projects, although in practice FOSS governance can entrench respected figures in positions of power.
Self-funding blockchains have the potential to bring the idea of a “FOSS movement” into play on new terms, where the issues with funding and incentivizing development are effectively solved. The ideology this time is not so much about the software as the sovereign networks it brings into being, each of which has its own specific aims. A community or ecosystem of participants coalesce around those aims and work together to try and achieve them, they stand to benefit both individually and as a group from success.
The digital commons and CBPP are a prerequisite for any of this to be possible, and projects which embrace and make good use of the commons will derive strength from this. I believe that success will be determined by the scale of the ecosystem interacting with how well participating constituencies are aligned and their capacity to coordinate efficiently towards achieving shared goals.
Public blockchains are like digital organisms, composed of code, a social contract about what the network is for and how it works, and a way of incentivizing people to run, maintain and develop the network. They thrive on attention and interest, and for as long as at least some people want to run a decentralized network, it will likely be available in some capacity.
These commons-based digital organisms are going to have to compete with offerings from major corporations (who can leverage their assets in other domains, like social media) and national governments (who can mandate adoption), both of which could deploy significant resources and staff their commons with employees or contractors.
As of mid-2019 speculation is a major driving force, as individuals seek to buy assets which will appreciate the most in value going forward, and price or market capitalization are taken as key metrics to gauge success.
The undercurrents which will determine the technology’s long term direction are less visible, they are formed by the choices of the doers and builders about which projects they will contribute to, by the level of coordination between the set of contributors to a project, and by how well that project’s aims align with the technology’s strengths.
We should be considering which networks we feed with attention, who is providing that attention and input, how those people are interacting with the networks, and what they aim to achieve. The answers to these questions right now are shaping perceptions of what the blockchain and cryptocurrency movement is about - they will determine which of the potential blockchain futures come to pass.
What we learn about decentralization of control and governance on the crypto commons will echo in other domains where these are desirable characteristics.