Blockchain and Assembly: An Exploration

Kelsie Nabben, in conversation with Lucy Bernholz (Stanford DARNit network), Althea Allen (Ethereum Foundation), and Marta Poblet (RMIT Blockchain Innovation Hub).

“What does blockchain have to do with assembly?”

On the 14th of April, we gathered (remotely) to discuss the topic of “blockchain and digital assembly”. The intent was to record this as a wonderful podcast, but tech fails happen, even in the immutable future.

Lucy brought her expertise in researching assembly and digital assembly, and a suitably critical lens to the promises, and limitations, of blockchain technology. Marta’s background is in digital democracy and civil law. Althea was able to make valuable contributions from her has a unique purview of the Ethereum ecosystem.

When approaching blockchains and the issue of assembly, it is important to emphasise that different blockchain architectures have very different properties and therefore are useful for different things. This includes public, private, and “permissioned” where only approved parties can participate in transactions or validating (sometimes referred to as “governance” of the record of transaction data. Public blockchains, as the (theoretically) decentralised in computing architecture and permissionless to participate in, that anyone can use and verify are most interesting when it comes to talking about blockchain as a tool for assembly.

What is “assembly”?

Assembly refers to a company of people gathering around a specific purpose. This, to Althea’s point, is how public blockchains are so naturally a collection of people; developing software code, verifying transactions, and interacting via a record of data, whereby the data represents individuals.

In this way, blockchains are an assembly.

“Simpson’s Gloves Pty Ltd, Richmond, circa 1932” Assembly line, courtesy of Museums Victoria (via “Unsplash”).

What do blockchains have to do with assembly?

Blockchains are rooted in deep-seeded promise of assembly. Developed as a coordination tool against third-party intervention, specifically that of the state and big business, early applications of cryptography to digital money were about “Security without Identification: Transaction Systems to Make Big Brother Obsolete”.[1] This narrative was also co-opted by libertarian interests for “social and economic revolution”.[2] Public blockchains are a digital encryption technology. Their origins are in the debates, politics, and hopes of “Pretty Good Privacy” encryption as both a concern of national security and individual liberties.[3]

Blockchains and digital assembly:

The challenge to assembly today is that assembly online is already fully digitized and traces of “who goes where, meets with whom, and does what” litter our “digital” landscapes. Many of the early developers and adopters of public blockchains (namely “Bitcoin”) predicted this.[4] That being said, we need to look at how these narratives of freedom and autonomy have kind of carried over into developer communities today and “real world” cases where blockchains are being used for assembly to gather empirical evidence of the outcomes for the people, that comprise the blockchain. There are examples of some of these outcomes for the supposed beneficiaries of these systems in the humanitarian space, where a technical solution is being implemented by an overarching third party and the social outcomes might not actually match the kind of aspirations greater autonomy.[5] This demonstrates some of the risks of some blockchain-based architectures in certain contexts.

Blockchains and physical assembly:

As socio-technical systems, blockchains cross boundaries between cyber-and-physical space, thus having implications for physical assembly as well. How the issues of trust, reputation, governance, and legitimacy cross these boundaries are interesting. Even that governance in “autonomous” systems needs to be considered. Although it is only becoming explicit now, governance is central to these assemblages. The space has evolved from espousing a very technocratic approach of “trustless” infrastructure, to viewing code as a constitution, and thinking about the more subjective values that are being encoded into these systems.[6]

Blockchains use economic incentives to set and govern these community norms. They incentivize positive social behaviours, and disincentive anti-social behaviour within the norms of a community of participants.[7]

In this way, the norms and values of a community set a social contract. We can view the choice to assemble among a certain community as Hirschman’s institutional framework of “exit, choice, and loyalty” (noting this is different to “exit politics”, but potentially an interesting comparison for further investigation).[8] One possible future of these technologies is there are many communities around many different things with different norms and values, and people can ascribe to the communities that they’re most interested in.

Blockchain communities have evolved to view blockchains as a mechanism for coordinating common pool resources (or public “commons”). Numerous researchers are drawing on Elinor Ostrom’s work as a framework to explain this. “Ostrom’s 8 principles for commons stewardship have set a standard for community management of shared resources… Although applying these rules at scale can be challenging, recent research suggests that blockchain technology may have a role to play in overcoming key obstacles, further enabling communities to manage themselves. Elevating trust from the interpersonal to the protocol level opens up space for experimentation with new forms of collective action [at scale], to achieve common goals.”[9]

Technological advances in blockchains that may have implications for both digital and physical assembly include “zero-knowledge proof” encryption, which allows a use to prove something, without sharing the actual thing (e.g. ownership, identity, authentication), and experimentation in collective funding of public goods.

How can we think about blockchains and assembly moving forward?

Erring on the side of caution, it may be best to imagine the most dystopian uses possible when evaluating the human needs and uses of an emerging technology. A lot of narratives surrounding blockchain simply aren’t true. For example, “immutability” has come up in the recent craze in “non-fungible tokens” (NFT) around the storage of the meta-data which is essentially what people purchase, in that tokens are actually stored in centralised data bases at the back end of the system and if the database is compromised, the token can just disappear.[10] Another example is that not all blockchain-based systems are designed to be immutable, for example, there has been an innovation in ad hoc mobile wallets, known as “burner wallets”. This is a solution for temporary transactions or “temporary economies”.[11] So you have a local token for a specific event or purpose, you can transact and interact, and then you delete the wallet when you are done. These “ad hoc” infrastructures establish new possibilities for “as hoc” assembly.[12] This is a live area of research which requires further use case led investigation, of if, where, why, and how blockchains are being used by civil society.

Summarising thoughts:

With these considerations in mind about the potential uses and limitations of blockchain systems as tools for assembly, the point of ‘responsibility’ must be emphasised. If trust shifts away from existing institutions it has to shift towards something, and that may be those building these systems.[13] There is still a long way to go in terms of understanding how to set and communicate expectations to the communities that are perhaps interested in using these tools for assembly, and these communities understanding what is a narrative promise of “decentralisation and freedom”, and what is a practical capability and limitation in the scenarios that people wish to assemble in.

References:

[1] Chaum, D., “Security without Identification: Card Computers to make Big Brother Obsolete”, Communications of the ACM, 28 (10, 1985). 1030–1044.

[2] May, T. The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto. Available online: https://www.activism.net/cypherpunk/crypto-anarchy.html. Accessed 15 Aug. 2020.

[3] Monsees, L. Crypto-Politics: Encryption and Democratic Practices in the Digital Era. (Routledge, 2020). [4] Nakamoto, S. Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, 2008, Available online: https://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf. Accessed 20/02/2019.

[5] Nabben, K. (2021). “Blockchain Security as “People Security”: Applying Sociotechnical Security to Blockchain Technology”. Frontiers in Computer Science. doi: 10.3389/fcomp.2020.599406.

[6] Metagov.org

[7] An indirect quote by Althea Allen.

[8] Hirschman, Albert O., “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States”, 1972, Harvard University Press; https://kelsienabben.substack.com/p/the-possibilities-of-ad-hoc-decentralised.

[9] https://medium.com/commonsstack/automating-ostrom-for-effective-dao-management-cfe7a7aea138

[10] https://knowyournft.com/metadata.html

[11] https://burnerwallet.co/; https://medium.com/the-capital/one-night-in-the-blockchain-economy-d6eeea1d2cdf.

[12] https://kelsienabben.substack.com/p/the-possibilities-of-ad-hoc-decentralised

[13] Nabben, K (2021). A Provocation on Privacy & Ethics in Blockchain Systems: An Invitation, Available at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3834290