Algorithmic Governance

Beyond Blockchains

Posted by Joe Blankenship on January 20, 2018
“the manifold ways that algorithms and code/space enable practices of governance that ascribes risk, suspicion and positive value in geographic contexts.”
Crampton and Miller - 2016 Symposium on Algorithmic Governance

In the current rush to find new and exciting applications of blockchain technologies, we often forget what drives these systems and what those systemic mechanisms can represent. Almost a decade after the first Bitcoin was mined, many brief introductions to blockchain only cover the basic components and functionalities: a distributed network of nodes running software that leverages encryption to produce and secure a canonical data record. Yet this is not what makes these technologies interesting or valuable to society.

Systemic processes, social relations, and collective problematics; governance represents the complex relations between these factors and several others in dictating how people interact with each other. Considerations of governance have become increasingly important for varying scales of community in a growing number of blockchain spaces. Proof-of-work, proof-of-stake, and numerous other governance protocols are being implemented in a plethora of unique and innovative ways, taking a baseline of simple blockchain mechanisms and making them perform any number of tasks. In a short period of time, we have gone from relatively simple token generation in the form of cryptocurrency to the beginnings of new socio-technical paradigms that are changing how we conceive of economic, political, and social interactions.

Perhaps that is the most important aspect of blockchain technologies: they challenge how we think about our relationships with one another; how relationships have been mediated by others; and what we can do to take that power back. Therefore, it is not merely creating immutable, trust-less systems securely over time, its what we do with these systems and how we value them that matters. Governance protocols are the glue that hold these systems together. They are also how we show existing power structures that we can maintain our own accountability and regulation without the need for expensive and unnecessary intermediaries that dictate their own terms of interaction. In these new systems of governance, it is algorithmic consensus that dictates these relations and keeps them safe from unseen external influences.

These potentials are not without issue. It is true that knowledge and understanding of blockchain technologies have become more common place and that access to these systems has also become much simpler. At the time of this writing, a new user, developer, or investor can find out why a blockchain technology exists, how it functions, and where it may be of use in their lives. However, in an era of ICOs and smart contracts, it has become more difficult for newcomers to understand how blockchains are of real value to them in comparison to other systems and why they should transition away from existing economic and political technologies.

The key to understanding the value of a blockchain system is in how these systems are governed and how consensus is achieved beyond the software. It is becoming easier for a person to understand why a technology exists, how it functions, and what the cost and risks associated with them will be over time. However, blockchain systems that have succeeded over time have done so because adoption of a governance paradigm was accompanied by the simultaneous growth of a community of interest that supported and believed in that manner of consensus-based algorithmic regulation over others. Ultimately, it is people that drive these systems and it is their belief in the mechanisms that drive the system’s consensus that sustains them over time; people see themselves as part of these systems and as part of something bigger than themselves in which they can play a significant role.

In consideration of blockchain governance, we are asking more than simple software design questions; we are asking how we want to connect with and empower each other now and into the future.

Crampton, J., Miller, A. (2016). Intervention Symposium: “Algorithmic Governance”. Available from

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