Commons are dead! Long live the Commons!
The commons: a kind of utopia that seems distant, and which is getting more and more so, with the explosion of individualities in the digital world, which we will obviously be focusing on today. We have dozens of different ways of dealing with this subject (such as political historical, ideological…) but we wanted to introduce this Black Monthly #4 with the most sensitive of these ways: through the human individual perspective. When you want to study the organisation of a beehive, you start by observing the behavior of a single bee, right?
Human comes to the world with one million billion synaptic connections which is ten times more connections than on the Internet. During the first two years of his life, he will structure and classify the information he perceives from the outside world in order to establish categories and judgments which will make his thought process easier. As a result, twice as many synapses as in the rest of his lifetime will undergo necrosis in the little human’s brain.
What can we say from this first observation? That human’s brains have a tendency towards order. That order is even an essential lever for the learning process. Human beings need to define and classify information, leading irremediably his brain to construction of opinions and judgments, the ones of the individual in becoming. This same tendency, when reaching adulthood, will automatically react in response to collective phenomenon, which is the one of movement, change and reassessment. When facing these phenomena of restructuration, the individual will respond either by following or opposing the movement.
Our entire existence as human beings is played out in this dichotomy; one of an individual opinion driven by desires and personal experience, and a strong necessity for understanding others in order to achieve collective construction and social order. Based on this observation, how can we live together, endure our failures, and above all, how can something such as sustainable commons exist and work out?
Although we still talk about Tragedy of the Commons, which remains the favorite answer for its detractors, commons represent the strongest and most concrete alternative to the world we have suffered from for more than a century. In fact, since we no longer have any other choice, what can we do but try and maybe fail once again. But fail better... The economic model driven by digital technology is the best example for this, and has become over the last thirty years, the most exciting answer to an out-of-breath capitalism, since having no other purpose than transforming the world into merchandises. This same capitalism will not be able to carry out its process anymore, without threatening humanity with a political, financial and ecological collapse.
If the commons have gradually become our last chance for change, how exactly is this model defined? Is humanity capable of carrying out this project? And by this, we mean: Are bodies and individualities able to sustain the commons model? Finally, what are the compromises and knowledge we’ll need to reach for? Before we dive in Black Monthly #4, we must quote Le comité invisible, a multiple and anonymous « author » who significantly influenced our years of activism in Aragon Black and whom we continue to read frequently to keep our hopes, courage and rage intact.
« All the reasons to make a revolution are there. There are none missing. The sinking of politics, the arrogance of the powerful, the reign of false, the vulgarity of the rich, the cataclysms of industry, the galloping misery, the naked exploitation, the ecological apocalypse - Nothing is spared to us, not even being informed of it. "Climate: 2016 beats a heat record", headlines Le Monde, like almost every year now. All the reasons are there, but it is not the reasons that make revolutions, it is the bodies. And bodies are in front of screens. »
Le comité invisible, Maintenant, 2017
Part One : What about commons?
Among other terms used in the blockchain ecosystem, commons is one of the most recurrent term. Sometimes we even hear that Bitcoin or Ethereum are commons. This is, as usual, far more complicated than this and we need to define precisely what commons are in both economic theory and history. We must return to the etymology of this word: In Latin, res communis refers to a thing that cannot be appropriated and which is therefore to be used and enjoyed by everyone. An example of this is air: one cannot tell other members of the community that one part of air is its property and can only be used by him. The res communis is opposed in Roman Latin to the res publica, a public good, a public property managed by the government. For instance, a street, such as the Avenue des Champs Elysées: it is the property of the French government but anyone can use it in some limited ways defined by members of the community (French people or more specifically Parisians).
In an edenic or pastoral vision, we have in the beginning commons and public good. And then appears the private good, illustrated by the enclosure movement. In other words, the appropriation by some of spaces (such as agricultural fields) that were once collective and now enclosed by hedges. More precisely, the distinction between public and private goods is made through the notions of rivalrous and excludable. Private goods are exclusive, because they are reserved for those who pay for it, and rival because consumption by one person prevent consumption from another one.. This is the case of a phone, for instance. In 1965, James Buchanan added a third type of property: club goods, which can only be consumed by members of an association or a club.
In 1990, in the book Governing the commons, Vincent and Elinor Ostrom proposed a two-dimensional classification by replacing the term "rivalry of consumption" with "subtractability of use". This gives a diagram as follows:
The commons “is a general term that refers to a resource shared by a group of people”. But we have to distinguish commons and common good. Our biosphere is a common good because it belongs to everyone; however, it is not managed collectively. Therefore, what separates commons and common goods is how they are managed.
Thus commons carry a double meaning:: it is both the definition of a type of good and a social practice of governance. Of course, blockchain-based goods, through the use of a DAO, is close to the commons in that it sets up a system of governance so that everyone can manage it collectively,This could be a book, an association, a software… But, as a matter of fact, a DAO is not necessarily a commons insofar as it is not necessarily shared by everyone; it is in the process of becoming one, and is less and less so as long as it excludes people that have less skills (technocratic issue) or hold less cryptocurrencies (plutocratic issue).
We often think about commons as natural resources, like water or air. But commons can also be a material good like a machine, or an immaterial one like a software. In their book Understanding knowledge (2007), Elinor Ostrom and Charlotte Hess extend the concept of commons to knowledge. The book begins to define knowledge as "all intelligible ideas, information, and data in whatever form in which it is expressed or obtained”. By conducting a brief study of the links between knowledge and commons, Ostrom and Hess conclude that a stereotype has been formed in various disciplines: “Commons became a buzzword for digital information, which was being enclosed, commodified, and overpatented”. Nevertheless, on the assumption that there is common knowledge, they define the three conditions for the possibilities of a management of these commons: collective action, self-governance and social capital : ”Self-organized commons require strong collective-action and self-governing mechanisms, as well as a high degree of social capital on the part of the stakeholders”. This book certainly highlights the threats that new technologies pose to knowledge ; but “on the other hand, collective-action initiatives, such as open access,and Free/Libre and Open Source Software development, are ensuring much greater accessibility and robustness of digital resources”. In this sense, a movement like open-source can easily claim to be a common one, just like blockchain could.
Art and literature as commons
Maybe what we dream of with Pando or Aragon Fundraising is a way to make art and literature a commons. If knowledge can be a commons i.e. a resource shared by people and ruled by people like Wikipedia, we could imagine literature as a commons. Indeed, we can see literature as both the writing act and the process by which the writing product acquires its literary value. . In a way, the editorial system directs a literary work collectively ; but the book is generally sold as a private good, rivalrous and excludable.
A literary commons goes through licences such as Creative Commons. We often hear that literature is a common good, a world heritage ; but, to really make a literary commons, we have to broaden the concept of Creative Commons. And even go further : literature can be a commons as a patrimony, but also as a creation. Imagine a literary work ruled by several people and shared with everyone. A radical literary commons is close to a DAO-content, that is to say a content where writers or artists decide how to create and share (about this subject, read here our paper about literature and blockchain).
Part Two : Mickael Zargham interview about the Common Stack
Hello Zargham, and thank for according us this interview. Before embarking on deep explanations of what is your project, please tell us about blockchain & commons? Where is the meeting point of these two disciplines and what were the previous studies that made you and your team go in this direction?
Realigning incentives to orient local and global maxima allows us to address the 'tragedy of the commons' at it's core. We can affect system change at our highest levels of human coordination, with dynamic resource allocation and skin in the game incentive mechanisms.
Blockchain makes designed system dynamics programmable, enabling customized economic conservation laws to be enforced. You can trust the conservation laws will hold along with any direct mathematical consequences of those natural laws, enabling us to design higher system functionalities that rest on the stability of those conservation principles. (Imagine trying to build a skyscraper in a world where gravity wasn’t effectively a constant!) We leverage this power to enhance collaboration capacity, ultimately aiming for the whole of humanity to flourish under Ostrom’s 8 principles, from local to global communities.
Alright ! That being said, what exactly is the Commons Stack? What is its purpose and how does it work?
The Commons Stack is a community collaboration between many projects in the blockchain space interested in realigning incentives in the nonprofit sector. It is registered as a Swiss Association to start, a necessary centralization feature to steward this new kind of cooperative collaboration to stand on its own feet. The Commons Stack is producing an open source library of simulated & tested components that serve the needs of open nonprofit organizations, complementing the components being built by other teams in the space, but focusing on synthesizing them into viable whole systems. Communities can then create their own organizations empowered by token networks; bonding curves are used to provide an interface between a reserve currency representing financial value in the outside economy to a local asset representing influence in the community. The value of the token is modulated by the bonding curve but its an emergent property of the community and what they use their funds to accomplish. Future commons features will address other ‘conservation laws’ which mathematically facilitate fusion of social and economic signals from the community into discrete proposals and concrete outcomes.
We are a fan of all cooperative structures, digital and physical. We are very happy to see all the experimentation of blockchain cooperaties in their varied forms. We are still very early in this new era of decentralized human collaboration, and we’ve learned lots of lessons already. We like to think of DAOs as babies, just learning to crawl and needing lots of help and protection against a world eager to prove them an impossible experiment. Our approach to building these systems is to operate from a centralized position and establishing a “trusted seed” of core participants to steward this process judiciously until the building blocks are in place to enable a truly ‘minimum viable commons’ to take shape. This is the goal of the Commons Stack, to address the large issues we are still facing as a nascent DAO-building community today:
1. sustainability of funding, 2. voter apathy/effective signalling, and 3. accountable escrow of active proposal funds.
Let’s imagine we were presenting the Commons Stack to a non-technical public, could we say that the Commons Stack is basically a sort of cooperative using economic incentives? If not, how would you present it?
The Commons Stack is a ‘tech stack for the commons’. Most blockchain systems are being designed bottom up (tech first), and it is our belief that systems should be designed top down (humans first) and then implemented (component-wise) bottom up and integrated per the design, as is best practice for cyberphysical systems. One important intellectual parent of the Commons Stack is the Token Engineering community. In that tradition, Commons Stack is a toolkit of rigorously defined, interoperable modules that can be mixed and matched (with some overall holistic system design required, of course) to serve the needs of any community that would like to launch their own Commons initiative.
A token engineer can use Commons Stack component designs and even design elements from other projects (such as Quadratic Voting or Harberger Taxes from RadicalxChange) to synthesize sustainable economic systems. Economic incentives are present, but value is heterogenous (aka everyone can decide what is valuable to them) and a broader understanding of incentives is incorporated into our bio-mimetic design paradigm. That said, we aim to leverage community capital through market mechanisms, but for nonprofit causes (and the open communities that support them) rather than for-profit corporations.
While still based on models of economic games, the market design paradigm is more closely related to dynamical systems than cryptographic mechanism design which is generally defined and analyzed without explicit temporality. Moving into a dynamic framing allows us to focus on dynamic goals like sustainability; this allows us to appropriately value the resources in a commons, and thus make them less profitable to extract, reducing the impact of the free rider problem in the tragedy of the commons. We are helping make nonprofits and commons 'first class citizens' in an economy where they have been relegated to second class, underfunded or manipulated and leveraged for the desires of the wealthy.
In the introduction, you say that one of the common’s difficulty is : scalability. How do you solve this problem with the Commons Stack?
Aside on technical scalability: Since the commons are bound to real world human processes which extend over weeks to years, the transaction volumes relative to blockchain throughput is a non-issue in the short to medium term. The Commons Stack is focusing on token engineering best practices, the implementation of which is platform agnostic. We can imagine these system archetypes being deployed on the Ethereum network, as zones in Cosmos, or on parachains in the Polkadot ecosystem, for example. As planned so far, our initial ‘field test commons’ will be deployed as PoA networks pegged to Ethereum.
At the Commons Stack when we talk about scalability, we are talking about social scalability. In small groups, it is easy to exhort or enforce communal rules such as Elinor Ostrom’s 8 principles for Commons Stewardship. When a group reaches a certain size, we lose our capability to track debts and favours with each other, and suddenly unethical community members are incentivized to “free ride” the system, without fear of repercussion, depleting common resources until the system falls apart. We are sympathetic to the problems of physical cooperative communities who have trouble scaling past tribal (Dunbar) numbers, and are hopeful that the trust architecture provided by blockchain technology can help pipe that trust around a global network of community members that may not know each other at all, beyond belonging to the same ecosystem.
Could you give us a very clear example of how a project could actually use the Commons Stack?
A project could fork a few components of the Commons Stack, mix in some design changes of their own and compile them into a holistic cadCAD system model. They could then use the model to validate the design changes with simulated test cases to check edge cases and failure modes, tweak their parameters as needed, and launch their token network. Once live, that same cadCAD model could be integrated with data and used as an analytics tool providing transparency and facilitating informed governance.
What are the projects/visions you would like to see happen on the Commons Stack?
We want to enable an emergent, resilient, interoperable ecosystem of commons initiatives around every cause known to man, from the smallest local project to the largest global issue. Sounds complex, but so did the internet when it first came out. The market value encapsulated in these economies will provide a powerful signal as to the most effective commons ecosystems. We are conscious of the fact that algorithmic coordination inherently involves nudging of the human participant toward some encoding of a collective goal. It is necessary to be able to assess and even in some cases to adapt the collective goal. Our approach to assessing these goals is inspired by Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance. We are of the opinion that people will drift to communities that match their belief systems with economies where they are treated fairly and equitably. Ideally we will see extractive economies fading in participants and value. While individuals may participate in many commons their attention is limited and over time they will each populate commons that best meet their multidimensional needs. There will be an ecology of diverse commons but survival of the fittest will mean attracting the most suitable human participants.
Can you talk a bit more about the Augmented Bonding Curves and how they can change how we design autonomous systems?
A Bonding Curve is an economic interface regulation mechanism that takes two assets and formalizes the mathematical relationship between them. Interfaces are critical when building complex systems because they allow you to connect things together in a predictable way, even when aspects of the system are otherwise unpredictable.
Augmented Bonding Curves are a special case of bonding curves design to be the “cell wall” of our biomimetic local community. Value can flow into the commons across the interface relatively freely, but we insert a light friction for value flowing out. The cell may expand and contract over time but it captures some of the energy to live on.
An interesting consequence of the mathematics behind using a bonding curve as the interface between inside and outside the system is that the resulting price is a strong estimator of the communities belief of its current intrinsic value because the functional purpose of a commons specific token is participation in that community. A speculator has little to gain if the ‘cell’ shrinks or dies, and the attention cost of signalling preference is intentionally kept as low as possible, so once you have tokens there is little reason not to be an active participant. If you no longer to wish to participate in decisions, then it is likely a good time for you to exit, and claim your collateral reserve on the bonding curve. This is a bit like a smoothed impermanent version of a rage quit in Moloch. Note that if you exit and immediately buy back in it is a net loss, due to the Exit Tribute.
You emphasize in your talks the importance of an engineering approach rather than go-to-market mentality. With complex autonomous systems testing prior to deployment becomes essential. What are your thoughts on the future of autonomous systems design discipline and maybe touch upon cadCAD as a tool which can facilitate these new approaches to production & implementation?
Go-to market mentality is an important paradigm for early stages of innovation but it is not appropriate for public infrastructure. My grandfather was a structural engineer who oversaw skyscrapers being built in Tehran in the 70s, my uncle was an Architect (of buildings) and my father is a Civil Engineer who designed bridges when I was a kid and now heads the department that approves transportation system designs in the State of New York. So I was raised by people who designed complex infrastructure that humans passively relied to be safe for their entire life cycle. If blockchain enabled economies aim to be public economic infrastructure, i firmly believe they must engineered in this tradition. Design validation proceeds implementation, implementations are verified, then also validated against the design before deployment; live systems are managed over their full lifecycle using digital twins which are computational representations of the design fused with data from the live system.
So it was a deep personal need to validate my own design work computationally - that was the origin of cadCAD. I worked on plenty of networked dynamic game designs over the course of my PhD work, but the simulation development work was always time intensive. It would take months to test algorithms and prepare an academic paper. These timelines would never fly in a professional setting, so I set out to define a universal framework that could streamline dynamic game modeling and simulation, and would be integrable with the python data science stack for backtesting and data driven monitoring and maintenance. I am very excited to be releasing cadCAD to open source as the first deliverable in the Commons Stack. It will ship as soon as we close our first Commons Stack fundraising tranche. Future work on cadCAD includes scalability and performance improvements as well as streamlining the integration points with external data sources.
Speaking of the full life cycle management for infrastructure, I am a fan of mapping the concept of ‘Governance’ in blockchain enabled organizations to adaptive maintenance. With a cadCAD digital twin with proper data integrations one can use best practices in predictive analytics to do adaptive maintenance. We’ve decided to call this Computer-Aided Governance (CAG). Check out our article: https://medium.com/block-science/computer-aided-governance-cag-a-revolution-in-automated-decision-support-systems-9faa009e57a2
We are seeing attempts at creating a global monetary system by tech giants and payment providers. What is your perspective on this and could commons based adaptive approaches be presented as an alternative to what’s seemingly another inequitable extraction mechanism?
Globalized tech firms are at this stage essentially a-geographic cyber-states. They give away free services to their constituents, collect large amounts of data about them, and are influential if not manipulative in the ways they control attention. I am not the least bit surprised that such organizations aim to capture a greater role in the global monetary system. While I wish I could say cool, these companies will build the robust peer-to-peer economic infrastructure that we need, I believe there is a conflict because these entities have fiduciary duty to their shareholders rather than a duty to the public. Instead, I see a serious risk of extractive, even imperialistic behavior from such systems if they do not have service to the public has their highest mandate. As a community, we can combat this by building a non-extractive economic infrastructure that anyone can opt in to. However, I believe we must carry the burdens of the duty to the public to truly achieve this goal.
This year has been branded “the year of the DAO” by the community but we are also seeing the emergence of another impactful primitive: Curve Bonding. Can you tell us why this is relevant for mechanism design?
Honestly, I’d chalk up to a Gartner style hype cycle. The term DAO is meming thanks to innovations from Moloch and Metacartel. These organizations are functionally funding clubs with their capital management and voting rights automated into smart contracts. I am thrilled to see these real world cybernetic systems deployed and operational, but at the end of the day it’s down to humans making decisions and at the process automation we have not added any signal processing equipment to help fuse signals coming from the club members into more intelligent decisions. So far what we’ve achieved is a big step up, but we have a long way to go before I would use the word ‘autonomous’ and not feel a bit silly, but that may just be that the word ‘autonomous’ is used more formally in the control systems field. Regardless of what you call them, these systems are providing both primitives and key test cases to help achieve decentralized intelligence at the community level.
As noted earlier, bonding curves are not so much primitive components as primitive interfaces. It makes a lot of sense to use a bonding curve as an interface between a local club and its broader ecosystem. I believe this is an emerging standard. The first commons deployed by the Commons Stack will be very close to this design: an augmented bonding curve as an interface and a basic voting system to nominate and pass funding proposals. This is a great place to start, but there is a long way to go from there to decentralized intelligence. I have been working on models for social sensor fusion for some time, and I am particularly excited for later Commons Stack deployments which will include Conviction Voting to help with signal processing on the decision side, and an upgraded Giveth dApp to manage transparency in the execution stages of funded proposals.
What’s your opinion about Aragon Fundraising? How do you see these systems & mechanisms interacting as we go forward?
Integrate all the things!
Seriously though, I’ve been doing engineering R&D since I was 17 years old and I’ve worked on complex systems from Aerospace materials (that went to space) to Robotics (one that went to both Poles), and more recently operational automation in business systems both centralized and decentralized.
The most universal lesson from this experience is that antifragile complex systems are not engineered with bespoke parts, but through composing layer after layer of component-to-subsystem-to-system relationships all comprised of mature parts. Aragon makes awesome components and subsystems; I am always thinking about what components and subsystems are needed, and pick the most mature parts that fit the system requirements.
Practically speaking composability with the Aragon infrastrastructure is a technical requirement for the Commons Stack; broadly speaking, we aim to facilitate synthesis of systems regardless of component choices.
If you could choose a quote for what is and what will become the Commons Stack, what would it be?
I like the idea of having answers from different team members here because it shows that we are broadly aligned but that we are also sufficiently diverse. Our systems need to both be able to explore and exploit their fitness landscapes and thus diversity is also a favorable trait. I believe managing the tension between short term fitness to the environment and long term novelty search is critical to understanding adaptive systems. In terms of algorithms, this is another expression of the explore and exploit trade off. A sustainable system needs to be capable of both.
The Commons Stack enables an emergent ecosystem of regenerative intentional communities by building digital tools for human cooperation around common goals, at scale.
The Commons Stack is architectural blueprints, engineering primitives, and governance tools that empower communities to establish and operate community centers in cyberspace.
The term smart forest sounds like a sportswear brand. But it is actually the name of a great revolution combining ecology, blockchain and biomimetics. A commons implies an exit from private property but also a broader and more inclusive relationship with the environment. Our vision of nature is often anthropocentric. That’s why many scientists, makers or thinkers try to rethink the commons by making an entire flora autonomous, for example certain plants or a forest.
This is one of the goals of Plantoïd, a bionic flower that lives independently thanks to a decentralized computer program. Plantoïd is the result of an artistic project developed by the O'Khaos collective, founded by Primavera de Filippi. The original Plantoid is a sculpture with a nanocomputer connected to a blockchain. Subscribers can then feed it with bitcoins. This bionic flower is therefore fed by humans. Once a certain amount has been reached, the project generates the possibility of creating a new version of the sculpture by hiring (and paying) an artist. Plantoïd is therefore perfectly autonomous but serves primarily as a playful and artistic model to show the potentialities of the blockchain and its ecological involvement.
One of the Plantoids subsequently generated by engineer and sculptor Isabelle Humbert-Raptke holds great promise: its aim is to illustrate the Tree Coach project, a smart forest whose principle is to give each tree an identity inscribed on the blockchain and to create different governance frameworks, without a centralizing body. The ultimate goal of this project is to make visible the invisible mechanics of a forest and make us question the processes of deforestation. This is the same principle as Terra0, “a scalable framework built on the Ethereum network that provides automated resilience systems for ecosystems”.
Part Three: Internet, ruins of the Commons... is that so?
The early Internet clearly showed a desire for sharing and self-governance, and can obviously be considered today as one of the most successful uses of the commons. This can be seen, for example, through the free software movement in the early 1980s, itself based on the traditions of the hacker community from the 1970s. It can also be seen through specific technical choices, such as TCP/IP protocols (Internet) which were fully open-source in the early 1980 or even the copyleft, a licence mark left on your software to avoid privatization by someone else. In addition, Lawrence Lessig's world-famous mantra, "Code is Law", first appeared in 1999 in his book "Code: Version 2.0", highlighting very strong awareness that, from now on, major technical decisions in this sector would be at the heart of social issues and had to be considered deeply political.
The reversal of these decisions, and the privatization of common areas that we thought were out of danger (since they were immaterial) have been heavily violent. And the disillusion, deep. While the 1980s would consider the Internet as a global public good, strong actors of 2000s had succeeded in transforming it into a potentially infinite source of profits by pushing the users into an increasingly powerless position. The now famous quote, "If you’re not the paying for the product, you are the product" only rub salt in the wounds. But sadly it demonstrates very clearly the delusion of this « free space ». Wikipedia is the most famous and best known example since it brings together the main characteristics of the collective good and the common good. A space that can be used by several people and managed collectively. However, the call of Lisa Gruwell, financial director of Wikipedia, for a larger donation from Google and Apple shows the limits of this model, at least in the context of web giants. Indeed, the well-known encyclopedia, whose thousands of contributions make its great value, is used every day by these great giants through various applications such as Siri. In addition to the technical prowess, the main interest comes from access to contents and answers which are themselves of the commons. This highlights a case where the customer is charged for a service based on his own free contribution. a right to charge the consumer fora service based on his own free contribution. While some position themselves and fight to maintain user's freedoms, companies are getting richer and richer by taking advantage of the illusion of free space and the lack of knowledge for data protection. The whole thing happening in a context of non-exhaustion of resource, since it is immaterial.
Obviously, the blockchain arrives in decisive times, and redistribute cards on these topics by reopening the debate. The challenge here is to stay determined and strong, keeping in mind that the good intentions we have behind our actions and choices in development have been those of developers before us and who have watched helplessly the Internet as a commons ripped apart. For all those who work in this ecosystem today, it is often difficult, sometimes impossible, to explain exactly what we are trying to achieve to an audience far away from the world of computer and software development. However, this may be explained very tangibly through the construction of a new kind of commons and through a desire for the RE-decentralization,of the Internet. May it once again be a global public good, managed collectively, and for all.