To think Blockchain is to think outside the box!
Collaboration is surely the most important innovation and improvement offered today by blockchain technology, not only in what it has of technical and practical features (transaction deadlines, immutability of contents, peer to peer organization), but also in the innovative tools allowing the empowerment of new ways of being and organizing together (contributions tracking, voting systems, reputation systems, assignment of tasks and deadlines).
Obviously, blockchain revolutionizes, by far, collective work schemes set up by the industrial era and questions the tools set up during the last century in order to achieve better yields, better profits, often at the expense of workers and employees. What is the interest of counting time spent at the office, when what really matters are results? What’s the point of imposing office hours when you work with men and women from all around the world? What is the need for establishing balance sheets when blockchain algorithms will do the work far more better than you?
In a way, internet had allowed to set aside a framework of work constraints that one may judge harmful or not, but what Blockchain now allows is to focus on a problem of substance: of how can we ensure that we are moving together in the same direction? How do we establish common objectives? How do we shape virtuous, adapted, healthy and fair goals for all?
Could we, and moreover should we, draw inspiration from what is called stigmergy in nature and complex societies? The term “stigmergy”, introduced by the french zoologist Pierre-Paul Grassé, refers to the “property that has a product that excites the laborer” or in another way “the stimulation of the laborers by the work they are realizing”. We won’t be focusing here on the fascinating complexity of these forms of natural organizations. Nevertheless, we will try to question how these new tools may or may not lead us to a different, human-like, form of stigmergy.
Part One : A new way to collaborate?
Co-construction, co-working, partnership working, collaboration : all these terms flourished in management language and learning. Is it a reaction to the individualistic outburst of the late last century or as a new, more insidious form of division of labour? Collaboration is difficult to define because it is used differently in politics, in a community, in a company, in economics or even in the arts.
As we like to do here, let's look at the etymology of the word: collaborating is working (laborare) with (con). But what is the underlying modus operandi of collaboration? It can correspond to the capitalist organization of the division of labour: hierarchical when the division is vertical; fragmented when it is horizontal. Or to a more or less communist organization (libertarian or state) where ideally the work would aim at the common good and a more egalitarian governance.
The rules governing collaboration must be defined beforehand: in itself, there can be no collaboration without a well-defined mode of governance. A well-known and also prototypical example would be Wikipedia, whose success could be due to its mode of governance: considered as a common knowledge (based on Elinor Ostrom's theories : see our article), Wikipedia is organized around a small group of contributors/administrators who not only establish the rules but also implement internal discussions. In its vocation to prevent any bureaucracy, Wikipedia is said to be adhocratic, i.e. characterized by a flexible management mode aimed at pragmatically responding to a need and finding a consensual solution.
Even if the term collaboration flourishes in the language of the most ultra-liberal kind of management, it collides with the notion of competition. Competition between companies, of course, but also between employees of the same company. At the heart of our society, profit governs work, which is also vertically oriented. According to Marxist theory, capitalism is a political, economic and social system whose fundamental principle is the systematic search for capital gains obtained through the exploitation of workers by the owners of the means of production and distribution. It is an ideology that has used technology to its benefit. This led libertarian and communist in the late 20th century to believe that technology were the substrate from which capitalists are exploiting the workers. However, as the anarchist Murray Bookchin (see our article) has shown, the use of technology is not subordinated to capitalism but to the mode of governance chosen upstream.
Here’s come blockchain. From the very first lines inaugurating the blockchain, in Satoshi Nakamoto's manifesto, collaboration is implied by one of its contemporary variants: peer-to-peer. The first sentence, the modern equivalent of the catchphrase of the Communist Manifesto, informs us:
A purely peer-to-peer version of electronic cash would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution.
Let’s look at what blockchain is basically : a distributed ledger, transparent, forgery-proof, without central control body. Example: an exchange between user A and user B will not pass through a central server, but within a block validated by the network nodes, producing what can be called a peer-to-peer economy. To collaborate i.e. work together, these users can create or even integrate a DAO, a kind of decentralized and autonomous cooperative, where they engrave their governance rules into an immutable and transparent code.
In a word, blockchain technology is in its protocol a collaborative tool. Either the blockchain is collaborative in its intrinsic technological protocol: this is the case, for example, of the use of the blockchain in the humanitarian field where the transparency of data combined with its security brings back trust between donors and NGOs. Either it combines its collaborative technological structure with a collaborative project: collaboration between humans, but also between humans and nature, or even within nature itself. As such we can mention Bounties Network, an ethical platform to encourage, develop and organise freelance work or social actions; or Gitcoin, a project to find expert freelance developers. For ecology, see Terra0, which we will discuss at length in the next Black Monthly.
However, as this relevant article by Forbes points out: “Over time, the biggest barrier to execution may come, not from the technology itself, but from very human historic rivalry within the ecosystem” - a phenomenon called by McKinsey the “coopetiton paradox”. In a nutshell, the technology should be collaborative, but the actors in the ecosystem cannot be separated from their social and cultural background: competition. This is quite a pessimist vision ; Buterin, in an article named The Meaning of decentralization, speaks with more nuance and caution about competitiveness:
It is crucially important to have multiple competing implementations.
Core developers and researchers should be employed by multiple companies or organizations or, alternatively, many of them can be volunteers.
The very fear about blockchain and collaboration lies rather in a return or a copy-paste of classic managerial methods: for instance, reactivation of a hierarchy, between developers and non-developers, triples the risk of the advent of unbalanced governance through unwanted technocracy, plutocracy, bureaucracy, national collusion, etc...
A real danger or an unfounded fear? A blind criticism? About collaboration and blockchain, I heard an anecdote that could illustrate our point or at least give us the necessary hope that blockchain-based projects will not dry up. It sounds like the beginning of a joke ; this is the story of a developer - let’s say Mr. Y -, a good developer, passionate, hardworking, rigorous ; but he is so good,that he can't find a teammate at his level. In spite of himself, he is a leader. His HR - because there’s now Human Resources manager in blockchain - is desperate ; he is so desperate that he ends up capitulating and saying: “we have to decentralize Mr. Y”.
Part Two : Yalda Mousavinia interview about Open Enterprise
Hello Yalda, and thank for according us this interview! In a few words, please describe Open Enterprise: how does it work and what’s its purpose?
Open Enterprise is a suite of applications for Aragon that is catered toward work-based organizations. It provides a toolkit for open organizations to reward their workers or volunteers with tokens that can either represent money, equity, governance power, or a combination of these elements. Our end goal with Open Enterprise is to drive positive change in the world by enabling large-scale open source collaboration
In your opinion, what is the most important aspect of team collaboration that blockchain technology can transform and improve?
Recruiting the right people to contribute to your cause or organization and keeping them onboard is one of the most important aspects of team collaboration. Contributors are more likely to continuously contribute to an organization if they feel like they have an influence or that they are getting adequately rewarded (or recognized) for their efforts. This can be transformed with blockchain technology by using tokens to award patronage or governance privileges. Additionally, advancing hiring processes to be based on receiving bounties over a traditional interview process can be quite transformative and lead toward finding passionate and culturally-aligned individuals. Our recent hire, Emilio, applied to work for Autark after completing a few bounties. This also helped accelerate our onboarding process: whenever he started more officially, he was able to jump right into our projects.
If you had to choose your favorite collaborative tool in Open Entreprise, what would it be?
It’s difficult to choose a single tool or app in Open Enterprise, as many of them are not standalone. We market Open Enterprise as a suite, because it’s the combination of the applications that provides a unique experience in coordinating an open enterprise. But I would say that the Projects application is one of the “core” applications of our suite, and the one I want to spend a lot more time and thought on expanding its feature set.
Is Open Entreprise mainly oriented towards blockchain projects or is it easy-to-use for “classical” entreprises?
Open Enterprise is not only oriented towards blockchain projects. Yet due to the transparent nature of the Ethereum blockchain and Aragon organizations, it will be suited for any organization that is open to their operations being public who want to reward and incentivize workers or volunteers. This can be open source organizations, non-profits, cooperatives, or hybrid organizations that are difficult to classify today.
You have recently rebranded your product from the Planning Suite to Open Enterprise. Could you explain reasons and preferences for this new name?
The name we had when we first applied for Nest was “That Planning Tab” whenever we imagined all of our features being built into a single new “app” or left-tab within Aragon. This was a bit of of a tongue-in-cheek name. This evolved to “That Planning Suite” since we had to build a suite of applications to accomplish our vision. Having “That” in a product name isn’t very… professional, and we thought “Planning Suite” was very generic and a bit restricted to planning, vs. other types of mechanisms. Open Enterprise is a concept and name that I personally have been thinking about for a few years. Autark’s vision is about building tools that can enable collaboration on large-scale projects, in an open source manner. Large-scale projects require a large workforce (enterprise-level). Hence “Open Enterprise” is meant to actually birth open enterprises: large-scale, open source workforces - so we can accelerate global collaboration that in turn, accelerates positive social change.
For you, what is the most interesting challenge in developing tools for open source collaboration?
I think the most interesting challenge relates to the work-review process. Without good maintainers or good systems to determine who the maintainers of an open source project should be, open source projects will not be able to flourish. There will always be a group of people that will have more expertise or seniority and will be the most appropriate to judge whether to include a new contribution. There are many ideas about how we can use token mechanics to solve for this, but I don’t think any precedence has been set yet for the optimal solution to this challenge.
Tell us about your team. How do you work together? And do you use the tools you develop internally?
Autark is fully remote with people in America, Spain, Poland, Germany, and Colombia. At the moment, we are 3 cross-functional strategists (product/design/marketing) and 6 software developers. We also have a partner relationship with Open Work Labs and they are located in New York. We use Keybase for communication, Notion for internal documentation and planning, Github for development, and Loomio for decision-making. We have two team meetings per week - one on Monday and one on Friday, and everyone does a daily asynchronous scrum in Keybase. Most recently, we are starting to experiment with a new product development process proposed by the founders of Basecamp.
We don’t yet use Open Enterprise as we want to launch it first and still need to invest time in designing our internal governance processes and bylaws. I hope we can have that all solidified before our next AGP in 2020 (transitioning Autark to an `open enterprise`). But we do plan on using Open Enterprise after it launches this year: to facilitate bounty programs, prioritize feature requests, and to create a strategic DAO as part of one of our AGP-73 initiatives.
What do you think are now the limits in open source collaboration?
Similar to my answer about the challenges — I think the limits relate to open source projects needing some form of leadership to be successful. This doesn’t mean you need a top-down organization, but more — a driving force that can inspire and motivate. Projects can go into hibernation without a strong dedicated lead, especially if the project is early stage or based only on volunteers with limited funding.
On the contrary, what are the big advances in recent years, thanks to the blockchain according to you?
This may sound a bit obvious, but the greatest advance is that blockchain technology allows people to globally collaborate on projects with less barriers to entry. People can get paid for the work they contribute to a project without having to provide project organizers with any kind of bank details. We need global currencies if we really want to tap into the potential of open collaboration.
Let’s end on a more personal note. You worked at Space Cooperative before founding Autark and you still have this SF note in your slides and presentations. Where does this passion for space come from?
This passion for space — is a bit of a calling. I make (or used to make) experimental music and think about space a lot, and I started writing some poetry about possible space futures. Something clicked one day at the end of 2015 and I decided I needed to take it to the next level beyond weird sounds and poetry. So I started taking some courses in an Astronautical Engineering certificate program and then one thing lead to another - and Space Cooperative was formed - and then that lead toward Space Decentral, a decentralized autonomous space agency, which then eventually lead toward Autark. It will come full circle one day where we connect the tools we are building in the Aragon Network to power a space agency. I’m starting to recruit a new leader for Space Decentral, and I think I found her, so hopefully the dots connect soon.
I didn’t start Space Decentral because it’s a project that I needed to personally lead -- we started it because it’s something humanity needs - a citizen-lead space agency. Humanity will become a spacefaring civilization one day, and it’s important to do as much as we can to ensure that future societies are fair and just. If we leave it in the hands of nation states and billionaires, instead of the common person, do we trust the future worlds that are built to actually be looking out for us?
Part three : Art and Collaboration
All works are collective, just as we get transcended by our environment, altered by alterity. Against the fable - the affabulation - of the interiority that claims that an essence, an identity, a deep self would be housed in each individual, let us use the Simondian concept of transindividuality, by which a character is defined above all by its interaction, or even its conflict with its environment.. This is the philosophical and anthropological point of view without which we could not really establish what we will call a collaborative technology.
One of the situation where blockchain and collaboration may meet is certainly art. This is because the so-called artistic collaboration abandons (more or less) the notions of profit, production and efficiency. Art is the place where this experiment between technology and governance takes place ; exactly as some artistic or literary avant-gardes have tested, in their productions, libertarian or communist modes of governance. Think of Dada or surrealism.
Of course, blockchain within the ecosystem of artistic creation has various objectives and manifestations: traceability of works of art, secure crowdfunding, pure entertainment, fashion phenomena, etc. But a real blockchain-based art allows to measure a kind of aesthetic efficiency of collaboration and is a proof that art is neither the cult of the demiurge individual nor the sacralization of the author/artist. Blockchain-based art is rather, as its name suggests, an art that is renewed through contact with technology; a technology that is tried on art.
At least in visual arts and literature, the value placed on collaboration is usually low. But so is its status. The legal definition of a collective work varies from one legislation to another; Obscure in France, codified in the UK and USA,, two criteria can be however considered:
- The collective work is initiated by and under the responsibility of a single natural or legal person.
- The work must present a fusion of contributions that prevents the attribution of each individual contributions to the participants.
We see the two consequences of these criteria: first, governance belongs either to a person or an organization, not to a mobile and malleable community of people; second, contributor to the collective work must remain drowned in the collective, and cannot be recognized as an individual within a collective.
The blockchain comes in in this paradigm with the principle of traceability. Let's take this example: the creation of a transmedia work. A person called A has the main argument, the structure, the outcome. B would like to write the story. They then decide to set up a DAO on top of Ethereum. This Decentralized Autonomous Organization becomes the equivalent of a legal person. But governance can be changed and concerted between token holders. Initially, A and B would each have 50% voting power and could regulate their governance. Let's imagine that C joins and wants to make illustrations for the text: he will then be given decision-making power. And so on for D, E and F that will take over video, reading-correction or promotion.
Any collaboration and/or modification of the content is therefore tracked i.e. it is written into the code in an immutable and transparent way. Thus, if the DAO is a mobile, modifiable collective entity, where each contributor can be isolated and remunerated to the extent determined by the mode of governance. Better still, protocols are now in place to allow a truly participatory crowdfunding, where contributors/sponsors are full-fledged actors in the project and have decision-making rights (see our article).
Generally, a change opened by a new technology - here, collaborative technology - disrupts other related fields. How do we adapt this technology to the intellectual property code? In other words, is it possible to isomorphism between the regulations in force in nation states and the possibilities opened up by this technological collaboration? The issue remains debated and problematic; in any case, what is written into the code of a DAO can be considered a first proof, a first draft of a law. One of the most exciting research on blockchain and collaboration is the development of a new license midway between Creative Commons and Decentralized Autonomous Licence (see this article).