Demystifying Blockchain Through an STS Lens: Challenges and Opportunities of a New Infrastructure for the Commons.
Vasilis Kostakis, Tallinn University of Technology, P2P Lab
Primavera De Filippi, Berkman Center at Harvard University, CERSA/CNRS
Diego Gonzalez-Rodriguez, University Carlos III of Madrid
“The reward of labour is life. Is that not enough?”
William Morris (1834-1896)
In News from Nowhere (Morris 1890/2008), the narrator, William Guest, finds himself in a future society based on common ownership and democratic control of the means of production. Morris’s utopian society has no authority, no monetary system and functions in an autonomous way because individuals find pleasure in their collaborative work.
Now let’s fast forward into the beginning of the 21st century, and reflect upon the emergence of digital commons of knowledge, software and design which celebrates human collaboration and recreates commons-oriented modes of production. In these new systems, value is created through contributions and not labor per se, with the output being commons, not commodities. Initiatives such as myriad of free/open source software projects or the free encyclopedia Wikipedia, have highlighted the emergence of new “technological-economic feasibility spaces” for a new type of social practice (Benkler 2006: 31). These feasibility spaces include different social and economic arrangements, where profit, power and control seem to decrease in importance and be replaced by a commons-oriented process at the core of value creation (Benkler 2006; Kostakis et al. 2013).
However, for a long time, commons-oriented communities have been institutionalized around centralized or federated structures, which might bring a series of trade-offs in terms of democratic governance, flexibility, and ability to evolve. These institutions were mainly built to facilitate the coordination of disparate groups of people that would otherwise have had a hard time coordinating themselves, because of either scale or lack of proper coordination mechanisms. They also served the purpose of establishing trust among groups that did not engage into sufficiently frequent and repeated interactions. Nevertheless, today traditional issues related to shared common-pool resources could be addressed with the implementation of an arguably pervasive open source technology, called “blockchain”. In short, blockchain is a type of a distributed database which is maintained by a network of user and eliminates the need for a trusted third party. The most widely known application of a blockchain is the public ledger of transactions for digital currencies first used in Bitcoin. The transparent and distributed nature of the blockchain makes it easier for small and large communities to reach consensus and implement innovative forms of self-governance. The possibility to record every interaction on an incorruptible public ledger and the ability to encode a particular set rules linking these interactions to a specific transactions makes it possible to design new sophisticated incentive systems, which might significantly differ from traditional market-based mechanisms.
Thanks to these new technologies, alternative value systems based on reputation, merit or other type of metrics might emerge, as an alternative to traditional market based mechanisms which only focus on economic value. In the near future, centralized intermediaries coordinating the action of a large number of individuals might be replaced by peer-to-peer transactions performed in a trustless environment, without the need for any intermediary entity to manage the flow of contributions. Disintermediation and independent value production might promote a greater degree of individual autonomy and emancipation, but at what cost? In Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003), Cory Doctorow describes a society based on a post-scarcity economy, where money has progressively been replaced by a reputation-based currency, as a new expression of wealth. In spite of the apparent benefits, the drawback of such a reputation-based system is that every human interaction can potentially be evaluated, virtual turning any social interaction into an economic transaction —something that could be highly disruptive to the commons-oriented ecosystem, which is for the most part driven by social and ideological values.
The aim of this special issue is to deepen our knowledge about the potential challenges and opportunities of blockchain technologies, from a STS perspective. We welcome reflective, imaginative and critical scholarly articles and commentaries that address any of the following themes and beyond:
About the journal:
Engaging Science, Technology, and Society: The open access journal of the Society for Social Studies of Science
Science and technology infuse the world in which we live, from the nature of healthcare and environmental policy to labor-management relationships in workplaces and the organization of political campaigns and political candidates’ platforms. The centrality of science and technology in social life means there is a vital space for scholars of science, technology, and society to intervene in meaningful ways in discussions of the most crucial issues of the day. Engaging Science, Technology, and Society is intended as a vibrant venue for these conversations.
Toward this end, Engaging Science, Technology, and Society will be a site of experimentation with new forms of writing and publication. We will be a big tent that creates opportunities for those who formally identify with science and technology studies to publish alongside scholars from a range of other fields whose work speaks to the relationship between science/technology and society/culture. Finally, Engaging Science, Technology, and Society will seek to be relevant and accessible to a wide array of audiences from STS scholars and undergraduate students to science and technology practitioners, policymakers and activists.
Engaging Science, Technology, and Society, an open access journal, aims to be a venue for realizing these “openness” objectives. Toward this end, we are interested in publishing informed and rigorous work that takes risks, insightfully challenges established conceptual orientations and methods, and speaks boldly. We are committed to thorough and constructive double-blind peer review and consequent revision that will lead to the highest quality articles, and we will endeavor to produce work that is clear and engaging reading for multiple audiences.
Benkler, Y. 2006. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Doctorow, C. 2003. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. New York, NY: Tor Books.
Kostakis, V., M. Fountouklis, and W. Drechsler. 2013. “Peer Production and Desktop Manufacturing: The Case of the Helix_T Wind Turbine Project.” Science,Technology & Human Values, 38(6): 773-800.
Morris, W. 1890/2008. News from Nowhere. London, UK: Forgotten Books.