The False Promise of Blockchain Governance (and Fixing It with Education)

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The Protocol Has Transparency, but the Protocol Isn’t Transparent

In the past weeks there was a lot of talk about Law and blockchain. Topics such as immutability, trust, scalability, and so on. All of these questions probably do matter, but these people are forgetting that laws exist in a social context. I’m personally an advocate of stripping the name “smart contracts” and replacing it with “automated addresses”.

Limited Perspectives

The problem here is that these people seem to speak from a very specific social context. If you look at the team roster of most leading blockchain projects, they are overwhelmingly white and mostly North American. There is nothing inherently wrong about that, but no matter how smart these thinkers are, they are coming from a relatively closed point-of-view of the world.

Sooner or later, the clash will happen. All these pseudo-institutions aiming to reach out to everyone with Internet access will collide with Internet cultures that they never considered before. At least at the time of writing, many of these side-line cultures see and understand blockchain only as an easily accessible speculative or hedging market. To some extent, these debates are hot air, since barely anyone is significantly involved.

Photo by Robin Noguier

The Forgotten People

Blockchain won’t be able to do what others haven’t been able to do in millennia: get all cultures to agree on something. In fact, if the paternalistic view of the current blockchain developer base perdures, it won’t be that much different from the soft oppression blockchain set out to defeat in the first place. For this reason, we should keep our feet on the ground and not delude ourselves with the illusion of simply being right; one man’s rightfulness is another man’s oppression. Satoshi might propose a protocol to reach consensus, but how the protocol is implemented will remain outside of the scope of the protocol itself. I’ve argued before that a way out of this echo chamber is to empower forks.

Perhaps the parties involved are both trying to do the best for everyone, but at the same time they fail to realize that they are trying to solve an unsolvable problem. Instead of wasting time on what should be and what shouldn’t, we should focus on how to give everyone an equal chance to decide what is best. These debates about what is best for “the people” are also filled with words that “the people” don’t even know. Assuming that the user is stupid is both insulting and naive. Instead of holding a debate in a small group, let’s multiply our efforts in education, which have been relegated and abandoned, even by the foundations.

Month after month it seems that in one way or another, blockchain groups keep falling into old traps. We get excited when we hear about an implementation of a novel reputation system, or a new voting scheme, when these things have already been studied before, and a complete lack of previous research is evident.

Education Is Lacking

Bitcoin’s and Ethereum’s governance styles seem to strongly rely on the idea that a lack of opposition means approval, but how can we present an opposition when no one really knows what is even happening? This is highly reminiscent of how centralized governments operate. Perhaps the protocol includes full transparency, but there is a strong lack of transparency about the protocol itself.

And please do not even dare do say that the protocol is transparent because it is open source. Who can even read the codebases? Handing out encrypted data is practically as transparent as simply not handing it out. In my experience, most high-tier blockchain developers seem to be not-so-gifted in terms of making complex ideas simple. Invest more in people and less in funding yet-another-DAO-no-one-needs.

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