digitaLiberties: Opinion

Blockchain may redefine the Web – it’s up to us to make sure it’s done well

How can cryptocurrencies create new possibilities for organising economically, politically and socially?

Laura Lotti
13 December 2021, 4.40pm
Fictional coins part of the role-playing hackathon Black Swan: The Communes held at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin in August 2021. Aren’t all cryptocurrencies a work of ‘finance-fiction’ at the start?
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Black Swan 2021

As cryptocurrencies go mainstream with exorbitant valuations, and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) enable new markets for the ‘creator economy’, we wonder: is blockchain technology neoliberalism's new best friend? It certainly accelerates the tendency to turn attention, reputation, influence, decisional power, even art, into assets and trade them for a price.

But instead of dismissing this as only a further step in the relentless financialisation of everything, we should explore the ways in which the technology redefines assets – and how it may expand the possibilities for organising economically, politically and socially beyond the current extractive frameworks.

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Cygnet application, which deploys quadratic voting and the lunar calendar to reimagine collective decision-making for groups of creative practitioners | Black Swan 2021.

To assess the extent to which assets have pervaded daily life, look no further than the current web, where data assets play a crucial role within the business model of platform capitalism. Not only do tech platforms generate profit through the services they provide, but their financial valuations are largely amplified by the perceived value of the data that they generate and capture. As Van Doorn and Badger (2020) explain: “This value derives in part from data’s expected or actual practical utility in operational processes (i.e. achieving functional goals and systems optimisation). Yet captured data also attracts venture capital and grows financial valuations, to the extent that investors expect data-rich platform companies to achieve competitive advantages.” The combination of data-centric businesses and the profit-driven interests of investors constitutes a huge obstacle for workers' agency in the ‘sharing economy’ and it also hinders the ability of creators, artists and knowledge workers to be fairly rewarded for their work, as the end value of their creations is largely determined by the logic of ‘The Feed’ within social media platforms, extracting rent and forward-looking value from their users.

Sociologists Kean Birch and Fabian Muniesa call this tendency ‘assetisation’; that is, the process of “turning things into assets” through specific contractual architectures (such as licensing, revenue share agreements, etc.) and valuation practices that are themselves socially and technically constructed by the participating actors. To them, the asset has replaced the commodity as the dominant economic form in contemporary capitalism. In contrast to the main rhetoric of financialisation, assets are not just about short-term speculation; they are about capital investment with the prospect of generating a yield at a later date.

From this standpoint, blockchains and tokens are technologies for assetisation par excellence, in so far as they provide a peer-to-peer infrastructure for recording and storing subjective valuations on the basis of programmable contractual relations. Among the variety of existing ‘cryptoassets’ (the generic term for cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, and tokens that provide access of the value generated by a peer-to-peer network) the most emblematic case is perhaps that of cryptoart, primarily in the form of NFTs – that is, a software framework for provably scarce digital objects.

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Credit: Jacob Horne 2019 | Ole Heine 2021

For instance, in recent months we have witnessed auction houses ‘aping’ into this new art format, with Christie’s and Sotheby’s running multi-million-dollar sales of more and less interesting works of cryptoart, renewing enthusiasm into the origins of artistic engagements with blockchain. And other things have been notoriously turned into assets through blockchains, such as decisional power in the form of ‘governance tokens’. These are instead fungible and tradable tokens that give voting rights on protocol parameters and use of the collective treasury.

It is still early in the history of blockchain and the risk of merely replicating legacy institutional forms (from central banking to corporate governance to contemporary art) is palpable. Yet the possibility to assign ownership to the users and contributors to a network protocol in a peer-to-peer way opens up new ways to conceive of organisational models beyond current private property and value extraction. Or better, it may enable us to revitalise the minor forms of organising that are poorly served by today’s collapsing legacy institutions – such as cooperatives, friends’ groups, and event-based collectives.

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It may well be, as it recodes and augments the affordances of older forms of organising | Kei Kreutler 2021

For instance, artist and software engineer Sarah Friend’s Off is an artwork and multiplayer game that deploys NFTs to rethink what collective ownership can be by encouraging collectors to cooperate and unlock together a new original artwork. DeFi (decentralised finance) staking mechanisms (i.e. providing liquidity to tokens in exchange for revenue or portions of the supply) have opened the imagination to new funding streams for cooperatives and cultural organisations. They introduce novel use cases that leverage speculation toward redistributive goals instead of individual profit maximisation – as in the cases of Breadchain Crowdstaking Protocol, a project aiming to fund post-capitalist initiatives; and the recent proposal from 221A, a nonprofit organisation working with artists and designers to research and develop social, cultural and ecological infrastructure, for a ‘staking internet’.

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Similarly, the term 'DAO' (Decentralised Autonomous Organisation) has left the corporate imaginary it was originally associated with to become a vessel for a multiplicity of collaborative organisations, from creators squads to arts collectives, that emphasise the cooperativist principles of the protocol – as artist-researcher Kei Kreutler discusses in ‘A Prehistory of DAOs’ (2021), portending new institutional forms and gesturing to new models for the funding of public goods. These proposals and visions for alternative forms of organising are not just about ‘telling’ but also ‘showing’ that other systems may be possible; that in spite of the novelty of the technology and its many risks, the field is ripe for experimentation to devise systems based on solidarity and redistributive economic mechanisms.

Thinking about organising through blockchain necessitates engaging with financial practices and considerations (liquidity, capitalisation, governance, which are also practices of assetisation) because that is the nature of the technology and the prevailing hegemonic order. But that is a necessary step in order to, potentially, move beyond the current financialised paradigm. This is why it is key to keep engaging with these technologies, not just to print more jpegs or to recreate current financial instruments, but to provide examples capable of opening up new organisational horizons and pushing the narrative and operational capacities of (crypto)assets beyond legacy forms.

Beyond blockchains, it is agreements and stories that enable people to coalesce and form communities. In this sense, blockchain has shed new light on the heterogenous kinds of contributions (not just capital and open-source software, but also bandwidth for decision making, memetic energy, community facilitation) and valuation practices (including those by speculators and token holders, evangelists and critics, regulators and anarchists) that go into turning an idea into an operating abstraction. This has less to do with ‘encoding values into software’ than it is about enabling values – of cooperation, friendship, solidarity – to circulate and animate these burgeoning organisational technologies. Ultimately those values will be shaped by those that participate in the space. If we want less of the same, we must join the conversation and play.

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