We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams, [...]
We, in the ages lying,
In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself in our mirth;
And o'erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world's worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.
Ode, Arthur O'Shaughnessy
This brief takes a different form from any other you will find in the syllabus. This is because it is not possible to speak of the shape of shared dreams without consulting many different people and listening to multiple voices, opinions, perspectives and embodied experiences. As such, we invite Mihai Alisie, Karl Floersch, Rhea Myers, Virgil Griffith, Simon de la Rouviere, Kei Kreutler, Toby Shorin, Laura Lotti, and Sam Hart onto the stage to travel with us across time in order to try and throw a veil over the invisible hope we all share and thereby come to better know its shape.
The intention of this post is to touch on, and foreshadow, much of what we will discuss both this week, and in all the weeks to come. In particular, we hope it will help you understand more about:
Making meaningful money.
Shared value and diverse conceptions of worth.
Code, law, and how to live in all the layers between.
💡 We are learning to dream with open minds [...] Everyone is invited to cocreate.
From before Ethereum was even launched, the dream has been one defined by reflection, introspection, meaning, and shared value. Mihai writes that,
Along the way it made us reflect upon our values while looking at ourselves and asking what this project really means to each and all of us. During these long soul searching sessions we realized that most of the dichotomies boiled down to a single question: for profit or not?
One could say that the outcome of all those early deliberations was that we decided it was much more fun, and much more interesting to make money, rather than to take profit. We mean this literally: Ethereum means you can make your own money, rather than suspend your disbelief in the fiction of somebody else’s. Mihai continues, pointing out that we are
Motivated not by money but radiant passion for this crazy idea of a free, open and decentralized world. That’s what makes us happy in the end and most importantly what makes us get up and work on this project, proudly saying today we’re building tomorrow.
As we stated last week in the play of pattern,
Since this has never been tried before, there are no right or wrong answers or concrete experiences to fall back on. We are deep into uncharted territories.
Prompt: Making our own money means we can aim for more than taking profit. Mihai says this 'more' can be found in our own _______ _______.
One means of beginning a random walk through all this unknown terrain is to jump forward in time to the early work of Karl Floersch, who suggests that,
💡 Ethereum is the internet’s government, and smart contracts are its laws.
However, ‘law’ suggests something substantive rather than formal, which means we're less interested in what we may do than in what we actually can do. Anyone can create law on Ethereum and, if you learn the language, you are effectively a member of the legislative branch. Moreover, the executive branch is just a network of computers which literally execute agreed upon costs for processing meaningful speech.
Creating a law doesn’t mean everyone is going to follow it. All Ethereum laws are opt-in. For your law to be adopted, you’ll need to convince fellow citizens that following your law is in their interest. Good laws will provide distinct advantages to those who follow them. They allow for cooperative action and greater trust within the group.
A good example of the difference between formal, prescriptive law and opt-in, substantive law can be found in the freedom of movement. Most modern democracies enshrine this freedom in a formal manner: anyone may travel across any public land as they please. However, you must still pay your own travel and accommodation costs. Therefore, in practice, such freedom can only be realised by a relatively small part of any population. Older communities framed the issue very differently: rather than formal freedom to move, they actively cultivated a culture of hospitality to strangers, as this ensures anyone genuinely can travel if they please. In this simplified example, one can begin to see how, in "convivial societies", mutual aid was the ground for individual autonomy, an idea we will return to in Module 4 and when we turn to wider perspectives on reciprocity.
Prompt: Who can create contractual "law" on Ethereum?
The word ‘good’ here no longer implies some kind of moral stance: it has to do with the computable effects of any executable statement. This shift in how we imagine the word ‘law’ is most directly revealed in the way that it is impossible to “break” a law on Ethereum - given the executable and unambiguous language it is written in and the deterministic nature of the EVM - but it is possible not to follow a law.
Here is the heart of the whole “code is law” debate. As Rhea Myers says, interpreted literally, this is either a “libertarian attempt to reduce the costs and uncertainty of interpreting ambiguous human language, or a dystopian replacement of rights and safeguards with binary logic”. However, Karl is pointing at something different. We can reduce the costs to coordinate by limiting ambiguity in the language with which we transact, but global coordination requires the wider perspective that any transaction is opt-in: you need not sign transactions which interact with contracts to which you are unwilling to bind yourself. Understanding how this is neither libertarian nor purely logical requires learning a new language, which is done most effectively with the kind of radiant passion both Karl and Mihai embody.
Wittgenstein claims, “There are no genuine philosophical problems: just misunderstandings of language.” A world computing fabric can limit such misunderstandings in economic interactions, though it remains up to us, the people who sign, to define for ourselves what kinds of laws make our shared state meaningful. As Rhea says elsewhere, “Ethereum allows anyone to define what art is.” This is an idea we will return to in Module 4.
Karl’s post discusses the legislative and executive branches of government and suggests that, with “low cost opt-in laws that cannot be broken, for the first time we can easily apply the scientific method, trial and error, to governance”. However, this seems to neglect the judiciary. The function of the judiciary is to interpret law, resolve disputes, and assess the outcome of cases. Interpretation and assessment are no longer ideological problems in this new medium, though: they are engineering challenges. Disputes also operate differently, because
Laws being opt-in means they are under every citizen’s scrutiny. Laws being unbreakable lets us accurately measure their effectiveness. Law creation being available to everyone means new laws can rapidly replace old ineffective ones. And then we repeat. We will be able to turn governance into a science and discover laws that are effective and fair for all.
Prompt: Contractual law cannot be broken (in the traditional sense), though we can choose not to follow such laws at all. These two facts together allow us to apply what method to governance?
It's important to note that there are many critiques of this line of thought, especially when it is simplified for marketing purposes. In particular, we must ask if the elision of the judiciary does not correspond to a wider societal movement which sacrifices justice at the altar of efficiency. While the negative questioning and inevitably pessimistic response in this piece is at odds with Kernel, critics like Evgeny and Katrin remind us of two essential points:
Though practices may change, it is incumbent upon all of us consistently to question what "constitutes law in the true sense, namely social justice, solidarity, and the dignity of the human being."
The criteria of justice ought never to be usurped by the search for greater efficiency.
This notion of discovering laws that are effective and fair for all leads us across time again to the work of Virgil Griffith, who writes that
💡 Ethereum is an unprecedented arena for playing cooperative games.
His essay lays the foundation for understanding how such an environment can be used to warp traditional game theoretic conditions and goes on to show that, when we game warp non-cooperative games into coalitional ones, the rational choice becomes cooperation.
Ethereum constitutes an incorruptible, omnipresent, external overseer that no matter the game is always available to enforce agreements among players. This implies that Ethereum, in theory, could turn any non-cooperative game into a cooperative game.
Prompt: When we warp non-cooperative games into coalitional ones with an immutable and public medium, the rational choice becomes what?
Of course, this cuts both ways, because games can be warped coercively just as easily as they can be moved towards prosocial outcomes. As we will suggest later in the course, the best remedy for this kind of insight is, quite simply, radically open knowledge, sharing, work and communication.
Another way of looking at the power which is unleashed by increasingly effective tools for organizing increasing numbers of people around shared goals is through the historical lens of joint stock companies and the idea of limited liability: which is really just another way we discovered to warp certain kinds of incentives. Simon de la Rouviere points out that
The invention of the limited liability joint-stock corporation created wholly new systems of organizations. Blockchains, and the possibility to create new types of crypto-economic coordination systems will lead to a marginal improvement in efficiency over the joint-stock corporation, but likely also allow the emergence of coordination systems we haven’t seen before.
Such coordination systems could possibly circumvent nation state enforcement and its violent premises. As Simon writes elsewhere,
It brings into question ways to design coordination schemes with unbounded sets of participants without relying on the state. As the pendulum swings to ideations that don’t require a state, we might find that middle ground: some mixture of all these things do indeed prove to be useful to our society.
And such systems can be used to shift the incentives away from global coordination failure in mission critical games like climate change:
Instead of trying to force actors to curb the inevitable abuse of a commons, one could instead make it profitable to protect it [...] In fact: it would become more profitable to protect the commons as it becomes more abused.
This kind of economic feedback loops incentivizes self-regulating ecosystems and creates the time needed for commons to heal. Understanding how technology ought to create more time to simply breathe together will be a core feature of Module 3.Coordinated Galaxies¶
Back in his joint stock pepe piece, Simon continues to suggest that,
The key feature that changed organisations over the years has been: reducing transaction costs to coordinate. This is reflected in Coase’s Theory of the Firm. You can make marginal improvements, like applying decision support systems within an organisation, but every once in a while, a large systemic change occurs that at first looks like a marginal benefit, but in essence enables wholly new types of organisations to exist.
Reducing the barriers to entry (and incentivizing small contributions from the weak-tie edges) ends up producing grand, stigmergic emergence. We saw this with the change from mass general partnerships in the early industrial revolution to the explosion of the joint-stock corporation thereafter.
In Simon's words, Ethereum is organisational “dark matter” that can coordinate galaxies of people, and it has the ability to create new Schelling points anchored in shared, tokenized stories.
Prompt: Human organisation changes when we are able to reduce what?
The transaction costs of coordinating.
Throughout all his work, Simon is suggesting that blockchains can be used to create systems of coordination equivalent to the power of a joint-stock corporation (and greater) without the requirement of physical force. Such coordination arises due to the stories shared within incentive structures which make it nearly impossible to change the narrative when it is convenient for those in power to do so. He writes that
This allows even weaker ties to collaborate, and they can collaborate at the speed of information transfer. It’s the power of the law, but at the speed of programs.
The term ‘dark matter’ is particularly apt, because the exact consequences of such game warping and galactic-level coordination are difficult to predict and understand. The same was true, at a different scale, of joint stock companies. Simon notes as an example the complaint that, “Limited liability permits a man to avail himself of acts if advantageous to him, and not to be responsible for them if they should be disadvantageous; to speculate for profits without being liable for losses.”
This brings us to a more sober note, asking
Could the mass tokenization of all network effects end up being a net negative on society? Are we making a Faustian bargain with the giant joint-stock pepe if we allow memes to have value?
Simon’s question is a deep one, and it recalls a notion we will return to in Module 6: the idea that systems like Mihai described - which aim for free, open and decentralized worlds - also require eternal vigilance. A critical part of this vigilance revolves around our moral imagination and the ability we have to craft technology - both internal and external - which is premised on the notion that others’ benefit is axiomatic to any action we take in the world.
In a beautiful piece about “Positive Sum Worlds” Toby, Laura and Sam name privacy, freely shared work, liberalism, accountability, and democratic participation as valuable beyond the reductive economic concept of good. If we are able to understand not just the deep game theory that Virgil described above, but begin to think together - in dialogue - about the language of the games we play, then this could redefine economic ‘problems’ like free-riders into wider and more human publics whom we ought to be serving.
Economists might struggle with this shift in meaning, but it is precisely this kind of linguistic reordering which lies at the heart of the new language Karl describes above. Simon, too, has written about how Ethereum implements currency as language, which is an idea common to a few weirdos way down this particular rabbit hole.
Prompt: We can reframe free-riders as publics we ought to serve by attending to what?
The language of the games we play.
These kind of meaningful alterations to the language with which we communicate indicate another critical piece of the otherinter.net essay, which is that “A public always exceeds one's known protocol.” In Module 7, we will come to understand how the protocol does not encourage giving, the protocol is the gift. When seen as such, we can also see how
public goods are enacted by social institutions that reproduce patterns of behavior in the public interest [...] The type of social institution needed is not an on-chain corporation, but a container for a different idea of what capital and coordination is intended to do altogether.
Some ideas about what coordinated capital could be intended to do have been offered already, but the larger point here is that it is up to you to define your own piece in this shared network, and to realise that such personally meaningful work is done best in relationship. As Toby, Laura and Sam write,
One way to manifest positive externalities is to consider the success of others as your own. In fact, this quality is congruent with the principle of credible neutrality.
One of the core insights in Positive Sum World thinking has to do with what we will call time horizons. Carl Sagan reminds us, “Books are proof that humanity is capable of magic” because they allow us to time travel, literally. Whose voice is ringing in your head when you read words written hundreds of years ago? The author, your own, some mix of the two?
Each new medium we invent allows us to cast consciousness further and further along the unknown dimension of “future” time. It is an idea many indigenous people are familiar with: think not of yourself, but of seven generations from now and live with those yet to come, those “faces beneath the earth”, continuously in remembrance. Blockchains allows us to ask realistically, what about seventy generations from now? Or seven hundred?
Great hail! we cry to the comers
From the dazzling unknown shore;
Bring us hither your sun and your summers;
And renew our world as of yore;
You shall teach us your song's new numbers,
And things that we dreamed not before
Toby, Laura and Sam ask:
💡 How can we leverage the immutability afforded by crypto protocols to create things that outlast us, forming the foundation of civilizational longevity?
This is what any medium asks us, deep down: what do you remember of all those you have been, and how do you want to be remembered by whom you will yet come to be? Blockchains simply add more precision, clarity, and urgency to this question by making that old Jose Saramago idea ever more obvious.
We’ll finish, as always, at exactly the same place we started all this:
Even if we do not yet grasp the full applications and implications, the sheer number of ideas and initiatives sparked by the core idea itself is encouraging, and gives us a glimpse at the limitless potential of our minds - we are architecting and co-creating our own future ‘reality’.