MolochDAO Interview with Travis Wyche of DeathGuild
Grantee Interview Series
Travis Wyche swung gently, side to side, in his desk chair as he spoke with thoughtful care, often stroking his beard and bringing his glance down in reflection.
There was a fire in a stove behind him when he met with ReallyBoringGuild over Zoom. He said things like “unfuck human imagination”, provoking ponderance and laughter at the same time, and used his hands as he described the complex concepts of DeathGuild research, mainly governance, treasury management, and privacy.
ReallyBoringGuild: It would be awesome if you could give us an overview of DeathGuild. What is it all about? Are there any major services it provides?
Travis Wyche: I think an overview of DeathGuild will require a bit of context about how I got involved with MolochDAO in the first place. Essentially, I was brought in to attend to grant administration specifically, but coming from an artistic and philosophical background I was joyfully perplexed at how many kinds of core problems weren’t being attended to. I started tracking these issues as a way of documenting my own experience.
I was having ongoing conversation with Stellarmagnet, who was the only other person in ReallyBoringGuild at that time, to try to think about how ReallyBoringGuild could attend to those issues and they were so large and so heavy and so deep that we struggled to find time to ruminate upon them in our working group. It seemed like, in a way, they were beyond the scope of ReallyBoringGuild and so by collecting them into a separate kind of bucket, it began to clarify into a project that somehow I envisioned as ReallyBoringGuild operations but still core to MolochDAO itself.
Specifically, those issues were a meditation on governance modalities. I was very interested in the models that we were taking for granted, so to speak, or just the models, which I thought of as epistemic models or ontological models, which is to say models of how we organize our knowledge in the DAO and models of how we orient our DAO coming into being and ourselves as beings in the DAO’s governance modalities. To this extent, I wanted to deep dive into the architecture of how DAOs were formed.
Secondly, I was very interested in treasury management and it was something that I was constantly talking about with Stellarmagnet. It seemed like a very loose kind of atmospheric idea that was largely based on arbitrary decisions and I don’t mean that in a negative way. I don’t mean arbitrary in a pejorative sense; it’s like this is the way it’s always been done, or this is the way that we intuitively think that it should be done.
I wanted to ask questions, like “when do our resources become treasure” and “how does management of resources work when we’re dealing with digital currencies” and “does management change across local communities,” because I was constantly perturbed by the universal language that was evoked in the world in general, in technology, and more specifically within Web3.
Stellarmagnet had her own preoccupation with deep-diving into the UX of privacy, which is also a major core concern of MolochDAO. I was thinking about privacy, a little bit different being new to this space, in terms of decoupling privacy from identity, to consider privacy as a kind of fulcrum point that’s balancing autonomy and anonymity in civilization more generally. The way I think of that, or have been thinking actively through it in the course of the DeathGuild project, is that one’s privilege to reveal or obscure their own identity is directly correlated to their agency, that their ability to wield their autonomy, their sovereignty, is really the core question of privacy. DeathGuild is an attempt to create a dedicated research initiative that focuses on the research itself, on the cerebral architecture of the DAO itself, and to do that in a philosophical and artistic manner.
RBG: Reading through DeathGuild research, I see that you came in with more of a fresh perspective. Was this one of your first forays into DAOs?
TW: It absolutely was my first foray into tech really and as well as into Web3 and into DAOs. I was introduced to this space by Stellarmagnet. We met a year ago, November 2020, through a mutual friend and on the occasion of me just starting a UX boot camp.
I was pivoting at that time from, basically, being a starving artist and hermetic philosopher living by myself out in the middle of the desert (and I still am, I guess!) to trying to get more proactive in learning the tools that we were using to collaborate with each other in the construction of society. I spend a lot of time on the Internet, even though I live in isolation, so I was increasingly curious about who was designing those tools and becoming a designer of those tools.
I thought Stellarmagnet’s ideas were incredibly interesting, as she was focused on privacy within decentralized systems. We began with philosophical and artistic conversations, drawing upon my own backgrounds and different understandings of the avant-garde, our personal histories, and thinking about paradigm shifts within philosophical and scientific discourse. The more we talked, the more it seemed apparent to both of us that there were strong connections, but also blatant differences in our understandings of the evolution of web3 and how tech is concurrent with the evolution of culture, more generally.
We started jamming on Stellarmagnet’s idea of a decentralized and open-source social media platform and that became my case study for completing my UX boot camp. That immediately transitioned to me deciding very clearly that I did not want to work on any Web2 products and moved directly into working on core issues of MolochDAO by jumping headfirst into Stellar’s guild system, which I renamed the ReallyBoringGuild.
RBG: Since then, you’ve also dived into a few other DAOs, is that right? And do you want to share anything regarding the start of this Web3 journey for you?
TW: Yeah, well, two things about MolochDAO: it was not my introduction to the figure of Moloch or the concept of coordination failure. I’ve been familiar with this concept through the weird experimental music I listened to as a teenager and was actively making in my 20s, getting into beat poetry and experimental semiotics, and reading Ginsberg’s poem in college. I’ve certainly been preoccupied with the collective human delusion of coordination failure, maybe not phrased exactly that way, but the core concept resonates very deeply with my own lifelong project of trying to unfuck human imagination through art and philosophy, so it was very easy for me to transition into this work.
As to the second point, it was through MolochDAO, through identifying the cultural problems of the DAO and trying to be proactive in seeking solutions for those problems that I became acquainted with the core developers of the MetaCartel, DAOhaus, and Raid Guild ecosystem. I was motivated to become increasingly involved with that group because I believe so strongly in their vision for creating tools that empower individuals beyond their age, gender, race, creed, and geospatial location to organize at their own scale and by their own means. The community-first ethos resonates deeply with me.
I don’t totally understand all of the ramifications of that technology, yet, but it seems like the harder I try to exercise (even at some moments) scathing criticality of their work, the tighter the hug becomes, like the more they embrace me and the more they welcomed me in. That is a perfect fit for me. With a background in the arts and academic philosophy, there is a kind of gross unspoken law that you need to fall into line like if you make something too radical that people can’t immediately comprehend, or if you speak critically of the paradigm of art or of the 10-year process of becoming a professor, or whatever, you’re basically risking ostracizing yourself from the community. So it’s an incredibly pleasant surprise to be welcomed in for those same reasons that I’ve always felt like a black sheep in my other community circles.
RBG: What do you think would be the main goal of the project? Who is getting the benefit of it, MolochDAO or the whole DAO ecosystem?
TW: I think that this project is indebted to MolochDAO, very specifically, but with a deeper kind of relationship than just an economic dependency. Certainly, DeathGuild would not have come into fruition without the economic support of the MolochDAO grant; I also think that MolochDAO is a very interesting use case. Its history is incredibly relevant for ruminating upon these ideas.
Even the name DeathGuild, which emerged as a joke between Stellarmagnet and I of choosing the most ubiquitous and arbitrary name, became a revelation as it increasingly referenced the idiom (“in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”) Everyone was saying that MolochDAO was dead, and I think one of the goals of DeathGuild is to demonstrate that a lack of activity on a Discord server doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s nothing happening, or that the perceived death of one initiates the birth of the next. If it wasn’t for MolochDAO appearing to be comatose or dead or anemic or whatever, then I certainly wouldn’t be here right now.
The other thing that I’m hearing implicit in your question is about the goal and how we make sense of this philosophical research. What is the result? What is being delivered and who is it being delivered to?
The project was originally scoped as UX research. A collective of researchers would attempt to identify the major pain points, basically to articulate the problems that were evading MolochDAO members, specifically, but also to inject value in the wider DAO community more generally, and attempt, through a hermeneutic process, to provide learnings at the very least, and maybe even solutions, but never a product.
I just completed phase one and there is a speculative third phase of DeathGuild where we would provide some kind of implementation back to the DAO, but I’ve always fought tooth and nail to try to keep that as open-ended as possible so that this research is not simply quantified to some kind of objective metric and certainly not in economic terms. There are no clear returns, by design. This is the strength of the project. This is the goal of the project. This is also the bane of the project, obviously. The way that I’ve attempted to grapple with that predicament is to very explicitly say that DeathGuild does not produce answers. DeathGuild specializes in asking better questions, asking if we’re asking the right questions, and trying to ask them better. In terms of my UX background and design thinking, it’s the philosophical equivalent of the five whys. It’s not just asking a question then pragmatically associating it with a clear result, but asking five more whys to go deeper into the pathology of the problem, avoiding the sensuous allure of the symptoms.
RBG: Can you describe in more detail the deliverables of DeathGuild? Also, as RaidGuild supports ReallyBoringGuild, which ultimately supports MolochDAO, and also includes DeathGuild, how do you differentiate between all of these guilds?
TW: So there’s a couple of different questions in there. The first is about deliverables, which have changed a bit from the original proposal. Initially, I was intending to work with a team to produce three reports, one report on each core topic. I lost my collaborator and have been continuing this research on my own, so I have adapted those deliverables to be conversations on all of those topics with five core ad hoc contributors. Instead of three reports, there are now 18 reports, and each of those consists of an hour-long conversation that ruminate on governance, treasury management, and privacy, respectively. The 18th DeathGuild, which serves as a singular overall comprehensive report composed entirely of questions, rather than statements, is essentially a comprehensive compendium of all the questions that have been asked, over the course of the first 17 installments. The 16th and 17th issues are panel discussions, so there are four people conversing rather than one-on-one. That was my attempt to deal with the initial scope, to change the deliverables while going above and beyond the original scope, completely on my own.
Your second question is a little bit confusing. The MolochDAO<>RaidGuild sponsorship is not affiliated with DeathGuild, so I think that question is a little bit about the arrangement, like the interdependencies or the relationships between entities. MolochDAO is the mother DAO and the grant-awarding organization. ReallyBoringGuild is the operations and admin appendage, not even a DAO, and not a research guild; ReallyBoringGuild does not do research. There is an RBG RFP fund, which is reserved for promoting research, but that’s a separate matter.
You know, we were trying to position EthereumCatHerders as a dedicated, convergent research guild for pragmatic and technical research, while DeathGuild remains a dedicated divergent research appendage of MolochDAO. I understand that these entities are not competitors and are autonomous and separate entities in every sense of the word, but that’s how I would like to think of the relationship between the two. Likewise, DeathGuild is a completely autonomous and separate entity in every respect, including its budget and its scope and the way that it conducts itself, and even includes ad hoc contributions. The learnings are intended for the larger community.
RBG: About the research work and the people that you select for having a conversation, how do you choose whom to have this conversation with?
TW: I think that’s a great question. I was very explicit from the beginning that DeathGuild would be conducted with non-technical researchers. What that means is that all of the contributors of this project -and in a way, even including myself — are not builders, not coders, not developers. These are all people that I have previous experience with that I knew would have very incredible and critical opinions on the core topics of governance and treasury management and privacy and that they would be bringing those experiences absolutely, without question, from outside of the Web3 and DAO ecosystem. This is in direct response to the common call in the community to onboard more non-technical people.
The motivation there was twofold. I think that this space, this ecosystem, will greatly benefit from those learnings. There are strong correlations between how a decentralized art residency in Iceland can inform how a decentralized autonomous organization is set up. There are very strong and clear correlations between my colleague setting up the Indigenous Intercultural Autonomous University in Colombia and how DAO onboarding can be designed.
All of these people have proven themselves as erudite academics. There’s a Ph.D. student from Stanford, another colleague I met during my own Ph.D. studies at the European Graduate School (EGS), another was the founder of one of the most inspiring art residencies I’ve ever encountered.
Finally, there was a need to think of how the ideas of the research could be projected back out, and so I spoke to a performance artist friend about how crypto might be leveraged towards the political unrest happening in Myanmar. Other conversations invite a seasoned systems engineer in thinking about sustainability, ruminating upon public goods funding, regenerative treasury management, and things of this nature. In that sense, the meditation was trying to bridge environmental or ecological sustainability with the conversation happening in the crypto-sphere.
RBG: Where can you point the community to follow this research?
TW: All of the work is currently hosted on my medium blog and I’m actively researching and rendering the first season as NFTs on Mirror. The RaidGuild apprentices are preparing to launch a new website that will host this content in a way that is more explicitly associated with MolochDAO, which I think will be to the benefit of the project and the DAO.
RBG: What do you think is there for the future of DeathGuild? Do you have a roadmap you’d like to share?
TW: Some alpha leak? Some Death alpha, yeah? Well, phase one of the project has come to an end and I have prepared a funding proposal to keep the project going, but the scrutiny of a MolochDAO member has called a couple of key points to my intention. There are some things that I need to accomplish before the project will be suitable to continue being funded by MolochDAO and that is creating some kind of explicit metric for quantifying the value that this work provides to the community. I honestly haven’t totally figured that part out yet, because, again, the whole project is leveraged against that empirical quantification.
One opportunity is to have the work peer-reviewed. I think any kind of criticism would be positive for the project, and so I will spend the next couple of months trying to gather a community of readers to pick up some of the ideas and run with them.
Another pain point is that the work is incredibly dense and long. The installments average about 20 minutes (reading time) each, sometimes longer, and so people have been asking for a TL;DR version, an abbreviated version, which again is paradoxical, because that precisely defines the intentions of the project to deal with these complex issues in long-form.
Rather than abbreviating the text components, I will experiment with collaborating with other colleagues to produce transmedia aspects, beginning with audio interpretations. This is very exciting because it won’t necessarily be straightforward podcasts of an informative nature like you might find on BanklessDAO, or something like that. It will be an attempt to render the information accessible through non-verbal means, so I will be working with a friend who is a sound designer to render spaces that convey the core content in a way that’s unique to the audio medium.
The second phase of DeathGuild needs to begin addressing the ideology of the builders. Now that I’m acclimated to the ecosystem and I’ve made some personal friendships and relations with individuals that are building here, I feel better equipped to go deeper into some issues with them. While the project remains incredibly ambitious, I feel fairly confident that I’ll be able to have conversations with people like Vitalik Buterin, Ameen Soleimani, Griff Green, and/or Kevin Owocki (all of whom are MolochDAO members.) (Disclaimer: none of these individuals are aware of my intentions and are not officially involved in DeathGuild, yet!) There are many others I’m curious about as well. For example, Holly Grimm of Meta Gamma Delta has piqued my interest with her work with local indigenous communities here in New Mexico, where I live.
I plan on preparing a new funding proposal for the next MolochDAO grants round, as well as diversifying support from other sources.
RBG: You, personally, deal with many DAOs. How do you transition from one to another?
TW: I’m very fortunate and very privileged to live in a serene environment that’s in the middle of nowhere. I’ve been living a healthy vegan lifestyle since I was 15 years old and I go for a four and a half mile walk every morning to catch the sunrise and I’m just surrounded by incredible landscapes and birds. I’ve created a sustainable ecology for myself, which is essential for me to keep energy levels high and to remain very focused.
Also, although it might seem like I have my hands in a lot of pots, I really think that MolochDAO has been my primary focus since coming into the ecosystem in March 2021. DeathGuild is aligned with many of my activities in other DAOs. Many of my activities in RaidGuild are entangled with MolochDAO in indirect ways and my introduction to DAOhaus, MetaCartel and MetaGammaDelta has been through MolochDAO.
I really feel like I’ve designed a way for me to be in the space where I’m doing the same thing in a lot of different places. There’s a lot of overlap with other people as well. It’s not very difficult for me to switch gears because I think that the core community values are built on a strong foundation and I feel really aligned and welcomed with all the people that I’m interacting with.
Having a really experimental conversation with one group gives me ideas that inform my activities in another group. I’ve made it my mission to behave in that way, to align all my projects. I think that’s the best thing for all of those DAOs, to use me as a philosophical conduit to connect them and challenge their stated goals. It’s certainly the best thing for me, so that I feel like I’m being put to best use, to feel like I’m generating the most value that’s beyond purely perverse economic incentive.
RBG: Thank you, Travis. Is there’s anything else you wanted to share?
TW: Yeah, I have two quick closing remarks. One is that I have tried my best to call into question the project itself through the means of the project. I think that’s important for any project, especially in the Web3-DAO space. If we’re not self-reflective and if we’re not self-critical, I think we’re missing a key component of this wild time of experimentation. I think that you will find if you read a few installments that I have tried to deep dive into the definition of research. How is this method being articulated and how is it being conducted? Who serves to gain and who is implicitly losing? What are the ingrained biases of any inquiry and especially my own queries? What assumptions are brought into the dialogue that we must unpack before really getting to the core content? These feel like essential questions to me. Going back to what Pooja was asking me about, how I keep my projects aligned and balanced, those are the questions that I’m asking everyone around me because those are the questions I’m asking myself.
The second thing is that I encourage all forms of criticism of this work, as it’s going to be beneficial for everyone to think deeper about what’s at stake. I think that there are some very firm ideas that have been put forth and some, certainly, controversial perspectives that have been explored. I think it’s important to either align with or disagree with them. If you put out diffuse and abstract foggy concepts, that breeds misunderstanding. I strive to increase the high watermark of our collective sanity and I invite others to join me in this gargantuan task.
I think that Moloch lives in language. Moloch manifests in instances where we’re using the same words in conversations, like “values” and “sovereignty” and “freedom,” etc, but each individual associates those words to a different meaning and then goes off and acts according to their own whims. That’s the nature of coordination failure, the pathological seed to our collective predicament.
I’ve tried my best in this project to attend to the root of the problem, which is a semiotic or a semantic problem. It’s an imagination problem; always has been. We have to unfuck our imaginations first in order to learn how to think and feel differently, then we have to practice the language for how to express those thoughts and feelings differently, and then we need to practice reciprocating with our community to disseminate those ideas in different manners, in a communal manner, not self-serving and selfish manners. All of that will amount to producing a radical change in the world, which I think is the goal that we’re all trying to align behind in this space.
So all that is to say, I welcome any kind of feedback and I’m very receptive to the perception of this project from MolochDAO members and the community at large.