Commoning with Blockchain

Will Szal
Will Szal
Jan 25 · 8 min read
Town Common in Germany, Sebastian

Although sometimes framed as rivals, the cryptocurrency/blockchain space has long shared certain values with commoners:

  • Anarchist: they’re generally not particularly interested in what the law has to say on how something should be done, and instead, rely on ingenuity and solutions sourced from potential. Anarchist approaches also leverage distributed systems and self-organization as opposed to relying on a central authority.
  • Pioneering new models of value: both commoners and blockchainers feel that modern convention around value tracking and exchange (e.g. the US Dollar) is inadequate in many situations and seek to develop new customs regarding value.
  • Reimagining ownership: the blockchain space has invented new organizational forms—the Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO) being one. DAOs don’t have owners in the same way that corporations do; contributing members would be better described as stewards. Similarly commons have stewards, but not owners.

Over the past year, there have been a few notable additions to the literature regarding commons and commoning in the blockchain space. This post will review this literature, and then explore the ways in which I and Regen Network have been iterating on these ideas.

Free, Fair and Alive

Full Text Download, BY-SA

Public discourse today is often framed with a “market versus state” rhetoric (capitalism versus socialism, for example). Free, Fair and Alive, David Bollier and Silke Helfrich’s 2019 book dispels this false dichotomy, pointing our attention instead to the domain of the commons.

Inspired by Alexander’s approach of meticulous pattern documentation, Bollier and Helrich focused the core of the text on a pattern language of commoning.

And yet the book is more ambitious than this. It is structured in three parts:

I. The Commons as a Transformative Perspective: the Nested-I OntoShift (ontological shift) of commoning

II. The Triad of Commoning: the pattern language of commoning,

III. Growing the Commonsverse: ways to grow and scale commoning.

Triad of Commoning (page 98), BY-SA; David Bollier, Silke Helfrich

As mentioned above, I see the heart of the book as Bollier and Helfrich’s pattern language for commoning, or their Triad of Commoning. It is composed of three pillars:

I. Social Life: the culture of commoning

II. Peer Governance: the power structures of commoning

III. Provisioning: resource access and stewardship in commoning

Moving on to the third part of the book, it is worth calling out an important Roman framework regarding ownership. In Roman times, there were four domains of ownership/access:

  1. Res publicae—state (public)
  2. Res privatae—individual (private)
  3. Res communis—community
  4. Res nullis—un-ownable

Growing up in Western Culture, I came to believe that their were two kinds of property: public and private. Public property is owned by the state. Private property is owned by people and corporations. Everything I came across—from a guard rail (public), to a shop window (private), to a stream (public), to a car (private)—could be categorized into one of these two buckets.

For quite some time now I’ve been speaking in the language of stewardship rather than ownership. Stewardship moves towards the Nested-I ontology that Bollier and Helfrich encourage us to embrace.

I have encountered other modalities regarding the “un-ownable.” A few years ago I was on a Soulcraft course in the Valley of the Ancients in Southwestern Colorado. I was watched over and temped by the peak of Sleeping Ute behind me. Sleeping Ute is “un-ownable”—it is a sacred mountain, and those not of the Ute tribe aren’t allowed access (I am not sure about how those of the Ute tribe do or don’t access the range). Martín Pechtel, a Mayan shaman, also writes of the unownable. His tribe, the Tz’utujil of Guetamala, had regions of wilderness that no one was to interact with, except in rare cases with shamans on special missions, and only when bearing copious gifts for the place. More broadly, the religious and spiritual concept of the sacred generally lends itself to an “un-ownable” structure, although in modern times, it is very clear that many sacred sites and objects are “owned,” at least legally speaking—from Jerusalem to the pyramids. And despite my encounters with the un-ownable, I find find the clarity of this framework refreshing.

Possibly finding resolve in this ownership framework, Bollier and Helfrich demote the status of government and laws. In the anarchist tradition, Free, Fair and Alive takes a tone of not being particularly interested in whether or not the frameworks they’re promoting are or aren’t legal. I find this attitude inspiring. Too often a wonderful idea is dropped because of legal uncertainty. Commons are their own jurisdiction, and in some cases, may be categorically incompatible with existing legal systems.

For a more comprehensive outline of the book, see my notes here:

If I Only had a Heart: A DisCO Manifesto

Full Text Download, PPL: BY-NC-SA

Shortly on the heels of Free, Fair and Alive, a Commons Transition translation collective, Guerrilla Translation, launched a manifesto on Distributed Cooperative Organizations, with Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel as lead authors.

DisCO is a play on the DAO form, blockchain parlance for a Decentralized Autonomous Organization. Where DAOs are tech-maximalist, DisCOs are tech-skeptic; how can we build a culture of cooperation while leveraging technology but not becoming fully dependent upon it? Where DAOs create inequality through the concentration of resources in pools where governance is weighted according to economic contribution, DisCOs distribute power across a network and scorn FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) economic models.

In creating analogies that might inspire the role of technology in the development of civilization, this manifesto employs the concept of Centaur Chess. In this form of chess, both players have access to a computer to enhance their abilities, but are ultimately responsible for how they direct their pieces. This model—of technology in support of but under the dominion of humans—is counter to many (ethically compromised) uses of technology today (such as Cambridge Analytica), where people fall under the dominion of technology. As Douglas Rushkoff would ask: “are you on Team Human?” DisCO ethics elevate this threshold of orientation and directionality.

One of the core aspects of the DisCO approach is the CAT, or Community Algorithmic Trust. Similar to the “cat” abbreviation of “catalog” in library parlance, CATs are about information access. Whereas much of th blockchain world places trust in markets and code (Bitcoin’s Proof-of-Work consensus protocol, Szabo’s Law), CATs formalize peer governance while uplifting vernacular law (á la Ivan Illich) and ensuring accessibility to information.

As opposed to Bollier and Helfrich’s book—full of case studies and real-world examples, If I Only Had a Heart is a concept piece very similar to the whitepapers of the blockchain space. DisCOs are still a conceptual idea, although Guerrilla Translation have been experimenting with some of their tenants for many years.

Where it very clearly sets itself apart is that it is cool: the graphics, the typography, the memes, the titling.

For a more comprehensive outline, see my notes here:

Experimenting with Commoning

Imaginal Fellowship

If I Only Had a Heart was conceived by by the Guerrilla Translation collective. I too have been part of a regenerative economy collective—the Imaginal Fellows. Founded by Hannah Gant in 2015, the Imaginal Fellows were composed of five members, including myself. Our name drew from the metamorphosis story—while in chrysalis, the imaginal disks in caterpillars are what turn them into butterflies. This analogies applies both to personal development and societal transformation.

Hannah funded the Fellows with inherited wealth. Some of these funds went towards our participation in programming that would support in the development of common language amongst us—The Regenerative Practitioner series and Change Agent Development. Some of these funds also went into supporting my livelihood. During my time in the fellowship we would support each other in our respective work. We would have weekly calls together and worked on projects together.

Leading up to my time in the fellowship, I was developing the Gift License, which was essentially a Creative Commons license for physical assets, looking to definancialize community infrastructure.

Regen Network

More recently, in our work at Regen Network, we’ve been looking to push blockchain governance towards peer governance and commoning through a model we’re calling Community Staking:

In essence, Community Staking extends governance participation to those without the financial ability to purchase tokens (otherwise one of the major shortcomings of Proof-of-Stake networks).

I bring in these other threads to illustrate the ways that I and Regen Network have been experimenting with some of the approaches outlined by the authors above. DAOs and DisCOs define two polarities on a spectrum of governance and peer governance that has yet to be fully populated. Similar to the authors of If I Only Had a Heart, we believe that culture should inform technology, as opposed to the other way around. The Community Staking model does have an on-chain aspect (such as regarding network security, token economics, schema registries), and it is a governance structure that lives primarily off-chain.

Are you interested in helping to co-create this world? In 2020 we will be supporting the launch of the first Community Staking Pools. If you’re excited to build a DisCO pool in service to biospheric regeneration, we’d love to have you! Feel free to reply directly to this post on Medium, or join our Telegram Channel:

Regen Network

A blockchain network of ecological knowledge changing the…

Thanks to Gregory Landua

Will Szal

Written by

Will Szal

Regenerative agriculture, alternative economics, gift culture, friendship.

Regen Network

A blockchain network of ecological knowledge changing the economics of regenerative agriculture to reverse global warming. Learn more: https://regen.network

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