Crypto For Activism: Four Models of Protest on the Ethereum Blockchain

Micah White, PhD
Oct 8 · 6 min read

We are in the early stages of activism’s migration to the blockchain. With more and more activists now beginning to explore the potential for tokens and smart contracts to be an effective form of protest, it is useful to take a step back to survey the main approaches being pursued.

I will focus on activist smart contracts on the Ethereum blockchain because I will be speaking at DevCon on October 10 at 11am in room A1. (Stop by and say hi!)

The general principles outlined below may be applicable to other programmable blockchains.

THE FOUR TYPES OF ACTIVISM ON ETHEREUM

There are, generally speaking, four types of activism currently existing in Ethereum:

  • New Economic Logics
  • New Funding Mechanisms
  • New Social Contracts (Governance)
  • Adversarial Contracts

NEW ECONOMIC LOGICS

Lately we’ve seen many different experiments in new economic logics as activists seek to encode smart contracts that embody liberatory tokenomics.

One beauty of Solidity is the ease at which new economic logics can be created, deployed, and tested out. Ethereum makes it possible, for the first time in human history, for non-state actors to create viable currencies whose logic of circulation not only defies the status quo but is also inherently in opposition to the capitalist norm.

In simple terms, activist smart contracts can be programmed to enact practically any economic system imaginable: from currencies of excess where everyone is given a bottomless wallet to currencies where one’s balance is influenced by activist policies.

A few notable examples include Bomb by Zachary Dash, a deflationary token, Shuffle Monster, a sortition token, and my own creation Sparkle, a redistributive money.

Activists face three significant difficulties when experimenting with new economic logics:

  1. Activists are not writing smart contracts to a blank slate. The base currency of every contract — or, at a minimum, the gas that powers computation — is ultimately ether, which itself has an economic logic. Activism on the blockchain is always already in interaction with the existing ether economy and the (unfair?) distribution of wealth in that economy. The effects of activist smart contracts are often too dependent on the price at which the user’s ether was acquired and whether that price is substantially lower or higher than the price at the time of interacting with the smart contract.
  2. It is difficult to enact progressive policies if those policies depend on knowing who is poor and who is rich. If two different addresses have .01 ether, it is impossible to know if these addresses are owned by the same person and if that person owns other addresses with a greater balance too. In other words, anyone can appear to be poor but only the rich can prove they are rich. This renders simple leftist ideas of taking from the rich to give to the poor very difficult.
  3. The most popular economic logics (measured by transaction volume) have turned out to be various forms of pyramid schemes and ponzi games. This has left some people in the Ethereum community jaded on economic experiments.

NEW FUNDING MECHANISMS

Activism and protest is not typically an activity that generates revenue. This means that social movements are often dependent on donations in order to get off the ground and grow. At the same time, many activists are wary of the existing funding landscape that is largely controlled by risk-averse foundations — ”twice stolen wealth” — and wealthy donors.

Smart contracts offer a tantalizing alternative as they can be programmed to receive eth and tokens and then redistribute these funds in unique ways.

Consider, for example, rDai (redeemable DAI) — a token that allows you to deposit money into an interest generating pool and then automatically send the interest generated to a beneficiary. The user can withdraw their money at any time and the beneficiary gets to keep the interest earned.

Or there is quadratic funding, a “liberal radical” model pioneered by Vitalik Buterin, Zoë Hitzig and Glen Weyl in their paper “Liberal Radicalism: A Flexible Design For Philanthropic Matching Funds.” In a quadratic funding scheme “the funding received by a provider is the square of the sum of the square roots of the contributions made by the funders.” According to Buterin Vitalik Buterin, Hitzig and Weyl, quadratic funding is more fair as “the mechanism provides much greater funding to many small contributions than to a few large ones.”

Regardless of whether these particular examples are the ideal funding mechanism, it is clear that we’ll begin to see movements deploy smart contracts that receive funds directly from users and redistribute those funds to activists in previously unimagined ways.

NEW SOCIAL CONTRACTS

Activists have long sought new ways of making collective decisions and Ethereum is uniquely suited to the development of these new social contracts of governance.

There have been many experiments in creating a “decentralized autonomous organization” (DAO) on the blockchain. See, for example, YangDAO, MolochDAO (👹 Moloch) and MetacartelDAO. Perhaps the most prominent player in this space is Aragon which promises that it “empowers you to freely organize and collaborate without borders or intermediaries.”

Here’s a detailed description of MolochDAO to get you up to speed on how these new governance models function.

The DAO model is not without problems and it does not immediately eradicate power imbalances. Decentralized governance does not necessarily mean that decision-making power is equally distributed. At the same time, recent experiments such as SelloutDAO have demonstrated the ease at which a DAO can be corrupted. In this case, a smart contract was developed that allows users to sell their votes.

Check out this interview with Nathan Schneider (@ntnsndr) for more on activist uses of the DAO and cooperative governance.

Personally, although I find the DAO model interesting, I am most looking forward to a sortition model whereby decisions are made by randomly selected members of a community. This can only be achieved with verifiable identities on the blockchain, an effort that is being spearheaded by Rich McAteer (Rich McAteer) at the HumanityDAO — the humanity registry.

ADVERSARIAL CONTRACTS

Adversarial smart contracts are the cutting-edge of activism on the blockchain.

I mean adversarial in two senses.

First, the most common meaning of adversarial: a smart contract that is in its essential nature a form of protest. Thus far, we have been discussing smart contracts that facilitate or empower activists. Now we will talk about smart contracts that are activism.

And second, I am also referring to the developing field of adversarial machine learning where AI is tricked by researchers. Three examples from Wikipedia are worth considering:

In 2017, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 3-D printed a toy turtle with a texture engineered to make Google’s object detection AI classify it as a rifle regardless of the angle from which the turtle was viewed.Creating the turtle required only low-cost commercially available 3-D printing technology. In 2018, Google Brain published a machine-tweaked image of a dog that looked like a cat both to computers and to humans.[8] Researchers have also discovered methods for slightly, but precisely, perturbing the appearance of a stop sign such that an autonomous vehicle will classify it as a merge or speed limit sign.

An adversarial smart contract would be, in this second sense, a smart contract that interacts with existing smart contracts or the Ethereum Virtual Machine to produce political consequences.

I have developed an adversarial smart contract and I will release it soon. Until then, this is all that I will say about adversarial smart contracts.

CONCLUSION

In this article, I sketched out a general schema of activism on the Ethereum blockchain. It is my hope that more smart contract developers will begin to identify as activists and that more activists will become proficient in smart contract programming.

I hope you’ll join me at DevCon5 on October 10 to go deeper into CRYPTO FOR ACTIVISM.


Update: Here is the video of my chat with Amir Taaki at DevCon5


Micah White is the co-creator of Occupy Wall Street, the author of The End of Protest, and the creator of Sparkle, a redistributive cryptocurrency.

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Micah White, PhD

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I am the co-creator of Occupy Wall Street, author of The End of Protest and founder of Activist Graduate School. Learn more and get in touch at micahmwhite.com

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