In Search of Commons that Scale
I will attempt here, to disentangle the way I saw Ethereum back when I first stumbled upon it, and how that train of thought drove me to commit.
But first, I’ll explain what led me down that particular rabbit hole…
Like most of my generation, I grew up thinking the world is fucked and that the problem is “The System”. A lot of the people placed the blame on the corruption in governance, but yet more blamed "capitalism" - whatever that means.
I mean, it seemed all great after the (self)defeat of Communism, but it just didn’t seem to work as well for us and the planet, as it did for the past generations.
The competitiveness of the markets gradually killed Good Hearted and Well Intentioned, rewarding the ones maximizing profit; the corporations rose in profits, while the worker wages grew stagnant and benefits deteriorated.
- Not to mention what all of this “optimized for one metric” thing is doing to the planet; a never ending, ever growing extraction of natural resources driven by greed & planned obsolescence.
As Vinay Gupta beautifully puts it:
“We’re in a time when the inability of the markets to sensibly price the externalities is literally destroying the world.”
At the time, uneducated and barely out of puberty — I thought the answer was to burn it all down and start from scratch.
It became my obsession to figure out why exactly the world is the way it is.
My journey went from unfounded conspiracy theories to established truths, from Marx's critique, to James C. Scott examination of failed systems; from Hayek's critique of socialist thinking to more critiques of austrian economics thinking. Point is, I was spending ridiculous amounts of time (and I still am) at examining both propositions & critiques of mainstream as well as alternative economic thinking:
- What makes systems work,
- What makes them fail,
- How to do better.
And although I was leaning closer to the “free markets” side of the argument, I was still certain that the conclusion “just pursue self interest” and “markets should be free” — is just not the way to go about…
One thing that really stuck out for me was this concept of a “Resource-Based Economy”;
- Inspired by the Great Depression of 1920s, the term was coined by Jacques Fresco — a self-taught economist/sociologist who proceeded to dedicate his life to developing the concept.
His thinking went something like:
“I saw that the factories are all still there, and the people that worked them were also all still there — So what’s the problem?”
Later popularized by the Zeitgeist documentaries, Venus Project aimed at presenting to the world a viable alternative to the current “money-based” economic systems.
In theory, it all sounded very nice — except the “how to actually get there” part was non-existent. Not to mention the illustrations of his Utopia made me anxious; would anyone actually want to live in a city that looks like this?
Maybe, but somehow doubt it…
So I turned my attention back to reality. There actually already exist places that operate on principles presented by Jacques - and they look nothing like what he imagined.
In modernity, they like to tag themselves “off the grid”, “self-sustainable” or “eco-villages” — but they’re nothing new, really. There are probably countless villages operating on similar principles — without using modern labels.
Point is, small communities have always been able to organize in “resource-based-economies”. There is no tragedy of the commons, because it’s hard to be an asshole in the village — everyone knows you. It was always the scaling that brought the tragedy and free-riders.
Then I found Ethereum, and it blew my mind.
“Holy shit, this is the software infrastructure for scaling those above the Dunbar’s number!”
My mind was immediately 100% occupied by it.
The possibilities of this single, decentralized, programmable ledger seemed endless.
From identity to governance and work/reward distribution systems — anything seemed possible. Uber without the Uber, Airbnb without the Airbnb, companies without bosses, states without the bureaucratic elite..?
Decentralized autonomous organizations, they called them. Instead of companies outsourcing work to free-lancer — DAOs would simply be sourcing it and distributing the stakes of the organization, to the people building it.
All of society could run peer to peer — just like it used to.
Here's this in-depth piece by Jeff of Commons Stack, going through "Elinor Ostrom's 8 Principles for Managing A Commons" with the help of a blockchain.
Of course reality is still far from the ideal we imagined it to be in 2015, but we're slowly getting there.
Tokenized organizations being crowdfunded; in theory results in a perfect alignment of incentives between investors and end-users — merging them into one.
Make the investors & users into a single type of shareholder, and you should at least be able to get rid of the profit-extraction tension coming from traditional investors. No more planned obsolescence and making things only as good as they need to be to sell.
It is a commonly owned platform for the community of DAOs and freelancers, to coordinate in building of a better/more equitable future.
You may think of it as an assembly line for disruptive ideas:
- Inside the MetaGame, projects don’t outsource—they simply source.
Except it’s bigger than this “decentralized factory” narrative, and definitely bigger than this whole DeFi narrative — it’s about defying the status quo by building a whole new world, a layer atop of the old one.
What most of us actually hang around the block(chain) for, I believe, is an opportunity at re-imagining, redefining and rebuilding of all the institutions and software infrastructure the humanity needs to thrive.
- And for that, we need a better sandbox.