Reimagining Public Goods in the Age of Ethereum
Scott Moore, co-founder of Gitcoin, and Alisha.eth, head of community at ENS, came to Crypto, Culture, & Society recently to discuss public goods, community participation, and the tools we need to build the future we want to inhabit.
The web3 community is, at heart, a community rooted in profound optimism and hope for the future. The increasing ubiquity and advancement of technology has given us all a reason to believe that a world in which everyone is equipped to both survive and thrive is not just a pipe dream, but an actual possibility. However, when we look at depictions of technology in the popular imagination, it’s glaringly obvious that we’ve all too often conceived of a world we wouldn’t actually want to inhabit; where technology has run rampant at the expense of our values, our privacy, and our collective freedom. It’s a failure of imagination that has far-reaching implications. It’s also one that we can choose to correct by dreaming up better outcomes and the systems that will help us accomplish them.
Techno Punk Culture, from Dysfunctional to Aspirational
Cyberpunk is a genre of science fiction that first arose during the New Wave science fiction movement of the 1960s and 1970s and continued to gain popularity in the 80s with films like Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and novels like William Gibson’s “Neuromancer.” Even today, it’s perhaps the most dominant depiction of our technological future in pop culture, and often portrayed as cool, rebellious, and counterculture. But the portrait cyberpunk paints is fundamentally a grim one: a world in which megacorps inhabit brutalist buildings, towering into polluted gray skies; in which humans live in what might be best called capitalist dystopias. Although we’re so often mesmerized by its ideas, cyberpunk societies are technologically advanced but highly dysfunctional.
The cypherpunk movement, with strong spiritual ties to cyberpunk ideas, arose in the late 80s and continued to gain popularity during the early internet era of the 90s. In doing so, it offered a better, but still limited view of the possibilities technology could bring us as individuals fighting against an increasingly powerful (though not unrealistic) global surveillance state.
Activists like Eric Hughes fought principally for a world in which strong cryptography would enable systems that enhanced privacy and individual autonomy so that we might live freely and uninterrupted.
In the 2000s, a more expansive concept for a future world started to take shape: solarpunk. Although solarpunk started as a niche environmental movement focused on renewable energy and sustainable technology, it’s since evolved to be a key part of a global conversation about building an optimistic future *together*; one that’s regenerative and focuses on humans thriving *alongside* each other and the world around us rather than in opposition to it.
Fundamentally, while cyberpunk focused on what we should move away from (dystopian mega-corps, corrupt governments, and fading rebel alliances) solarpunk offers a vision of what we might want to move towards. It emphasizes a deep integration between, rather than separation of, technology and the environment as well as convivial conservation, self-sustainability, and social inclusiveness even for those without means. As far as futures go, it’s hard not to be excited about one where collective human thriving and local sustainability is a central focus.
Solarpunk Offers a New Beginning
We might well ask ourselves though: why do any of these movements really matter? In particular, why do they matter for what we’re doing in web3? Simply put, the narratives we tell ourselves deeply inform our reasons for being, and in turn how we act in the world. As Joan Didion famously said, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
But as Adam Curtis and others have noted, sometimes the stories we tell ourselves aren’t actually our own. Too often, it’s easy to get trapped, whether by institutions or algorithms, in narratives that don’t improve our well-being, rather than becoming empowered by ones we collectively create ourselves. We have to carefully and intentionally *choose* the narratives we want to see in the world, together, and free ourselves from centuries-old collective machinations. In the case of solarpunk, the narrative we’re telling ourselves can give us profound hope and agency in building the future we want to see, exploring the role technology might play in it, and in coordinating collectively rather than as mere individuals.
Beyond the regenerative world it depicts, Solarpunk can be thought of as a kind of schelling point for the hopeful, especially for those of us in web3. Many of us are striving to figure out how we can shed the baggage of or at least better examine historical power structures, whether those are in the form of the governments, corporations, or other less tangible forces like the economy, which is itself a shared narrative structure; a collective hallucination. Right now, many of us are doing this independently, without a unified vision or approach.
Some of us might be examining why modern nation-states (another type of story that’s only existed for a few hundred years) have quickly become synonymous with political and social coordination, as compared with traditional indigenous practices. Others might find inspiration in the work of Karl Polanyi, who posited that our quest for constant growth and economic optimization without emphasis on local or historical contexts has created dysfunctional market societies. We might explore the work of Ivan Illich, to better understand more broadly how educational institutions like the university (and measures like grades) became a stand-in for education and life-long learning.
Solarpunk’s forward-looking focus on human thriving provides fertile ground for exploring all of these topics at the intersection of social and institutional power and gives us space to observe where we might have built up unnecessary walls around the connections we can have with each other.
Other Worlds Are Possible
One particular alternative model for political and social coordination worth exploring in depth can be found in the work of Elinor Ostrom, who won a Nobel Prize in 2009 for her research on commons management. At a high level, this practice can be thought of as an alternative to governing a resource by states or markets. Instead, it examines what it might look like for a community of users to self-govern the resource it creates in a more communal, reciprocal fashion.
Ostrom studied arrangements in irrigation, fisheries, and forest use in a wide range of countries, including Nepal, Spain, Indonesia, Nigeria, Bolivia, Sweden, and the United States. By applying rational choice theory and insights from development economics to ecological preservation specifically, Ostrom’s work demonstrated that “local property can be successfully managed by local commons without any regulation by central authorities or privatization.”
While her work is worth reading in full, a high-level overview of Ostrom’s we can summarize her famous eight principles as follows:
- Set clear boundaries between community and resources.
- Define rules locally, alongside immediate stakeholders.
- Put forward clear participatory procedures for updating rules.
- Create accountability once rules have been set.
- Apply *graduated* social sanctions for conflict resolution.
- Ensure conflict resolution is informal, accessible, and low cost.
- If needed, ensure your rules are unimpeded by higher regional authorities.
- Continue nesting rules this way until everyone is in alignment.
While many of these principles may seem obvious to those of us in web3, it’s been uncommon even over a decade later to see these concepts implemented in a non-hierarchical way in most parts of Western society.
Another alternative, this time in contrast to the corporation, can be found in The Rochdale Principles, a set of ideals for the operation of cooperatives created in 19th century England. These principles are still actively used today by cooperatives around the world. In summary, they say:
- Build voluntary, open membership.
- Create participatory processes for decisions.
- Ensure everyone has skin in the game.
- Allow for member autonomy in all arrangements.
- Educate and inform to ensure member equality.
- Build networks with other cooperatives.
- Produce positive externalities for the community.
Both of these examples provide inspiration for how we might adjust the standard models for how we govern ourselves, using other well-tested but lesser-adopted tools. If we’re optimistic and work together, perhaps we can avoid the dystopian megastate vs. cypherpunk activist dichotomy presented in cyberpunk media after all.
Can We Escape the Tragedy of the Commons?
One challenge for common or cooperative-based approaches, put simply, is that relationships are complicated – and they grow even more complicated as groups scale. While commons of a few dozen people tend to run smoothly, conflict becomes more likely as we approach Dunbar’s number, the theoretical maximum of 150 close relationships the average person can maintain.
From a network growth perspective, per Metcalfe’s law, a group of two people can make only one connection, but five can make 10 connections, and twelve can make over 60. It’s one thing to govern when a community is small, local, and nested, but our relationships at the scale of modern civilization are large and sprawling. So what happens when our commons reach a global scale?
The obvious solution is for everyone to chip in a little bit, and simply work together — but without a coordination mechanism to ensure everyone contributes, they often do not. This is called, aptly, a tragedy of the commons. And although, as Ostrom critically showed, it can be avoided, it is still a major challenge for all of us today (whether for reasons of scale, culture, or human nature it’s still hard to say).
The regenerative economic tools being built in web3, including “dweb” tech, are one promising solution to these global coordination problems. And regenerative economic tools are solarpunk. Fundamentally though, no tool is perfect and we must *choose* not only to focus on the right problems but to continue to iterate on potential solutions until we have the best ones possible. Getting this right concerns all corners of the world.
But to get this right, we need to resist doomerism. While it’s important to be critical of new tools (as Marshall McLuhan said, “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us”) we must first and foremost be optimistic, recognize the agency we all have to take back control of corrupted institutions, collectively design new frameworks and mechanisms to replace them, and leverage the power of new cooperative currencies to fund our efforts.
Redefining Public Goods
Arguably one of the most critical frameworks to revise is the traditional notion of a public good. An econ 101 public good has two immutable characteristics: it is non-excludable (meaning no one can be stopped from using the good) and non-rivalrous (meaning one person’s enjoyment doesn’t diminish another’s. It normally falls upon the government to provide public goods, because businesses aren’t incentivized to solve the “free rider” problem (why pay for a good that you can’t be excluded from using anyway).
As Laura Lotti, Sam Hart, and Toby Shorin state in Positive Sum Worlds: Remaking Public Goods, “to create a majestic and egalitarian society requires a more expansive vision of public goods than what can be imagined with economics alone.” We have to think deeply about what constitutes a public good in web3, and then think about the tools we might build, as the categorization is not as easily discerned. For example, open-source code is widely believed to be a public good. But what about developers? As the people creating infrastructure, should they be considered (and funded) as public goods as well? Or perhaps common goods, because they are finite?
Thinking critically but optimistically about what constitutes a public goodwill allow us to address the “free rider” problem that has plagued funding public goods in the past. The clearer we can get, the easier it will be to decide which projects are worth funding.
One framework beyond the standard framing above has already been applied by teams like Gitcoin and ENS:
Axis 1 is market failure, which denotes how possible it is to capture any economic value from the project. (i.e. the higher you get up the market failure axis, the harder it is to monetize it).
Axis 2 is the value to the community the project offers (the donation/funding amount is determined by where the project falls on those two axes).
Now let’s consider what would happen if we took not just the value to a given community a public good creates, but the *positive externalities* it generates for other communities. Framed this way, we can imagine how clubs or commons might actually be able to act as *generator functions* for truly public goods.
Consider open-source software as an example of a truly global public good (for the most part, and increasingly so, anyone should be able to access and use it). Although for example, Ethereum might be principally beholden to token holders who maintain the security of the network, the code produced is available to everyone publicly, forever, and can become a foundation for other projects to build off of. And in fact, we’ve already seen this time and time again with EVM-based chains.
Tools for Social Progress
Here are some of the tangible examples in web3 of projects that can help us reach a more solarpunk future, many of which are sustained via the positive externalities produced by other projects, and all of which in turn create their own positive externalities:
- Digital signatures and online identities by ENS help us create sustainable, independent (and interdependent) entities online.
- Retroactive public goods funding by Optimism allows for rewarding open source projects commensurate with the value they’ve produced in the past.
- Quadratic funding built by projects like Gitcoin that enable communities to pluralistically signal their support for and fund public goods together, for both altruistic (to support public goods in and of itself) and instrumental (to support goods in their own ecosystem and in turn provide funding for a broader set of open-source software via round fees) reasons.
- Modular governance tooling like Gnosis Guild helps funded projects fractally govern and sustain themselves.
Ethereum is Solarpunk, but Only if We Choose It
Web3 isn’t just marketing hype and scams, but if we’re not careful it could easily end up that way, rather than being a meaningful tool for social change. Technology doesn’t have to be in opposition to our environment, or to our relationships with each other. And Ethereum in particular, not being tied to any one jurisdiction, can be leveraged as a global substrate for coordination; for building new institutions for a broken world.
But as we’ve said so many times, this is work we have to actively choose, it won’t happen on its own and in fact, left to our own devices we would probably move against it. Let’s use the stories we tell, and the regenerative economic systems we build to move ourselves to produce the positive externalities we seek. In the end, it’s all coordination.