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In this essay, Jack Henderson also explores the tragedy of the commons. He argues that if we want sustainably egalitarian decentralised societies, then the rules and mechanisms that govern them are as important as the data structures that enable them. He then highlights how some of the ideas put forward by the RadicalxChange movement are being applied in this space.

In a post-COVID world in which we will depend more than ever on technology to cooperate with one another, blockchains offer us the hope of overcoming some of the limitations of early internet systems. However, blockchain communities have struggled to govern themselves fairly and efficiently and are realising that they need to think more carefully about the rules of these systems. If we want sustainably free and equal, pluralistic and self-governing societies, the rules or ‘mechanisms’ might be as important for the future of technology as the data structures that enable them.  

This explains the increasing interest from the blockchain space in questions of political economy – a field best known by the work of early radicals like Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Henry George and which gave rise to modern economics, sociology and political science – and especially in the work rediscovering this tradition in the RadicalxChange movement. The movement’s many proposals are the result of reimagining social institutions, like free markets and constitutional democracy, as technologies to be carefully built and improved like physical technology, a viewpoint the blockchain space has embraced. Given that every advancement from the telegraph to modern video conferencing has more truthfully conveyed across physical distance the way we communicate in person, one might then ask: What is it about our intimate social lives that is missed in the ways we interact politically and economically?

In small and informal circles, we can form strong relations, meanings and priorities through a complex process of signalling and communication; but this is slow and inefficient and thus cannot be sustained with large numbers of people. Early social technologies like money and private property can be considered first attempts to simulate the richness of social life beyond tight-knit circles and give socially distant people reasons to collaborate.  Money works fine modelling and incentivising the exchange of ‘private goods’, which are goods that benefit only the person that has them. But the model is concerned with scarcity and assumes that most value emerges from these mutually beneficial trades.

In our newly interconnected and interdependent world with advanced transport and communication technologies, most of our actions are not simple bilateral trades but bring value to many others. This has always been true of our intimate social lives, where we care for others and in return gain status and influence over future collective decisions, and where we infuse money with deep social meaning. But there are now countless examples of diverse groups of people doing more together than they could on their own, cooperating at unprecedented scales. In the physical world, modern cities only emerged as a result of collective action leading to broad adoption of electricity and sanitation. On the Internet, where it is especially difficult to quantify the value of particular actions, information goods like scientific research, high-quality journalism, and open-source software (blockchains!) all have widely distributed benefits across large groups and are primary sources of innovation and wealth creation.