Primavera De Filippi and Tony Lai take a different tack, exploring a fictional post-COVID future through the eyes of Leia, whose community embraced decentralised technology following the crisis, as she talks to others from different communities which followed different paths.
Hope is a slighter, tougher thing even than trust. ... In a good season one trusts life; in a bad season one only hopes, but they are of the same essence: they are the mind's indispensable relationship with other minds, with the world, and with time.Ursula Le Guin
Leia looked back at the wildflowers blooming across the rolling hills, shepherded by trees with branches laden low with fruit. The trees drew nourishment from the rich soil of the local Learning Site. Although invisible to many a visitor’s eyes, a closer look would have revealed the myriad of sensors carefully camouflaged within the natural landscape. Mimicking the mycelial networks that nourished and connected the roots of each living thing, the local bioregion simulator gathered data from both the sensors and local community member input, monitoring each plant to ensure its needs were satisfied. Leia smiled, and wondered if tonight’s community cooking crew had mushrooms on the menu.
In a few seconds, the handshakes between her credentials management system and the Learning Site were completed, and the doors swung open. The procedure seemed straightforward, yet what just happened in those few seconds represented over a decade of work by millions of contributors building the open-source software and legal infrastructure of Leia’s world in 2030.
During the 2020s pandemics, Leia’s family had watched public officials fall into patterns of denial and blame, as the public health crisis had become a global economic crisis, eradicating trust in public institutions. In the midst of the uncertainty and chaos unleashed by the pandemics, many families had started organising into communities for resilience and support. Mutual aid groups had formed, with neighbours reconnecting, offering a helping hand to one other. Leia’s family had gathered in one of these communities, special in that it actually grew stronger and more resilient over time, and all members were responsible for sharing their learnings and best practices with other communities, wherever possible. Today’s meeting at the Learning Site was for precisely this purpose.
An image of an open hand, offered in friendship, hung over the entranceway. Walking into the Learning Site’s main hall, Leia looked across to the adults and children clustered at various stations around the room. Some were gathered around tables, planning new irrigation projects to support the grow sites nestled into the three-dimensionally rendered topography of her local bioregion. Others were engrossed in their own learning programs, specially tailored for them from a combination of template programs collectively shared and maintained among all the connected Learning Sites.
Branching out from the main hall was a series of collaboration and storytelling facilities, rooms decked out with cameras and recording equipment to log every brainstorm and workshop within. Leia was not bothered by any of these sensors: her data trust interfaced with the Learning Site systems to keep any data carefully protected and managed on her behalf. Whenever she was recorded, specific licensing agreements were created, ensuring that the benefits of her ideas were always shared within the community. And if an idea had the potential to address a global challenge, it was made available to the global commons, with legal engineering ensuring proper recognition and fair distribution of royalties.
People contributed to the Learning Commons because the very act of learning and teaching was treasured as a collaborative endeavour: ‘The more you give, the more you get’, was the adage. During the years of lockdown in the aftermath of the pandemic, parents working from home had discovered, to their surprise, that learning had radically changed since their school days. Kids were taking online classes from their teachers and then switching to the internet to dig deeper into their interests, learning at their own pace. They engaged with their peers, often creating their own videos on what they had been learning, for their friends and the wider world.
The open-source movement that had galvanised the internet and the protocols that ensured interoperability among multiple sites had begun to transform education too. Millions joined in building out the open-source Learning Commons, the infrastructure which empowered the people of Leia’s world. After the pandemics hit, contributions to the Learning Commons came in public health; pandemic response protocols from triage to treatment were constantly updated by volunteer nurses and front-line workers. Areas where learning had been undergoing rapid change benefited particularly from such an open and adaptive approach, epitomised by law and its transformation as a practice into legal engineering.
Earlier that year, after turning 16, Leia chose to start learning about governance and complex adaptive systems. She had begun gathering the materials and contacting peers and mentors who would help on her learning journey. Permaculture was her favourite topic. Focusing not only on farming and gardening, it also extended towards the notion of ‘social permaculture’: how the complex, interconnected communities of people, animals or plants can be organised in a broader ecosystem so they all contribute to helping, rather than exploiting, one another. She learnt how to design a sustainable ecosystem for the Regenerative Agriculture Site and gained new knowledge in political theory, legal engineering and economics.
For Leia, markets had always been such a natural and valuable component of society. She learnt from stories the elders told and from digging into the work of Elinor Ostrom that the ‘goodness’ of markets was a relatively recent development and that properly functioning markets are only possible through extensive and proactive intervention. While growing up, she had associated joy and generosity with the open hand she saw crossing the doorsill into the Learning Site each day. Since her governance studies, she had learnt how that open hand, known as the Visible Hand, had emerged as the symbol of the new covenant, the latest testament created among all the communities around the world who opted in.
Unlike Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’, adopted as gospel by the free market neo-liberal consensus of the late 20th century, the new covenant promised markets embedded not only with transparency but also with a more communitarian system of governance based on mutual trust, recognition and respect, to ensure a more sustainable, regenerative distribution of power and social equality. Yet this response was by no means universal.
Karen and James awaited Leia in one of the storytelling rooms. They had planned their meeting to compare how governments around the world had reacted differently to the pandemic.
‘Welcome. Thank you both for joining me here’, Leia greeted them both, holding her hand to her heart, then extending it open, palm up, fingers out towards them both.
‘Thank you for coming to share with us’, James responded, mimicking the gesture.
‘Yes, thank you’, added Karen in a meek but respectful voice.
Karen was a refugee from a former democracy turned into an authoritarian system during the pandemics, which was trying to limit the spread of the virus by tracking every move of every citizen and punishing anyone who violated their quarantine by reducing their social credit score and limiting their access to public services.
‘In my country, they justified surveillance and control because of the crisis’, Karen said, glancing up nervously at the cameras, ‘then they were recast as generic public protection measures’.
‘You’re safe here’, Leia reassured her, explaining how by coming here Karen and her family had their own protected identities and data trusts set up already.
‘We went the other way’, said James. ‘You could say we sacrificed our weakest citizens for the sake of keeping the economy alive and building a more robust population with herd immunity, but I think we ultimately failed to recognise that our economy was for the most part grounded on the work of the most vulnerable people.’
James was an exchange student visiting from another country, enjoying the sharing and reconciling of opposing perspectives. ‘I suspect it was no coincidence that the private sector had to step in to take care of all the things that our government couldn’t handle’, James added. ‘All communications, searches, locations and purchases were already managed through private online platforms, resulting in greater market efficiencies. Why not health and education too? In one sense we resolved the crisis faster and better than everyone else thanks to tech companies providing contact tracing and access control systems to all the population.’
Leia was especially curious about interactions with students from neo-liberal communities; she knew that many of them were starting to acknowledge the inherent failures of a non-regulated market system and the unavoidable inequalities that emerge from it.
‘Tech solutions driven by market dynamics, fuelled by huge amounts of personal data’. she offered. ‘It’s not that technological solutions are bad; it’s just that both governments and private companies have misaligned incentives. Any participation and engagement in creating a society for the common good gets sacrificed at the altar of power, efficiency and profits.’
‘Would we rather live in a world without technology’, mused James, ‘like those others in your community, who reject all technological advances?’
Leia smiled before diving into the history of the last decade with them: The few governments who had relied on grass-roots citizen engagement for fighting the pandemic had done so by rejecting the use of technology, regarded as the root of all evils. Technology was only necessary to scale up production and consumption, they had thought, and it was this constant desire to scale up that was destroying our planet. They had rejected the use of technology, advocating instead for the establishment of resilient communities focusing on local bioregions that did not need to import any foreign products or technologies.
Leia’s community had been an exception to its kind. While promoting local resilience, her community had also acknowledged the value of technology, which – if properly governed – could help achieve that end.
Over the years, Leia’s community attracted activists, intellectuals, social scientists, artists, engineers and many advocates of the decentralised technologies that emerged after the 2008 financial crash. Inspired by Ostrom’s research, they experimented with commons-based governance mechanisms for local communities and an interdependent global system.
While they knew that decentralised yet coordinated action was hard without monitoring or enforcement, they found in blockchain technology a solution to precisely both of these challenges: distributed ledger technology that enabled monitoring in a decentralised, transparent and tamper-resistant manner; smart contracts for the automated and decentralised enforcement of codified agreements. It was thanks to these technologies that Leia’s community fought the pandemic, using technology to empower people rather than subjecting them to a dominant superpower.
‘The seeds of our community were sown 10 years ago through a series of gatherings where we grew our relationships, built a shared pool of solutions and laid our plans to make them available to all’, Leia added.
The visitors kept asking questions of Leia, eager to understand whether and how these solutions could be transposed into their communities. Hours later, exhausted but excited from this new knowledge, they requested to become members of the Learning Commons to continue studying Leia’s community from home.
Leia instructed her data trust to share access to her personal selections and annotations of the Learning Commons, saying ‘I hope and trust we’ll interoperate again soon!’
About the authors
Primavera De Filippi is a Permanent Researcher at the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris, a Faculty Associate at the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and a Visiting Fellow at the European University Institute. Her research focuses on the legal challenges and opportunities of blockchain technology and artificial intelligence, with specific focus on trust and governance. She is the author of Blockchain and the Law, published by Harvard University Press. She was awarded a €2 million grant from the European Research Council to investigate the implications of blockchain technology on institutional governance and global governance. Primavera is also an artist and legal expert for Creative Commons in France. She was a founding member of the Global Future Council on Blockchain Technologies at the World Economic Forum and co-founder of the Internet Governance Forum’s dynamic coalitions on blockchain technology.
Tony Lai unleashes collective potential at a human and a systems level. He is a lawyer, researcher, and technology entrepreneur, advising and working with companies, government agencies, law firms, and nonprofits to build the future of trust, transactions, and dispute resolution. He is an Entrepreneurial Fellow and Founder of the Blockchain Group at CodeX, Stanford's Center for Legal Informatics. Tony founded the company, Legal.io, to deploy technology to scale legal access worldwide, and serves on the boards of various companies and non-profit organizations working on improving data governance and legal interoperability. He consults on collaboration design with DSIL Global and learnt design thinking at Stanford’s d.school. He helped design and research the first legal technology course at Stanford Law School, and was on the founding team of StartX, the Stanford-affiliated startup accelerator. He advises government agencies, startups, enterprises, and legal service organizations at the intersection of computational law, smart legal contracts, digital identity, and service technologies and protocols.