Dissensus and the Evolutions of Governance Ideas and Ideologies in Blockchain

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Dissensus and the Evolutions of Governance Ideas and Ideologies in Blockchain

Jaya Klara Brekke, Kate Beecroft and Francesca Pick:

"The histories and ideas of governance forming through blockchain technology are particularly powerful for discussing the relevance of dissensus as a concept, because blockchain so explicitly came to be understood as a technology for resolving dissensus and settling differences by technical means—initially as a functional necessity of ensuring coherence in Bitcoin transactions, but then also expanded as an ideology to many other realms (Atzori 2017; Reijers et al., 2018). Blockchain emerged out of a longer history of peer-to-peer technologies with the promise of disintermediating digital payment networks and applications. Rather than having to rely on financial institutions and major platform providers who could control the conditions of interactions, the intention was that these could be replaced by horizontal peer-to-peer networks, governed through consensus algorithms. A decentralized network topology would ensure that no one entity can control the network; incentives would organize and secure the system by rewarding those who contribute and making attacks expensive; and cryptography would be used to secure, organize, and enforce consensus across the network. Such networks could then be self-governed by those operating them, with overall coordination achieved by adhering to simple protocols, encoding and automating rules, and the arrangement of consensus between nodes.

Governance more broadly is defined and discussed in governance theory as having three evolutions (Mayntz, 2003; Klijn and Koppenjan, 2012). These evolutions describe different ideological perspectives on the scope and remit of governance, which to a large degree are reflected in the ideas and ideologies around blockchain. Governance was initially considered the process of deciding which rules and regulations will be enacted by a sanctioned authority in a top-down manner: usually the state to the people (Mayntz, 2003; Kim, 2006). This resembles early governance ideas in Bitcoin, now referred to as “bitcoin maximalism,” where the absolute sovereignty of a state would be replaced by the absolute sovereignty of a neutral technical architecture of consensus algorithms and code. A second evolution of governance theory in the 1970s emerged as a critique of the steering actions by political authorities shaping socioeconomic processes and structures (Mayntz, 2003). And so today, governance theory is primarily concerned with how actors organize and decide about what they do in a politic (Stoker, 2019). Governance is considered a feature of any group or organization who have something in common that they need to govern, referring to the development of various governing styles in which boundaries between and within public life and business have become blurred (Rosenau and Czempiel, 1992; Stoker, 2019). This second evolution is characterized by the idea of markets influencing and directing social and political life. It points to the creation of a structure which cannot be imposed but which is the result of the interactions of a multiplicity of governing and influencing actors (Kooiman and Van Vliet in Stoker 2018). This resembles a second stage in Bitcoin governance ideologies, following a number of forks in the Bitcoin and Ethereum protocols. Rather than a Consensus protocols became a socio-technical design space expanding into experimental fields of cryptoeconomics, token design, mechanism design and more, in contrast to Bitcoin maximalism, where the consensus protocol is assumed as absolute universal sovereign. A third evolution of governance theory is looking at the horizontal, self-organizing aspects of networks, gaining increasing prominence in the wake of the many reports of government and market failures (Torfing, 2005; Kreutler, 2018). Here, governance is being analyzed and developed in the context of horizontal and reciprocative means of coordination where people participate in networks or groups to decide about what to do and how to do it (Kim 2006). It incorporates the impacts of networks and insights from network theory (Klijn and Koppenjan 2012), referring to what happens when groups of all kinds seek to achieve something together through networks of interdependent actors. In blockchain governance, this relates to practices where networks, protocols, and markets have emergent properties, and are part of and affected by forms of social consensus arising from interactions between different stakeholders. Below, we discuss these different stages as a materialist, an emergent and a design understanding of technologically mediated forms of governance."