Governing Differences in Online Peer Communities Through Dissensus Protocols

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* Article: The Dissensus Protocol: Governing Differences in Online Peer Communities. By Jaya Klara Brekke, Kate Beecroft and Francesca Pick. Front. Hum. Dyn., 26 May 2021 | doi



"Peer-to-peer networks and protocols have inspired new ideas and ideologies about governance, with the aim of using technology to enable horizontal and decentralized decision-making at scale. This article introduces the concept of “dissensus” from political theory to debates about peer governance in online communities. Dissensus describes the emergence of incompatible differences. Among peer-to-peer technologies, blockchain stands out as a set of ideas that explicitly seek to resolve dissensus through consensus protocols. In this article, we propose dissensus as a “protocol” for foregrounding the often sidelined yet productive aspects of incompatible differences. The concept highlights that there might not always be consensus about a consensus algorithm, and that indeed, dissensus is the precondition for new possibilities and perspectives to emerge. We discuss the concept in relation to the histories of governance ideas in blockchain, namely, a “materialist,” “design,” and “emergent” approach. We then describe moments of dissensus in practice through two cases of online communities, Genesis DAO and Ouishare, discussing their different ways of recognizing and navigating dissensus. Finally, we give a critical overview of consensus algorithms, voting, staking, and forking as the mechanisms that make out blockchain governance ideologies. In conclusion, we argue that dissensus can serve as a useful concept for pointing attention to governance as it is conducted in practice, as historically and culturally specific practices, rather than as a problem to be solved through supposedly universal mechanisms."


"Part two comprises a discussion of dissensus in relation to two cases of peer-to-peer online communities, Genesis DAO and Ouishare, who each has formed around the possibility of technology to scale nonhierarchical forms of governance and organizing. Governance technologies are iterative efforts, evolving in relation to and alongside communities of people using and developing technologies, and thus occasionally facing dissensus and requiring the negotiation of incompatible differences. This part comprises reflections on the concept of dissensus in relation to experiences of the two authors, Pick and Beecroft, as participants in the Genesis DAO from early in the project, and Pick’s role as a core organizer in Ouishare. Both held part-time paid roles with DAOstack as facilitators of the community at the time, and as a result hold GEN tokens, but neither work with DAOstack or hold positions at Ouishare any longer.

In part three, we introduce some of the main mechanisms that make up the approaches to governance in blockchain communities, namely, consensus algorithms, voting, staking, and forking, and what has become the dissensus protocol par excellence, namely, the “hard fork.” We conclude with a broader discussion of the concept and its relevance for online communities. The concept of dissensus points to the continued possibility that there might not always be consensus about the consensus mechanism itself. There are therefore limits to solving governance through technical means."


Jaya Klara Brekke, Kate Beecroft and Francesca Pick:

From the Conclusion:

"Political theorist Rancière, as well as Mouffe and her collaborator Laclau, begin from “the presence of two worlds in one” (Rancière 2015, 37), as a universe that is fundamentally divided “where the primary ontological terrain is one of division, of failed unicity” (Mouffe 2012, 29; Laclau and Mouffe 2001). They critique perspectives that are based on the notion, metaphysically or otherwise, of a unified whole, because any attempted articulation of such a whole always entails exclusions of those not included in the description. There is therefore always the possibility of excluded positions to make themselves felt, forcing either negotiation or suppression of these. In some senses, blockchain, as a technology and ideology, might in fact be said to take difference, conflict, and dissensus as its very starting point and reason for operation: the assumed environment of its technical and ideological operation is “trustless,” the networks are supposedly open for anyone to join regardless of their differences, and blockchain protocols were invented as a means to establish a working consensus as and when differences arise. However, where Mouffe highlights the necessity of providing an arena to confront and negotiate unforeseen differences, blockchain was initially (and still now in the emphasis on “on-chain” processes) a promise of its resolution by technical means. Such technological “solution” to differences in fact made out a governance ideology: mathematical axioms would arrange a neutral consensus, “solving” the governance of differences. However, it turned out that such supposedly neutral mathematical arrangements can themselves become contentious, as experienced in the famous Bitcoin scaling conflict and Ethereum DAO exploit (DuPont, 2018; Mehar et al., 2019). Rather than a “solution,” the aim of efforts to use blockchain for governance has since shifted toward “governance minimization” (Ehrsam, 2020).

On a conceptual level, the idea that governance can be “solved”—algorithmic or otherwise—leads to a curious infinite regression: when the very protocols for establishing consensus become the point of disagreement, another consensus algorithm is required to solve this newfound disagreement, prompting Kreutler to ask “Who is responsible for making the decision on how to make decisions” (2018) or how to solve the governance of the governance protocols themselves? Delving further into the concept, dissensus offers a backstop to such infinite regression and the impetus toward governance maximization. Dissensus is a reminder of the ongoing potential for differences to arise, which also means it is not a problem to be solved in any general sense, but rather an opening to new possibilities. Furthermore, the possibility that there might not always be consensus about the consensus algorithm, so to speak, also foregrounds that the very ways we go about resolving differences are themselves particular and not universally given, also when in the form of algorithms. Consensus algorithms, token voting, staking, and forking are highly eccentric and particular ways of going about governing a group or an organization. In short, what is important is not only that dissensus is resolved but also how it is resolved. The concept of dissensus allows for governance to be considered less an abstract universal problem to be solved by technical means, and rather a contextually situated means to achieve a particular set of shared aims.

In this article, we introduced the concept of “dissensus” from political theory (Rancière, 2004; Rancière, 2015) in order to open a discussion about the limits to approaching (self)governance as a problem to be solved through technical means. We discussed techniques and cases from the histories and communities that have formed around blockchain in particular, because these communities so explicitly seek to resolve governance through various algorithmic and market mechanisms, coordinating consensus across and between otherwise disparate actors and interests. This has largely been understood as an effort and means to “minimize governance”. But drawing on political and governance theory and insights from STS, we argue that inscribing governance into protocols and algorithms does not necessarily minimize governance, it merely takes a different form, through new vocabularies and terrains of negotiation. This entails a different reading of the famous quote from Lessig that “code is law” (1999) that is often referred to in blockchain contexts as meaning code replacing law. Rather than code replacing or resolving the need for law, it is a different form of law which in turn means that code, protocols, and algorithms, rather than necessarily minimizing governance, might rather maximize governance in such new coded forms, especially when these begin to be assumed as the only legitimate, neutral means to make decisions and settle disputes.

Understanding dissensus (the political) as a potential rupture to established forms of governance (politics) points to the necessary particularity of any governance arrangement. This allows for a study of blockchain governance not as a potentially universal solution, but instead as a specific set of practices for negotiating differences that suit and encourage a specific type of actor. Fruitful areas for future research would therefore be to look into the specific cultures and languages that are emerging from these ideas about governance, for example, drawing on qualitative methodologies of anthropology. Fruitful areas for future research might therefore draw on qualitative and anthropological methods to look at the cultures and terminology that is rapidly emerging around these governance experiments. These might also reveal more about the governance ideologies at play, and how the more mundane actual practice of governance are often sidelined from official governance narratives, diagrams and whitepapers – such as merging pull-requests, email list discussions, chats, conferences and company structures. Further research might also look into the gendered aspects of such blind spots, and how and whether the roles of “community building” in the developer communities are considered or sidelined in the ideological narratives about governance. And finally, further studies that draw explicitly on political theory, as we have done, might also open up for more rigorous comparisons between “legacy systems” and online governance systems.

What blockchain does, as a technology and ideology, is to reconfigure governance and the political as a technical problem. In this sense, it is less a resolution of the political (as some might fear and others celebrate), but rather a shift in the terrain and languages through which differences are negotiated. In the case of blockchain, at a protocol level, this has meant that politics is played out and negotiated in the terrain and languages of information security metrics, optimal coordination, or other technical and economic notions. Forking code repositories, for example, has been articulated as the means through which these systems would manage and accommodate incompatible differences, and has in many ways become the dissensus protocol in the blockchain community. The territory and medium through which the political is worked out makes a difference; it is not neutral. Indeed, the attempts to reconfigure code into law and governance as a technical question is explicitly an attempt to shift the terrain of the political from parliaments, institutions, laws, and bylaws into repositories, blockchains, and code—a different terrain and a different language which a different set of actors will be more versed at."




Jaya Klara Brekke, Kate Beecroft and Francesca Pick:

"Dissensus describes a rupture to consensus (Rancière, 2004; Rancière, 2015). It therefore points to the possibility that incompatible positions might arise, forcing either significant negotiation and transformation in order to accommodate for these, or a split and exclusion. In the context of technology, dissensus, for example, entails foregrounding the conflicting possibilities in the context of algorithmic decisions (Crawford, 2016), or, as we discuss in this article, the possibility of many different and conflicting development pathways. The concept also points to the limits of formalized governance (whether algorithmic or parliamentary) as the established means to negotiate disputes and conflict, because governance methods and mechanisms might themselves become a site of dissensus, forcing significant negotiation and transformation of the given project, or a “fork.” Rather than a problem to be solved, the potential for dissensus to arise is better understood as an inevitable and necessary precondition for different perspectives and possibilities to emerge, and therefore for transformation, growth, and change. In the work of political theorist Mouffe, it is nothing less than the necessary preconditions for a free society (Mouffe and Laclau, 1998). The concept thereby also points to the precise limits of efforts that approach governance as a problem to be solved in any final manner through mechanisms, incentives, and algorithms."


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."


The Materialist Governance of Bitcoin and the Blockchain

Jaya Klara Brekke, Kate Beecroft and Francesca Pick:

"Philosopher Grosz discusses the long-standing philosophical debates about the relationship between matter and the immaterial and immanent realm: “Materialism holds that everything is matter, commonly considered inert, passive, regulated by mechanical principles” (Grosz, 2018, 15). Blockchain, especially in the Bitcoin context, represents a materialist solution to governance, with matter understood as an objectively known condition in contrast to unknown subjective interests; by shaping an external material reality, a given process is no longer set in motion through a person’s decision, but rather has been engineered, encoded, and inscribed to take place independently of active subjective consideration. It happens “automatically” as a material fact. Maurer et al. have noted, “[d]espite the supposed immateriality of digital bits of information [Blanchette 2011], matter itself is very much at issue with Bitcoin, both in how it is conceptualized and in how individual Bitcoins are ‘mined’” (2013). The materialism that is evoked in the concept of mining has both monetary and organizational aims. The monetary ideas that liken Bitcoin to gold have been discussed and critiqued at length elsewhere (Maurer et al., 2013; Bjerg, 2016; Golumbia, 2016; Brunton, 2019). Here, we want to highlight how gold is also understood in governance terms as a form of material disintermediation of authority. In what Maurer et al. critique as “digital metallism,” gold is assumed to have an intrinsic value, with the idea that it thereby can “disintermediate” who gets to determine value from an institution to the inherent material qualities of the metal itself (2013). As Musiani et al. also note, in Bitcoin, governance itself was considered resolved through the material facts of a purely technical arrangement (Musiani et al., 2017), and in the process, conveniently sidelining the decisions involved in constructing and running the infrastructure.

The extent to which material artifacts, infrastructures, and matter can be considered independently of social, political, or economic processes comprises longer standing debates in philosophy, dealt with most effectively in Science and Technology Studies (STS). In answer to technological determinism, Langdon Winner, in a famous 1980s paper, wrote “[T]hose who have not recognised the ways in which technologies are shaped by social and economic forces have not gotten very far” (Winner, 1980, 122), and in the very next paragraph conversely also takes issue with anyone assuming that material things are solely determined through social processes. Instead, both the social and the technical are implicated in one another, although to varying manners and degrees depending on the given situation. Technological algorithms, considered as a material arrangement, can in this sense be considered processes that have already been socially assumed or agreed upon as necessary and legitimate and therefore made to happen “automatically.” And such settled arrangements might in unpredictable and unknown ways erupt again as a political question—when something breaks down or the environment and context shift in ways that might benefit some actors over others (Edwards, 2003). Indeed, for all the technological and material determinism that is mobilized for the ideological project of Bitcoin, “the social dynamics of community and trust—evident in the prose and poetry produced by Bitcoin users—can still be heard through this practical materialism” (Maurer et al., 2013, 3).

Drawing exactly on such a nuanced approach offered by the field of STS, Musiani et al. foreground the “sociotechnical controversies” of Bitcoin (2017), highlighting how technical developments become politicized in ways that are hard to predict both the scope and scale of beforehand: “one can find in the short yet charged history of Bitcoin manifold such debates, where what seemed to be a technical issue ends up as a political problem” (ibid. 2017, 134). This was most evident in the much discussed Bitcoin scaling conflict and the Ethereum DAO hack between 2016 and 17 (DuPont, 2018; Reijers et al., 2018; Azouvi et al., 2019). The DAO was an attempt at creating a venture fund organization, governed entirely by code. In June 2016, 3.7 m Ethereum tokens, or $60 million USD equivalent, were stolen when an unknown person exploited a bug in the DAO code. Two groups emerged with dissenting views: what came to be called “DAO maximalists” strongly argued that “code is law” (in a misconstrued reference to Lessig (2000)) insisting that whatever was written should stand as unaltered, inalienable law, as had been promised. A second group sought to recover the funds, arguing that lessons should be learned and social consensus matters for how and whether the law of code should be changed. Following this event, the Ethereum community became intensely focused on the “governance problem.” This combined with huge budgets that emerged from the initial coin offering (ICO) boom brought an explosion of “governance tech” companies such as DAOstack, Colony, and Aragon, with renewed intent on using blockchain for solving governance problems."


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