Prefigurative Self-Infrastructuring

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Contextual Quote

"Web3 is a collective exploration in ‘self-infrastructuring’. The verb ‘to infrastructure’ denotes the activities, processes of integrated materials, tools, methods and practices that make up and change an infrastructure (Star and Bowker, 2010). Thus, infrastructuring is an ongoing process of doing, and these processes are incremental, iterative, and long-term (Karasti et al., 2010). Web3 originates from anti-establishment ideals, and aims to provide the prefigurative means to build new structures for decentralized, self-governance from within the prevailing power structures of society."

- Kelsie Nabben [1]


How to self-infrastructure

Kelsie Nabben:

"Web3 as a technology and an ethos enables social, political and economic modes of self-organization through the ability for those that can participate to enter and exit infrastructures according to their values, preferences, and ability to shape the rules of the infrastructure in which they participate. This flexibility cannot always be planned for as changes in social, technical and economic settings are often unpredictable. How the ‘infrastructural legos’ of Web3 components can and should be combined and to which emergent models of data governance they will ascribe will greatly influence the social outcomes of Web3 infrastructure. The underlying logic of Web3 remains underarticulated in relation to the real or perceived users of these tools, for example, whether it is based on cooperative data governance models, more legalistic data trust structures, or personal data sovereignty (Micheli et al., 2020).

Furthermore, the work of creating and building infrastructure is secondary to the work of ongoing maintenance. The civil infrastructures of modern societies are typically built and maintained by large bureaucracies. In other distributed networks, such as the Internet, standards bodies and social arrangements make the development and ongoing maintenance of large-scale technological infrastructure possible. Although standards are essential in the development of large-scale infrastructures, they are a messy entanglement of social processes, across numerous layers of a technology stack, require practice, and evolve over time (Star and Bowker, 2010). Web3 projects must grapple with these messy entanglements of social and technical bits, for example, ‘Decentralized Autonomous Organizations’ determining their own funding and economic models that don’t depend on centralized Venture Capital (Nabben, 2022). At present, one of the fundamental contradictions of Web3's ambition to build and create digital infrastructure is in defining and developing patterns of activities, processes, tools, methods and practices for long-term infrastructural generation, governance, maintenance, and growth that differ from what has already been done. This is evident in the emphasis in the Ethereum community on generating new models to ‘fund public goods’. In trying to design coordination infrastructures, the subliminal, unaddressed, question that Web3 must grapple with is ‘how to self-infrastructure’ in ways that give people more collective ownership of the rules and value of infrastructure in digital domains, without demanding stratospheric technical aptitude or unnecessarily burdening them with arduous governance duties. According to its ideology, decentralized infrastructure cannot be governed by centralized bureaucracies or funders in the long term, yet infrastructures require long-term strategies for operation and maintenance."


The origins of self-infrastructuring

Kelsie Nabben:

Social and cultural factors are pertinent in the development of large-scale infrastructures. Emerging infrastructures, including Web3, can be identified by the ‘master narratives’ that they espouse (Star and Ruhleder, 1996). Web3 stems from, and in some ways perpetuates, the radical politics of a countercultural group of hackers known as ‘the cypherpunks’ in its prefigurative propensities to build one's own infrastructure. The cypherpunks were a group of software engineers, cryptographers, and philosophers that emerged in the 1990s and idealized self-governance through technological means, and were seminal in the development of the Bitcoin protocol (Brekke, 2021; Nabben, 2021c). Bitcoin has been described as one instantiation of decentralized ‘infrastructuring’ (Kow and Lustig, 2018). Understanding how Web3 has evolved from the ideological origins of the cypherpunks and the collective will to self-infrastructure is crucial to understanding broader experimentation with blockchain technology as a form of prefigurative self-infrastructuring.

The participatory action of prefiguration that Web3 communities engage in is ‘self-infrastructuring’ through the development of decentralized digital infrastructure. Prefigurative politics refers to modes of creation and organization that strive to reflect the future society a group is trying to manifest in response and opposition to existing institutions (Swain, 2019; Maddox et al., 2016). Stemming from the origins of public blockchain communities, proponents of Web3 embrace a politics of prefiguration by attempting to embody the politics and power structures that they want to enable in society through the direct action of building more participatory digital infrastructure. The political philosophy of public blockchains has been described as the self-provisioning of public goods via technological tools, free markets, and governance minimization (Swartz, 2018). Indeed, decentralized technologies aim to facilitate self-governance to ‘configure social relations in a decentralized manner and constitutes new social realities’ (Miscione and Kavanagh, 2015; Reijers and Coeckelbergh, 2018). Thus, if blockchain is about infrastructural experiments in re-ordering society, then Web3 is the configuration of these new social worlds. What is not completely clear is what society is being prefigured towards.

Culturally, Web3 is a continuation of a hacker ethic to engage in play, politics, and prefiguration. The cultural politics of Web3 embrace the hacker ethic of participatory organizing for the political re-ordering of existing power structures from institutions to individuals through ‘playful tinkering’ (Coleman, 2011). For hackers, ‘code is speech’, meaning a sphere for free speech and protest (Coleman, 2009). Similarly, the saying “code is law” (Lessig, 2000) has been adopted and adapted by Bitcoin communities to refer to the immutable, software code that acts as an enforcement mechanism of the rules of the system. In Web3, code is creation, meaning that hackers are not breaking software systems but engaging in the prefigurative act of building digital infrastructure that can be controlled by ‘the people’ (encapsulated in the memetic phrase (‘meme’) of ‘BUIDLing’). Creation speaks of iterative ‘experiments’ in new institutional infrastructures and societal possibilities for self-organization. The stated aims of projects that consider themselves to be ‘Web3’ include ‘decentralizing funding access’ to fund opensource software as a ‘public good’ (Owocki, 2021), ‘storing humanity's most important information’ via a decentralized marketplace (Protocol Labs, 2017), and an experimental ‘crypto state’ with ‘a mission to bridge the physical world to the digital metaverse’ through secure, opensource microchip hardware (The Ambassador, 2021). These communities are increasingly diverse in goals and values, from ‘Decentralized Finance Degenerates’ or ‘DeGens’ that care about making profit in cryptocurrency markets, to ‘Regenerative Finance, ReFi Regens’ that care about innovating sustainable economic models for the coordination of shared resources (such as the environment). Web3 is an ambitious desire for broad-scale, self-made societal improvement where local actions lead to global change. Yet, the subliminal but underlying tension behind Web3 enthusiasm is how to reconcile broad social and political aspirations to self-infrastructure with the practicalities of infrastructuring everyday institutional technologies that facilitate people's lives in a more decentralized manner. The risk of prefiguration is that rather than offering an escape from digital surveillance, technological infrastructures will just offer another competing institutional system with its own power asymmetries. Thus, the question begging Web3 is not just ‘what is good governance?’ but ‘what is good infrastructure, and how do we build and govern it through the everyday activities of self-infrastructuring?’. It is how this infrastructural tension plays out in practice that requires further empirical inquiry."