Blockchains as social machines

Łukasz Jonak, Analityk DELab UW

So, what are these social machines, and what do the have to do with blockchains?

I’m borrowing the idea of ‚social machine’ from sociologists Łukasz Afeltowicz and Krzystof Pietrowicz [1]. They wonder why natural sciences are so good at describing and influencing the world, and why sociology and social sciences in general – not so much. The answer is: natural scientists have laboratories. It is not abstract theorizing that defines the  core of scientific activity, but constant building and tinkering which takes place in a mini-world of laboratory. This is where scientists create isolated physical systems, build artifacts which embed abstract notions, assemble and dissect equipment (think vacuum pumps, artificial tissue cultures, particle accelerators). All of it allows them to figure out how things work, encode this knowledge in scientific theories and try to apply it to the world outside of laboratory by creating technologies which our everyday lives.

Sociologists could be doing the same, the authors say: tinker with the elements of social reality at hand, create isolated social artifacts,  „social machines”, and by making them work they would abe able to figure out what the society is about. Perhaps they’d even be able to do something good (or at least relevant) for the reality outside of the laboratory in the process.

Blockchains are prime examples of social machines. They are not being built by sociologists though (if Satoshi Nakamoto proved to be a social scientist, that would be news indeed) but by a more traditional brand of scientific tinkers: usually part computer scientists, part economists. If you take a look at how the very first blockchain – Bitcoin – works, you will see that it is a hybrid machine; it consists of both software (running on our everyday IT infrastructure) and human actors. Those two layers are interconnected by the „consensus algorithm”. The algorithm is made of the rules of incentivisation encoded in the software; it shapes human behaviour and interacts with the social dynamics of blockchain. The desired effect produced by this social machine is a specific kind of social good: the shared, common knowledge (in this case the history of all Bitcoin transactions), which is safe from most kinds of attacks and resistant to censorship, despite the decentralized nature of the system.

You might object that everything in culture and civilization is a social machine: nation states or religions, or any institution for that matter; you can argue that they are all hybrids of human and material/technological fabrics. True, however, until quite recently, these „machines” were being constructed in a long process of cultural evolution, without a clear individual intentionality of creating and testing  social effects. Now one person or a group can invent, tweak and implement a global social machine with a clear intention of generating an impact. It doesn’t take generations anymore.

The digitalization of contemporary world makes it even more appealing to build social machines. Digital technologies make it easy for people to communicate, and they allow to dematerialize and make comparable various „assets” people care about (money, ownership, identity, reputation, etc. – this is the idea of „tokenization”). This mediated communication and virtual digital representations of important objects can be easily (with a couple of lines of code) manipulated, combined, modified, which makes them perfect tools and building blocks in new laboratory where a new kind of scientist/social engineer can tinker with new kinds of machines and figure out what works and what does not.

It is  easy to scale up digital social machines from laboratory level to the global size. It actually makes it difficult to distinguish between building an experimental machine and actual social engineering. Or the other way around – digitalization makes the world a big laboratory. This rapid scalability can cause problems. In case of blockchains scaling means moving from fairly isolated laboratory environment (in terms of specific types of users, early adopters) to much more diverse ecosystem, which might not be accurately reflected in the design of the original social machine. Moreover, when the machine stops being just a contained experiment and starts to exert a tangible effect on the „real world”, its makers suddenly turn from just curious tinkers to important stakeholders, with their own interests and ideas about how the machine should work, making them in fact a part of it. The various problems with governance of blockchain projects stem directly from this issue. And this is when the intervention of a sociologist actually might become handy; unfortunately, again undertaken from the position of external critic of the social machine, not  its creator.

[1] Afeltowicz, Ł., & Pietrowicz, K. (2011). Social Machines and Patterns of Natural Sciences: On Some Implications of Science and Technology Studies. Polish Sociological Review, (176), 469–491.

Autor projektu: Łukasz Jonak

Projekt finansowane ze środków programu „Dialog” MNiSW