Blockchains as social machines

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

Łukasz Jonak, Ana­li­tyk DELab UW

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 finan­so­wa­ny ze środ­ków pro­gra­mu „Dia­log” MNiSW

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