The pandemic sligltly shifted the focus of “social machine” project towards theoretical analysis. This aforded more detailed definition of main themes and goals for the ramainder of the project. There are four main direction in the “social machine” endgame:
Blockchains as social machines
This is the exposition of the main argument of the project. It is a proposition that blockchain technologies are the examples of “applied, experimental sociology”, the closest approximation of laboratories social sciences can get, with the obvious problem that they are not being created by sociologist or sociology as a discipline in general.
The major update since I formulated this area of research at the beginning of the project is the the addition of the detailed description of how the construction of blockchain social machine actually looks like. I humbly call this process “digital capture of social ontology”. It is a framework of how “primitives” of social sciences (in case of blockchain – “consensus” and related concepts) are being embodied in and enacted by modern technology.
It seems like this framework can be used to describe other social machines as well – namely “social networking” and artificial intelligence, as it engages more universal problem of what actually digitalisation is. To answers this question requires getting acquainted with confusing as much as interesting areas of philosophy of computation, metaphysic and engineering, and so the detailed description of what “digital capture of social ontology is” (especially in the areas of social networking and artificial intelligence) will probably be subject of separarate project. The actual paper on blockchains nevertheless is shaping up to include a detailed description of what the “capture” in case of blockchains looks like.
The niche-regime dynamics of blockchain transition
One of the main research areas I’ve defined at the very beginning is the process of “mutual accomodation” of blockchain ecosystem and the the world of legacy institutions. It appears there is a theoretical framework describing such processes already established in social sciences. It is called “Transition studies”, and deals with plotting the trajectories of innovations in the prosence of two forces: the disruptive change the “innovativve niche” introduces and the inertia and institutional power of existing social and technological “regime”.
The framework considers a number of scenarios of resolutions of such conflicts, for example revolutionary, disruptive overthrow of the existing regime, or quiet assimilation of innovative ideas into established systems. This theoretical approach is applied to processes such as the “green transition”, but it is obviously perfect tool for describtion what is currently going on with the adoption of blockchain technologies, especially in its institutional and regulatory aspect, with states and supra-national organisations scrambling to understand this new technolgy and figure out how it fits (or thretens) the way they operate, while blockchain ecosystem keeps evolving at breathtaking pace. This process for sure deserves a detailed analysis and desctiption.
The limits of algorithmical governance
Another well defined and interesting area has to do with the last stage of “digital capture”, when the concepts we’ve captured and revived in digital realm (such as “consensus”) are mapped back onto analog realm of social world. Do they still work as intended, or do they distort the reality they are applied to? (again, social networks/media and artificial intelligence come to mind).
The blockchain formulation of this problem would be: can social coordinatioin systems based exclusively on (digitally mediated) incentivisations be stable and thrive? Economist Samuel Bowles, claims that, in general, systems relying solely on gaming the human vices, trying to make them work for collective good, are fundamentally flawed. The individuals, citizens, members of society, need to be guided by genuine values, not just incentives, in order to maintained a stable system. Blockchain ecosystems alredy have a history of their incentive systems misbehaving, so it would be interesting to see how Bowles argument fits here.
However, even more importantly, there is a cultural layer of blockchain ecosystem already in place which seems to serve as an immune system against malicious anomalies of on-chain economics of incentives, a corrective mechanism based on values of the crypto-space. The task here, then, would be, to describe the interface between those two sub-systems (incentive- and value-based), and find out how can they be modelled as one systemic entity.
The social analysis of on-chain data
The last point of interest has to do with the aboundance of blockchain data – open, mostly transparent, mostly free. The problem with this data seems to be that most of it is economic in nature, it describes transactions, the exacution of contracts. In addition, the identities are sudonomous, the adresses do not reflect individuals but accounts that can be shared between “real world” entities or can be one of many in possesion of a singular indiviual. So while the economic analyststs have lots of fun with this kind of data, it is a bit ackward to try to use blockchain data for social analysis. The data of DAOs seems to be promising avenue of social data analytics on blockchains and there are already services providing some aggreagations and idices in this area.
There is a general methodological question to be answered, however here. What is it that we see in blockchains. If we were to go hardcore social machine (social construction) way, we would say that, well, the economic data, the transactions and contract executions, hoarding of NFTs, majority voting, is all there is, the entirety of social life enacted by social machine. But maybe there is something more in this data, some hidden social dimension, that needs to be brought up. Or maybe some important dimension of social life of blockchain systems is missing from ever-lasting ledger data and needs to be acquired elsewhere and perhaps merge with the technical and economic data landscape for more complete outlook. Certainly, the thesis of “blockchain cultural incompleteness” would support this way of thinking.
Anyways, these questions can be answered only by experimantation with what kind of information can be extracted from chain data, what kind of meaning can be derived from it, how can it be significant in the context of concrete cultures and communities living off- and on blockchains. This would be the closes to social machine tinkering the “Social machine” project would actually get.
So then, these are the four potential output areas of the project. The work on two first are advanced, while the last ones are still in the ideation phases; these might not be realized in the time left in the project, but if so, they will be developed in other contexts.
Project author: Łukasz Jonak
Project funded by the „Dialogue” program of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education