The pandemic period slightly shifted the focus of “Social Machine” project towards theoretical analysis. This afforded more detailed definition of main themes and goals for the remainder of the project. There are four main direction for 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 addition of the detailed description of how the construction of blockchain social machine actually looks like. I tentatively 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 daigitalization actually is. Answering this question requires getting acquainted with confusing as much as interesting areas of philosophy of computation, metaphysics and engineering, and so the detailed description of “digital capture of social ontology” (especially in the areas of social networking and artificial intelligence) will probably be the subject of a separate project. The actual paper on blockchains nevertheless is shaping up to include a detailed description of what the “capture” in the 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 accommodation” of blockchain ecosystem and the world of legacy institutions. It appears there is a social research tradition thoroughly describing such processes. It is called „sociotechnical transition studies” and especially interesting is the „multi-level approach” to this area; it deals with plotting the trajectories of innovations in the presence of two forces more or less opposing each other: the disruptive pressure of “innovative niches” and the inertia and institutional power of existing social and technological “regime”.
This framework considers a number of scenarios of resolution 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 successfully applied to processes such as the “green transition”, but it is obviously a perfect tool for describing the adoption of blockchain technologies, especially in its institutional and regulatory aspect, with states and supra-national organizations scrambling to understand this new technology and figure out how it fits (or threatens) the way they operate, while blockchain ecosystems keeps evolving at breathtaking pace. This process for sure deserves a detailed analysis and description.
The limits of algorithmic governance
Another well defined and interesting area has to do with the last stage of “digital capture”, when the concepts we’ve captured and instantiated in digital realm (such as “consensus”) are mapped back onto the analog realm of the social world. Do these concepts still work as intended or do they distort the reality they are applied to? (again, social networking/media and artificial intelligence also come to mind).
The blockchain formulation of this problem would be: can social coordination 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 maintain a stable system. Blockchain ecosystems already 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 ecosystems 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 the 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 modeled as one systemic entity.
The social analysis of on-chain data
The last point of interest has to do with the abundance 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 execution of contracts. In addition, the identities are sudonymous, the addresses do not reflect individuals but accounts that can be shared between “real world” entities or can be one of the many in the possession of a singular individual. So while the economic analysts have lots of fun with this kind of data, it is a bit awkward to try to use blockchain data for social analysis. The data of DAOs seem to be promising avenue of social data analytics on blockchains and there are already services providing some aggregations and indices in this area.
There is a general methodological question to be answered 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 information, some hidden social dimension that needs to be brought up. Or maybe some important dimensions of social life of blockchain systems is missing from ever-lasting digital ledger and needs to be acquired elsewhere and perhaps merged 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 experimentation 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 realize.
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.
Autor projektu: Łukasz Jonak
Projekt finansowany ze środków programu „Dialog” MNiSW