Blockchains, Public Goods and Brands

Text & Art: Rajinder Kumar

Anyway you slice it, trying to make sense of the world of blockchains is pretty heady stuff. But say you've wrapped up with the basics, it shouldn’t take long before you start digging around to see if there's more to this blockchain stuff than just market meltdowns, NFT art and weird Japanese Shiba Inu meme coins. The reward? Discovering a passionate community driving a new type of internet fueled brand, along with its own history, culture, expectations and sense of equalizing power.

A recent Ogilvy study found that wellness, defined as “activities, choices and lifestyles that lead to holistic health and wellbeing” could play a critical role in informing brand core missions and expectations. The role of “Public Goods” and taking on the old conundrum of “The Tragedy of The Commons'' are likely two issues that won’t make the cut on many meeting agendas today. Yet it's exactly these types of issues that point to one of the blockchain community's most fascinating tendencies.  You could say it is a culture that has ‘wellness’ practically built into its DNA.

This essay is not about pitching blockchain technology as a silver bullet solution. With that said, there is no denying something important is taking shape. There is plenty of evidence to suggest it could become a useful tool to help iron out some of the current issues circling trust and privacy.  If understood correctly, there is the potential that it could sit comfortably alongside our existing systems in hopes of sparking fresh innovations on either side. The prospect of a future where people, our planet and your brand always win, isn’t exactly an unbearably bleak cyber-dystopia, is it?  

Photograph © Nasa | Art by R. Kumar

The Britannica definition of ‘public goods’ provided by Professor Sean Ingraham's: the economics premise of a ‘public good’  is a product or service that is not only non-excludable but is equally nondepletable (or “non-rivalrous”).   These could encompass more than just charitable organizations or public parks; clean air, journalism, the arts and even biodiversity could all be seen as a type of public good. Within this broad spectrum there are some fundamental issues at play.  The tragedy of the commons is often painted by the famous hypothetical of a common property of land falling to ruin thanks to herdsmen acting in their own interests.  Plenty of evidence points to a ‘free-rider problem’. What follows is a tragedy in which a majority loses its incentive, and so the public good ceases to exist. Air pollution, vaccine distribution failings, and even being unable to park your electric car in a designated charging station because someone’s internal combustion engine needed that space more, can all be considered depicting these types of tragedies.

A second issue of governance comes closely tied and carries its very own tragedy, The Tyranny Of The Majority.  Economist Glen Weyl depicts the tragic trappings of minorities who struggle to band together as they compete for resources inevitably destined to lose out.  In short “majorities can disregard the legitimate interests of minorities”.  Governance itself brings to light one of the pivotal issues in the blockchain community - decentralization.  It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot. Simply put it defines the shift of power from one place to many smaller ones. Decentralization is a highly loaded topic that plays out as a tug of war; in essence, it’s a debate about rights, power and common good.   When centralization does fall short, it can chart anywhere from small inconveniences, all the way to ruinous, depending on which part of the world you live in. 

A case for blockchains

It’s here that the blockchain community is experimenting with two new mechanisms: Quadratic Voting and Quadratic Funding.   The RadicalXChange Foundation describes Quadratic Voting as a system that reflects the intensity of individual preferences in collective decision making. Allocated budgets function as “voice credits,” to be spent on questions to signal the intensity of their convictions.  These are then converted to “counted votes” by using their squares. Making sense of the complicated math, one credit equals one vote; four credits equals two; nine credits equals three and so on.
Quadratic Funding offers a new form of match funding optimization. It prioritizes projects based on the number of people who contributed, thus benefiting a broader public, instead of favouring projects that only have a few wealthy backers.  

The work of Taiwan’s Audrey Tang - Tang has served as digital minister and is the countries first transgender and non-binary official in the top executive cabinet - offers insightful real world implementation of these mechanisms and their power to impact the conversation around civic democracy.  Tang was a prominent figure in the country's Sunflower Movement back in 2014 which ended up with participants reverse mentoring members of the government.  One of the many achievements overseen has been the adoption of the developer “hackathon” culture - a time restricted, all access get-together to collectively work on problems.  A national window of a few months is enough time for projects to come together under the umbrella of the ‘Presidential Hackathon’ before being put to vote.   Voters display their preferences through a quadratic voting mechanism which is then relayed to the public through a specially designed open platform.  Another positive is their Research Airbox initiative in which blockchain technology is used to meet the public demand on industrial companies to supply accurate air pollution data. Companies don’t have to sign up, but failure to do so shines a negative light - it’s quite ingenious really.  It would also be a disservice not to mention the country's unprecedented approach to communications. Official meetings demand subsequent transcripts, all publicly available, with some even being available on platforms such as youtube in video form.  The thinking here is to provide auditable records to fight misinformation and journalistic sensationalism. In its own way it's a fine solution to protect real journalism as a public good.

Recent rounds 3 and 4 of the Gitcoin quadratic funding project, have served as a real world testing ground for Quadratic Funding on the Ethereum network.  Earlier this year two funding pools were made available: a $125,000 matching pool for tech projects, and an additional $75,000 matching pool for "media" projects.  Both seem to have been a success, albeit for a twitter account gaining support for $11,316 which ruffled a few community feathers.  Ethereum’s co creator Vitalik Buterin’s own analysis hints at future community discussions regarding a clearer community consensus on public goods (should a twitter account be a public good?) voting asymmetries (perhaps the need of ‘for’ and ‘against’ votes), some kind of project ‘goodness’ barometer and more research into fighting collusion by making donation amounts non disclosable.   To think that the incoming rounds might follow up with further experimentation is not only a good indication of the fluid nature required of this type of work, but also exhibits a healthy willingness to adapt quickly.

Photograph © Oladimeji Odunsi | Art by R. Kumar

Third time's a charm

Recently, you might have let a certain announcement slide. IOHK, a blockchain infrastructure research and engineering outfit, is to deploy a multi-pronged solution in Ethiopia, using their Cardano blockchain in partnership with the country's Ministry of Education.  Atala PRISM is an ambitious new decentralized identity solution is planned to become one of its chief components.  A 5 million strong student centric records system will pave the way for better authentication, data empowerment and a more frictionless route to work.  A new light wallet, Yoroi, should provide fast and secure access to the blockchain’s native currency - ADA, thus enabling future applications in people's day to day lives. A concurrent partnership with World Mobile seeks to bring mobile internet to remote, hard to reach areas across Tanzania and Ethiopia.  Whilst still in trial, it promises additional connectivity to Atala Prism enveloping access to utilities such as healthcare and other essential services. This is a grand mission and only time will tell if it comes into fruition.  What it does do is provide compelling evidence of a kind of a coming of age of this awkward child of the internet era. It snuck in through the back window right into the mainstream vernacular;  they’re here, asking big questions and more importantly, they’re leading through action.   

Aside from quadratic models there are other applications.  The Binance Charity Foundation is out to build trust in the charity sector by committing to a 100% transparent cryptocurrency donations platform with the ability to submit to individual beneficiaries. The Rainforest Foundation is deploying smart contracts to get funds to indigenous communities of Buen Jardin de Callarú in Peru as they work to protect their rainforests.  Efforce is a decentralized energy solution from co-apple founder Steve Wozniak. It looks to establish itself as a “platform that allows everyone to participate and benefit financially from worldwide energy efficiency projects, and create meaningful environmental change." JavaScript father Brendan Eich’s new Brave Browsers is taking on privacy by offering an empowering internet experience that blocks all sorts of unwanted website behaviours whilst supporting audiences and creators with their new Basic Attention Tokens (BAT) ecosystem.  Users are put in control of their data as they browse the web whilst earning frequent-flyer type tokens by engaging with curated brand content. The new token system allows for direct donations to sites and the ability to trade tokens for other cryptocurrencies.  The health sector, music streaming, art world, and new social media platforms are all areas where exciting developments are underway. All these initiatives point to brands all united by the common guiding principles of improving public wellbeing, playing fair, building trust and challenging our current concepts of value.

Thinking about value

Value can manifest in many forms, one of which is money. Yes, money is both a common measure and an accepted store of value, but let’s come at this from a different angle: say we consider money as a tool, this tool functions inside a larger framework we call language. Language (or in scientific lingo, distinctions) allow us to organise and make sense of our world. What happens to the type of language we use as we begin to make sense and organise the new digital worlds we are driving towards?  

Our machines and the way we interact with them is evolving fast.  You could easily argue that sandbox worlds like Fortnite are no longer just videogames but have grown into their very own kind of social media.  They connect people.  In Fornite's digital world your in-game avatar can be part of shared one off experiences like Hip Hop superstar Travis Scott’s critically lauded ‘Astronomical concert’  last year. This is a hint of things to come. The mind starts racing away when imagining what our latest generational leap in horsepower and user interfaces will mean for the type of worlds we will soon find ourselves making sense of.  Perhaps it’s not too presumptuous to think that as we continue to interact with machines and digital worlds in new ways,  our stores of value and “instruments of commerce” might need to not only keep up, they may also need to take on new forms entirely.  In relation to blockchains, you could put forward a strong case that networks like Ethereum and Cardano are already well on the way to doing exactly this. Creative tokens of value, cultural behaviours and self governing mechanisms are setting up future discussions around the fascinating area of digital countries. How public goods might factor into all of this is also a compelling line of enquiry.

It also begs the question, are we predictable enough to allow data and algorithms to dictate our futures so heavily? By no means are we homo-economicus: there is plenty of evidence to  prove we can be inconsistent, self-sacrificing acts are not unheard of, and utility maximisation isn’t always our first port of call.  As we become more dependent on new digital systems, will they be able to successfully translate and understand the intricacies of human behaviour both individual and social? 

Photograph © Jimi Malmberg | Art by R. Kumar

Now what?

Blockchain technology warrants excitement. It also warrants more understanding.  The embedded cultural goals of the platform present a new playing field where transparency and accountability reign supreme.  In this world, what you do actually counts. As a brand, it’s worth asking how you're ‘why?’ will sit in this young culture and how can you contribute to the community in a meaningful way?  Public goods are important. “public goods contribute to social inclusion, they support the generation of the public, and they strengthen a shared sense of citizenship” *Angela Kallhoff. Clearly public goods are an important part of the discussion in the blockchain community and one which brands entering the space should be very aware of.

There is room for development, yet day by day this abstract technology is only becoming less mysterious.  The potential to tackle today's important questions in optimistic new ways is exciting, and who knows, these new platforms could very well be the stage on which some of our most engrossing social experiments play out.  Blockchains allow a generation to harness their new technological superpowers to avoid their visions of dystopian futures.  With the web at their fingertips, the shift from consumer to creator has been striking. People don’t want everything plated, they don’t want you to simply sell. People’s expectations of the roles and responsibilities of brands are shifting, they are asking new questions, and therein lie the biggest opportunities.

Photograph © Brian McGowan from Kennedy Space Center | Art by R. Kumar

References & Further Materials

The Wellness Report, Ogilvy
Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems, Elinor Ostrom
A History of Money From Ancient Times to the Present Day, Glyn Davies
Decentralization: New Modes of Governance and Administrative Responsibility, Duco Bannink1 and Ringo Ossewaarde
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell
The robustness of Quadratic Voting, Glen Weyl
Maps of Bounded Rationality: A Perspective of Intuitive Judgement and Choice, Daniel Kahneman
Why Societies Need Public Goods, Angela Kallhof
Sources of Power, How People Make decisions, Gary Klein
Moonwalking With Einstein, Joshua Foer
The Status of Linguistics as a Science, E. Sapir
An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith
Sources of Power: How People Make decisions, Gary A. Klein
Inside Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement: Twenty-Four Days in a Student-Occupied Parliament, and the Future of the Region, Ian Rowen
Voting Squared: Quadratic Voting in Democratic Politics, Eric A Psner, Glen Weyl
Quadratic Payments: A Primer, Vitalik Buterin
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