Technological innovation is exciting. It is also inherently political - On decentralised governance with Kelsie Nabben

Hello! We’re back with another interesting conversation - this time with decentralised technology communities researcher Kelsie Nabben. She’s a PhD researcher at the RMIT University Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making & Society and leads governance research at BlockScience. You can read some of her writing on the cataclysmia of digital infrastructure on her Substack blog.

You’re a researcher in decentralised technology communities and have delved into many subjects while doing your PhD. What got you interested in decentralised technologies in the first place?

The idea of distributed consensus (meaning, participatory infrastructure that was shared by everybody) and the broader social implications of these technologies. I had worked in impact tech startups, where I was exposed to entrepreneurs that believed that the next battery or breed of agriculture was a way to create massively scalable global change. Crypto[graphy and currency] fell in that category in my view.

I’m very fortunate to have landed on my feet, meaning I’m surrounded by extremely intelligent, encouraging peers from numerous disciplines and locales that constantly push the development of my research skills and practice in the space. For anyone feeling like they have plateaued in the space or not sure where to look, I’d encourage them to dive into the legal and regulatory policy updates (fun, I know), or read historical papers and texts on the technology, the characters, and the ideologies. This field is ever expanding with always more to learn.

On your Substack you write about lots of different issues but they all seem to have a common denominator: how do we get these decentralised solutions to work in favour of us. Why is this so important?

Technological innovation is exciting. It is also inherently political. People bring their worldviews to design, and others still have to live in these infrastructures. Being an ethnographer (broadly, the study of social dynamics and social outcomes of these technologies), I have the opportunity to contribute in a way that emphasises the human elements of these systems. One aspect of this at the moment is the relationship between humans and algorithms, what this is envisaged to be, what happens in practice, and the practical outcomes of that. Anthropology has had a traditional important role in technology design in providing reflexivity - acknowledging the role of the designer in the design (but it’s no silver bullet). I have done research on this with Michael Zargham from BlockScience (see this piece on reflexivity, a high-level introduction to second-order cybernetics, and a forthcoming piece on ‘The Ethnography of a DAO’ for EPIC).

As mentioned, a large part of your research centers around decentralised technology communities. How do these communities differ from more ‘traditional’ ones we find ourselves in?

I don’t think we even lump decentralised technology communities into one thing. In general, I define them as those interested in opensource, encrypted, and architecturally decentralised digital infrastructures. But they are heterogenous (and vary on the level of care for each of those attributes even). I’m not sure if they differ, or they evolve from. There is a rich history and some fantastic writing on opensource software culture, cryptographers and Cypherpunks (some I’m working on myself on this!), and hackers. Decentralised technology communities stem from these origins, and care about decentralized infrastructures today. The tools have changed (or merged). The counter-cultural ideology has not.

What do you see as the biggest challenges that decentralised governance can present to the communities that take part in it?

I have a piece coming out in a special collection on “Web3” arguing that the biggest challenge of decentralised governance is figuring out “how to infrastructure”. In the literature, “to infrastructure” is the activities, processes of integrated materials, tools, methods and practices that make up and change an infrastructure (Star & Bowker, 2010). Infrastructuring is an ongoing, iterative, process of doing. If it’s coordinated infrastructure decentralised technology communities want (meaning participatory, self-governed, autonomous structures that support the everyday activities and interactions of society at scale), this is not new, and has not yet been ‘solved’ by people. We all need to go back and read Plato.

What do you think is missing from current models of decentralized governance and what area of DAOs’ operations do you think should receive more attention from researchers?

It’s incredibly demanding and energy consuming to be in a project. Researchers have the important role of theory and analysis, to work in conjunction with communities on pioneering these tools, from multiple disciplinary perspectives. The types of innovations that are occuring in governance are extremely nascent, and also fast-paced. Some things that could assist are stronger conceptual frameworks and methodological tools (I co-wrote a piece with Zargham on just one model from cybernetics called Viable System Model on this and have developed a number of my own on resilience in decentralised technologies and vulnerability mapping in DAOs, more analysis of history (of governance, digital organising, and technology) - shout out to Metagov open research network on online communities that I’m a part of on this, DAO Research Collective, and SCRF), more analysis of governance in other participatory communities (for more see my paper on cooperatives and data trusts), and more ground work with the people and communities that are imagined as users of these systems (for more see my paper on IPFS).

You’re the leader of the BlockScience governance research team that has recently published a report on the User-Defined Organization idea. How does the UDO relate to broader decentralized governance theories and your concerns with DAOs?

In title only! I can hardly say that I ‘lead’ the governance research team. They are brilliant humans across a range of domains, including economics, data science, data engineering, and of course, ethnography. I get to help facilitate a space where the team can follow their interests and create research, design work, and analysis, as well as find other amazing humans to collaborate with and complex problems to work on. BlockScience is a bit of an enigma in this sense because each project is bespoke and engages the right team members, but it’s primary research, industry practice, iteration, and contributions to opensource (both research and software).

Wildland was a privilege to work on. The project came out of Golem Foundation, extremely values driven and well-regarded Founders. In terms of theoretical framing, we’ve developed a methodology to analyse resilience in decentralised organizations, specifically through vulnerabilities analysis in organisations like DAOs, which we have applied to important projects in the public blockchain ecosystem, such as Lido.

For the Wildland UDO project, we adapted some of this thinking to focus specifically on the proposed concepts of ‘User-Defined-Organization’ and ‘Proof-of-Usage’. UDO is an attempt to experiment further with token governance. This is important for the space to move past some of the issues with token voting in DAOs. In our analysis, we highlight the challenges of shared purpose among diverse stakeholders, incentive alignment, and creating meaningful participatory governance. In our second post, we engaged the expertise of Eric Alston to explore principles of constitutional public finance for collectively coordinating the expenditure of shared funds. This post highlights the need to constrain how funds can be spent to avoid the threat of capture by special interest groups.

In general, we are enthusiastic about the prospects of Wildland protocol to change how data is owned and managed on the internet, and hope to continue to explore how users may be able to define and accrue value in conjunction with this protocol to create viable patterns of decentralised organisation.

What is the most important piece of advice you would give to people who want to design a new model for a decentralised organisation?

Some of the best advice I’ve gotten in the decentralised technology space is to “do what is intellectually honest and intuitively right”. To me, this is about knowing your why, and sticking to it.

I talked about this more in my recent appearance on the Law of Code podcast: “I take research as an opportunity to provide a reflection back to communities. (…) To be a part in contributing to some of those conversations or providing feedback on them, or maybe even influencing people towards these communities; I see that as an honest and meaningful contribution from from my little bit of work and thinking and writing.”

More generally, I think project’s without a compelling purpose come and go, and the ones that stay, evolve, or get revived are the ones that are genuine in their pursuit of new infrastructural possibilities. Clearly defining the shared purpose of a project (such as a decentralised organisation) is mission critical. It’s your north star. The UDO research was about this - what incentives and behaviours are necessarily aligned to the core purpose of this organisation, and what are the peripheral or additional goals that arose along the way.