Blockchain Technology: Owning Is the New Sharing

Nathan Schneider writes about the future of work at sharable.net. He combines a lot of stuff I’ve been concerned with this year; ideas about the sharing economy, cryptocurrency, and other stuff (concentration of power in big companies, the NSA, and so on). He organizes these thoughts around the notion of “a subtle insurgency taking place, one of bylaws, financing schemes, and ownership structures”.

There are many ways to own. Simply giving up on ownership, however, will mean that those who actually do own the tools that we rely on to share will control them. People who want an economy of genuine sharing are coming to recognize that they must embrace ownership — and, as they do, they’re changing what owning means altogether.

One important point Schneider makes is to sort out some terminology. There has been a lot of buzz about “the sharing economy”, but ““The sharing economy has become the on-demand economy,” laments Antonin Léonard,” in which “The line between workers and customers has never been so blurry.”

“One kind of narrative is that a more collaborative, less unequal future will happen almost by itself.” As in the zero marginal cost society.  Some imagine that local cooperatives will “swoop in and spread the wealth.” But really, “People are recognizing that doing business differently will require changing who gets to own what.”

(“Well, duh!” says this old bolshie, properly raised in pseudo-Marxist political economics.)

Schneider has some  interesting ideas here, efforts to use the open and decentralized technology to foster open source and other collaborative enterprises, and “real sharing”, which means ownership (i.e., worker owned coops).

  • Loomio  – out of the Occupy movement, implementing software to do distributed consensus decision making
  • Sovolve – “contributors decide how much they want to be paid in cash and how much in equity” “Their virtual workplace is gamified”
  • Sensorica  – Open Value Networks, decentralized companies, open, transparent. “The whole company, not just the product, is open source — sharing not just code but profits.”

These ideas about worker ownership are not new at all, but cryptocurrency and blockchains may offer some technical (and cost) advantages.[1,2] Creating Distributed Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) should, in principle, make “collective ownership a lot easier than a conventional legal structure.”  In fact, the technology may be too useful, because it offers opportunities to redesign so many aspects of organizations and sharing, all at the same time.

However, this is scarcely a guaranteed result, and we know that “Bitcoin’s micro-economy holds the dubious distinction of being more unequal than the global economy as a whole”.

Unfortunately, it looks to me like one thing that blockchains and cryptocurrency can’t do is actually make an unsustainable enterprise sustainable. While there is plenty of talk about the cost savings of decentralized organizations, and schemes for “monetizing” various activities in new ways. But there don’t seem to be any examples of a successful enterprise on this model.

Perhaps it is telling that some of these initiatives come out of the Occupy movement—remember that—which also does not seem to have been sustainable. It remains to be seen if we can develop sustainable models, and if so, what role blockchains may play.


 

  1. Swarm, Distributed Collaborative Organisations: Distributed Networks & Regulatory Frameworks. 2015. https://www.scribd.com/doc/255347578/SWARM-Working-Paper-Distributed-Networks-and-the-Law
  2. Vigna, Paul and Michael J. Casey, The Age of Cryptocurrency: How Bitcoin and Digital Money Are Challenging the Global Economic Order, New York, St Martin’s Press, 2015.

 

Cryptocurrency Thursday

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