Category Archives: Sociotechnical

Confusing ‘Blockchain’ Projects

“Blockchain technology” is becoming a term with a variety of meanings, some of which have little to do with blocks or chains.

This month Microsoft released a variation on the theme, “proof of authority”.  This concept is a consensus protocol that works on a “permissioned” network, i.e., all the parties have to be registered and therefore are “trusted” to some degree.  Because the parties are vetted, there is no need for the grievous waste of mining.

These features are definitely not Nakamotoan, but they allow the construction of robust decentralized applications similar to the idea of basic blockchains—at a fraction of the computing cost, in principle.

Things are further confused by the fact that this system is deployed on Microsoft’s Azure cloud [1]—the antithesis of the Nakamotoan open, peer-to-peer network.  For example, there is something they call an identity leasing system” (definitely a “centralized” concept), and the usual cloud services that assure high availability, so that, for instance, “[i]n the case of a VM or regional outage, new nodes can quickly spin up and resume the previous nodes’ identities.”   I’m not sure that that means, but it ain’t exactly the classic Nakamotoan open peer-to-peer internet.

Diagram from Microsoft documentation: a network of admins who run the network.  This is surely a non-Nakamotoan architecture.

On the other hand, this system is implemented on top of Ethereum, in the form of “smart contracts” (in fact, adapted from Parity).  So, in between the non-Nakamotoan cloud and the non-Nakamotoan consensus protocol, lies the very Nakamotoan Ethereum network and its school-of-Nakamoto executable contracts.

So, should this be considered a ‘blockchain’ system, or not?  I dunno.

As an engineer, I wonder what the advantage of using Ethereum is.  Obviously, in a permissioned network, it is possible to deploy whatever virtual machine you want. In fact, the system is implemented in VMs on Azure.  So what is the benefit of using Ethereum qua Ethereum?  I dunno.

Is it mainly for fault tolerance?  Microsoft documentation suggests that this might be true:

[I]n private/consortium networks the underlying Ether has no value. An alternative protocol, proof-of-authority, is more suitable for permissioned networks where all consensus participants are known and reputable. Without the need for mining, Proof-of-authority is more efficient while still retaining Byzantine fault tolerance.”

Along those lines, I also wonder what the performance of this wonky hybrid stack really is. The point of the ‘proof of authority’ protocol is efficiency, and using the cloud provides resiliency and robustness and maybe a kind of “trustlessness”.

So, is the overhead of Ethereums’ protocol worthwhile?  How do these layers interact anyway?  Is the “trustless” network relevant, given the “trusted” layer below and above it?

Interesting times.  Baffling. But interesting.

  1. codyborn and Pat Altimore, Ethereum proof-of-authority consortium, in Microsoft Azure – Blockchain Workbench. 2018.
  2. Wolfie Zhao (2018) Microsoft Rolls Out ‘Proof-of-Authority’ Ethereum Consensus on Azure. Coindesk,


Cryptocurrency Thursday

A Robot Begs For It’s Life. How Do You Respond?

With the rise of social robots, we are now seeing a wave of social robot psychology.  This is kind of neat, since we have more than six centuries of experimental social psychology that we can reprise with robots in the picture.

As discussed earlier, we can do ‘person perception’ studies of many kinds.  But we can also investigate pretty much everything else. (Heck there is an entire conference on “interpersonal attraction” with robots.)

This month researchers from Germany report a study that parallels studies of empathy [1].  The participants interacted with a robot which used more and less human like social signals. When the interaction was over and the robot was to be switched off, some of the robots objected, and asked not to be turned off.

The general hypothesis here is that the more human-like a robot’s interaction, the more it will be unconsciously treated like a human.  The researchers cite quite a few studies that generally support this idea (including a reprise of the Milgram obedience studies, with a robot victim).

The act of turning off a robot can be interpreted in different ways.  In particular, “turning off” a human implies a very significant and potentially harmful act, compared to turning off a machine which can be turned back on without harm.

The addition of the robot’s “objection” to being turned off is yet another cue to humanity, indicating autonomy and self-protection.  To the degree that the robot is perceived as “human”, a person might feel stronger empathy toward the plea to not be turned off.

The results showed that people hesitated or refused to turn off the robot more often when it behaved socially, and when it objected.  This is further evidence of the influence of social behaviors on the perception of robots, and indicates that autonomous behavior is a potent cue.

This is an interesting study.  (And the paper has a number of interesting references, too.)

However, I think the researchers should consider some additional points.

First of all, they repeatedly assert that the “switching off” action does not correspond to human interactions.

“The switching off situation of the current study does not occur between human interaction partners.” ([1], p. 16)

I would argue that there are quite a few situations that are analogous.  Turning away from a stranger in distress. Terminating a conversation (e.g., “there is nothing more to say.  Good bye.”)  Denying service. Firing or ejecting a person.  And so on. These actions do not “kill” the person literally, but effectively “kill” them socially.

So this experimental interaction may be a lot more representative than the researchers think.

Second, as I suggested above, this situation might be seen to be influenced by empathy for the victim.  Discomfort with turning off the robot might reflect a question of “how would feel if someone wanted to turn me off.”  To the degree that the robot is human (and likable), the subjects may identify with its plight.

This leads to the vexed topic of race.  As discussed earlier, the appearance of the robot may be (unconsciously) perceived as a racial class, with accompanying behaviors.  Interracial interactions are often characterized by less empathy, among other unfortunate features.

In this study, I cannot help but notice that the victim is a white robot.  And the subjects are young adults living in Europe, and therefore clearly part of a racially mixed culture, with considerable racial tension.  Inevitably, I have to speculate that robots with different color skins would be perceived as more and less likable, and would be more and less likely to be turned off, regardless of an objection.

So, there is a very obvious follow up experiment….

  1. Aike C. Horstmann, Nikolai Bock, Eva Linhuber, Jessica M. Szczuka, Carolin Straßmann, and Nicole C. Krämer, Do a robot’s social skills and its objection discourage interactants from switching the robot off? PLOS ONE, 13 (7):e0201581, 2018.


Robot Wednesday

What is Coworking? It’s All About Community Leadership

Coworking is all about community, community, community.

But this community doesn’t happen by chance or arise spontaneously.

As discussed in Chapter 5 of my book [2] “What is Coworking?”, the contemporary coworking phenomenon is characterized by a cadre of community leaders, who combine roles and skills from a number of other professions.  The success of a coworking space and its community depends on great community leadership.

This month Sensei Cat Johnson illustrates this point in “An Open Letter to Community Managers”, which is surely addressed to her own community leaders [1].

As usual, Sensei Cat says it so much better than I could.


“Without you, this whole coworking thing would fall apart.”

Sensei Cat calls out many roles these professional “community managers” play in her coworking space, including technical IT support, orienting new workers, and office management.  The “manager” also organizes social events (“what about those happy hours we all roll into without much thought”), deals with personal conflicts, talks to everyone, and generally “connects’ everyone.

“You balance badass, cruise director, networker extraordinaire and all around kind/thoughtful/fun person, and you do it with style and flair.”

Besides the vital social glue that is so important to the happiness and well being of the workers, the community leader fosters networking and collaboration, which is one of the key benefits workers find in their coworking space.

“Your knack for connecting people has led to more collaborations and friendships than we could ever count.”

Indeed, these leaders create and sustain the community, and really are the heart of a coworking community.  As Sensei Cat puts it.

“You are the face and maestro of our community.”

As usual, she says it so much better than I could.

But if you want to read my own exposition of this topic and a lot more, please read my new book [2].  Available from several sources.

  1. Cat Johnson, An Open Letter to Community Managers, in Cowroking Out Loud. 2018.
  2. Robert E. McGrath, What is Coworking? A look at the multifaceted places where the gig economy happens and workers are happy to find community. 2018, Robert E. McGrath: Urbana.



What is Coworking?

A New Safety Net for the New Way of Work

The New Way of Work is a jobless economy, inhabited by independent workers, living from gig to gig.  The security of a full time job is becoming a luxury item, along with the social safety net that was built around employment.

Freelancers are on their own, it seems.

Well then, there is nothing to do other than do it ourselves.  Si, Su Puede!

One response to this disaster opportunity is the Freelancers Union,  “Building a better future for independent workers”. **

To date, the number one priority of the FU has been to *get freaking paid for work done*, AKA, “#FreelanceIsntFree.

A close second must surely be access to health insurance and other safety nets.  This is a mountain we have to climb, but it isn’t easy.

we need a safety net and now is the time to do something about it.

The FU has been offering portable insurance and savings plans for several years, though much of that was only available to residents of New York City.  Obviously, that’s not even close to what we need.

This month Sara Horowitz, the retired founder of the FU, has announced a new initiative, tagged Trupo, “Let’s build a new safety net”.  This is, she says,  “Future of Work 2.0: Building the Next Safety Net”. [2]  (Sigh—I’m already out of date, still worrying about the Future of Work, V1.0 : – ))

The idea is simple: this is basic disability insurance, designed for (and by) independent workers.  The implementation is said to be inspired by contemporary digital technology, including GoFundMe campaigns.

The Trupo effort is partly owned by the FU, in partnership with venture capital.  The underlying theory is that independent workers banding together can create their own safety net.

I hope so.

While I am seriously skeptical of “an insurtech startup building new infrastructure for the mobile workforce”  (in this case, literally “portable” benefits), I am somewhat reassured by the involvement of the FU.  This isn’t quite worker owned, but the FU is clearly on our side and not out to rake off huge profits from workers.  (But I hope they have real actuaries involved, and don’t rely on the FU’s shaky statistics.)

Fingers crossed, we can make this happen.

**Disclosure:  I am a proud member of the FU.

  1. Sara Horowitz, Future of Work 2.0: Building the Next Safety Net, in Medium – @sara horowitz. 2018.
  2. Sara Horowitz, A new solution for episodic income, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2018.


Blockchain Voting is not Democratic

On-chain voting fundamentally degrades to plutocracy” [1]

Well, duh!

That’s the whole idea of cryptocurrency, isn’t it?

This summer, a group of researchers at Cornell look at “on chain” voting and find many fundamental flaws [1].  Aside from the “one dollar, one vote” fundamentals, voting via “smart contracts” is vulnerable to, wait for it, vote buying.  *Gasp*  Who saw that coming?

Look, voting is all about trust.  Any voting beyond a group of people you know personally involves protocols for assuring trust in the votes. So why would a “trustless” blockchain be a good way to accomplish that?

It’s not exactly that simple, of course.  If you can establish adequate protocols to create trust where you need it, then a blockchain might be a useful tool for reliably broadcasting and archiving the results and other important data.  But a blockchain per se doesn’t make a voting scheme “fair” or “free” or anything else without good protocols on top.

And a blockchain is only a useful tool to the degree that it can be “trusted” to not screw up the intentions of the protocols.

The point of the article is that the very design of blockchains is inherently susceptible to several kinds of mischief and cheating.  Worse, the cheating would be invisible and, in that unique blockchain-way, irreversible.

Electronic voting has been studied for decades, and the research shows that it is extremely difficult to get right.  Academic research also shows that they require trusted third parties.  Blockchain voting schemes generally ignore this research, and, in any case, permissionless blockchains cannot implement coercion-free voting.

“The blockchain space today, with predictable results, continues its tradition of ignoring decades of study and instead opts to implement the most naive possible form of voting: directly counting coin-weighted votes in a plutocratic fashion, stored in plain text on-chain.”

(Predictably, the Coindesk report cites a number of such dismissive comments about this report itself [2].)

One of the obvious attacks is vote buying.  This is particularly easy if the voters are weakly authenticated as in many blockchain polls.  The speed and flexibility of blockchains also means that vote buying (perhaps in the form of splitting the payout from the result) are easy to do, and potentially hard to document.

“Vote buying marketplaces can be run efficiently and effectively using the same powerful tool for administering elections: smart contracts.”

It is also interesting to see that trusted hardware is an excellent tool for manipulating blockchain voting.  This is ironic, but actually makes sense.  The purpose of trusted hardware is to constrain and coerce the user to use only certain software and certain behaviors.  A system that say, enforces digital rights, can also enforce an illicit vote buying scheme.  The trusted hardware makes it easier to collude.

The paper describes the design of “hidden” DAOs which autonomously suborn voters, collecting and paying for votes.  This a “dark” DAO, in that the participants and operations can be hidden from everyone.  Thus, these attacks both manipulate the election and serve to deligitimize the process, due to the influence of unknown and undetectable attackers.

The paper discusses a fascinating attack, using blockchains to attack voting, including the consensus process itself (mining), in other blockchains.  This basically amounts to bigger fish-eating littler ones.  It’s actually a pretty important point:

“in a world with only one smart contract system, Ethereum, internal incentives may lead to stable equilibria. With two players, and the underdog incentivized to launch a bribery attack to destroy their competitors, such equilibria can be disrupted, changed, and destroyed.”

In general, the researchres find that blockchain voting degenerates to plutocracy—one dollar one vote.  Specifically, “all on-chain voting schemes where users can generate their own keys outside of a trusted environment inherently degrade to plutocracy”. This is scarcely surprising, since the creators and implementers of blockchains generally subscribe to this aspect of “libertarian” politics, and thus do not see any problem with excluding practically all of the world from decision making, nor with letting founders, scammers, and criminals have vast voting power.

The paper summarizes the core findings in six points:

  1. Permissionless e-voting *requires* trusted hardware.
  2. The space of voting and coordination mechanisms is massive and extremely poorly understood.
  3. The same class of vote buying attacks works for any identity system.
  4. On-chain voting fundamentally degrades to plutocracy.
  5. Hard fork-based governance provides users the only exit from such plutocracy.
  6. Multiple blockchains interacting can break the incentive compatibility of all chains.

And, as noted, they call attention to the important question of the (real) world of multiple blockchains.

“A critical and surprisingly underexplored open area of research is modelling the macroeconomics of competition between blockchains, gaining insight into how exactly such internal equilibria can fail.”

I’ll point out that at the very foundation, voting requires trust:  trust in the process and trust in the results.  Conventional voting systems expend great efforts authenticating voters, assuring fair access to the process (e.g., setting questions), and validating the results.  Proper voting authorities work hard to create trust in the process.  Critically, voting authorities take responsibility for the process.  Responsibility is really important for creating a trusted system, don’t you think?

Blockchains are “trustless”, which means that they not only don’t help with the central problem of voting, but are actually the wrong technology.  To hold trustworthy votes with blockchain, the process will generally replicate many features of non-blockchain systems (authentication of voters, certification of results), but the blockchain isn’t useful for these processes.  And, by the way, the trust in the whole system depends on the whole, end-to-end, process, of which blockchain is a tiny part.

These problems matter quite a bit because the governance of these blockchains is based on these forms of voting.  As we have seen, Nakamotoan consensus doesn’t necessarily work very well when big money is on the line.  This paper suggests that these failures may be partly due to the flawed, non-democratic nature of blockchain voting.  And the paper suggests that the very core consensus process is vulnerable to deliberate manipulation.  Yoiks.

These problems also matter because many people look to blockchains as a mechanism for creating a fairer, more democratic economy and society  (e.g., here, here, here, here, to mention only a few). Sometimes this sentiment is driven by a deep distrust of conventional authorities, often well earned.  But even so, replacing a corrupt political process with a technical system that is susceptible to corrupt manipulation is not actually a solution.

A blockchain is a trustless system.  Noone should trust trustless elections.

It’s just that simple.

  1. Philip Daian, Tyler Kell, Ian Miers, and Ari Juels, On-Chain Vote Buying and the Rise of Dark DAOs, in Hacking Distributed Blog. 2018.
  2. Rachel Rose O’Leary (2018) The ‘Dark DAO’ Threat: Vote Vulnerability Could Undermine Crypto Elections. Coindesk,


Cryptocurrency Thursday

Directed Evolution for Social Change?

I’m not sure I know what to make of these folks.  The Institute for Evolutionary Leadership  asks “Are You Ready to Redesign the World?” (I wasn’t the least bit surprised to see that they are headquartered in Oakland—it’s a very Bay Area thing.)

Their web site is a bit hard to follow.  They aren’t asking for money, and you have to apply to join—they are not trying to amass a vast, shallow “community”.  So what are they up to?

The “evolution” part is about slow, long-term change, with an image of the new displacing the old as generations pass.

But unlike natural evolution, this is actually a directed design effort, aiming to “redesign our world and make it more just, sustainable, and flourishing.”  Actually, its focused on the redesigning the human social world (not, say, technical development)

redesigning the very worldviews, cultures, and institutions we were taught to accept for granted and strive to succeed in.

Long term, I get.  “Redesigning” worldviews, I get (but I worry about it). Calling it “evolution” I don’t really get.  I’m not a big fan of intelligent design theories, or fantasies about directed evolution.

However, a recent article by the group in Sharable makes some interesting points [1].  With an interest in “systemic” changes, they know that you have to go wide and long, and probably work outside conventional institutions.

“genuine systemic transformation but are generally not supported by the current cultures and institutions of influence”

This is what we used to call “nonviolent revolution”.

Living in the Bay Area, they are immersed in the “start up culture”, which promises quick fixes and global scaled solutions.  This group seems to reject these attitudes.

“Worshiping laser focus and low-context scalability can be very dangerous in social innovation.”

“Looking for solutions that are easy to scale without bothering with nuances of local contexts confines us to a very limited set of cultural narratives and institutional structures that have achieved global domination and can often support such scaling only at the expense of the integrity of our work.”

Hear! Hear!

The Sharable article also talks about “Depth of intervention”, “Inner work”, and “Beauty”. As I said, IEL is very Californian.

One wonders what happens at their workshops, because a lot of the incoming participants look like they were steeped in contemporary technology and design thinking.  Are they successfully redirecting these energies into more “evolutionary” paths?

For example, one of their challenge finalists was interested in using blockchain technology to redesign money. (Apparently, it also has something to do with “lifestyle as a service” [3].  Sigh.)

I wonder what the advice was for this project.  Redesigning money is certainly radical, but I wouldn’t bet on blockchain as a long-term technology. And blockchain is the very paradigm of something that is “easy to scale without bothering with nuances of local contexts”.

My own view of this project is that there are interesting ideas here, but they would be better off designing the concept first, and picking technology later.

So, overall these guys seem to have some good instincts as far as resisting the temptations of Silicon Valley style “world domination”.  But it’s very hard to know exactly what they are really accomplishing.  And, as a veteran nonviolent revolutionary, I can say that its not as simple as just have a good idea.  The “bad ideas” are not passively waiting to be replaced, they are actively fighting anything that might change them.

And, of course, whatever this is, the term “evolution” seems a misnomer.  Evolution is not something that is “led”, nor is it designed.

(On the other hand, the term “evolution” doesn’t scare the pantaloons off the powers-that-be quite the way the word “revolution” does.)

  1. Institute for Evolutionary Leadership (2018) Evolutionary work at the edge of social innovation. Sharable,
  2. Institute for Evolutionary Leadership. What We Do. 2018,
  3. Ray Podder. Evolutionary Future Challenge: Ray Podder, Free Your Life. 2017.

CryptoTulip of the Year: Ethereum Could Repeat

As noted last week, “The ICO” is clearly a strong candidate for this year’s not-at-all-coveted “CryptoTulip of the Year” award.

But it would be a mistake to count out last year’s winner, Ethereum, for a repeat.  For one thing, everything that carried Ethereum to recognition is still happening.  In particular, the Great Oopsie of 2017 is still unresolved, with no resolution in sight.

Nor is the underlying governance crisis settled. In fact, no progress has been made this year [2].   One “innovation” this year has been the “Council of Ethereum Magicians”, <<ink earlier>> which seeks to solve the dilemmas of deadlocked democracy through an unelected group of technocrats, Philosopher Kings.  In this, Ethereum recapitulates Plato’s Republic, described circa 380BCE.  This is also the secret of “success” for the European Union (see [3]) and the Euro.

Of course, Ethereum is also the platform of choice for ICOs, as well as many other crypto manias, including flat out Ponzi schemes and  even an assassination market. There is nothing quite like fraud built on top of a faulty technical platform, with no one in charge!  It’s bogosity all the way down!

“Larry Cermak, an analyst, described the situation on Sunday as “depressing.”

“”Legitimate use cases like [decentralized exchanges] and prediction markets are not gaining any traction while scams and useless games are thriving,” Cermak tweeted.” (quoted in [4])

It’s going to be a very competitive race for this year’s CryptoTulip Award.  We’ll see how the second half of the year plays out.

  1. Brady Dale and David Floyd (2018) Ponzi Games Are Breaking Out on the Ethereum Blockchain. Coindesk,
  2. Rachel Rose O’Leary (2018) Ethereum’s Most Heated Tech Debate Is Proving It’s Far From Over. Coindesk,
  3. Yanis Varoufakis, Adults in the Room: My Battle with the European and American Deep Establishment, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.
  4. Rachel Rose O’Leary (2018) What Scams? Ethereum’s Vision for Apps Is Only Growing Bolder. Coindesk,
  5. David Floyd (2018) The First Augur Assassination Markets Have Arrived. Coindesk,



Cryptocurrency Thursday