DAO Guilds: Establishing Territory

This piece was written in early 2019, commissioned by the V-A-C Foundation Moscow for their “Time, Forward!” show at the Venice Biennale. I came across it while going through files and thought it might be useful to post here, in light of exciting experimentation happening with tokenized DAO and Guild models, particularly building from the foundations of backchannel infrastructure such as Discord and Telegram. If you’re interested in having a physical copy to read, it was printed in this book with contributions from some great ppl.


Noble ideas of bringing digital platforms under collective control, or taming rampant platforms through collective action, have gathered popularity steadily over the past few years, fomented largely by a growth in consciousness over the manipulative and exploitative nature of advertising-driven freemium social media platforms such as Facebook.

More often than not, projects launched under this banner are constructive in diagnosing a problem, but fall short when attempting to remedy it. Demanding a wage from Facebook is helpful in creating consciousness over the digital labor that gives the platform its value, but stumbles when we learn that the average user’s data on Facebook is worth less than $200 a year. The ad-free “facebook killer,” Ello, commanded significant amounts of signups under the slogan “You are not a product,” however soon learned that the data collection practices that productize the platform’s user base also enable the algorithmically-driven customized feed that keeps people engaged with the service. Platforms like Facebook are entertaining, useful and resilient for much of the same reasons that they are toxic, mindless and destabilizing.

When contemplating alternatives, I generally opt to think outside of potential state action, as despite believing there is a strong case for antitrust and data protection legislation to tame the platform monopolies, I simply cannot foresee the reversal of what has transpired. For the same reasons that Facebook represents a threat to democracy, it is also perhaps the most insightful ally a government could hope for. These policy ambitions are ultimately outside of my control and experience, so I prefer to tinker with ideas within my grasp.

A great way to understand the platform monopolies is as cartographic entities. Google made maps of the web. Facebook makes maps of relationships between people and their interests. Maps are extremely valuable, particularly when only the platforms themselves have the tools and expertise necessary to read them fully; exponentially, so that new terrain is created from minute to minute. When an advertiser pays Facebook to reach an audience, they are led blindfolded — like journalists to a secret location — to their target. Only Facebook knows how to navigate that particular trade route. Data brokers such as Acxiom, who buy and sell data from third parties without your consent, can be seen as petty black-market merchants, piecing together alternative maps to sell to companies while hoping to construct their own competitive trade routes on the margins.

In the cartographic process, there are some participants whose activity is more valuable than others. Namely, those individuals on the fringes whose activity expands the map — consider such people as data pioneers, or frontier data subjects. If you are reading this and active in the arts, you may know a few of them: the visual artist who repurposes imagery from another era to contextually frame an emergent sociopolitical issue, the musician who marries inspiration from disparate decades to create a new sound and look. Under advert- driven platform capitalism, every new niche combination of interests, concretised into a new category by sustained and growing activity, creates a potential new trade route to sell people stuff.

The community that is first to combine a novel political interest with a novel genre of music, wearing a novel combination of clothing and congregating in novel destinations under the guise of a new subcultural trend, is in the business of expanding the map and navigating platforms (as well as their customers) to new territory. It is no great coincidence that the rise to supremacy of advertising platforms like Google and Facebook has been paralleled by a dramatic dissolution of the distance between artist and trend scout, such is the implicit value of navigation and discovery in this economy.

Internal to the platforms themselves, the data scientist assumes the role of navigator. User activity is collected in abstract form, but a data scientist is required to make sense of it, identify correlations and to formalize that intelligence into something traversable. According to the anonymous employee review company Glassdoor.com, the role of Data Scientist has been registered as the “best job in the United States” over the past three years, considering earning potential, job satisfaction and the number of available positions. So valuable are data scientists in this economy, some have pooled their talents into hybrid consultancies and product development hubs. Entities such as The Data Guild have emerged, in which a decentralized and membership-based group of experienced data scientists have gathered together to offer mission driven consulting services, focused on leveraging data insights to tackle wicked problems such as climate change and health. Simply the act of identifying the pivotal role that their skillsets play in making sense of abstract data affords the guild leverage to navigate organizations towards preferable paths of inquiry. By pairing conditional consultancy services with their own product development efforts, their message to platforms is compelling and clear: “we have the insight and capability to build an optimal path forward, with or without your involvement.”

While The Data Guild deviates in significant formal ways from a traditional Guild structure, it does hint at the potential of reviving the Guild as a viable form of collective association. Guild structures predate union structures by centuries, and can loosely be described as an association of decentralized artisans — a slight distinction from the role of the union as the standard-setting entity for workers employed by a particular industry or company. The Guild aspires to establish the dominion of a field, in contrast to the ambitions of unions that are largely limited to agreeing fair working conditions and compensation, under the dominion of employers. Guilds regulate access to a trade in accordance with collectively determined protocols of access and conduct. Guilds are the manifestation of the greatest fears of union critics. Guilds are cartels.

Artist impression of the corpora naviculariorum
Artist impression of the corpora naviculariorum

The earliest guilds appeared in Roman times. Relevant to the cartographic platform analogy, one of the first significant guilds to emerge was the corpora naviculariorum, or “association of skippers responsible for the food supply of Rome”. Skippers, or captains of privately held boats, were tasked with sourcing and transporting raw materials to fuel the Roman Empire through the port of Ostia. Guild membership was voluntary, and afforded the ability for the state to collectively bargain with a rotating cast of independent navigators. If they ceased to operate, Rome starved.

The Hanseatic League

A perhaps greater case study of Guild formation and dominion over pivotal trade ports can be found with the establishment of the Hanseatic League of Northern and Central Europe. Originating from guilds (Hansa) formed by German seafaring merchants who migrated to various locations along the Baltic Sea, The Hanseatic League was formally established in the 13th century from its capital of the Northern German port city of Lübeck. Hansa territory expanded rapidly, as merchants set sail to discover new towns for potential trade. Once a new territory was adjudged to be fruitful, merchants negotiated independent settlements with local authorities, who often obliged due to the compelling economic benefits of becoming a node in the trade network. These autonomous settlement trading depots stretched as far west as London and as far east as the Russian city of Novgorod, which saw great prosperity as a result of its Hansa membership, and was rescued from famine by the import of German bread. What transpired could almost have been considered a precursor to the Schengen Agreement, affording special free passage and free trade privileges to Hansa members.

The Hansa grew to dominate Northern European trade for three centuries, with guilds establishing their own armies and universities, collecting their own taxes, and operating for all intents and purposes like an abstract, decentralized state of agreements, securely fortified from the empires surrounding it.

I wonder what might be accomplished from artistic communities establishing new conceptions of the Guild configuration today. If one is to accept the analogy of artists as pivotal navigators under platform capitalism, then why not attempt to establish collective bargaining organizations for access to the fruits of this labor?

Varèse Guild drama
Varèse Guild drama

Guilds within the arts are nothing new. The Writers Guild of America West, for example, is a dues collection organization that negotiates rights for screenwriters in return for 1.5% of members’ declared earnings. The pioneering composer Edgard Varèse launched the International Composers Guild in the 1920s to establish industry standards and fundraise for the presentation of new musical works. More recently, W.A.G.E (Working Artists and the Greater Economy), was developed to collect member dues in order to bargain for standardized compensation for artists across certified partner organizations, such as museums and galleries. There are more innovative opportunities and building blocks, however, to spawn and proliferate new kinds of guilds around more abstract classifications, necessary due to the abstraction of labor under platform capitalism.

Beyond the hype, Blockchains have emerged as an efficient and resilient means for the decentralized coordination of kindred groups. One perspective on Blockchain futures suggests that they will signal a mass migration of users from the current reigning platform monopolies to decentralized consensus systems — which I have a hard time visualizing. Another, more conceivable, future is one of turbulent co-existence, not dissimilar to the relationship between the free settlement zones of the Hansa and their state hosts. You cannot extricate the formation of Blockchains from their libertarian origins, and as such they operate best as a separatist force, with their explicit focus on privacy, censorship resistance and financial autonomy: space for kin to plot and coordinate outside.

Moloch getting some air
Moloch getting some air

The first great gesture of the tokenized smart contract protocol, Ethereum, proposed a guild of sorts: the DAO, or Decentralised Autonomous Organisation. The first DAO began as a grand experiment in statelessness. To become a DAO member, an individual was invited to send Ether (the native cryptocurrency of the Ethereum ecosystem) to a smart contract, hardcoded to return DAO tokens equivalent to the value of their investment back to the wallet of the sender. These DAO tokens could then be used as votes to collectively determine how to spend the funds collected within the organization. There were multiple roles to play within the DAO that were regulated by small payment incentives drawn from the total pool of Ether. Developers tasked with maintaining the open source code of the DAO were compensated from DAO funds. Curators were elected to approve and nominate valid proposals for DAO funding, and contractors, once they had received approval from a majority of DAO token holders, would accept funds to further the mission of the group. All activities functioned autonomous of any one individual participant. The ideology and ruleset hardcoded into the DAO was therefore proposed as incorruptible and transparent, a principle stress tested when one clever attacker found a way to drain $50million worth of Ether from the pool of funds. Somewhat unsurprisingly, DAO members voted to invalidate the clever hack by altering the DAO code to reimburse the funds to their initial investors; a disagreement that ultimately led to the establishment of Ethereum Classic, a splinter protocol that opted to accept the loss, and continue to operate in line with the original vision of the Blockchain as an immutable record of transactions. Their perspective was that if code was indeed law, then any actions permitted within the code, however malicious, needed to be honored.

Despite these tumultuous origins, the field of secure Blockchains has matured significantly since the great DAO hack of 2016, and contemporary mutations of the DAO concept have emerged recently, learning from past mistakes. The Moloch DAO, a grant-making guild recently established by longstanding members of the Ethereum development community, minimizes security concerns by allowing members to vote to counteract illegitimate withdrawal of funds during a 7-day grace period. The viability of the DAO as guild increases with each passing week.

DAOs offer a means to reinvigorate the concept of traditional staples such as galleries, publications or record labels by introducing mechanisms to democratically curate and fund new works around a fluid membership base. In a DAO format, one can hardcode a mission statement, thus releasing an oracle, or autonomous agent, to manifest that vision in perpetuity. If a DAO (X) is encoded with the intention of rewarding an action (Y) with dues gathered from members (Z), it will execute the process for as long as there is sufficient activity to do so; it is an impregnable vending machine.

With DAO guild membership being as easy to adopt, and rescind, as a simple token transaction, it is possible to envisage the emergence of liquid ideological marketplaces which ingest, pool and distribute funds for all manner of causes — no less the hotly debated membership of new identities, mirroring the ways in which identity has come to be reconfigured and commodified under platform capitalism. One simply cannot claim an identity, one must agree to its protocol, or shop for a more satisfactory one.

One welcome benefit of such arrangements, under an easily audited protocol, is that such guilds might also serve as engines of good faith. DAO Guild membership encodes links between espoused belief and action for both members and external funding bodies. If one purports to be in support of a group, or even in support of an abstract idea, DAO guilds offer an opportunity to establish credibility by holding a stake in something under full transparency, and guiding its development.

How then to establish a means for guilds of navigators to regulate, and profit from, their labor and discoveries? Other developments in the decentralized web space offer further clues.

Backchanneling, often conducted by repurposing team based messaging platforms such as Slack, has emerged as a common practice amongst artist communities over the past few years. I have catalyzed an interest-based Slack group hundreds of members strong, and I am a member of Slack and Telegram backchannels dedicated to fringe political, technical and artistic interests. These channels serve as a safe (often pseudonymous) refuges for the incubation of ideas and arguments outside of the increasingly high stakes cauldron of competing reputations that has come to characterize public social media. Twitter, for example, has mutated from a naive means of communicating what’s on your mind, to some peculiar amalgamation of resume and pulpit: a place to perform an idealized version of one’s self under the watchful eye of prospective employers and foes; a torturous environment that, like all forms of torture, produces unreliable insights.

Within the decentralized web space, a few projects are emerging to attempt to provide tools for communities curated by interest. Most notably, Relevant, a project founded by artists Slava Balasanov and Analisa Teachworth, has recently raised seed capital to implement “reputation system(s) and economic incentives to encourage users to rank and organize content within topic-based communities.” Contributions within the Relevant ecosystem are peer-reviewed, and notable insights are rewarded by both the accrual of reputation and the dissemination of tokens.

While the Relevant concept initially proposes publicly viewable communities of interest, and a compelling counterproposal to contributing unpaid insights to networks such as Twitter, I am interested in what might occur by combining such insight networks with more exclusive Guild structures. The combination of peer-reviewed insight gathering with admittance criteria, and costs, for both contributors and observers holds promise. It could allow for membership based backchannels that might serve as both an autonomous vehicle for a mission, and an insight generating device for those who wish to pay for access to anonymous information generated in the process. DAO Guilds might serve as both a navigation vessel which breach new territories in order to work towards a common mission, and paid gateways for those who would like to partake in the knowledge gained.

The stakes, I believe, are quite high. The narrative fallacy of collective action through freedom of information has failed. Accessibility, one of the sacred tenets of the information age, is a two-way street. The poorer have access to more information, however the richer also have more access to the poor through their labor and data. Everyone is now free to contribute their thoughts and labor online, and witness others’ in turn, however only a minority are tooled to analyze and harness that information towards productive and profitable ends. The original conception of the internet as a utopian commons has manifested into a series of gamified social feeder networks, designed for a monarchic class, who can divine signal from the noise of our poorly structured contributions. This cycle will be difficult to break without updating the stories we tell ourselves. The poorest amongst us now get to luxuriate in a simulation of what wealth felt like pre-internet, with access to affordable goods and travel, more time, and an open platform for expression, while those with the skills to harness those platforms enjoy the kind of wealth and insight only previously enjoyed by royalty.

Measures must be taken to harness, structure and circulate the value that we create. DAO Guilds, in combination with peer-reviewed structuring of insights such as those proposed by Relevant, hint at the prospect of a new era of low-barrier exclusivity, compensation for contributions of value, and collective adherence to a hard coded, incorruptible, mission.

Decentralize all the klangs

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