Over the past year, experiments in building and deploying Decentralized Autonomous Organisations (DAOs) have proliferated, marking a transition (in many cases) from software design and development towards alpha and beta testing stages. From a technical perspective this is a key moment in the evolution of such systems, as communities of users test and provide feedback on the functionality of these products. For those interested in the potential social impact of DAOs, the stakes of this moment are even higher: it is the period where community needs are defined beyond the theoretical user. It provides opportunities to challenge the form and functionality of these decentralized socio-technical infrastructures while they are still relatively plastic. For this reason, we must look closely at the composition of participants at this stage of DAO development, to consider whether their engagement can lay foundations for alternative social configurations, or further entrench existing social biases.
Researchers such as Joy Buolamwini, Kate Crawford and Safiya Noble have emphasised the social consequences of developing artificial intelligence (AI) systems imbued with algorithmic biases that exacerbate existing socio-political inequality. They remind us that critical reflection upon the uses and abuses of data that trains these systems, along with the companies that build them, is vital to understanding the impact they may have. The distributed topology of blockchain systems has led many technodetermists to celebrate their capacity to decentralize power in finance, governance and beyond. Yet the design of DAO systems that leverage this P2P architecture are iteratively impacted by the data collected, in particular during alpha, beta testing stages. So what does it mean if DAO protocols are calibrated to cater for a narrowly defined user, due to the lack of diversity in its cohort of early-adopters? How ‘scalable’ are systems of hard and soft governance, when they are largely premised upon the privileged habits of western, abled-bodied, cis-male-identifying users?
Nellie Bowles has explored recent efforts to push back against the established bro-culture of the cryptosphere, as it risks falling into the patricharchical traps and tropes of the Silicon Valley tech industry. In response, there has been a concerted effort among many within the crypto-community to create safe spaces for diverse participation, the introduction of codes of conduct at meetups and events (such as this by bitfwd) being just one common tactic to this end. Likewise the outreach and engagement targeted initiatives such as She256 and Cryptochicks support increasing participation from female-identifying individuals in the blockchain sphere. However, Anna Wiener has highlighted the exhaustion implicit in the lean-in feminism so often embraced by the tech industry to address gender disparity, as it ultimately remains “flattering to existing power structures.” To say ‘everyone is welcome’ within a patriarchal system, does little to decentralize the intersection of privileges and prejudices that marginalise certain voices within that system. So in 2019, the Institute of Network Cultures hosted Beyond the ‘Blokechain’ as part of their MoneyLab#7 program, inviting Rachel Falconer, Ruth Catlow, Andrea Morales Coto, Ailie Rutherford and yours truly, to discuss different feminist approaches to fostering structurally equitable and diverse decentralized communities.
Virginia Woolf seems like an unlikely figure to draw upon for this purpose
Identified sometimes as a prescient 2nd wave feminist, she has been rightly criticised for her inability to recognise the economic and racial privileges and prejudices that informed her own writing. Yet her famous words regarding the need for ‘a room of one’s own’ are pertinent not only because DAO interactions and architectures create their own kind of (online) space, but for Woolf’s articulation of economic and discursive realities that exclude many from participating in the DAO sphere.
For Woolf, the ‘room of one’s own’ required for women to participate in the literary field is both literal and figurative. It speaks to: (a) the economic need for time, resources and space away from domestic labor and familial duties to engage uninterrupted in the work of writing; and (b) a symbolic space of reference and relation to other women writers (a tradition, so to speak), to provide them with models from which to explore their own creative voice. While Woolf’s famous text focuses on the question of ‘women and fiction’, we can see today that these economic and discursive challenges are relevant across different axes of racial, gender and class subjugation, as economic precarity and the marginalisation of counter-hegemonic voices through history still excludes many from established systems of power.
For those interested in the potential social impact of DAOs, the stakes of this moment are even higher: it is the period where community needs are defined beyond the theoretical user
The economic dimension for diverse participation
The economic dimension to establishing a space for diverse participation in decentralized online governance may be supported by a number of approaches. A key enabler in this process involves reckoning with the value of participant labour in DAO communities. Who can afford such participation? Silvio Lorusso highlights how entrepreneurialism intersects with today’s increasingly precarious working conditions to create the entreprecariat of predominantly creative and tech freelancers who despite their economic insecurity, still occupy a relatively privileged position within the global economy. If DAO early-adopters are expected to contribute the euphoric enthusiasm and risk-taking of entreprecariat workers, investing unpaid time and labour into new modes of organisation in the hope of future returns, these socio-technical systems assume a certain level of privilege: community participants with time and space to tinker, vote, propose and debate online, beyond material constraints of professional, domestic or familial duties. As Alice Walker points out, there have always been oppressed individuals (such as Phillis Wheatley) who manage to overcome socio-economic obstacles to participation. But rather than perpetuating these inequitable conditions, could DAOs be used to create ‘rooms’ or economic spaces, for diverse participation?
The Guerilla Translation/Media Collectives’ model for Distributed Cooperative Organizations (DisCo Coops) works towards the establishment of such feminist economic spaces. Their DisCos offer a system of value-tracking individual contributions in relation to “productive market value”, “pro-bono/commons-generating value” and “care work value.” Calculating and remunerating these contributions through a monthly payment pipeline, these economic spaces may enable greater diversity in participation by recognising different forms of labour contributed to the community, mitigating the financial burden of unpaid work that can hinder sustainable and diverse engagement.
Alternatively, it will be exciting to see how blockchain based systems universal basic income currently in development, such as Circles UBI, could also be leveraged in DAO context to create an economic space for participants working on grassroots initiatives, while facilitating more seamless coordination and administration. Through the baseline economic empowerment of participants, voices previously unable to afford to dedicate the time, space and energy to learning about and developing these technologies, will find themselves in a space that allows them to do so.
Image: VNS Matrix
Cultural, linguistic, class and gender differences
However, the second symbolic dimension of Woolf’s ‘room of one’s own’, while seeming incongruent with the DAO context, may be more impactful than often assumed. Rachel O’Dwyer has articulated the limitations to technodetermnist celebrations of blockchain’s ‘revolutionary’ power, explaining that: “It doesn’t stand in for all the slow and messy bureaucracy and debate and human processes that go into building cooperation, and it never will.” This is no more evident than in the DAO sphere, where on-chain platforms are supplemented with off-chain communications through Twitter, Discord, Telegram and more. Just as the outdoor spaces of Ancient Roman fora allowed citizens to orate and debate matters in public, DAOs establish analogous spaces for their community members to engage in forms of soft governance. Although the rhetoric that unfolds through a DAO context may not follow the classical model, do the TL;DR retorts and normative processes of DAO fora limit diverse modes of expression? How does this impact participation across cultural, linguistic, class and gender differences?
As a researcher in aesthetics and political philosophy, my interests have long been in qualitative dimensions of social organisations – their public discourse, rhetoric and imaginary. While creative and literary engagements with digital aesthetics have been historically side-lined as esoteric, DAOs provide a clear case for the application of such cultural analysis. Furthermore, as DAOs set up new spaces and rituals for social participation, is this where the practical and political necessity for creative experimentation really comes to the fore?
Could we create a DAO of Our Own through both economic and symbolic strategies of intervention, which support radical and creative re-imaginings of the world?
In 1991, four “hot and bored and poor” girls from Adelaide, Australia, created the Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century. They were VNS Matrix – “saboteurs of big daddy mainframe” , whose work has been aligned by Melinda Rackham to the thought of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva. While the latter 20th century feminists were committed to disrupting the language of political fora where “woman has never her turn to speak”, VNS Matrix celebrated themselves as the “virus of the new world disorder rupturing the symbolic from within”, their visceral language of ‘cunt’ and ‘slime’ an affront to the sterile, bureaucratic language of the internet’s militaristic legacy. More recently, Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism (2012) has called for the destabilization of hegemonic digital systems “infused with the pomp and circumstance of patriarchy”, identifying the glitch as a cue to “choose-our-own-adventure.” For Russell, the glitch: ‘demarcat[es] space that can be possessed by us in entirety, a veritable “room of [our] own’.”
So to what extent have we been gifted feminist imagery, tools, critiques and techniques to intervene now in the making of new DAO communities, discourses and rituals? It can be argued that decades of labour by cyberfeminists and indeed now post-cyberfeminists, have worked towards creating a relational space of reference – Woolf’s symbolic room – for those subjugated by a phallocentric web to hear echoes of their own distinctive voice.
Could we create a DAO of Our Own through both economic and symbolic strategies of intervention, which support radical and creative re-imaginings of the world? At this plastic moment of DAO testing and development, feminist strategies may indeed be key to enabling diverse and plural engagement with these socio-technical systems.