CfP: Demystifying Blockchain Through an STS Lens

A call for papers for a special issue of “Engaging Science, Technology, and Society” (eSTS), a new open access journal of the Society for Social Studies of Science:

Demystifying Blockchain Through an STS Lens: Challenges and Opportunities of a New Infrastructure for the Commons

“The reward of labour is life. Is that not enough?”
William Morris (1834-1896)

In News from Nowhere (Morris 1890/2008), the narrator, William Guest, finds himself in a future society based on common ownership and democratic control of the means of production. Morris’s utopian society has no authority, no monetary system and functions in an autonomous way because individuals find pleasure in their collaborative work.Now let’s fast forward into the beginning of the 21st century, and reflect upon the emergence of digital commons of knowledge, software and design which celebrates human collaboration and recreates commons-oriented modes of production. In these new systems, value is created through contributions and not labor per se, with the output being commons, not commodities. Initiatives such as myriad of free/open source software projects or the free encyclopedia Wikipedia, have highlighted the emergence of new “technological-economic feasibility spaces” for a new type of social practice (Benkler 2006: 31). These feasibility spaces include different social and economic arrangements, where profit, power and control seem to decrease in importance and be replaced by a commons-oriented process at the core of value creation (Benkler 2006; Kostakis et al. 2013).?

However, for a long time, commons-oriented communities have been institutionalized around centralized or federated structures, which might bring a series of trade-offs in terms of democratic governance, flexibility, and ability to evolve. These institutions were mainly built to facilitate the coordination of disparate groups of people that would otherwise have had a hard time coordinating themselves, because of either scale or lack of proper coordination mechanisms. They also served the purpose of establishing trust among groups that did not engage into sufficiently frequent and repeated interactions. Nevertheless, today traditional issues related to shared common-pool resources could be addressed with the implementation of an arguably pervasive open source technology, called “blockchain”. In short, blockchain is a type of a distributed database which is maintained by a network of user and eliminates the need for a trusted third party. The most widely known application of a blockchain is the public ledger of transactions for digital currencies first used in Bitcoin. The transparent and distributed nature of the blockchain makes it easier for small and large communities to reach consensus and implement innovative forms of self-governance. The possibility to record every interaction on an incorruptible public ledger and the ability to encode a particular set rules linking these interactions to a specific transactions makes it possible to design new sophisticated incentive systems, which might significantly differ from traditional market-based mechanisms.

Thanks to these new technologies, alternative value systems based on reputation, merit or other type of metrics might emerge, as an alternative to traditional market based mechanisms which only focus on economic value. In the near future, centralized intermediaries coordinating the action of a large number of individuals might be replaced by peer-to-peer transactions performed in a trustless environment, without the need for any intermediary entity to manage the flow of contributions. Disintermediation and independent value production might promote a greater degree of individual autonomy and emancipation, but at what cost? In Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003), Cory Doctorow describes a society based on a post-scarcity economy, where money has progressively been replaced by a reputation-based currency, as a new expression of wealth. In spite of the apparent benefits, the drawback of such a reputation-based system is that every human interaction can potentially be evaluated, virtual turning any social interaction into an economic transaction —something that could be highly disruptive to the commons-oriented ecosystem, which is for the most part driven by social and ideological values.

The aim of this special issue is to deepen our knowledge about the potential challenges and opportunities of blockchain technologies, from an STS perspective. We welcome reflective, imaginative and critical scholarly articles and commentaries that address any of the following themes and beyond.

  • How will the designed-in biases of any algorithms be assessed, especially when such algorithms cannot be easily understood by the non-experts?
  • What is the political economy of emerging collaborative organizational formats that utilize blockchain, such as Distributed Collaborative Organizations, Distributed Autonomous Organizations, Open Value Networks and more?
  • Because blockchain allows us to reformulate human coordination, what kinds of new paradigms of interaction and social order can these technologies offer?
  • What is the impact of blockchain technologies on the current regulatory framework?
  • What are the risks and opportunities of delegating tasks to autonomous and self-sufficient devices?
  • How could blockchain help commons-oriented communities scale up without turning into more bureaucratic and centralized institutions?
  • Although online communities will probably be the first one to experiment with these new apparatus, could they also be brought offline to create and build new organizations that operate in the physical world?

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