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EIP0 And Ethereum’s Challenges For Collective Governance




While they were at EDCON 2018 in Toronto, key developers and instrumental players in the Ethereum ecosystem met to talk about Ethereum’s growing pains. But we’re not talking about scaling a blockchain. We’re talking about scaling a heretofore undefined system of governance for a rapidly growing, diverse community.

In the first week of May 2018, Ethereum and blockchain community members and enthusiasts converged on Toronto for the second Community Ethereum Development Conference (EDCON). Among a cornucopia of presentations and panels open to the public, a particular ad-hoc meeting of some of the biggest names in the Ethereum ecosystem also coalesced. It was essentially closed to the greater public, but it included an AMA and a live-streamed panel discussion.

The meeting was dubbed the EIP0 Summit in a nod to the nomenclature used for improvement proposals for the Ethereum blockchain, with the "0" at the end pretty much explaining its purpose: To date, Ethereum and its community of developers, miners, node-runners, major stakeholding companies, and magicians have no clearly-articulated system of governance for future growth. 

Some of its component groups have their own governance systems, such as the EIP process that includes direct involvement of the community, but there's a significant absence of organized documentation and procedure for the ecosystem as a whole; no clear agreement of how this multi-headed hydra functions. EIP0 might be the first effort toward that cohesion.

Prompted by recent controversies such as ASIC resistance, recovery of funds lost through hacks or user error, and the suggestion of a hard cap to Ether issuance, the panel indicated that the EIP0 Summit was a spontaneous meetup. The group released some of the initiatives that spawned from the gathering on May 9:

  1. "Work on a statement of shared values of Ethereum, trying to extract those from the original mission of the project but also from the voice and current expectations the wide range of stakeholders have.
  2. Support and build open source tools to collect key signals and metrics from the Ethereum community (via grants, for example). Examples of signals are coin voting, transaction volume, number of contracts deployed, number of ERCs submitted, number of GitHub contributions, hash power, prediction markets for possible forks, and public statements from relevant teams and individuals.
  3. Host a monthly governance call, starting with representatives of each team, defining working groups to get deeper into the individual topics, and opening up a part of the call for an AMA.
  4. Organize a second #EIP0 Summit, building on the model we have started to develop and expanding opportunities for interaction from viewers not in physical attendance (time, location and participants to be determined)."

Collective governance* is a big bucket. "We tried to define what the current governance processes are; we only came up with a few," admitted Hudson Jameson of the Ethereum Foundation and community manager overseeing the EIP process. The Ethereum community cannot be defined by zeros and ones, but by an infinite number of spectrums and priorities that are intensely personal to each individual (or to the mission of each organization that is participating in Ethereum).

For example, some members have a vast amount of knowledge; others are passionate but don't know much about the tech (technical ability spectrum). Some are anarchists and some are capitalists (political/philosophical spectrum). Some have the ability to be highly active in the community, some do not (time, financial resources, and involvement spectrum). Some are maximalists all about the ETH, others think blockchain is a revolutionary step toward a new society (application and values spectrum). Some are into "chill" discussion, as Jameson mentioned. Others are all about angrily hashing it out (communication spectrum).

EIP0 was, according to the participants in the panel, remarkably good-natured, proactive, and nothing like a reddit argument. But the group's magnanimous approach made it all but impossible to even define who a stakeholder should be or agree on the meaning of community. It was informally decided not to limit attendance again, as announced by Afri Schoedon of Parity:

Even the Ethereum software can't be boiled down to one kind of decentralized governance. "When people talk about software decentralization, there are actually three separate axes of centralization/decentralization that they may be talking about," writes Vitalik Buterin in his Medium article The Meaning of Decentralization. He breaks these down into:

  • "Architectural (de)centralization – how many physical computers is a system made up of? How many of those computers can it tolerate breaking down at any single time?
  • Political (de)centralization – how many individuals or organizations ultimately control the computers that the system is made up of?
  • Logical (de)centralization – does the interface and data structures that the system presents and maintains look more like a single monolithic object, or an amorphous swarm?"

You'll notice that he includes political (de)centralization, which is essentially where the Ethereum community comes into play. How decentralized can it manage to be? And should it even try to cleave to the sort of decentralization that exists in the Ethereum blockchain? Some folks believe that the blockchain can be tinkered with to allow for its governance to occur on-chain, but that isn't going to happen today.

EIP0 attendee Lane Rettig of the Ethereum Foundation also agrees that it can't be boiled down to zeros and ones. "I personally put empathy and humanism and encouraging innovation before immutability, but clearly some people disagree." He tends to value a more humanistic approach to consensus but echoes the concern of other participants that, as of yet, the community hasn't even codified its core values. "I don't think we have consensus on 'the core principles of the project' — as a starting point. And this makes the process hard."

White Hat Group hacker and Giveth founder Griff Green noted that it would be nigh impossible for the rapidly growing community to ever come to a full consensus on core values, and there may always be a risk of excluding minority opinions.

"The biggest takeaway," stated Green, was what he called "signaling" – the need to clearly hear from the community. "First define the stakeholders, and then what do the different stakeholders think? And then actually get out there and figure out what they think. Because designing a deterministic voting system, that's difficult and probably not a good idea, honestly."

 There's a lot more to hash out. And there will be more meetings.

In a presentation at the main EDCON event, Preethi Kasireddy, the founder and CEO of blockchain startup TruStory, former partner at Andreessen Horowitz, and former software engineer at Coinbase, had an insight:

"This is actually a very culture-defining moment for Ethereum because the single answer [to how lost funds or frozen wallets should be addressed] is based on what our shared social norms are and what our shared political norms are. And to be honest, I don't think we know what those are and that's why we're stuck at this debate. [We're looking] for some 'Global Maxima' solution, a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone, and I don't think that exists … How do you actually come to consensus on something like that? [It] will actually come from a deep agreement of what the actual problem is."

So, what is the problem? In his November 2017 op-ed Against On-Chain Governance, Vlad Zamfir writes about the decision-making processes involved in running a blockchain:

"Governance is not an abstract design problem. It's an applied social problem. It's a problem that is defined in the context of existing governance structure, and in the context of the current information and incentives of today's participants in today's governance processes.

We need to look very carefully at the blockchain governance processes that we already have before we declare that they don't exist, are illegitimate, propose alternatives, fork, or advocate for revolution."

*Just some alternatives to political governance by consensus include futarchy, in which "elected officials define measures of national welfare, and prediction markets are used to determine which policies will have the most positive effect" – but then elections must be held, with all the vote-swaying and backroom alliances that process can entail, necessarily disenfranchising a percentage of the system, as prediction markets themselves often sideline outliers; or liquid democracy, a system "where everyone has the ability to vote themselves, to delegate their vote to someone else, and to remove the delegation of their vote at any time." There's also Vitalik's suggestion based on quadratic voting: voting in Ethereum governance would be with Ether gas, and each vote bought would lock up your coins for a period of time, meaning an attempt to sway the governance of the blockchain your way would cost you some serious spending power for a long time. Quadratic voting, based on currency, is not necessarily the best way for the community to self-govern, however. That would still essentially give us a plutocracy.

Lucinda Michele Knapp

Lucinda Michele Knapp is a journalist with over fifteen years of experience covering tech, art, and culture in Los Angeles. Her articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, and Out Magazine among others. She spins fire, dispenses grammar advice, and knows kung fu.

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