Where does governance fit into the infrastructure of Web3? This was a key topic of conversation discussed by panelists at AraCon 2019 this week during an afternoon session titled "Evolving Web3 Infrastructure." The session, moderated by Evan Van Ness, included Parity co-founder and CEO Jutta Steiner, Gnosis co-founder and CEO Martin Köppelmann, Witnet Tech Lead Adán Sánchez de Pedro Crespo, and Ethereum core developer Lane Rettig.
The conversation didn't start with governance, but governance was the natural evolution of earlier questions about whether to prioritize adoption or infrastructure. Van Ness wanted to know: Which should come first – the apps or the infrastructure? Is it better to prioritize adoption and get apps out there as fast as possible? If so, how?
Sánchez de Pedro Crespo suggested that the presumed dichotomy between architecture and adoption is false. These processes are organic and simultaneous, he said, each one driving the other. Early adoption can feel clunky, weird, and even disastrous at times, but it helps reveal the flaws of the system to its designers in real time so they can figure out what end users' priorities are. If we want to build Web3 into a world computer, he said, it's crucial to take all these use cases into account.
The symbiotic relationship between adoption and architecture is worth keeping in mind as we discuss governance. It may be helpful to think of governance as the management of an architectural structure that is made of both technology and its adopters in a similar synergistic relationship. If Ethereum is a multilevel house, its shape is comprised of not only the protocols and processes of its designers, but also the on-chain and off-chain interaction of its users.
The other AraCon panelists agreed that infrastructure and adoption feed into one another. Both Ethereum and Web3 have been built in a "technology first" fashion, concentrating on infrastructure. The result is a platform that works and is improving, but none of the apps have gained widespread adoption, which speaks to a need to prioritize users and use cases.
Governance and Experimentation
Where does governance fit into the infrastructure of Web3? There's no easy answer to this question. There are tradeoffs in each prospective governance scenario and experimentation is crucial to discerning what these tradeoffs are.
But is experimentation alone enough for developing governance mechanisms that work? We'll return to this question in a minute.
The panelists discussed the various schools of thought on governance and the intrinsic value in having projects, networks, and platforms that have no governance (like Bitcoin), and also having protocols and platforms that can be upgraded by their users and ecosystems. Ethereum has historically opted for unstructured, nonformal, off-chain governance, in contrast to projects like Tezos, which place governance at Layer 1, or Polkadot, which opts for on-chain governance and full upgradeability.
Ethereum is starting to reach the limits of this method of governance, however, because it inhibits the ability to make even simple changes to the protocol – and Ethereum's long-term success is contingent on it being easy to upgrade. The general consensus of the panel was that Ethereum should develop into a simple, stable foundation that is easy to build upon. Experimentation with governance processes can take place on top of this base layer.
The Meta-Question: What Are the First Steps to Determining Governance?
The Q&A session after the panel yielded a vital question on governance: How are you going to go about figuring out governance and who is going to be involved in that processes? And, if you don't know, how would you start the process of determining governance?
The response from the members of the panel was multilayered, but univocal: experimentation.
Theory is important, but until the technology is deployed and you gauge people's reactions, you don't know if it will work. Steiner recalled, for example, that when the concept of gas was introduced, people thought it would make a dynamic market, but in the end, no one was as adaptive and agile as anticipated.
A variety of potential experiments were suggested, such as forks that have different governance policies in place and parallel tracks with the existing Ethereum governance process (like the EIP process).
Although the conversation about governance focused primarily on experimentation, Rettig noted that the dialogue would benefit from a broader, more diverse set of interlocutors because the discussion has largely been restricted to a small group of brilliant, but narrowly focused, technical minds.
Experimentation is a vital and primary part of the quest for infrastructure and governance that works, no question. But I want to take Rettig's suggestion a step further and suggest that voices from the humanities and social sciences (e.g., history, sociology, anthropology, political science) would be a complement to these discussions rooted in technological development.
As an armchair historian of Abrahamic religions, when I read about the beginnings of Bitcoin and the struggles faced by the early Ethereum community, my mind flies to a few of the many examples from the history of religion where small communities wrestled with governance as the group grew larger – and how they tried to create and maintain social cohesion as differences in the group surfaced.
The challenges faced by blockchain communities remind me very much of those faced by small religious and/or utopian communities that struck out from the dominant culture or religion to create new ways of doing things. Christianity, for example, began as a fledgling offshoot of first century Judaism, but this very tiny community grew into one of the largest religious and cultural forces in the world, with many different iterations, social protocols, and modes of governance.
If a study of religion feels out of place in a discussion of technology, bear in mind that corporations today have replaced many of the elements once offered (and in some places still offered) by major religions, like social cohesion and identity, ideology or vision, cultural norms, and financial support or livelihood. Study of ancient Mesopotamian civilization reveals that in some of the earliest human societies, religion, politics, and technology developed in tandem with one another and formed a social ecosystem. At a minimum, religion is about human social organizing.
As I process this discussion on governance in a new context of blockchains, my impulse is to study the old – not to repeat it, but to learn from it.
I would suggest that perhaps an answer to the "meta-question" of how to start the process to determine how to govern is to study history and conduct experiments concurrently. The technology is new, but governance questions most certainly aren't. I want to track down the sociologists and historians and ask: Where have you see these patterns before? What's old? What's new? And what can we learn from the humans before us who also wrestled with governance in their own unique contexts?
Correction: This article originally stated that Polkadot opts for partial on-chain governance and partial upgradeability.