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Please Don’t Let Ethereum Be The Next Burning Man: Reflections On Devcon 4

By

Alison

Berreman

WriterETHNews.com

The momentum behind Ethereum as a sociopolitical movement is inspiring, but if we’re serious then we need to do better when it comes to diversity.

I've said it before. I'm new here.

The whole world of Ethereum – the language, the social and political dynamics, the technical specifications – it's all relatively new to me.

I came to Prague with a lot of questions about decision-making in decentralized, non-hierarchical networks, and how to make sure that people from diverse and often under-represented groups are represented in those systems. I understood these questions as central to my interest in Ethereum and blockchain technology more generally, and I understood that there were many individuals who care deeply about those things as well. However, I believed that most people were thinking about governance primarily on a technical level, rather than as it applies to real-world organizational structures and societal systems; I had not seen a significant push toward diversity and inclusion.

I thought that the problems most central to most people building this technology were the surveillance capitalism of Web 2.0, banks, and government-regulated money – things that can be directly addressed through blockchain tech. Not that those are small issues; they are important factors for creating the world I want to live in, but I had the impression that some of the big picture questions about governance and how to structure the analog world – though implied – were only really being discussed by a limited few (albeit important) people. 

However, upon my arrival in Prague I found that who makes decisions, and how they are made, is not just a pet interest of mine, but the fundamental underlying questions in everything Ethereum, whether or not it's explicitly acknowledged.

Having not attended previous years, I can only surmise the differences between Devcon 4 and years prior by the comments I heard from Etherean veterans (perhaps this is the only space where being a part of something for more than two years makes you a veteran). That being said, over the course of the week I heard more than one person celebrating the so-called "crypto winter" for its positive effect on the conversations, which were now less about ICOs and shilling than about society and systems, philosophy and strategy, inclusivity and diversity. In fact, it was the first year with a track dedicated to society and systems. Better still, despite the bearishness of Ether, attendance at Devcon doubled this year, with tickets selling out in minutes. So perhaps I got in at just the right time.

I was pleasantly surprised and often inspired to see the potential impact of Ethereum on social, political, and economic hierarchies centered in Prague. Glen Weyl, a significant thought leader who is best-known for co-authoring "Radical Markets" and for his work with Vitalik Buterin, went as far as to say that blockchain is perhaps "the most serious organized and broad-based movement for a positive, forward-looking, liberal vision of the future."


Absolutely central to the blockchain movement's ability to create momentum behind a cultural, political, and economic shift toward a liberal future is the need to create a more inclusive Ethereum community – of users, developers, designers, writers, community organizers, business people – you name it. If we don't, even if we manage to create our little Ethereal fantasy land, it's only going to be designed for, and likely only accessible by, an exclusive and already privileged minority. It will be a Burning Man part 2, but for technocrats.

Efforts toward inclusivity did get attention. There were entire events and talks dedicated to the issue, and some people and organizations (shout out SpankChain!) did especially well at centering this subject. However, on the whole, the issue felt more peripheral and implied than intentional and explicit. I heard way more about nation states, anarchy, and experimental organizational structures than I did about the specific problems (other than money) that this technology can fix, who can most benefit from the disruption of existing power dynamics, or how to get those people involved in the Ethereum community. When diversity and inclusion were discussed, it was often only to point out gender ratio than about the specific audiences we want to reach, their barriers to entry, or how to onboard them.

Perhaps this oversight is due to the audience and participants; governance applies to everyone, and so everyone in the community is interested. It's harder to talk about the ways in which the community could be better geared toward under-represented people when so few people from marginalized communities are there to speak to their needs and interests in the first place.

At the Fellowship of Ethereum Magician's Council of Prague, one ring discussed the importance of remote and locally organized hackathons for the perpetuation of decentralization. I think this strategy also applies to increasing diversity in the space. The travel expenses for coming to conferences and big hackathons is cost- and time-prohibitive for most people, which means that the community, and the conversations we are having, remain largely inaccessible. If these events are organized around building tech that solves local problems, all the better; that might give us means to connect with the issues affecting our communities, which should enable us to build better, more usable and meaningful applications for real world, non-crypto people. Even better, it might pique the interests of those people to join the community and contribute their ideas.

However, this alone can't be the answer because local and remote hackathons sponsored by local organizations are already happening. They aren't enough. Perhaps part of the solution might also lie in developing some equivalent to hackathons and meetups for nontechnical people like myself. Ethereum needs designers, artists, community organizers, and the like just as much as it needs developers, and there are already plenty of artists and activists from diverse backgrounds who share similar sensibilities and ideals.

The ring at the Council of Prague was inspiring to me, but I was left without any idea of how to do similar organizing work as a nontechnical person. How do you attract people to your Ethereum Meetup group who don't know what blockchain is, let alone Ethereum? And what's the hackathon equivalent? 

Alison Berreman

Alison is an editor and occasional writer for ETHNews. She has a master’s in English from the University of Wyoming. She lives in Reno with her pooch and a cat she half likes. Her favorite things to do include binge listening to podcasts, getting her chuckles via dog memes, and spending as much time outside as possible.

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