Today at Devcon4, Ethereum core developer Lane Rettig gave a talk titled "Towards a Socially Scalable Etherean Future." In it, Rettig announced the launch of an online forum for the social scalability of Ethereum, Etherean.org.
The site's first, pinned discussion thread begins with a statement of the forum's purpose, which is "for high-level discussion, pondering, and scheming," particularly on the topic of how Ethereans can contribute to the positive evolution of social, political and economic systems.
From the release of the Bitcoin white paper 10 years ago today, it has always been understood as a revolutionary technology that can fundamentally change the way that humans do business, especially for people alienated from theretofore existing government and financial structures. Since day one, blockchain has appealed to folks with libertarian, anarchist, and other anti-establishment ideologies.
Similarly, from the start, it's been understood that Ethereum offers the opportunity to decentralize the internet, as well as all financial and government systems, and to reorganize societies around values of self-sovereignty and decentralized coordination. This is the central promise of blockchain to many in the Ethereum world, as well as to many in the crypto ecosystem more generally.
But in the past, Devcon has been about building the technology. The impact on social, economic, and governmental systems was more implicit than central to the conference. This year is different. For the first time, there's an entire track of talks dedicated to "society and systems" that seek to address questions of governance: Who makes decisions, how, to what effect, and for what purpose?
As a part of the society and systems track, Rettig put the question of purpose front and center. He began with the question, also asked in that first pinned thread on Etherean.org, "What is your deep why?" For him, the answer is social scalability.
Social scalability, for those unfamiliar, is a term popularized by and borrowed from Nick Szabo, who is credited with inventing smart contracts and laying the conceptual foundations for Bitcoin. Szabo defined social scalability in the following way:
"The ability of an institution – a relationship or shared endeavor, in which multiple people repeatedly participate, and featuring customs, rules, or other features which constrain or motivate participants' behaviors -- to overcome shortcomings in human minds and in the motivating or constraining aspects of said institution that limit who or how many can successfully participate. Social scalability is about the ways and extents to which participants can think about and respond to institutions and fellow participants as the variety and numbers of participants in those institutions or relationships grow."
Szabo, a man who regularly retweets anti-immigrant, anti-gender inclusivity, pro-Trump messages, may not seem the most likely thinker to be held up by the Ethereum community. To this point, during his talk, Rettig's slideshow featured a rather ugly image of the president while he argued that democracy in America isn't what it once was. However, I think that separating a person's worthwhile ideas from those one finds abhorrent is exemplary of the anti-tribalism so many in the Ethereum community, including Rettig, are pushing for.
Rettig and Szabo both use the same Robin Dunbar and Adam Smith references to illustrate the concept of social scalibility. Dunbar's Number, coined by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, states that an individual is not capable of building trusted relationships with more than about 150 people. However, as both Szabo and Rettig point out, technological innovations make large-scale coordination between people possible. Both men cited Smith and pointed to the production of clothing as an example of an endeavor that requires various technologies and significant human coordination.
In his Devcon talk, Rettig argued that the nation state is, for the moment, perhaps the most effective technology for social scalability. This framework, developed only in the last few hundred years, has provided a mechanism for human coordination on a mass scale. Some countries, Rettig pointed out, have more than a billion people cooperating under this one system, and it has also provided a framework for international relationships and exchange. However, he also said that the nation state is starting to become outdated, using America's low civic engagement and Donald Trump's presidency as exemplary of this point. The crowd seemed to love it, though I think it's worth stating that those particular examples are actually of the failure of American democracy, not the nation state as a concept.
He has a point, though: The nation state is a relatively new development in human history, and "it's a mistake to presuppose that this system will, should, or could be with us forever." And besides, even if the nation state has been successful in allowing for the extreme growth in human population and technology, it's also allowed those billions of people to coordinate to use that advanced technology to destroy each other and the planet. Perhaps a different structure, one explicitly built around incentive mechanisms, might have better luck in facilitating coordination for the benefit of earthlings – plant, animal, or otherwise.
And this brought him back to his purpose: that Ethereum, or the Ethereum community and momentum behind it, might offer a valuable upgrade to a technology that one day may become outdated, and is already showing signs of wear. The online forum, he hopes, might act as a place for people to dig into questions about how to actualize that potential.
Note | December 11, 2018
An earlier version of this article stated that Rettig did not cite Szabo in his talk. Yesterday, December 10, 2018, the devcon4 recordings were released, and the video of Rettig's talk about social scalability shows that he did in fact cite Szabo.