On Decentralized Governance & Computational Trust

Around 183 BC, Hannibal Barca swallowed a pinch of poison he would always carry in a ring around his neck, mumbling words that would echo through eternity. “Let us relief the Romans from the anxiety they have so long experienced,” he mocked. “They think it tires their patience too much to wait for an old man’s death”.

Carthage’s pride and greatest leader, the brave who “crossed the Alps” with his elephants to defy the Roman Empire; the bold who made a road where there was none came to a tragic end. What most people ignore is that he was more than just a great military visionary and conqueror. He was a leader, an eloquent politician and an advocate for democracy some 30 centuries ago. Back then, Carthage had one of the most complex governance systems of all times. It was led by two suffets (annually elected magistrates). Both suffets preside over a Senate (Some two to three hundred elected “wise and mighty” aristocrats) and a Citizens Assembly (another hundred or so elected regular citizens). Then, there is the military governance that acts in an independent manner but is still attached to the suffets.

The death of Hannibal marked the loss of the Second Punic War. Carthage surrendered and bent the knee. It was annexed to the Roman Empire and given the name of “Roman Province of Africa” half a century later. The glorious empire faded into a colony of ashes and war-torn walls. Destined to greatness, it would later give its name to the entire continent (e.g., Africa). It is now a vibrant suburb in modern day Tunisia where Hannibal is forever celebrated as a hero.

The story gets more fascinating when we know that a direct cause of the loss of war was that Carthage was a democracy. In fact, it’s because of democracy itself that Hannibal couldn’t bring military provision to the gates of Rome when he had the chance : The majority in the House of Senate refused such a risky move. Governance has changed the course of the last Punic War as it would influence the course of many civilizations.

In this duality, every governance has a form of trust of its own. Humans trusted the strong and mighty and allowed “alpha males” to lead the horde. They trusted the pious and the religious and allowed “God’s Special Ones” to lead them like chess pawns. They then decided knowledge is more suitable. Then eloquence; then horse riding or throat singing. You name it. One thing is clear : They never lost faith in their unwillingness to move forward without governance. This nearly scientific approach of trial and error led to more and more sophisticated forms of governance. Yet here we are, today, on the brink of a radical change: a decentralized governance that only trusts computation and shared consensus. Would it make mathematicians the new monarchs? I hardly think so … But what it might add is a great reliance on distributed ledger technology like Blockchain.

The Road to Decentralized Governance

To begin with, let us remind our readers where Blockchain stands in the scale of real applicability. To this day, the technology is still being tested and deployed with bigger promises than precise and scalable applications. Academia needs to catch up and more research would lead to a clearer outlook. Chances are, heard the word “disruptive” so often that you don’t believe it to be telling. This word has been used so randomly that is now harming what might be a great ledger and tool handy for business and people alike. If you are still foggy on the outlook surrounding Blockchain, here is a good starting point.

Getting to the bottom of today’s subject, it’s worth noting that the vast majority of people advocating decentralization are defiant and rather disappointed with governance options available today. They have a dissociative attitude towards centralized institutions in general and the State in particular.

While many crypto-enthusiasts hold a firm position when it comes to the power of Blockchain to transform today’s State to a Decentralized Autonomous Democracy. A great deal of their ideology comes from a reluctance towards governments. Rationally speaking, governments need to adjust to people’s ever evolving views and expanding needs – especially for freedom and autonomy. We would witness every now and then shifts taking place whereas obsolete institutions get upgraded. An everlasting dichotomy of entropy… and prosperity.

Mimicking this perpetual cycle, we have come to an era where individuals started – for the first time – to question the vertical architecture of traditional authority and governance.

The tipping point of this new vision took advantage of the advances made in IT, computer programming and social sciences. Let us take a closer look.

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Principles of Blockchain-based Governance

Blockchain-based governance is a booming field of research, which explains the lack of clear and agreed upon definitions and Q&A answers. Than being said, we probed in countless Reddit posts, Tweets and any information about the subject. The intent is, following the spirit of Blockchain, to allow for an inclusive debate.

One of the fundamentals of Blockchain Governance turns out to tackle Centralized Hierarchical Organizations (CHO).

A central State, bureaucracy and procedures have long been the only way to lead an heterogeneous, fast scaling population. Built around methods like “coercion”or “carrots-and-sticks” approaches, such governance usually end up inefficient, as societies grow bigger and more complex. Furthermore, it looks like there is a systemic (by design) problem with centralized hierarchical organizations: conflicts of interests, lack of transparency, corruption, misuse of power, regression into authoritarianism and power agglomeration (usually where wealth resides).

Transposing this to the IT jargon, Blockchain-based governance aims to reduce or prevent the Single Point of Failure (SPOF) typically encountered in CHOs. How? By establishing a new type of trust to reach consensus. Let’s call it computational trust.

What’s new in a decentralized governance is the way “citizens” coordinate. They do not need a central authority. Instead, they function on a peer-to-peer basis, even at large scale. To do so, they use an open-source protocol (can be viewed by everyone, at any given time) that is not “administered” by an all-powerful regulator. Instead, data are kept by all users and can’t be altered in anyway. Interactions / transactions are verified by actors that actually hold stakes in this new realm.

Such design brings neutrality, distributed consensus, possibility to audit the system transparently among other features. It makes it an ideal candidate to “fix” centralized organizational flaws (e.g. lack of transparency, corruption, coercion, etc.).

Another great way to organize governance using decentralized ledgers. It has the potential to redefine the social interactions between citizens. The father of sociology Emile Durkheim theorizes that a limited amount of crime is healthy for societies (Emile Durkheim, “The Rules of Sociological Methods”). It has functional implications such as increasing social solidarity and cementing heterogeneous groups around a shared consensus. Still, crime needs to be reprimanded using force and retribution which is often where justice backfires (policing through force is increasingly perceived as a form of authority crime).

In a decentralized governance, Blockchain puts forth a set of tools that renders force policing obsolete and unnecessary. It allows for an horizontal and distributed “diffusion of authority” among all participants following the same Blockchain distributed architecture: No single point of failure, nor all-powerful participants. Besides, Blockchain might be used as an encryption-secured public record repository and smart-contracts would lawyer individuals with no exorbitant fees.

Finally, all government issued documents would be secure, un-forgeable, un-tampered and readily available in case one needs them. From contracts and insurance documents to ID, passports and driver licenses, and election ballots, one can only imagine the possibility and cost-effectiveness of Blockchain as a new platform to a new era of governance.

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Another Promise or a Paradigm Shift?

These remarkable features make Blockchain an ideal candidate to give governance needs room to evolve. We have come across a platform that is powerful enough to provide multiple answers to the numerous flaws encountered with today’s governance.

In a way, the trustless nature of cryptography and algorithms helps establish transparency; the lack of which usually leads to poser oscillating from the left end of the spectrum to its right, often spreading havoc and steep learning curves.

Despite our books, we showcase a frighteningly short memory when electing officials. We tend to be emotional, trust mere promises, and prefer messages that speak to our deepest fears rather than our dearest dreams. Just think of what’s going on in our western societies today.

Where we believe Blockchain to be revolutionary resides in its capability to provide unbiased, utterly accurate information. This will potentially lead us to take more rational choices and be able to argument them.

Will this break the cycles of turmoil / unfair distribution of wealth? Will it have an implication of the political spectrum? Or maybe bring about new trains of thoughts and new political standards? I guess, time will bring the answers.

By Cyril TERNAY|