The Closing Conference of the Blockchain & Society Policy Research Lab: Governance by technology – the revolution will not be decentralized? Is there anything to be salvaged from the overhyped blockchain revolution?
3-4 July, 2023, Amsterdam
To round off and summarize the 5-year research project on the legal and societal impact of decentralized techno-social systems, the Blockchain & Society Policy Research Lab (https://blockchain-society.science/) of the Institute of Information Law (IViR) at the University of Amsterdam organizes a conference on 3-4 July, 2023, in Amsterdam.
Blockchain-based technologies have a short but complex, and controversy-ridden history. What started out as a relatively straightforward, Computer Science approach to address a narrow, technical challenge, namely, how to maintain a distributed ledger among untrusted peers, has quickly ballooned into a perceived panacea to all the social, economic, cultural and political woes that have riddled humanity since biblical times. Blockchain-based systems have been heralded as a new technological infrastructure which would revolutionize the governance of, among others, data, and with this, power, control, money, identity, property, all kinds of social, and economic interactions, or state powers.
This blockchain-based governance revolution, however, is yet to materialize. Seen from a critical perspective, the blockchain story is a series of failed attempts to apply a highly specific technological architecture in various social, economic and cultural relations, or establish them in pre-existing institutional arrangements.
The second half of 2022 seems to have been the period of great reckoning in this area. The successive collapse of various blockchain-based projects, from cryptocurrency systems like LUNA, to exchanges like FTX, to the hacking on DAOs, and the quiet disappearance of projects which enjoyed great attention and support, point to a systemic failure of blockchain technology to fulfil its promise. The technology is inadequate or not yet ready for most of its proposed use cases. The safeguards thought to be underwriting the system – the transparency of code, the transparency of the ledger, and the network built on distrust – are often insufficient to ensure the trustworthiness of these systems. It also became obvious that technology is part of a larger ecosystem, in which (design) values, organizational, procedural, and legal elements also play a role in how a blockchain-based system works.
It has also been clear that the blockchain-based systems cannot simply disintermediate existing relations because they are intermediaries themselves, but unlike the ones they wanted to disrupt and do away with, these new ones are rarely regulated, transparent, or accountable. Many of the technological novelties, such as immutability, auto-executing rules, and self-enforcing code turned out to be features which are a bad fit in situations where the technology is being used. And it also turned out that blockchain-based technical infrastructures in and by themselves cannot provide an effective remedy to what they were invented against: fraud, deception, lack of accountability, or arbitrary decisions.
In recent years it has also become apparent that contrary to the wishes and promises of its anarcho-libertarian proponents, blockchain-based systems are not immune to state interference and regulation. What was, and still is framed as a sovereign technological infrastructure which can exist independently of governments, and as a possible substitute to many functions of the state, is surprisingly susceptible to regulation. One major reason for that is that if blockchain-based entities want to interact with the real economy, they also need to be legible for law.
Many of the blockchain promises are in tatters. The landscape is bleak, littered with worthless shitcoins, trillions of dollars of burnt investment, millions of defrauded investors, dozens of hacked smart contracts, deserted metaverses, and a growing list of domains where blockchain based systems were tested and found useless.
What happens after such a spectacular fall? Is there something, anything behind the hype, the misunderstood, the deliberately misleading, the unrealistic, the undeliverable promises? What remains of the pipe dream that with freely accessible, transparent, objective technological tools we can govern institutions and human relations in a more inclusive, democratic, effective, objective, transparent, safe, and secure manner?
We invite lawyers, social scientists, technologists, economists, humanities scholars, researchers, and artists to take a measured, critical, sober look at this last wave of techno utopia, and find what we can learn from this experience, what, if anything with long term value, can be salvaged and repurpose from the ruins.
We invite empirical, theoretical contributions on the following topics related to the governance of and the governance by decentralized, distributed, blockchain-based systems.
- “Self-Sovereign” Identity / ID Governance. The internet is notoriously lacking a trustworthy identity layer. The paradox of blockchain and cryptography-based identity designs was that such a layer can be built on a fundamentally anonymous (pseudonymous) system. What are the prospects of an identity management system based on decentralized technological architectures, which are designed to prioritize user security, privacy, individual autonomy, and self-empowerment? Can these ambitions be actualized, and if so, then by whom? What is the relationship between bottom-up initiatives and the ones initiated by Big Tech and government actors? Is there a need for an identity management infrastructure which is independent of the existing institutions? Is there a space in our current legal, institutional order for such a service? What is the trade-off with public values of such systems, and what are the costs and benefits of such a system?
- Data Governance. The pooling of data, and the governance of shared data resources is a key concern in the data intensive digital society. There are multiple efforts to establish appropriate institutional, legal, and technological frameworks in that space, from the European Union’s Data Governance Act to various platforms, such as the Amsterdam Data exchange. Data governance requires a multi-disciplinary approach, as it regards questions about the compatibility of fundamental rights (such as privacy, data protection and the prohibition of discrimination), technological infrastructures and architectures (of data collection, anonymization, or processing) and the social, political and institutional challenges (the control over data being a source of power, business advantage, sovereignty, etc.). What kind of role can blockchain-based solutions reasonably play in that ecosystem? What are the technological as well as non-technological constraints or conditions of the feasibility of a distributed solution? What are the institutional aspects of data sharing and data pooling, and are they compatible with the modes of organization decentralized, “trustless” technological intermediaries offer? What are the experiences of successful and failed projects which tried to establish public (or private) data (eco)systems in various domains, such as identity data, financial data, property data, contract data and transactional data.
- Governance of value exchange. Ever since the rise of Bitcoin, questions have been raised about the phenomenon of digital currencies (aka. crypto-assets). They initiated fundamental discussions on societal motives to invest in and maintain state-independent tokens of value, and systems of value transfer. Relevant questions therefore not only consist of legal analyses of what these (supposedly sovereign) value transfer services are, and how they shall be qualified in each jurisdiction, but also on the drivers for the creation of such services and what they symbolize. As there are substantiated doubts about the eventual application of such digital value transfer/exchange services, the question remains whether, and under what conditions they can interact, and interface with established financial, value transfer infrastructures. In addition, more fundamental and philosophical questions around what constitutes value, what drives the changes in value in the space of cryptographic tokens that are both independent and tethered to objects of value in the real economy.
- Trust Governance. Blockchain systems made headlines by claiming to be “trustless”. Though this turned out to be false, they do pose important questions about how trust is organized in individual digital ecosystems, and more generally in the digital society. In some sense, blockchain-based systems created a private trust infrastructure, which facilitates social and economic interactions which normally would require some form of trust, rooted in other sources. While being successful in narrow domains (such as value transfer), they failed to establish trusted trustless networks at large. Technologists aimed to disrupt or do away trusted middlemen, such as various private and public institutions. This attempted disruption of existing societal trust relations, and the establishment of a new trust infrastructure raises a number of questions. What kind of trust or distrust are blockchain-based systems offering? What kind of trust relations do they produce? What kind of trust relations do they disrupt in society? Are they trustworthy? What are the safeguards to their trustworthiness?
- Blockchain and IP Rights. One of the earliest proposed applications in the blockchain space was related to the registration and management of intellectual property (IP) rights. The reason for that was that IP is already dematerialized and detached from the physical world and is relatively well standardized in legal and economic terms. The world of (hard) IP also relies heavily on registries, the apparent bread and butter of distributed ledgers. Yet so far tokenization and smart contracts failed to make a dent in the traditional procedures and institutions that govern IP. Also, despite the rise (and fall) of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), the tokenization of ownership and rights, and the automation of rules failed to establish a resilient, autonomous approach to organizing cultural markets, the remuneration of artists, the distribution and licensing of works, or the engagement with audiences. What are the reasons for this missed opportunity? What could we learn from the NFT story?
- (Institutional) Governance. Despite all the talk about disintermediation, we regard blockchain based systems as institutions which need to be governed, and which offer (maybe) novel tools and approaches for other institutions to govern themselves. This also means that any application or use of this technology is also a question of institutional change. Maybe this explains why its societal diffusion and use turned out to be more problematic than predicted: technologies may spread fast, but institutions change very slowly, if at all. This raises the question: what kinds of changes need to happen of and in institutions so they can adopt novel models of governance technology in their constitution? On the other hand, what kind of governance challenges do blockchain projects face and need to solve if they want to be successful? And what does successful mean – and successful for whom?
- Investigating the Real-Existing Blockchain. Crypto winter or not, there still seems to be plenty of money floating in this domain, and the European policy lobbying (through think tanks) and institutional momentum (or inertia) is still strong. The dynamics of future developments will be shaped more and more by the concrete, actual reports on what has happened in that space during the dramatic rise and fall, rather than the utopian visions and their theoretical critique. In collaboration with the Institute of Network Cultures’ MoneyLab project (https://networkcultures.org/moneylab/) we invite researchers, critics, investigative journalists, finance activists and artists that work in the field of investigative crypto research to provide well grounded, critical, rather than short-term sensationalist investigations into the crypto space.
Guide for authors
We invite individual papers and panel proposals that focus on both on the (remaining) opportunities and on the (experienced or foreseeable) limitations of blockchains-, tokens-, and DAO-based governance of and by technology.
Individual papers should be presented in the form of 4-500 words long abstracts. They should include the main arguments, methods, and contributions to the topic of the conference.
Submissions for panels should contain an abstract and a justification of up to 500 words, including a brief discussion of their contribution to the topic of the conference. A panel proposal must contain a minimum of three paper abstracts that meet the above criteria. A maximum of six time slots per 90-minute session is available (e.g. 5 papers plus 1 discussant). The composition of panels is ultimately determined by the Program Committee. If your proposal contains fewer than five papers, the Committee may (in consultation with you) allocate additional papers to your panel to optimize scheduling and participation.
The deadline to submit paper and panel abstracts is April 15th, 2023
Deadline for submission April 15, 2023
Notification of acceptance May 15, 2023
Date of conference: July 3-4, 2023
Deadline for final paper submission: September 31, 2023