The goal of this WP is two-fold. First, its task is to provide a coherent framework to facilitate the compatibility and exchange of ideas, concepts, and evidence between WP4, 5, and 6. The second objective is to break new theoretical ground by developing a theoretical framework that discusses the risks, and promises of the decentralization of social functions that were never thought to be exposed to such challenge.
The project brings together several, so far somewhat separate theoretical approaches. The Actor-Network Theory (ANT) approach is well suited to study at the micro-level, the self-governance of complex socio-technological assemblages, like blockchain applications. The study of blockchain developer communities will open up the technology, which is usually treated as a black box, and expose, not just the important technological characteristics (Sandvig et al. 2014), but the social conditions in which those technologies are produced (Ananny 2015; Kitchin 2014). Since formal policy instruments may ultimately need to interact with both the governance structures of blockchain applications, and their technological design, describing them in terms intelligible for the policy discourse is an essential task.
On the wider, societal level, the field of Internet Governance (IG) is the main scholarly discourse in which the governance of planetary scale technologies (like the internet, and its constituent networks, such as the domain name system) is studied, mostly from the perspective of formal institutions, and the state. Recent developments in IG opened up this field to the study of a wider set of policy-related practices, that include informal, collective, or technological efforts to shape socio-technical systems (van Eeten and Mueller 2013). This change in focus was accompanied by the integration of the STS approach to IG, to cover the normative function of laws, policies, technologies, markets, discourses, and practices in the ordering of techno-social systems (Epstein et al. 2016). The project will push further into the currently unexplored possibilities of the STS enriched IG approach.
Within the domain of legal and policy research, the evidence based policy approach only recently gained acceptance, and it still mostly relies on quantitative methods (i.e., statistics, econometrics, etc.) to create the evidence base for policy development and analysis. In addition, legal research still focuses very heavily on the national and supranational legal frameworks and their capacity to address technology related issues.
The project will break new scientific grounds by creating a rich, novel theoretical and empirical framework for the next generation of evidence based policy research, which integrates the micro-level STS insights into technology governance with the macro level, structural approach of IG to study the societal construction of complex socio-technological assemblages. The project will build the conceptual and methodological bridges between (1) the traditional field of information law, and telecommunications policy; (2) the study of the self-governance of technological systems via STS methods; and (3) the study of collective control efforts of complex socio-technological assemblages via STS infused IG.
The second major ambition of the project is to offer new contributions to our current theories on decentralization (Benkler 2006). The technical possibility to decentralize trust and do away with trusted intermediaries have unexplored implications for social and political theory. How does the cryptographical notion of (decentralized) trust translates into (decentralized) institutional and interpersonal trust? What happens to the State, and to many of our centralized institutions if there are blockchain based alternatives for a number of its current functions (Atzori 2015)? What are the social, cultural, political, structural limitations to the technological substitutability of certain functions? (i.e.: will banks simply disappear just because we technically won’t need them to have accounts, and transfer money?) This WP will work towards answering these currently rather rhetorical questions.