Machinarchy, Democracy, and Embedding Social Contracts

A recent post on the Ethereum blog alludes to the ability to use smart contracts to create a system in which people can vote, which can then make the group’s decision felt in the real world, and which would be immune to the traditional machinations of those with power. The author (along with an additional author over at clearly express what amounts to an interest in embedding the constitutional order in the built environment, what I have in other places talked about as machinarchy. It is a fascinating concept, and one that will become exponentially more critical as we expand, digitize, and automate our built environments.

Part of the problem we face in developing such new arrangements, however, is that we continue to define our current representative governments (based as they are on assumptions about popular sovereignty, logistics, and the value of mass citizenry participation) as democracies when they are not democracies, and in fact were never intended as such. The distinction between genuine democracy and republics (representative governments for all practical contemporary purposes) has historically been academic, yet because of the various ICT that we have today, and the very different levels of education and access to information, designing a genuine democracy is today a real possibility. Thus, the distinction between representative government and democracy is once again an important one to make.

But, part of our conceptual challenge in designing better systems of governance is that we continue to look to new emerging technologies like social media or blockchains as somehow being able to remedy our deficient democracies. We talk about our current systems as if they were intended to be genuinely democratic, and thus technologies that seem to imply “democratic” relationships will naturally improve their performance. Yet, we all live within republics, which are structurally quite different from true democracies. Attempts to apply new “democratizing” technologies in the hopes of improving the democratic functioning of these republican systems will result in systemic grafts at best, hybrid forms of predominantly representative governance systems with minor elements of democratic functions attached in subordinate positions.

Might those be worthwhile improvements in governance? Certainly. Are they disruptive political innovations that will revolutionize human governance and enable dramatic improvements in societal (read, global) outcomes. Decidedly unlikely. The evolution of such hybrid representative-democratic governance systems would represent sustaining political innovations, improvements by definition intended to improve and prolong the existing system.

Of course, what I’ve been talking about here are situations where we all (the political community) are explicitly modifying our shared system of governance. That might not be among the evolutionary pathways pursued by political economic “innovators” right now. Given the attitudinal shifts that have animated various social movements in the past decade (Occupy, DIY, hacker/maker, open gov, etc…), one could quite reasonably expect that views about governance and political community that do not reify or valorize the state (say, techno-libertarian or even e-anarchist) might become more popular. Certainly we see that many folks drawn (by conviction, not the promise of liquidity events) to emerging technologies like blockchains are hoping to either directly solve social issues without relying on government, or are specifically hoping to bypass state institutions all together.

I will admit to having concerns about such paths forward into the future, if only because such pathways implicitly or explicitly unravel the political community and likely drive a decoherence of political economic order. I’ll further admit, though, that here I’m just doing the political philosophic equivalent of spit balling. It’s a legitimate concern, I think, and should be explored.

Returning to the issue of using emerging technologies like blockchains to do something like embed social contracts in the built environment and thus create a more democratic society, I would offer that these very fascinating new technologies don’t simply promise greater democratization; they in fact portend entirely new political forms. I have previously written about these, and the three that I find the most valuable to consider are plethocracy, datocracy, and machinarchy.


You can read about them in other posts, but the short explanations would be: plethocracy is about the crowd, not the demos; datocracy is data-driven and augmented human decision-making; and machinarchy is having the constitutional order embedded in the built environment.

It is the last form, machinarchy, which is the one most salient to a new conversation about embedding social contracts in the built environments through technologies like blockchains. Machinarchy becomes more possible the more we build, digitize, and automate. In machinarchy, the environment is both passive and active actor in governance, and it executes based on the rules the political community devises. Smart contracts, enabled by a pervasive digital environment that is connected to media for transactions and the control of physical objects is absolutely one potential component of a machinarchical order.

Of course, as soon as we look to our civic infrastructure as the critical backbone for establishing and enforcing our constitutional order, this places front and center the issue of what Andrew Feenberg has written regarding the nature of technology and “deep democratization,” that if we want or expect a technology to actually increase democratization, then it must be envisioned and built with that purpose in mind. To do otherwise is to run the very real danger of simply empowering new elites to further constrain the perceptions and actions of citizens/users.

Oh, and those representative-democratic hybrids mentioned earlier? At the moment I see those as logical transition pathways from the present to some of these more dramatic political futures. The grafting of small innovations onto an existing system is a very logical response to technological change, and as we already see this occurring in many places today, I would expect that experimentation to continue. I would also expect that many such experimental grafts will wither, while some will survive. But the more discontinuous leap from such hybrid forms to more disruptive forms like plethocracy or machinarchy will come later, and will by nature bring much more social and political disruption.

What brave, strange new worlds we can envision when we weave together a connected humanity, a global internet of things, and unexpected applications like smart contracts…


Ethereum in practice part 2: how to build a better democracy in under a 100 lines of code

How the blockchain could build a better democracy

Anticipating Disruptively Innovative Political Designs

The Disconnect Between Civic Hacking and Democracy

Hybrid Models of Governance

Democratic Diversity: the turbulent and diverse futures of popular government.

Crisis Mapping, Neogeography, and the Delusion of Democratization.



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