De-mystifying algorithmic systems
BY KELSIE NABBEN & MICHAEL ZARGHAM.
The purpose of this post is share an outline of a forthcoming piece on “The Ethnography of a DAO”. This piece is being shared as a paper for the industry ethnographer conference “EPIC”, as part of the 2022 conference theme “Resilience”.
This paper investigates how ethnographers can study ‘Decentralized Autonomous Organizations’ using qualitative, ethnographic techniques, and what this teaches us about decentralized social organizations, algorithmic governance, and resilience. In it, we develop a novel, qualitative methodology on resilience and ‘vulnerability mapping’ that can only be generated through ethnographic practices. Here, resilience refers to the EPIC conference theme of 2022 as the ‘ability to learn, adapt and evolve in adversity and changing conditions’ (EPIC, 2022), and we are specifically focused on human outcomes in and through technological systems. The application of this method of ‘resilience ethnography’ in digital domains helps to foreground the social dynamics of organizational adaptability to de-mystify and re-humanize algorithmic systems.
The role of ethnographers and ethnography itself is changing in a world of increasingly digitized interactions. Past EPIC attendees have questioned the changing nature of ethnography amidst uptrends in digitization as our work becomes less experiential, and we are required to ‘study people who study screens’ (Haines, 2018). Yet, the way that ethnography provides value in portraying cultural insights and consequences of the human experience is evolving as former models of ethnography break down in new environments (Anderson, et. al., 2014). The study of ‘the digital’ invites new modes of ingenuity, experimentation, participation, data collection, analysis, and formulation. This includes the ability of ethnographers to ‘become’, participate, and form part of computational systems (Rennie, 2021). In doing so, ethnographic insights provide feedback to the communities participating in the research on people’s everyday experiences. These entanglements with digital systems iteratively shape their design, as well as their social outcomes.
As automated decision-making systems become more and more pervasive in digital infrastructure, governance, and the mediation of everyday life, ethnography remains a highly relevant practice to disambiguate the co-constitutive relations between humans and computation by accounting for where and how people are involved in algorithmic processes. The study of DAOs is a comparable field site to broader inquiries into where, why, and how people use automation in social institutions, how this may be navigated effectively, and the social benefits and drawbacks that automation affords. Ethnography offers the ability to generate a richer understanding of technical work and its social dynamics and sociocultural implications, including data, its provenance, the context and motives of design decisions, and outcomes in practice (Rattenbury & Nafus, 2018). Computational systems are available “in the wild” for ethnographers to investigate in the field. Ethnography can provide an “in-depth understanding of the socio-technological realities surrounding everyday software development practice” and help to uncover how practitioners organize themselves, make decisions, and apply certain methods, tools, and techniques (Sharp, et. al., 2016). The development of interactive systems of work and organization must recognize and systematically incorporate exploration of the intended social purposes, applications, and actual outcomes of new technologies.
As such, in this piece, a computer engineer and an ethnographer engage in ethnographic participation and analysis of organizational resilience in a DAO as a complex, socio-technical system through novel ethnographic methodologies. We present a novel DAO resilience mapping methodology and guiding research questions for the ethnography of a DAO, before demonstrating what ethnography in this niche field teaches us about the role of ethnography more broadly in analyzing resilience in socio-technical domains. First, we explore the literature on ethnographic practices in frontier digital domains and DAOs as a concept. We then outline our methodology to evaluate DAO resilience through vulnerability mapping, before detailing the field site and our practices to undertake an ethnography of a specific DAO called “GitcoinDAO”. Analyzing resilience in GitcoinDAO requires us to explore the key components of the structure, social, and technical dynamics of a DAO to ask what is being decentralized, made autonomous, automated, and organized? Through this analysis, we identify insights and limitations of governance and automation in socio-technical organizing. Finally, we discuss how ethnography in this digital domain provides qualitative feedback to the community on both the system itself and the environment it’s operating in, helping to make the social and organizational dynamics of distributed, digital organizations more legible to themselves and others. Our methods foreground ethnographic practices in machine-oriented worlds, to uncover the social dynamics and human experiences of socio-technical infrastructure and its social outcomes.
BEING “IN” A DAO
“GM.” “GM!” “GM!”. The DAO was waking up in the PST time zone as members said Good Morning to greet one-another in the “Discord” chat application channel. Especially during Covid times, the ‘GM’ ritual became a way to present for work, to delineate between sleep and the next activity, and to find some human connection amidst isolation in the hopes of staying sane (Nabben & Maddox, 2021). Soon, it would be a different time zone checking in to the online channel. The message that was ‘pinned’ to the top of the Discord channel titled “getting started” laid out the Code of Conduct that governed participation in the DAO. After verifying one’s humanity through a recapture bot, I was encouraged to 1. Read the Mission, 2. Update my server nickname to include my time zone, 3. Say hello in the “#intros” channel, and 4. Submit a pitch of why I should be admitted, which allows me to acquire tokens to become a member (usually through purchase (known as power through money, or ‘plutocracy’) or labor (rule through merit, or ‘meritocracy’)). The rules of engagement, perhaps comparable to other online communities in the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) space to which public blockchains and DAOs adhere, specified that insults and harassment would not be tolerated, nor advertising or speculation on token price, don’t share your passwords, and “we encourage productive conversation about how to govern and further decentralize this DAO project”. There were tens of other channels dedicated to all kinds of activities, including operational working groups, a grants program, “inspiration”, and “vibes”.
Being “in” a DAO is about sharing attention over time. As digital denizens, DAO members are geographically dispersed but co-located through shared attention in online chat applications, forums, votes, and pursuit of collective goals. The experience of ‘togetherness’ manifests through co-location over time by repeatedly contributing to the attention space alongside your distributed others and caring about interests that relate to the DAO. This a-physical locale generates a social fabric through which each individual has a relationship with each other, and the DAO itself. Token ownership in DAOs is facilitated by the blockchain-based infrastructure, enabling a ‘peer-to-peer’ interface for direct interactions between constituents. Like other communities, relationships are developed through shared interests, experiences, and events, establishing a sense of purpose, belonging, and incentive alignment. People’s daily routines of work and play, as well as their identity, can encircle the rituals and practices of involvement in the attention-consuming activities of a DAO.
Attention over time generates a history of shared cultural customs in the life of the organization as it transforms, from co-signing manifestos and releasing software code to recovering from hacks or software bugs (Nabben & Maddox. 2021). For example, everyone in DAOs that are built on the Ethereum blockchain remembers where they were and what they were doing when the first DAO experiment (aptly named “The DAO”) was hacked and a substantial dollar value of funds were drained from the treasury (DuPont, 2017). The collective trauma of how rapidly it failed, the freezing of funds, and the infamous “fork” of the community which split to form “Ethereum” and “Ethereum Classic”. It took a few years before the community could bring itself to again believe in decentralized, blockchain-based coordination and attempt to build the infrastructure to make decentralized organizations a reality. The sense of community that can be summoned in DAOs is powerful In a DAO, people are distributed, oftentimes pseudonymous, and rely on “trustless” infrastructure that allows them to transact with others without traditional trusted intermediaries. In practice, what this means is that trust is generated on different terms, where it’s socially acceptable not to know the real identity of the person you are interacting with, and peers in the network rely on reputation, behavior, and the rules of the platform. These rules form the ‘consensus’ of the governance by the infrastructure itself through economic incentives and penalties. The physical footprint of meetups and conferences is a shadow representation of the distributed online presence, which manifests in constant face-to-face events that occur all around the world in a moving parade of travelers in crypto t-shirts, ready for the next ‘hackathon’.
The full paper will be available via the EPIC Conference publications soon…