Prof. Winner's 1980 paper "Do artifacts have politics?" asserts that tech artifacts are not neutral but reinforce certain values, interests, and power relations in society. The paper outlines several examples to drive the point home.
Tech is not neutral
Bridges over parkways on Long Island were once constructed with low clearance to intentionally prevent racial minorities and low-income groups who used public transport from accessing parkways for recreation and commuting. Many grotesque concrete buildings and huge plazas were constructed on American university campuses during the late 1960s and early 1970s to diffuse student demonstrations. The first introduction of pneumatic molding machines created a sub-par product but needed less skilled workers, an opportunity that the manufacturers saw to stomp the labor movement of skilled workers. It is a beautiful essay that every maker in the web3 space should read to realize the power their craft has on those who will follow after them.
A takeaway for public goods in web3
The decentralized nature of web3 offers a chance to reconsider conventional power structures and promote a more equitable distribution of resources and opportunities. Our decisions while developing decentralized technologies can influence the power dynamics, economic systems, and accessibility of web3 platforms. However, if we don't pay close attention to the political dimensions of artifact design and governance, pre-existing power imbalances and inequalities may continue to exist or even worsen public goods in web3.
What I feel good about
The evolving plurality within the public goods space aims to build and coordinate for a future that challenges and replaces some fundamental but entrenched by-products that emerged from the politics of control. I drafted the following in response to Corey James's question on Twitter on what can help newcomers in the space navigate the myriad of communities and products. In addition to the questions we are attempting to answer below, it gives me confidence that we will ask higher quality questions of ourselves and keep building towards this future over time. (Note: examples are not exhaustive at all and are limited to the mentions in the original tweet)
How do we build a future where we can craft economies that run on forms of capital (other than finance) necessary for human thriving?
- How do you design interactions and incentives among the constituents of such a system to steer collective action toward that ultimate end? Mechanism Institute
- What does alternative financial plumbing look like for communities to build the Lego blocks necessary to bootstrap such a future? Gitcoin, Giveth
- How can these communities leapfrog in ways of self-governance by adopting (and replacing) tools fit for context and scale? Metagov
- How can these communities transparently fund what matters to them and allocate it in ways congruent to their purpose? Allo Protocol, Grants Stack
- What venture-scale public goods solutions can glue existing and new infrastructure such that the whole is greater than the sum of parts? Supermodular
- How do you onboard and empower "people on the spot, who have the strongest incentive to get the solution right" for local problems? Greenpill Network, Regens Unite, ReFi DAO
- How do we democratize ownership and reallocate resources to shift power dynamics to the people most knowledgeable of and most vulnerable to the effects of climate change? Regen Network
Where I feel we could do better
If artifacts have politics and we want to use artifacts to bring about change, we must first embrace the underlying politics necessary for transformation. That begets culture, culture creates crafts and communities, and then comes code. Doing it the other way around is less effective.
In addition to the technologists, will the builders and makers in the physical world, the community organizers, the farmers, the artisans, the bureaucrats, the policymakers, etc., embrace or push for change? Often, tech overshadows conversations vis-a-vis mainstream public goods use cases, e.g., huge implications for coops to mobilize, transparency in government operations, creative ownership, etc. We need diverse voices to shape this.
The rise of the "political reformers"
In the paper, Prof. Winner alludes that early technology designers play a role akin to political reformers.
"...technological innovations are similar to legislative acts or political foundings that establish a framework for public order that will endure over many generations...The issues that divide or unite people in society are settled not only in the institutions and practices of politics proper, but also, and less obviously, in tangible arrangements of steel and concrete, wires and transistors, nuts and bolts."
Now that we have the technology to embed transparency and automation with greater finesse and the power to eliminate information asymmetry, corruption, and ineffectiveness in making public goods, what will you do about it?