Pablo Velasco - Assistant Professor at the department of Digital Design & Information Studies at the University of Aarhus.

Pablo is on the faculty of Aarhus University in Denmark. He studies blockchain and automation processes and their social ramifications.

ZENNA FISCELLA in Conversation with PABLO VELASCO

Zenna:
Welcome to the third episode of the Edgeryders podcast. Today we’re talking to Pablo Velasco. He’s an assistant professor at Aarhaus University. And you have a history, at least with your PhD, on researching blockchain?

Pablo:
Yes.

Zenna:
And currently, what’s your focus?

Pablo:
I still research blockchain to some degree because that’s what I’m known for in the academic world. But I’m also interested in decentralized web in general, and automation processes in general. Especially creative automation processes.

Zenna:
Yeah. So we haven’t had this conversation yet in private. I look forward to having that one too about the decentralized web. But to start off, I’m really curious about what journey brought you to wanting to study blockchain. How does it begin? And was there a societal perspective to this?

Pablo:
Yes, that’s my, my my approach always. Like, politics and social elements of technology, in this case blockchain. The first thing is that I started studying in my very early years, electrical engineering, because I really much it was very much into computers, technology and that kind of stuff. I was building my own computers. And I started that career. And then at some point, I started reading philosophy, I started reading Nietzsche, and I was still kind of young.

Zenna:
Which one?

Pablo:
This was the posthumous writings, so like a bunch of separate non order writings. And I got really engaged with that. So I left…
Zenna:
What ideas got you engaged with that?

Pablo:
I think it was more the type of questioning, because in electrical engineering, you will have very static ways to think about the world. Yeah, I was more pragmatic, more utilitarian. And these were questions about existence and why are we here? And what who questions are power, for example, right? So at some point that became more interesting for me to pursue to some degree. So I applied to a philosophy place in a modern University. And I got accepted. So I did, I made that jump. So technology always seemed like sub subterranean to some degree to my further background. Yeah. And then later, when I finish my master, I was still in philosophy, very metaphysics question actually. And I started using Linux, which I always I always have the tingle of it. It’s been about 10 years now, since it started Linux and I was very driven by this idea kind of community enabled, instead of business capitalist kind of ideology behind it. So I was very much into it. So when I finish my master, I start looking for technology again, but always from this social perspective. So Linux was like that. The jumping port. Yeah. And then I have to select something to study there was kind of on that avenue. And I cared about Bitcoin at that moment. That was 2012-13. So it was already there, but still not on a mainstream level. And I thought, well, this is this was a great case study, right, because it’s about decentralizing and making, building a system from a community.

Zenna:
Okay, so you mentioned a word right there that I think is very interesting to also find out what it means to you. Because it’s a word that is used a lot recently. But it has a lot of different meanings. So “communities” is one, I think most people have a similar sense of that one. But: decentralized. What does decentralized mean to you from a more society perspective, as you said, like technology is a little bit easier to discern what’s decentralized, because the average take on what decentralized means, but societely, what does that mean for you? Is that a power question? Is that a community question? Is that a structural question?

Pablo:
I think it’s definitely a structural one in terms of hierarchy. Right. So political systems.
Most historical political systems have have been based in strong hierarchies. So yeah, I think you have a decentralization leans towards something that is distributed in a different way. But it’s still it’s kind of blurry, because, yes, I think it’s a word that is used too much. Like a buzzword it has currency, but it’s rarely defined, in part because it’s difficult. Right. And I think it’s very interesting that you mentioned not technology, but social because I think a lot of projects tend to mixed those two, and you kind of are confused which one they are talking about. Right. And it happened. I mean, my research was many bitcoins during my PhD. And there was a struggle for the centralization, but most of the time, it was meant socially, whatever that meant. But it was enacted technologically. So there was a like a gap, a gap. Yeah, like, almost, I’m missing the word, but a bit of psychotic difference in between those split. Yes. So what I will say is that you don’t necessarily have to look on technological advancements to think about some sort of decentralized structures, right?

A lot of communities and working environments not a lot, a few, a few exist. They exist. And they don’t necessarily need a technological medium to exist. Right.

Zenna:
And you mentioned that to me like co ops. Yes. Or community run daycare.

Pablo:
So yeah, yeah, exactly. Yeah. I think the co-op is the great example. Where systems of power are some degree decentralized. Right. In in more specific political examples, the Zapatistas in Mexico is not decentralized, per se, still like a representational system to some degree, but it makes a lot, it puts a lot of emphasis on having discussions from the grass roots and finding consensus from the grassroots before, instead of, someone deciding.

Zenna:
it’s where the masses of power are located in a society, yeah, yeah. community or in a some cases technology. Yes, yes. And that’s a very interesting thing that you mentioned that, because I’ve felt that a lot myself actually where it’s been a difficult path to maneuver between the decentralized webs and the blockchain cryptocurrency world, because they’ll both use the same terminology of decentralization. I think I’ve seen recently that “distributed systems” is a term that’s used often and like the decentralized distributed realms more maybe to differentiate from the only technological aspect that goes with the decentralized. I don’t know, but it was a really interesting thought that I’d never put down so concretely before in my own head. Yeah. So thank you.

Pablo:
If I could say a bit more about that. Another thing that I think we’re putting in the table is that - and I carry these from a guy a researcher called David Colombia, Columbia a few years ago in a conference - is that there’s like an assumption that decentralization is good and better and an improvement. And I believe most of the times it is, but he questioned that. He was like, Yes, but why? Why are we assuming that that’s that’s an improvement? Right? So I don’t have an answer for that actually. But I think it’s important to ask not only how do we decentralize things, but also like, why are we Why should we decentralized certain things aren’t and maybe not not everything right.

Zenna:
And it’s a highly politically subjective perspective probably too. I’d imagine that most people who also promote decentralization also promote the more liberal I guess it’s called, of the political compass style.

Pablo:
Yes, the more libertarian approach, they will say that, that will also be very much in favor of a kind of decentralization that is not the same as the co-op, right? Not exactly. And in in that sense. There are cool projects like the and I researcher that gathers modern cooperative projects. And he calls like platform corporative activism.

Zenna:
Cool.

Pablo:
So it’s like, but the emphasis on deck operatives and how technology helps them, but not the other way around. Right? Yeah.

Zenna:
Cool. I’m going to ask you about that afterwards. So, I wanted to bring this back, though, because you mentioned that you found blockchain during 2012. And you started your PhD writing about it. And before we started this conversation, you gave me a tidbit, which was also the term “utopia”, which you mention has been played a big role for you and your writings. Specifically, you mentioned the differences between utopias. Does this is also tie into decentralization? Are they weaved together?

Pablo:
I think they are, at least in their ambiguity. Yeah. I mean, I haven’t worked very publicly on the concept we talking about, but that was a narrative argument that was in my PhD dissertation for sure. Part of the narrative it was it was like, and it was applied to each of the different meanings of utopia, One is: Why does there no place in the says that a non physical place or non existing place, right, so a lot of that is about cyberspace, the, the inner we inherited from the 90s. And that kind of stayed still there. That cyberspace is in office. Yes, exactly. So yeah, and not even physical, but like a no-space. Let’s call it like that. Yeah, there’s that tinge of utopia that comes from from from before.

There is also the the idea of a place that is to be achieved. So something that has to come to be yet. And that that’s what I think decentralization is really tied to it because it’s also like something will happen. And when it happens, things are gonna be different. And we cannot know and if it’s utopia, it’ll be different in a good way. Yes. There is also the utopia that is not meant to be reachable, right? There no place that the moment you reach it is no longer the no-place. Right? It’s it becomes the place. I know. It’s it’s a bit cryptic, to some degree, but utopia is also something that it’s always in the idea and remains in the idea.

Zenna:
And I think it can’t really exist in reality, because reality is never utopia.

Pablo:
Yeah, yeah. And that’s kind of the the use of of it. Not something like negative right is the use of it.

Zenna:
And these three levels is something to aim for.

Pablo:
Yes, exactly. Yeah. And I think there’s three levels of different kinds of utopia. You see them in, in different ways in in, in decentralization-driven projects, right. That’s the way I use it, at least in my in my work.

Zenna:
That ties very well into the narratives that are happening with the solar punk movement as well.

Pablo:
Yeah. But I think it’s important to separate which one is which, right, which one is it’s it works as an ideology in a good sense. And which one is more elusive and more…

Zenna:
Beautifying.

Pablo:
Beautifying?

Zenna:
Yeah, like creating a utopia, image - a utopian image in the sense that in “1984” They used a Peace Institute instead of War. Yeah. It’s like beautifying the world or utopia-fying. Yeah, that’s fascinating. And then that also becomes a question of, is it subjective or not.

Pablo:
Oof! You ask me questions like that, and yes my background is philosophy…
but I will say that part part of the… subjective is maybe an important word here because it kind of separates…It is not individual. Like subjective is not necessarily individual, right, which is the kind of more Silicon Valley I will say, oriented idea, individuals that are mediated by technology and that’s a good thing in itself. And I think this, the other kind of more complex idea for a subject is a subject that is not an individual. It’s a subject in a community, for example, that is made a subject because it’s in a community and there’s where you have the co-op more linked.

So when you ask me if it’s subjective, I immediately think of which kind of subject.

Zenna:
Is it a community subject or is it an individual subject. While we were talking about communities and Silicon Valley, it brought me into something I’m just curious to ask you and see your take on because I’ve been pondering it in my own head and I have not come to a conclusion yet. The topic is DAOs: decentralized autonomous organizations. And from my perspective, it’s been curious because I’ve heard a lot of people mention DAOs that was of course, and, and tokenization of organizations in order for automating them, and with the subject in this case would be for the community or for the individual to speak. That’s my own thought pattern around DAOs. Yes. Have you been thinking about DAOs? Is that like, as a part of your realm and studying blockchain?

Pablo:
I mean, it is there of course because it’s it’s a topic that…It’s around. I haven’t written or thought specifically about that. But I think because in great part I related it with the DAO kind of attempt and failure from from a few years ago, right.

But I think tokenization it’s a topic that is closer to where I have been thinking. And one of my issues actually, with about blockchain projects, is that they tokenize. I mean, a lot of the early blockchain designs, they were based on tokenization. Right on a production of units. That was similar to production of economic unit before it. So token: I think part of the the issue well, I don’t know if it’s an issue, but part of what I see as a problem is that tokens are related to economic units, like small units of value, that kind of organize the relationship. Right? And in that sense, it lands too close to the economical systems that we already have. Right. So for me, the idea of the token is very tied to pre existing economies that the quality is that getting rid of those economies right, going beyond those. On the other hand, it’s not like I know exactly what will be a good replacement or attempt.

Zenna:
Speaking of good replacement seminars, are there any projects that you’ve encountered on your journey that you’ve been like, wow, they’re kind of on to something. You know what I mean?

Pablo:
Yes, but I guess I have to say that not that many.

Zenna:
Is it that you have high standards?
maybe to broaden your radius?

Pablo:
I think my problem was, I mean, it was very invested in the early years, like 2012 to 2016 or 17, and my main problem was that most of the projects will have a very, very verbose way of presenting the project and then they will be a replication of other systems, right. Like a lot of alternative currencies, which are not a trendy thing to say now, now you say decentralized apps, but but the way they work is not that different. So it’s just like a new…

Zenna:
t’s a lot of tag words. cuz they use the technology. Yeah, blockchain technology. Yeah, this system is the same.

Pablo:
Yeah, exactly. And most of them will phrase their projects in in radically different ways. And then you will see that the working it was exactly the same right as as other crypto. So I guess it’s hard to we can be very blinded by the amount of projects, if you could see the list of decentralized apps are there. They’re massive, right? But, but when you go beyond that and start to see like, well, what’s a specific difference and of this one, you see that there, you can cluster them in relatively easy, you can also check, like which degree of development they had, most don’t have that much development. So from the massive amount of projects that you can see, it’s easy to decimate that number. And then…

Zenna:
because of the similarities

Pablo:
I will say that it’s less that the centralized projects but I have found interesting and more the, the loops that go back to the cooperative, and then the technology they use is like the secondary thing, right. And in that sense, I mean, the decent project was was an interesting one that eventually was kind of implemented to some degree, at least in Barcelona or some other communities, that it started like that, right, like, like, it was part of it was like a cryptocurrency at some point. And but it ended up being to some degree, successfully implemented for a different way to relate related to government. But then again, it was because I think tech was a bit secondary. And the main point was like, how do we reorganize this between people for people? Yeah. So and that kind of those kind of projects is the ones that you don’t see that often. Many because it, there’s, they’re small, right? And they don’t have like venture capital or big websites or anything like that. So that’s why this idea of platform corporate activism listing is interesting because you see that it’s, it may be a really small project in a small community, in Ireland, or in your country. And for me, that’s the really interesting part.

Zenna:
So when we go into the fact that there’s a lot of smaller projects out there in the realms of more social action. Yeah. And then secondary technology. We have the case in a lot of the mainstream, more default internet, as we know it, that there’s also a lot of misinformation going around. Do you think that there could be a point in also having these smaller initiatives of technology?
Or do you see that there’s a risk in the smaller initiatives existing and then not learning from each other because they’re too small? Or in the in the space of worldwide webs? Yeah. to local smaller initiatives?
How do you fare?

Pablo:
I think I’m more driven to local networks even if they are disconnected between each other in great part because there is different ways and things to solve in regions, right? So kind of having like a magical solution or technology solution or something our organization solution for a really broad spectrum of people. I think that’s really complicated, probably destined to not work because of the differences in localism. Right and coming back to Zapatistas in Mexico. Part of their speech is that attempting to replicate them in other countries and other contexts is like, that’s absurd, right?

Zenna:
Correct me if I’m wrong, did they not train in the forest? And secret for like, 10 years or something? Yeah, it was like that.

Pablo:Yeah, it was about 10. He was kind of small guerillas. I mean, it has a very interesting history. So they came out in 94. But since the 80s or so. But yeah, the it’s a really long project, right? It’s a very interesting project, but the it has 30-40 years in the working and, and it’s local. I mean, it’s it’s about a certain region in certain communities in Mexico, and for that they made it work in a beautiful and very utopian way.

But then again, if you just take like that risk recipe, and try to apply it in, in Denmark or whichever region, it’s, it’s probably not gonna work, of course, because it’s important to take care of the context. And that’s why local communities and local networks even, cannot communicate between each other. For me that’s kind of quite relevant.

Zenna:
Especially in today’s globalized world. Yeah, getting resources from all over the planet and shipping it all over the planet. Yeah, that’s something huge amounts of co2 all over the planet. It feels like also finding local solutions could be a good key.

Yeah. So we’re going to wrap this up on this lovely note of globalization and Zapatistas. Thank you for a wonderful conversation. Thank you. And yeah, any last notes you want to throw in there?

Pablo:
No, I’m just glad that these kind of channels exist. And that we keep asking questions about these topics like not just answering right now just trying to offer solutions.

Zenna:
There’s also like, many questions to keep asking before coming with a concrete pre-packaged “Buy Now 99%.”

Well, yes. So keep asking questions. And if you want to ask Pablo questions, cuz it will actually be available to answer questions on the Edgeryders platform. Yeah. That’s it for us. Thank you so much.

Pablo:
Thank you Zenna, a pleasure to be here.

This interview is waiting still for Pablo to permit us to post it or him register and do it himself. I just asked Zenna to expedite it…

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