Tribal blockchains, decentralized sectarians

This post-modern blockchain find borrowed from the slides of Sarah Friend, who held one of the best talks at DTN.

A panel ended the DTN conference I attended recently that really shone a light on an interesting balkanization that is going on in the open source software world right now. This panel, titled ‘Problems in distributed systems we need to solve’, took an interesting turn when the moderator asked a question about the ‘blockchain space’. Data Terra Nemo is a conference on decentralized p2p technologies, and yet the word ‘blockchain’ was usually only mentioned as the butt of a joke. Some of the technologies discussed (like Wireline and Circles) use blockchain in their stack of technologies, but their creators both ‘owned up to it’ during their talks, being very aware of the status of the ‘b-word’. Their jabs at the “blockchain space” were not very serious, but the jokes were telling.

Basically, what has happened is this. As ‘crypto’ became a fad and a repeat of the dotcom crash, 20 years later, many people building decentralized technologies have seen their scene flood with money going to really bad ideas and sloppy technology. This has been particularly frustrating since there was never any money for any decentralized technologies before the blockchain bubble, and once it arrived, most of it went up in smoke with the core projects solving hard computing problems mostly going unfunded. One panelist summed it up as that the people in the decentralized p2p space felt they were working on hard and important problems, while the developers in the blockchain space were solving issues that were more trivial. There was also an anecdotal story on that the blockchain companies were starting to have problems hiring good developers, even when offering big paychecks because the social status of working in that space was so low among talented software engineers.

At the same time, the influx of money into the crypto/blockchain space created a parallel culture, which has not only attracted golddiggers but quite a lot of honest and talented people working on interesting ideas, and all of the panelists but one admitted to both having been funded by “crypto money” and many agreed that there were things to learn from “the other side”. They also pointed to a few technological challenges that the blockchain-side was getting right, that they were not yet keeping up with. One panelist also made the comparison with the dotcom crash – most of it was garbage, but a few gems survived and had great success for decades to come.

A few days later, I went to a DGOV meetup organized by @phoebe. A group of very idealistically motivated people was sitting around a table in a humble office talking about how to bring the benefits of DAOs to the governance space. I gave a lightning talk on how there is a lot of amazing decentralized technology being developed outside of the blockchain space and decided to bring the full story from DTN under the ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ principle. Their response was very earnest and humble, completely acknowledging the shortcomings of the blockchain space and that the enormous influx of cash had done harm to the community.

And there is plenty of room in which to collaborate. Many of the ideas being built on blockchains would benefit greatly from being paired with technologies discussed at DTN. In fact, one such initiative is Wireline, who sponsored the DTN conference and gave an interesting demo on their platform for creating distributed p2p web applications.

I think there might be an opportunity to do some good work here. There is still a lot of blockchain-money out there, and perhaps more importantly – that term has the eyes and ears of countless of people around the world. Those working for a human-centric internet should use this to their advantage.

  • First of all, policy-makers and investors need to broaden their perspective and look at the entire spectrum of distributed p2p technologies – no just the small subset that is blockchain.
  • Currently, the blockchain space is vastly more funded than the rest of the space. It might be in the interest of the big players in the blockchain space, who now have the ears and attention of their investors, to use some of that social capital to redirect attention towards a larger picture.
  • Blockchain influencers sit on a lot of attention capital which they could use to explain the wider implications of the decentralized p2p web to the public
  • Finally, those of us with a fanatic streak (I have been guilty of cursing the B-word myself in the past) might need to move past that into a more integrated perspective to start working together.

Fascinating. @evangineer (who works at Holo), what is your take on this?

I know that the EC has tasked the NGI Forward group to give blockchain an extra hard look. I wonder though, if they see it as “settled” technology so to speak, when it is evolving pretty fast still.


So much I could say about this and I don’t want to speak out of turn.

There is a crypto boom which will inevitably be followed by a crypto bust.

Holochain is not a blockchain project even though it offers many of the benefits of blockchain, the underlying P2P architecture and technology is derived from the Metacurrency Project which predates the crypto boom.

I’ve spent my share of time working in decentralized p2p projects without any real funding (income) or organisational support, so I know where people are coming from on that score.

I should add that I’m speaking in a personal capacity and not as a representative of Holo.

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Understood. I look forward to seeing your perspective on any aspect of this field. Like so many of these technologies, something big happens that catches the publics fancy and much following comes after.

Fascinating post!

I am afraid I have seen some of this up close myself. Already, I think the NGI initiative has an opportunity to increase its own awareness of what is going on in the world of decentralized architectures. There is quite some resentment going around: “Why are you guys only funding blockchain stuff?” I have heard at least a couple of people make an explicit “bigger fool” argument: “Yeah, it’s BS, but if it has ‘blockchain’ in it, maybe I can get to the next round of VC funding”.

Which is to say, there is no free lunch. Nothing replaces discernment and responsible choice. If you are the NGI, you do not get away with supporting technologies wholesale; you need to get in there, and really look at what people are doing, and support specific projects. Which ones? The ones that are best at encoding shared values into technical choices.

A final note, as an economist and a quantitative social scientist. When building capacity in an economy, it is not important to support technologies: what you need to support is people and organizations, and better still ecosystems of people and organizations. Once it has capacity, your ecosystem will then be able to ride successive technological waves. Bubbles are very bad for ecosystems, because they attract actors committed to keeping the bubble from bursting. So, when given the choice between different ecosystems, I would stay away from the overheated ones. The blockchain world, with all the hype and the emphasis on buying luxury cars (cars, for heaven’s sake! How can anyone take seriously a claim to reform the system made by someone who likes to flaunt Lamborghinis?), has looked very much like a bubble for a few years now.


If you are the NGI, you do not get away with supporting technologies wholesale; you need to get in there, and really look at what people are doing, and support specific projects. Which ones? The ones that are best at encoding shared values into technical choices.

Exactly so.