Decentralized Autonomous Organizations, or DAOs, are digital entities running on a blockchain network, operating by a set of protocols. They are used for various purposes, including decentralized finance projects, prediction markets, and governance of decentralized networks; they have even been proposed to create self-governing communities. Commercially, companies such as MolochDAO (grant-giving), MakerDAO (digital currency stabilization), and Kyber Network (digital currency exchange) are all examples of DAOs that have successfully raised capital and gained a significant following in their respective blockchains. Despite having different objectives, all DAOs have rules encoded in their protocols that are often executed on the blockchain by an algorithm, and all of them bolster the promises of transparent, tamper-proof, and decentralized organizational management. But before delving into the specifics of DAOs, we should first mind a couple of questions: where does the allure and overshadowed essence of this technological novelty come from? Is it already declining in the process of being relegated to the museum of obsolescence?
In this collaborative piece written through several long and illuminating conversations with Open AI’s ChatGPT, we will begin by laying the groundwork for what DAOs are within our current socio-political predicament. We have opted to ask relatively simple questions and bring them together in the interview format below. What follows is a human-machine cooperative that places DAOs within a larger context of other technological themes that have crowded our political discourse in the past couple of years: social media, cryptocurrencies, and artificial intelligence, all of which seem to be heading toward the recycling bin. Rather than mindlessly endorsing or hastily critiquing them, this interview will clarify how their decline defines our mediatic landscape and the social trends shaping it.
How have DAOs emerged? What are the main features of DAOs that justify their ascension in political discourse?
The concept of DAOs was first proposed in 2015 by a pseudonymous blockchain venture called “slock.it,” but was only fully realized in 2016, when The DAO was launched in the Ethereum blockchain. At the time, The DAO functioned as a decentralized venture capital fund that used software known as smart contracts to allow its members to vote on proposals for how to invest the funds. In The DAO, the “smart locks” of its users would be connected to the blockchain, allowing them services such as payments, rent, and other financial operations.
After raising over $150 million in its initial coin offering, The DAO quickly became the world's largest crowdfunding project as investors hoped to capitalize on their investments. But a vulnerability in The DAO’s code was exploited by hackers in June 2016, resulting in the theft of over $50 million worth of Ether, the dominant digital currency on the Ethereum blockchain. (1) The incident led to changes within the Ethereum blockchain, resulting in the return of the stolen funds to their original owners. Despite the successful implementation of changes, which have upgraded the security of the Ethereum blockchain, the hacking still raised questions between The DAO’s users about the immutability of blockchain technology, and the (in)ability of a community to make changes to the underlying code of any DAO.
However, one of the main advantages of a DAO is that it allows for decentralized, flexible, and transparent decision-making. Centrally, members of a DAO have a direct say in the organization’s protocols, making them more flexible to adapt to changing market and political conditions. DAOs might hold an optimistic image and a reputation as democratic and equitable—as Ethereum tried to illustrate—and it might make them seem like the natural outcome of our socio-technical evolution.
Nevertheless, DAOs still have their own set of challenges: their high degree of transparency, which might cause privacy issues, as well as their vulnerability to bugs that lead to unexpected results or even financial losses. Just recently, their lack of clear regulations and legal frameworks was the topic of a report published by the World Economic Forum. (2) As DAOs and our understanding of them continue to evolve, it will be interesting to see how they will be adopted and used in various industries, and if these structural transformations may even subvert their emancipatory promises. Even though DAOs have many advantages over hierarchical organizations, their claims of transparency, adaptability, and autonomy are precisely the main ideological markers and normative injunctions permeating our technological space since the emergence of “The Californian Ideology”: a dotcom neoliberalism that fuses cybernetic promises with brute market relationships. (3)
What are the most common arguments used to endorse or critique DAOs?
We often find two political positions in regard to DAOs: they are either endorsed as a resolution to the endless contradictions of capitalism by minimizing the power of centralized economic authorities, or they are condemned as a crystalized iteration of capitalism’s hollow promises of egalitarianism as reinforced by technology. For leftist commentators (4) in particular, there is no way out of the above binary. This may be due to a refusal to see beyond DAOs as either reinforcing existing power structures or as having the potential to disrupt existing business models. Right-wing commentators (5) are caught up in another binary. On the one hand, they praise DAOs for their adaptability to the libertarian political economy and critique them for having the potential to cause anarchy and discord, weakening so-called “traditional values.”
Where can we locate decentralization, autonomy, and organization within our broader discursive space?
In “Radical Friends. Online DAO Summit for Decentralisation of Power and Resources in the Artworld,” the Berlin-based researcher Jaya Klara Brekke criticizes the three core concepts that make and sustain DAOs: decentralization, autonomy, and the organization itself. It is quite striking that these three components have always been a major focus of discussion in both political practice and capitalist management.
1. Decentralization refers to the process of redistributing power away from a central location or group through a particular structure. According to Brekke, while “decentralization as a concept tends to be associated with things like empowerment and direct democracy,” it is also associated with “an intellectual and economic history that many times is fundamentally anti-democratic and focused on reducing democratic participation in favor of market mechanisms.”
The promise of progressive and infinite decentralization is what animates the politics and culture of The Californian Ideology. It is a promise that remains at the heart of supranational organizations such as the World Health Organization and Google, both of which are able to make decisions on a planetary scale, as well as in the increasing role given to non-state actors in international politics. Decentralization has facilitated the emergence of an international pop culture and contemporary art, each serving as the hallmarks of low and high consumption, respectively. Despite their aesthetic differences, pop culture and contemporary art both share a celebratory stance towards globalization, and work to facilitate and lubricate its political and economic mechanisms.
However, the ambition to decentralize has revealed the difficulties embedded in coordinating and making decisions among multiple entities on digital platforms. The issues include an increased potential for fraud or mismanagement, as well as an escalating confusion regarding how decisions are made in times of crisis. The Ethereum hack is an example of difficulties arising from a supposed lack of leadership; posts made by the founder of Ethereum, Vitalik Buterin, in which he analyzed what went wrong, were interpreted as establishing that Ethereum operates with de facto top-down decisions.
2. Autonomy, on the other hand, refers to the ability of an individual, group, or system to make decisions independent of adjacent, and often more powerful, forces or entities. Brekke claims that autonomy refers “to the autonomy of a protocol, system or some code that often operates in exact opposition to human self-determination.”
3. An organization is usually conceived as a defined structure with fixed roles and responsibilities assigned to its different members, and a system for making decisions and managing resources. In the context of DAOs, Brekke states that an organization “implies people coming together around shared meaning and aims.” But “when it comes to technology, an [organization] refers to forms of automated coordination that often take as their starting point isolated individuals who have failed to come together around shared aims, and therefore require a protocol to coordinate their behaviors.”
It is not a coincidence that each of the three components that compose DAOs also made up other epoch-making technological innovations: namely, social media, cryptocurrency, and artificial intelligence. In that sense, it should be clear that DAOs are the only one in which we can observe the dialectical relation between all three concepts. Since the constitutive components of DAOs are crucial ideological signifiers spread throughout our contemporary condition, they must be analyzed and critiqued not merely by the linguistic approach that Brekke offers, but also by engaging with how concrete technological and mediatic regimes have actually proliferated.
How can we place DAOs within a wider media ecology? Where do they fit with social media, cryptocurrencies, and artificial intelligence?
Social media platforms represent a centralization of structure and hierarchical codes in their infrastructure but are, at the same time, an important arena for decentralization insofar as they provide a new way for people to connect, share information, and empower users with a provided network of friends. Still, the fiscal demise of social media platforms is connected to their generalized failure to embrace a model of blockchain- and DAO-informed decentralization that would provide more transparency and control to users. It is ironic that the democratizing drive that once created a viable environment for many collaborative online enterprises now seems far-fetched, as social media platforms have since changed their algorithms, now focusing on monetization and the spread of trivialities such as viral dance routines or bizarre cooking instructions.
Like social media, cryptocurrencies are also a crucial asset in producing visions. Cryptocurrencies create the illusion of autonomy insofar as they problematize the necessary link between nation-states and the issuance of money. Digital tokens achieved this by innovating new ways to store and transfer wealth far beyond traditional private-public institutions. Moreso, in the recent context of low-interest rates borrowing in the United States (also known as our almighty global Dollar Store), cryptocurrency speculation made ballooning, high-risk market endeavors particularly appealing.
It is precisely by arriving at organization that we can see the clearest image of capitalism. Even if its superstructural surface stands up for autonomy and decentralization in the form of libertarianism and free market economics, functionally, capitalism has been historically intertwined with the formalization of labor, production, (6) or goods.
In contrast to the possibility of open participation encoded in DAOs, AI is a tool of top-down organization par excellence, as it is developed, implemented, and controlled by a few large players. Artificial intelligence concentrates knowledge, power, wealth, and personal data in the highest form of organization, one that is self-driving and automated. In doing so, AI strengthens the cooperative relationship between capital and the state, bringing in its wake the complete erosion of privacy and thus, civil liberties.
Can we compare DAOs and artificial intelligence with other hegemonic media compounds like Hollywood? What can we learn from that comparison?
If the emergence of DAOs as beacons of independence and autonomy can be compared to the rise of independent, small-budget cinema and theater circulating globally in locally-organized festivals, AI not only feels but acts like Hollywood, a place where capitalist promises and desires circulate. AI upgrades, formalizes, and elevates its influence through the quantification and distribution of data and metadata, transforming both into new ideas and linguistic forms in tools such as ChatGPT. Extending the analogy of cultural production, AI is bound to become a major driver in creating stuff we might like. (7) Some forms of AI may very well be the latest model for cultural production and consumption. Netflix, for example, selects series in multiple genres based on user activity, highlighting particular frames as thumbnails in order to make them more attractive to a specific user. (8) In fact, with platforms such as copy.ai, AI threatens to further automate forms of labor that are already underpaid and often freelance. Social media content production, for example, would work particularly well in that regard. Contracted social media content is usually based on complying to the pre-existing algorithm of a platform, drawing on heavily-protocolled procedures of supply and demand that the AI understands through its own database.
Can we say that AI might bring about the demise of decentralized experiments such as DAOs and cryptocurrencies?
AI could be integrated into DAOs in order to automate repetitive tasks such as accounting, compliance, and HR, as well as to predict and identify potential risks. Likewise, DAOs could be used to ensure transparency and accountability for AI-driven decisions. For example, a DAO can ensure that the AI’s decisions are fair and transparent. However, the way in which AI is developed, implemented, and controlled is often in the hands of a few large players that pose a threat regarding the concentration of power and wealth—very different from the DAO model, which allows for far more intervention and revision of its own protocols. In this context, cultural commentators have been endlessly annoyed by DAOs and crypto, as both appeared to be merely phony reproductions of capitalism's self-image of a decentralized system that Guy Debord called “spectacles.” Still, both DAOs and cryptocurrencies are imperfect technological manifestations of both autonomy and horizontal structures as they appear in our predicament. The type of criticism which simply interprets DAOs as another iteration of capitalism (9) fails to see that these technical changes comprise the very ground where capitalism can be fought. Distracted by the beating of a dead horse, the left continues wasting the generative potential that these technologies could offer, while also missing the opportunity to seriously reinvent itself by engaging with technical apparatuses that may redefine what “decentralization” and “autonomy” could mean “organizationally.”
1. For a timeline of this hacking and the recommendations they drew based on it, please visit: https://blog.slock.it/the-history-of-the-dao-and-lessons-learned-d06740f8cfa5.
2. The full report can be read in the following link: https://www.weforum.org/whitepapers/decentralized-autonomous-organizations-beyond-the-hype.
3. The full essay can be read in the following link: http://www.comune.torino.it/gioart/big/bigguest/riflessioni/californian_engl.pdf.
4. See for instance Dan Olson, Line Goes Up (2022).
5. Nick Land, Crypto-Current: Bitcoin and Philosophy (2018). <https://etscrivner.github.io/cryptocurrent/>
6. For more on this relationship between the development of Algorithms and Labor, see The Nooscope Manifested: Artificial Intelligence as Instrument of Knowledge Extractivism”, AI and Society (21 November 2020) by Matteo Pasquinelli and Vladan Joler.
7. See for instance the development of story-telling tools using GPT-3 such as ScriptShaper (http://www.scriptshaper.com/) and Dramatron. For an interesting although very initial exploration of the usages of GPT-3 for screenwriting, please visit https://medium.com/@tristwolff/take-your-screenwriting-to-the-next-level-with-ai-powered-ideas-799eb9399ed8
8. This piece describes the operation of these algorithms with the recent success of Netflix's hit series, Stranger Things https://www.cnet.com/culture/entertainment/stranger-things-addict-heres-how-netflix-sucked-you-in/
9. See, for instance Dan Olson, Line Goes Up (2022). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQ_xWvX1n9g.
Maria VMier, Companion in Doubt and in Failure [INDIGO], 2021. Foto: Galerie Christine Mayer (Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlung).