January 1, 2023
4.5 mins

Code + Culture

Site B

In The Lost World, Michael Crichton’s sequel to Jurassic Park, there is a scene in which the protagonists stumble across a raptor’s nest. 

The group is puzzled by what it finds. The eggs are scattered as opposed to being arranged in neat circles, and the raptors are fighting each other for food, with the old preying upon the young. 

In one of his many fascinating monologues, Jeff Goldblum - I mean Dr. Ian Malcolm - observes:

“These newly created raptors came into the world with no older animals to guide them, to show them proper raptor behavior.  They were on their own, and that was just how they behaved – in a society without structure, without rules, without cooperation.  They lived in an uncontrolled, every-creature-for-himself world where the meanest and the nastiest survived, and all the others died.”

In their naivete, the InGen scientists - the villains of the piece - had imagined that by replicating the genetic code of the dinosaurs they could recreate a dinosaur civilization. 

Nowadays, we are learning a similar lesson with the attempt to create new network states with blockchain technology.

Leaving Utopia

The early hype around blockchain was rife with extreme claims, generally ending in ‘-less’. 

Permissionless, Trustless, Leaderless. 

The general sense was that we had created a system that would just ‘work’, that was unhackable, and that would replace everything that came before it - currency, financial systems, and governments.

There is a core to this view that still holds. You can create permissionless systems using blockchain technology, of course. Two users who do not know each other can interact based on cryptographic truths rather than institutional or blind trust. And the whole notion of a distributed ledger is that transactions proceed by consensus among decentralized nodes, rather than centralized control.

Computer Code and Cultural Norms

In practice, it’s been harder to move towards this pure vision, where code replaces everything. Of course, technology fails and has vulnerabilities, but this is not the fundamental issue. The fundamental issue is that culture will always matter as long as people are involved.

The schism in the Ethereum network, for example, that created Ethereum Classic is a prime example of the code not being enough. What was needed was a judgment call as to what the values of the network should be. Is code law (Ethereum Classic) or is the code subject to culture (Ethereum)? The people in the network were divided on this issue, and so the code had to divide as result.

Computer code will always have a corresponding cultural component. Even if the culture elevates code to the highest level of importance, it will still be subordinate. 

The choice is whether these cultural values are intentional or haphazard.

Culture at the chain-level

Without an intentional approach to establishing a blockchain culture, the culture will most likely form around whatever incentives are embedded in the computer code.

Chains such as Ethereum and Polkadot, with their emphasis on versatility and interoperability respectively, have naturally attracted people who are incentivized by the ability to build.

It is difficult to control the culture of a decentralized entity like a blockchain when it gets big. It is also possible for a currency that begins as a payment system such as Bitcoin to become an object of speculation, and an asset class unto itself, if enough money flows into it.

While blockchain networks provide interesting ‘writ large’ illustrations of how culture can operate and change over time, it is much easier to have an intentional impact on culture in a smaller organization, such as a DAO.

Coding culture in web3 organizations

While you can train in multiple programming languages, it is not so obvious where to learn how to code a culture. 

An interesting project that concluded last year attempted to study some of the principles that made for a successful ImpactDAO - a DAO built with a community or social purpose in mind.

We’ve already seen above that incentives matter. Launching a token with a promise of a high APY is a quick way to see your culture disintegrate into that of a Degen Yield Farm. But what else can we learn?

Three conclusions from the study go directly against the standard blockchain orthodoxy outlined above:

  • You need leaders: Complex goals cannot be achieved in a short period of time by vibes alone. Leaders - not bosses - are those who take the initiative and sculpt order out of chaos. While there is room for more leaders than one, most people aren’t leaders and need a guide. The difference with a traditional organization is that in a DAO, everyone is there by choice. Bossing people around won’t cut it - you have to motivate them. 
  • Permission is important: UkraineDAO, an organization formed in the days prior to the Russian invasion of early 2022, is highly selective about who it lets on to its team. This is because its goal is important, and the people who make up the organization have a significant impact on its goal. 
  • Trust is also key: The self-driven nature of DAO members - who join because they want to, and can leave just as quickly - makes the blockchain’s answer to the traditional corporation a fundamentally more dynamic and energizing place to work. But it also means that a team must trust each other to maintain motivation and not bail at crucial moments or deadlines. 

Leaders will play a strong role not only in helping to define the positive cultural values of a group, but also in enforcing them in the vetting process for new members, and ensuring that the culture coheres to uphold a mutual sense of trust.

A group that can operate this way has succeeded in doing for the traditional corporation what Satoshi envisaged for payment networks - making an existing system fairer and more efficient.

If culture is key - the next stage in blockchain’s evolution should refocus its attention on how to give a healthy culture the best chance of success. 

Or we take our chances with the raptors. Yikes.