In Defense of Open Networks
What You Do Is Who You Are
Upon honest reflection, crypto has yet to live up to its lofty promises. Promises of a new financial system - transparent and composable. Promises of powerful, distributed communities forged with novel financial incentives. Promises for sovereign, immutable, digital property rights.
The offshoots of transformative potential are visible, but product market fit has been elusive, often constrained by self-inflicted wounds. Dismal user experiences, worse risk management, and blunt regulation shoehorning a 21st century asset into 20th century regulation - all contingent on a closed, competitive mobile duopoly for distribution - have constrained use cases and adoption.
In reality, the mainstream consensus of crypto as an over-levered casino built on social media hype and regulatory arbitrage is not completely unwarranted.
This is unfortunate.
Crypto holds the potential as a powerful tool for human coordination: transparent, composable code, self-executing contracts, real-time settlement, and on-chain reputation, all with supercharged financial incentives. These qualities should work wonders in reducing the friction for globally networked exchange and enable digital-first institutions worthy of the 21st century.
To date, however, the movement has primarily revolved around the “super-charged financial incentives” part, with financial speculation proving the dominant use case.
Which is why Tom’s question below is worth contemplating:
What are some areas, beyond finance, where these general purpose tools are being used for real progress?
One (very) young but encouraging area is the intersection of crypto and scientific research.
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“DeSci”: Open Networks at the Doors of Academia
Decentralized Science is a movement which aims to increase the pace of scientific discovery and commercialization by leveraging open infrastructure to encourage wider participation - in research, peer review, funding, and commercialization - from outside the traditional academic “establishment”.
“But PD” you butt in, slowly understanding the implications, “ Is…Is this a good idea?”.
Your mind flashes to “decentralized” media: i.e. Facebook, Tiktok, Twitter, and Instagram. The growing polarization, degraded attention spans, and higher rates of depression in young people. This “FAKE NEWS” catastrophe at internet speed now corrupting not only our democracies but our sacred temples of scientific advancement?
“Should we really pry the engine of post-enlightenment progress from the trusted universities and research institutes which shield these processes from the lunacy of the public sphere?”
My response, as an under-educated anthropomorphic fruit is: “yes”.
To many in academia, the reason for gate-keepers like peer review and trusted publications is clear: a necessary filter through which to avoid the corruption and degradation of “rational inquiry”. Modern priests of rationality charged with preserving the sanctity of the scientific method from the corrupting agendas of the outside world.
These concerns are valid. In a world of engagement-driven social media, deep fakes, LLMs and synthetic data, the need for public trust in objective research institutions is more important than ever.
The key question is who deserves this trust?
Existing elites clearly wish to retain an uncontested crown. Historically, most have behaved responsibly. Stanford, MIT, Max Plank, ETH Zurich etc. retain much credibility, earned over decades of proven achievement. However, the COVID communications debacle and increasing polarization of many top universities is seeding a growing distrust of traditional gatekeepers.
Admittedly, decentralized science may prove a terrible idea. A social media moment for science which only further muddies the waters: breathing life into the flat earthers, the biological sex deniers, and the horse dewormers.
This would be… suboptimal.
But there is another, perhaps more apt metaphor worth considering: Wikipedia.
At first, many thought the idea of getting into a stranger’s car or sleeping at a stranger’s house was absurd. Today, AirBnB and Uber are multi-billion dollar companies leveraging latent supply, curation, and reputation to solve a coordination problem on which millions rely daily.
At inception, Wikipedia surfaced many junk results, but has rapidly become one of the most trusted sources on the internet. Community oversight, reputation, citation standards, ratings, and peer reviews were all incorporated to harness global expertise and manpower unavailable to “closed-source” competitors.
To quote Joy’s Law: “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else”.
Open networks seem to win out in the end. Wikipedia vs. The Encyclopedia Britannica. Uber vs. Taxis. The Internet vs. the Intranet. Linux vs. Windows. Markets vs. Central planning. Even notoriously “centralizing” AI is rapidly giving ground to opensource competition.
If open networks have a consistent track record of delivering, should we not at least try implementing a similar framework to the engine of progress itself?
Ya cool, open networks… ok fine. So… what… is it?
To add my own typewriter to the choir of grand, yet vague and overarching definitions:
“Decentralized science as internet scale coordination with in-built reputation and incentives - replacing the old world of slow-moving processes, siloed data, poor incentives, risk-averse grants, and closed publishing monopolies - to massively expand the scope, speed, and, over time, quality of our R&D apparatus.
- PD :)
I hope all this comes to pass and more. However, as is often the case with new tech, narratives race ahead of reality and must be scrutinized against the realities on the ground.
Today decentralized science is nothing more than a newly-fertilized zygote. An embryo of possibilities, but admittedly a movement still in its pre-infancy stages. Most DeSci “institutions” in 2023 consist of a website, a discord server, a small passionate group, and perhaps a shared bank account or crypto wallet with a few hundred thousand in the bank.
And yet, as Margaret Mead reminds us: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
While the movement is young, the vision has resonated broadly. Talented, multi-disciplinary researchers and operators - biologists, neuroscientists, geneticists, pharmacologists, software developers, experienced entrepreneurs, venture investors and more - have congregated together online sensing the peculiar pull of scenius at work.
The young ecosystem is exploding:
Source: Messari.io : The Decentralized Science Ecosystem
While the aims and structures of these organizations are diverse, an early formula has emerged. Many early communities focus on improving the process of “translation”: i.e. bridging the gap between promising academic research and commercial use cases.
From VitaDAO in longevity to AthenaDAO in women’s health to ValleyDAO in synthetic biology to middle-aged male favorite HairDAO, the communities operate in the niche between unimaginative, slow-moving public grants and early-stage, ROI driven VC funding.
The below graphic from ValleyDAO showcases this translation flywheel at work: funding undiscovered research in exchange for Intellectual Property rights which, upon commercialization, will provide the proceeds to back more research in their target domains:
Build Community: attract diverse expertise in relevant domain (synthetic biology) and tech / ops (to manage community / governance)
Provide Funding / Translational Support to Researchers: communities back meaningful projects in exchange for negotiated Intellectual Property Rights
IP Commercialization: if research is fruitful, community can license IP to startups or other entities keen on exploring commercial use cases
Proceeds Reinvested: Any proceeds or equity from commercialization are given back to the community to reinvest in supporting further research.
VitaDAO, a leading collective in funding and advancing longevity science is one of the early pioneers of this now popular approach. It has 19k community members anchored by dozens of contributors including elite university professors, MDs and PHDs teamed up with proven entrepreneurs, data scientists, and legal experts. To date, the collective has deployed US$4m into 17+ research projects with US$6m in liquid funds including backing from Pharma giant Pfizer.
The unique ingredient is the flexible nature of membership, incorporating a broad range of primarily part-time, revered experts from many different institutions. Aggregating such a group via traditional institutions would be very challenging.
New organization types require new tooling. Interestingly, DAOs themselves are emerging to meet the needs of other DAOs: a sort of distributed dog-fooding phenomenon.
A great example is Molecule - a very busy community building DeSci infrastructure including:
A Protocol - enabling IP-NFTs: “hybrid legal smart contracts with unifying legal rights, data access, and economic agreements” which allow academic research IP to be represented in on-chain markets
A Marketplace - an exchange where academics can advertise their research and DAOs can fund promising projects in exchange for negotiated IP rights
A LaunchPad: a DAO factory to incubate more BioDAOs - replicating this early translation formula across different end-domains to breed users for Molecule’s tooling and increase liquidity within their nascent marketplace
Uniquely familiar with distributed coordination problems, DAOs are well-positioned to meet the needs of other distributed communities. Admittedly, in these early innings DAOs have a nebulous track-record of effective organization relative to traditional counterparts, but as tooling proliferates, many of existing headaches will hopefully become more tolerable.
The End Game
The ultimate vision of decentralized science is a more transparent, more open approach to scientific discovery. Not only would open networks tap into and coordinate dispersed expertise at internet speed, but they could significantly expand funding for basic research and development in a world of more strapped government finances.
Incrementally, as blockchains scale, new standards for on-chain publishing could create a traceable web of citations and attributions over time. The holy grail of “networked brain” for science would encourage publishing the raw data behind consequential experiments on-chain for replication and providing foundations for further research. This could reduce waste by cutting down siloes, minimizing duplication of past experiments, allowing progress to compound globally.
As intelligence is normally distributed, following Joy’s Law to leverage global networks seems more likely to uncover the hidden secrets of the universe: unearthing the long-tail of talent and serendipity outside the existing establishment. Essentially, effective management of incentives and reputation would be the difference between a fake news dystopia and accelerating progress - the expanding research firehose tamed by systemic, transparent curation.
Is this vision even possible in a fragmenting world of geopolitical competition and fraying international relationships?
I don’t know. But at the very least, it seems worth trying.
The decentralized barbarians are at the gates. The ivory tower, like commerce and entertainment before it, seems unlikely to withstand the blows of the 21st century for much longer.
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