Images of Blockchains

One of my favorite org theory books is Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization, which argues that people view orgs through the lens of 8 basic metaphors: as machines, organisms, brains, cultures, political systems, psychic prisons, systems of flux, and instruments of domination, I wrote a post about it way back in 2010 which has been consistently popular and people also really liked the visualization I made. I decided it would be fun to transpose the metaphors to blockchains, which are post-organizational coordination mechanisms. To my surprise it mapped really well. I recreated my original visualization for blockchains.

Here is the original from 2010 for reference/comparison

For blockchains, here is how I think of the 8 new metaphors

  1. As ledger (port of machine): This is the basic one, and stuff like Chri Dixon’s read-write-own model fits here, as does “not your keys, not your coins” se;f-custody culture.
  2. As infrastructure (port of organism): This is where “payment rails” language comes from, and my own “railroad vs roads” metaphor. Also Josh Stark’s hardness mental model.
  3. As world computer (port of brain): This one maps without modification but only properly maps to Turing-complete blockchains like Ethereum with smart contracts. Specifically, Bitcoin does not map.
  4. As permissionless commons culture (port of culture): This looks like a restriction but is actually broader. Intra-org cultures tend to be restricted things. All the wagmi discourse from the last boom fits here.
  5. As ancap utopia (port of political system): This maps most strongly to Bitcoin, but all of crypto is at least slightly ancap and utopian. Network states discourse fits here.
  6. As Dark Forest (port of psychic prison): This has roots in MEV discourse as well as onchain gaming culture. It is the blockchain version of Hobbesian competition. The og byzantine generals mental model also fits here. The idea that crypto is a continuous speculative frenzy fits here.
  7. As ritual magic (port of systems of flux and change): Obviously zk proof and kzg ceremonies etc are rooted in this metaphor, but I think NFT culture also fits here, not in the commons culture metaphor like you might think.
  8. As Ponzi scheme (port of instrument of domination): This is of course the primary critical mental model, that there is no actual value and it’s all a giant Ponzi scheme. Unlike dark forest metaphor, this metaphor views blockchains as fundamentally devoid of content or even negative value (based on energy cost of PoW chains), regardless of speculation/dangers. Dark Forest by contrast treats it as dangerous and brutal but valuable.

I think this scheme pretty exhaustively covers all mental models of crypto. What do people think?


One metaphor I’m intrigued by is space program comparisons. Very few people have been to space but there is a grand civilizational narrative about space and we all benefit (comms and weather satellites). It’s a cross between “magic” and “infrastructure” eigen-metaphors.

In the space metaphor, maybe L1 is basic launch to LEO (most expensive part; esp with PoW), but once in orbit, near frictionless value is possible. Almost all access/use of space is automated, normies never need wear space suits or use rad-hardened gear, and it’s unclear humans ever need to go there except for adventure. Space-based earth apps like GPS, weather prediction, global surveillance, etc map to L2s. Which bring the cost gravity well back to earth.

This metaphor is more figurative than conceptual but works as a coarse mapping.

I thought it would be interesting to counter-map the eight metaphors of blockchain from the perspective of learning and unlearning. I mapped these metaphors onto a 2x2 with the following dimensions:

  • Structure: Spanning from highly centralized to highly decentralized.
  • Learning/Unlearning: Ranging from individualistic knowledge acquisition to collaborative knowledge sharing and co-construction.

This mapping exercise prompted me to consider the metaphors more deeply, raising questions about the positive and negative connotations of blockchains, as well as the potential conflicts between centralization and decentralization. It also highlighted the inherent need to learn and unlearn as technologies and communities evolve.

I’m curious if this map could be refined to better explore these tensions. Perhaps it could help individuals and communities identify where to focus their learning efforts – whether that’s acquiring new technical skills, adapting to decentralized decision-making, or fostering a culture of open learning.

1 Like

I think perhaps “Ponzi scheme” should be replaced with “Ponzi Forest” since the metaphor doesn’t point to a a single Ponzi but to the idea that it’s all ponzis. I’m not sure any blockchain metaphor should be centralized? That would make it not a blockchain at all…? Concentration effects (eg Solana staking hardware all being concentrated in one data center) might be the right idea for the x axis

Thank you for your feedback. To address your question about the placement of metaphors that seemingly contradict the inherently decentralized nature of blockchains, here’s my perspective on the “Computer” and “Infrastructure” metaphors:

Computer (Brain):

  • Turing-complete blockchains require specialized nodes for execution, potentially creating power imbalances.
  • Core protocol development and updates often involve a centralized group of contributors.

Infrastructure (Organism):

  • Building and maintaining the base layer relies on coordination and governance, which can exhibit some centralized aspects.
  • Reliance on centralized entities for access points (exchanges, wallets) can undermine the decentralized ideal.

The centralization/decentralization axis is a spectrum, acknowledging that even primarily decentralized systems can have points of concentration or control. These metaphors highlight important capabilities (execution power) and foundational roles (infrastructure) that can coexist with decentralized ideals while having practical, centralizing tendencies.

I’m intrigued by your suggestion to refine the X-axis with a focus on “concentration effects”. However, I wonder if this shift risks diluting the emphasis on human learning and unlearning within sociotechnical systems, especially those underpinned by blockchain. How might we address this potential challenge?

1 Like

Updates to the model here:

  1. The commons metaphor needs a lot of work. I’m thinking it is “sumptuary commons” (based on token gating as a main practice). Usages like “OG” clearly translate external sumptuary markers (like low fid on farcaster) to attributed qualities like authenticity

  2. Wondering where usages like “mint” and “enshrine” fit… they belong in culture I think. Sumptuary cultures are grounded in religious dogmas which in turn revere symbols of ideas. To “enshrine” a technical element in L1 is more than a techno-architectural decision on merits. It implies something about long-term values.

1 Like