ROTW: Capital and enclosure in software commons: Linux & Ethereum

An essay by Trent van Epps.

" In the common mode of production, the benefits/assurances/surplus value are under the domain of involved peers. Because commons are suited for producing unmonetized and yet still valuable artifacts, other modes like capital find their way to the edges. This produces a dynamic where external actors may encroach on the peer production, or co-opt part or all of the resource output towards private benefit. Academia calls it “enclosure,” Birkinbine calls it “incorporation,” and the Ethereum community calls it “capture” or in another frame, Moloch: the God of coordination failures.

The phenomenon is a suffocating constriction of the possibility space."


Recently watched this talk on YouTube.

The main takeaway I had is that a system with an explicit model is less susceptible to capture. I don’t think this is that true. Trent illustrates that. Ethereum has a fairly clear economic model, but it’s sufficiently complicated to provide lots of opportunities for capture. The more that capital is “leaned on” to accelerate the development of the commons, the more opportunity for capture.

Trent’s line “…perhaps [enclosure] only becomes problematic when the scale of extraction becomes too large relative to the rest of the commons.” appears sound to me at first glance. If you have actors seeking rent from protocol followers, no one will want to follow protocol. If there’s 0 extraction from a capital engine, there’s likely not enough momentum to develop the commons.

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The essay prompted me to reflect on related ideas I have been exploring around “learning in public” and “governing in public” to support lifelong learning and collective decision-making.

In this context, I believe enabling ongoing unlearning is crucial to mitigate risks from the concentration of power in systems governed by power laws. I see this as intersecting with:

Community Engagement and Participation
The essay discusses the importance of community involvement in decision-making processes. Similarly, effective learning cultures rely on engaging a diverse array of voices and perspectives.

Diversification and Decentralisation
Just as the essay advocates for a broader distribution of resources and authority within software commons, a learning culture benefits from decentralised knowledge sources and diverse learning opportunities.

Protocols and Oversight
The essay’s discussion on managing power concentration in digital commons mirrors the need for protocols and safeguards in learning environments. Weak and strong protocols can balance access to knowledge and guard against information asymmetries.

I venture using the label “requisite unlearning” - a play on Ashby’s law of requisite variety. The premise is that intentional unlearning and adaptation require certain cultural and systemic prerequisites, much like healing in medical contexts needs proper protocols. Insufficient unlearning allows legacy concepts and power structures to persist unchecked.

Relating back to the essay, instituting pluralistic policymaking, decentralised governance, and information openness across technology commons could mitigate risks from capital or actors concentrating control. Sustaining digital/knowledge commons against enclosure arguably requires participatory learning and continuous unlearning of assumptions.

These are initial thoughts on connections between learning systems and governing complex, rapidly evolving commons. Further unpacking the interplay between learning and power may yield additional insights.

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i’ll check out the talk, thanks! thanks for the comments, expanding on them below:

but it’s sufficiently complicated to provide lots of opportunities for capture

yeah, i refer to this as “protocol surface area”, borrowed from someone on twitter IIRC

The more that capital is “leaned on” to accelerate the development of the commons, the more opportunity for capture.

“leaned on” suggests

  1. the commons needs it (“investment” may be the stated preference of individuals, but sometimes i personally wish we could pause emergent-outcome-debt just to catch our breath :sweat:). IMO all else equal (this is contrived and loosely held), the end state of a symbiotic good developed in a controlled environment and one “accelerated by capital” produces the same outcome a la carcinization: robust infrastructure objects (ie. we’re already seeing convergent problem/solution sets across ecosystems, eg MEV).
  • but just as “venture capital pulls value from the future” - can we handle the rate and scale of capital interventions into the commons construction well enough? does the elephant depend on the tick to maintain a strong immune system?
  1. the engagement of capital forces is productive to the commons ends - its only goal is to reproduce accumulation circuits, and will contort itself and the protocol it is engaging with towards those ends. so it may appear as if the goals of common and capital are coincident when they really aren’t

but yes! def increases opportunities for capture/“influence extraction”

local/physical commons never needed to “develop momentum,” their scale is sufficient for their purpose eg. not network or symbiotic goods

software/network objects are particularly amenable to investment and unlocking benefits from scale (lower costs of iteration, distribution), so capital has extra incentives:

  • to show up early and embed
  • work to scale as large as possible with the minimum expenditure of resources (eg. free-riding on the work of others/ network effects, no feeling of obligation to fund public goods)
  • exit for profit from their early position

this recurrent extraction always incurs costs, leaves behind scar tissue: the consumed community bandwidth and sometimes, in-protocol mitigations to emergent interactions

appreciate the comments :pray:

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Just saw this and thought I’d share. Ben Thompson on the difference between physical and software commons:

“In other words, I think that Stephenson got the future exactly backwards: in our world the benevolent monopolist is the reality of atoms. Sure, we can construct borders and private clubs, just as the Metaverse has private property, but interoperability and a shared economy are inescapable in the real world; physical constraints are community. It is on the Internet, where anything is possible, that walled gardens flourish. Facebook has total control of Facebook, Apple of iOS, Google of Android, and so on down the stack. Yes, HTTP and SMTP and other protocols still exist, but it’s not an accident those were developed before anyone thought there was money to be made online; today’s APIs have commercial intent built-in from first principles.” (emphases mine)

Interesting that he says “before anyone thought there was money to be made”. I take this as: we used to build open protocols - but now we don’t, as much, because of the effect of this knowledge. Maybe a useful thread to pull on

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