Trent Van Epps - Capital and Enclosure in Software Commons: Linux & Ethereum | 3/27

Entities which extract profits from software commons like Linux and Ethereum have the greatest incentive and capacity to co-opt them. How can we best prepare for this?


Streaming Link:

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Streaming link for today’s talk:

what, no lighthouses??


i like the concept of “anti-rival”

“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.”

― Anatole France

Right to roam a body of software artifacts

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Curious if that internal capital circuit would make L2, APP, etc. users more or less valuable to capture.

On the one hand, maybe the internal capital gives users sufficient economic stability to « just say no » to capture (ie FU money…)

Or maybe external orgs just see users with higher margins, so you need to capture fewer to achieve positive ROI

re @Venkat “capital” — i’ve always liked how smith used the indefinite article “a capital” referring to it as a configuration of anything, really (eg materials as inputs to a manufacturing process).

Thanks, @trent, this was super interesting! One phrase I kept coming back to over and over again during the summer was “creating a whole that’s greater than the sum of it’s individual parts”, so it was great to comeback to it from an economics lens and also see it applied directly to some of the on the ground experiments at EF.

Some general thoughts that popped up that I’m wondering if it tracks with you/anyone else here: Status quo economic laws seem to punish any kind of commons activity because as the rules of its game you’re going to have decreasing additional benefit (read as: diminishing returns/profit) with each new component or node that you add in (adding more parts decreases the value of the whole). Whereas it’s the opposite in commons based economies, for each node/contributor/“part” that contributes to it you see increasing returns (the value of the whole increases).

So all that brings up for me questions around:

  1. Capturing value in way that’s open and transparent
  2. Which of those values is most useful/powerful to capture or just make explicit and reward – I feel like the value of importance here isn’t that of the whole (the barn) or of the parts (materials, people, time), but whatever that excess value being generated in the process of combining is (shared space affordances that can be used later, people more likely to collaborate/checkin with each other and see what they need, convos that happen then that might lead to the next barn being raised?).

Anyway all very high level, but would love to see if it maps to anything concrete people can think of.

Also CC-ing @SaltonRice, you had some good related thoughts on supermodular systems before which I never followed up on!

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I watched the stream after the fact, very interesting, just wanted to add one thing on the conceptual uncertainty around applying political economy frameworks to “long tail weirdness.” Maybe obvious, but a lot of the resonance of the word capital derives from the 19th century critique of classical economics, a critique that attacked the formalisms of its adversaries by emphasizing the historical development of social relations and the role of bourgeois violence. So when we think of capital as a force acting on our world, our sense of this force, though an accurate shorthand for social power, is also a product of historical experience that could possibly become a bit misleading, and maybe in some circumstances already has. I really liked your talk and asked myself: Could it be reformated without this concept of capital as an actor? Is there a way to characterize the incentives and risks that leaves this vocabulary outside the door? Perhaps worth a rhetorical experiment.


for anyone reading along, i clarified in the presentation that this is not my concept!

appreciate the feedback! i think there’s definitely space (as venkat also noted) to further explore how value/accounting systems having contextual meaning, and the different forms of capital that undergird these frameworks of production

thinking of capital as having agency makes it more palpable - but there are probably limits to how useful this framing could be

what would you use in place of a political economy framework?

It’s more of a rhetorical shift I was thinking of, rather than a substitute framework. I tried it with this paragraph.

“Perhaps most significantly: the Ethereum commons has moneycapital circuits directly embedded within itself at the level of production, Monetization/productization /commodification this isn’t added later by an independent company (as in Linux): the software is birthed with perpetual incentives.”

Even this tiny experiment was productive for me, because if you were going to say that, you would of course want to reference a theory of money that you’re relatively confident about, since this will have governance implications and uncertainties/vulnerabilities here may be threats to common resources that deserve a mention alongside the ones you outline. Again, this was just a quick reaction to the sound of the vocabulary you used. The political economy framework is familiar and resonant for me but I have a (perhaps wishful) sense that it may be aging rapidly.