Smart Contracts are the Programmable Commons

| 3 minutes read

Ethereum’s smart contracts allow developers, for the first time in history, to build ownership experiences residing in the commons. Traditional cloud platforms like Amazon’s AWS or Microsoft’s Azure are built on the assumption of privately owned property and hence also taking on responsibility and liability in computing. A rented server running a program orchestrated by an individual will always necessitate seeking those to be held accountable.

Decentralized smart contracts, owned and controlled by no single natural or juristic person, hosted by no particular individual, do not look or feel like private property. They are collectively maintained, hosted, administrated, and run; they ARE the commons.

Deploying a simple stateful contract on Ethereum that carries no codified notion of specifically-added ownership is not hosted by anyone in particular. Its deployment can be orchestrated such that no individual could be observed as “the deployer.” A contract’s existence is solidified through its data’s block inclusion. Its data is continuously and neutrally made available as part of all data being on-chain available. No one individual could be observed as the operator or controller of such a contract.

A contract’s execution is not directly controllable. Unless specified, its lifetime is not limited. A message call invokes a contract’s public and external functions. Its computation is redundantly run by any individual block producer on the network. Not by some, but by anyone participating in the network.

No individual block producer or full node executes the message call. Though transactions are prioritized through payment, all nodes are obligated to return the one deterministic result. There is no one individual responsible, liable, or accountable for delivering on the call.

Ethereum’s smart contracts are the programmable commons as they truly allow property to transcend into the common realm. Since smart contracts are, as outlined above, an instrument residing in the commons, giving them ownership over other property allows it to transcend into the commons too.

Properly configured common ownership contracts do not allow property escaping into private possession either. Physical and commonly-owned property configured through paper contracts, on the contrary, allow transcendence into the hands of private owners.

Arguably, a stone on the bottom of the Atlantic ocean is commonly owned by all creatures on earth capable or willing to exercise the common property concept. Similarly, in some countries, at least, so is water. This quality not only implies shared responsibility for the objects in question, it also asks for mutually-assumed liability. Indeed, shared property requires normative behavior.

It means that no one single co-owner of a partially owned water source is entitled to make decisions. At the risk of polluting the water source, all interactions with it require normative action, as the only acceptable behavior is one that can potentially become a mutually agreed-upon rule for all.

If they dare, the private owner, both legally and morally, is capable of polluting their possession: the water source. If they, through their will, decide to do it, and if it is their property, we have agreed to allow it under private property law.

It is important to realize how different common ownership experiences are and how little practical governing experience we all have. It is also important to understand that the transcendence of property between the two realms is, as already claimed prior, a possibility.

Nobody’s stone can become someones. Moral, law, history, and recourse help define over time who owns what. On Ethereum, that is similar but different.

Here, given its pristine unregulated nature, smart contract developers are not necessarily bound to use the standard societal constructs of private property. As smart contracts themselves symbolize already an instrument in the realm of the commons, and since neither the legal system nor recourse is strictly required or capable of governing possession, blockchain property may never be directly controllable, albeit logically still exist outside of a vacuum.

Besides private property, common property or new forms like Harberger property, code, similar to prose and imagination, can extend towards any shape or form of non-skeuomorphic property.

No matter the view of legal advisors on the subject matter and their desire to seek skeuomorphic comparisons for rational regulation: Today, with systems like Ethereum, completely new forms of digital (and atomic?) ownership experiences are possible that will necessarily challenge the fundamental assumptions of price discovery, evaluation, supply and demand economics, and the legal system.

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