Tyler asks which goods and services are most likely to be bought and sold on a blockchain that is paid for with token issuance and appreciation?
- The services with high mark-ups? Low mark-ups?
- Big consumer bases?
- Well informed and well coordinated consumer bases?
- “Influencer” consumer bases, in the Gladwellian sense?
- “Trivial” consumer bases, that you don’t mind risking?
- Some other properties?
I will go with 6. Blockchains and tokenization are a way to incentivize the creation of a commons. A commons is an unowned place, platform, or protocol that helps people to meet, communicate and transact. Commons underlying modern life include TCP/IP, SMTP, HTTP, GPS and the English language. We don’t see these commons clearly because they are free, ubiquitous and, like air, taken for granted. What we do see are platforms like Airbnb, Uber and the NYSE and places to meet and communicate like OkCupid, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. What blockchain and tokenization offer is the possibility of creating commons to replace all of these services and much more.
As the examples of AirBnb, Facebook and YouTube indicate, it’s possible for private firms to create platforms that serve the same purposes as a commons but these platforms are not a commons since they are privately owned. Private ownership is great but not without tradeoffs. Bill Gates hinted at one problem when he defined a platform:
A platform is when the economic value of everybody that uses it, exceeds the value of the company that creates it.
The platform dilemma is that a company that controls a platform wants to maximize the company’s value rather than the economic value of everybody that uses it. Company value and social value are correlated but they are not the same. There are three problems. First, the company will want to grab up as large a share of the social value as possible. That’s ok for efficiency but not ideal for platform users who, because of network effects and coordination issues, may find that they need to use the platform even though it leaves them with only a small surplus. Second, the company may take actions that increase its value but reduce social value. On some margins, for example, Facebook and YouTube profit from advertising that reduces social value. The third problem is that in creating a platform where many people meet and transact, a small number of companies come to control and access more data than may be ideal. Big centralized data is worrying for libertarian reasons but also because big, centralized data is a honeypot for bad actors and hence insecure.
The first set of internet commons like TCP/IP and HTTP were created by government and independent researchers. The unique use-case of blockchains is that blockchains can be used to incentivize the creation of unowned platforms, i.e. commons. The creator of a blockchain need not control the blockchain and indeed can credibly commit not to control it. Thus, the creator of a blockchain can commit to never taking actions to maximize profit at the expense of social value and it can commit to never taking actions to redistribute more of the social value to itself. The blockchain creator, however, can be rewarded through token issuance. Moreover, since the value of the token and the social value of the blockchain are positively correlated the blockchain creator has strong incentives to create a commons that maximizes social value.
To give an example, LBRY–one of the blockchain firms that I advise–is a kind of YouTube on the blockchain. The protocol that LBRY has created is unowned. LBRY’s incentives are to create something that will maximize the value of both content creators and content consumers. The social value created could well exceed that of any owned platform and if LBRY earns a small share of this social value they will be well compensated. Token issuance and appreciation is what incentivizes the creation of the commons.
Creating a commons on the blockchain isn’t easy, however. Decentralized institutions are much more difficult to design than centralized institutions. Decentralized databases are a big advance but making them work at scale-size and speed is a challenge. Precisely because the blockchain is unowned the designers have to get much more correct, right out of the gate. Changing a commons on the fly, forking, is costly, disruptive and not always possible. All of this explains why in the history of the world almost all decentralized institutions, such as markets and language, were not designed but arose through evolutionary forces. Hayek called decentralized institutions spontaneous orders because he implicitly assumed that all such decentralized institutions were spontaneous, i.e. unplanned. Only in very recent years have economists and computer scientists developed the understanding and tools that are necessary to design decentralized orders–orders that are planned but not controlled. Today smart contracts on blockchains like Ethereum have the potential to create a sophisticated set of global common resources that will form the foundation for much of the economic and social structure of this century–this is the opportunity of the blockchain commons.