How will distributed autonomous organisations reshape our culture?

Culture is just the operating system of our societies. If you change how we organise using DAOs, you will inevitably change our culture.

Many people have noted that Web3, DAOs, crypto and blockchain feel a lot like the web did back in the day. They’re only passingly referred to in the mainstream press, are little understood by many, but are steadily generating their own media, their own conferences — and their own businesses.

It seems hopelessly quaint in retrospect, but there used to be a strong sense that digital tech was its own thing. It existed off to one side, in its own little bubble. Newspapers had separate “tech” sections. Specialist “tech” reporters reported on the latest innovation, the latest gadget.

Boy, that seems dated.

Culture trips

We’ve been on a 20-year journey, rediscovering that technology can fundamentally reshape society, as the printing press did. And as the television did centuries later. Nearly 25 years ago, one of my friends met his wife on a dating website. This was unusual and slightly shameful then. These days, anywhere between a third and half of relationships start online. My friend and his wife were pioneers, not freaks.

But then, our old friend, the law of unintended consequences kicks in. It turns out that it might be easier to meet people now, but that in of itself makes it harder to form long-term relationships:

Moreover, individuals who chose from the larger pool were more likely to change their minds and to choose a different partner within one week (D’Angelo and Toma, 2016). The researchers suggest that having a larger number of choices makes us less likely to want to commit to one person. Conversely, those who chose a date from the smaller pool were slightly more satisfied with their choice over the course of the week.

The web changes how we date, and then apps changed that further. Given that romantic relationships are a cornerstone of many societal structures, this can’t help but change the way society operates. And as society changes, so too does culture.

Hug the cultural system

A culture is, of course, a system. And if you introduce a new, disruptive element into a system, then the nature of the cultural system changes. Initially, of course, there will be resistance — systems tend towards homeostasis, not evolution, but if the disruption is compelling to enough people, culture shifts to match. Right now, we’re seeing that in our working lives, as hybrid and remote working become established, shifting existing company cultures.

So, to bring us back to Web3 technologies — how could they change our culture? If Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 were any guide, we can assume:

  1. That the changes will be bigger than we expected
  2. That the changes will be different to the ones we predict.

Take Web 2.0, for example. The arrival of what we called the read/write web was predicted to deliver us into an age of creator democratic engagement, and unleashed human creativity. And, you could certainly make a good case that that’s precisely what happened — but not in the way we expected.

The cultural creativity happened not so much in the long-form think pieces of the blogs, and the exquisite photography of Flickr, but in the videos on TikTok and the relentless rise of influencer culture.

The polarisation system

And as for political and democratic engagement? Well, now. People are certainly more politically engaged, but increasingly in polarised and even anti-democratic ways. The political shocks enabled by Web 2.0 still batter us right now.

The wonderful thing about social media is that it allows even the most marginal communities to gather. The appalling thing about social media is that it allows even the most marginal communities to gather together. It all depends on the nature of the community…

Humans are social creatures. Culture is, if you like, the operating system for human societies. Install a major change in that operating system, and you’re likely to see unpredictable societal change. And Web3 holds that potential through the creation of decentralised autonomous organisations (DAOs).

DAOs and the law of unintended consequences

Once you create a DAO, the rules for that organisation are encoded into software in a transparent and traceable manner. This allows, in theory, genuine distributed decision-making across the community, rather than centralising it in hierarchies or key executives.

Member-controlled organisations without centralised controls have not been something humanity has managed well in the past. We are, as our keynoter-in-residence David Mattin likes to remind us, fundamentally status-seeking primates, and people find their way to accumulate power even in flat organisations.

That, of course, is an inevitable risk with DAOs, too, but in theory, the technical structure that underlies the ownership model prevents that from happening. So, assuming that DAOs operate as predicted, what sorts of entities will rise as a result?

We don’t know. We need to pass through an experimental stage, which will inevitable weed out the unsuccessful ideas, and let ombré promising models flourish.

A new patch in our cultural operating system

As a piece on the World Economic Forum site put it:

Because of their unique structure, DAOs offer the promise of enabling a focus on community, rather than just profit, and might offer a more socially-conscious structure; one designed to help individuals everywhere prosper instead of focusing only on the desires of a few large shareholders. This could have ramifications not only for businesses, but also in terms of how we address the causes that are important to us today as a society.

Inevitably, most of the experimentation right now is happening among the enthusiast community. Unlike the early days of Web 2, though, there’s so much money coming to the market that experimentation will be rapid. That impact of that — and, in particular, the simplification that comes with inevitable productisation — means DAOs will soon be available to many more people.

These new, software-mediated ways of organising ourselves will have a cultural impact. Forums taught us this. Facebook reinforced the message. In the coming years, we might find ourselves marketing to self-organising communities — or competing against them.

DAOs will change our cultural operating system. Let’s not pretend that they’re something “other”: in some form, they’re probably part of our future, and we’d be smart to keep a careful eye on what that could mean for our lives — and our businesses.