In economic organization, we must distinguish between enforcing rules and making rules. Laws are rules enforced by state bureaucracy and made by a legislature. The SWIFT Protocol is a set of rules enforced by SWIFTNet (a centralized computational system) and made, ultimately, by SWIFT’s Board of Directors. The Bitcoin Protocol is a set of rules enforced by the Bitcoin Network (a distributed network of computers) made by — whom exactly? Who makes the rules matters at least as much as who enforces them. Blockchain technology may provide for completely impartial rule-enforcement, but that is of little comfort if the rules themselves are changed. This rule-making is what we refer to as governance.
Using Bitcoin as an example, the initial versions of the protocol (ie. the rules) were written by the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto, and later versions are released by a core development team. The development team is not autocratic: a complex set of social and technical entanglements means that other people are also influential in how Bitcoin’s rules are set; in particular, so-called mining pools, headed by a handful of individuals, are very influential. The point here is not to attempt to pick apart Bitcoin’s political order; the point is that Bitcoin has not in any sense eliminated human politics; humans are still very much in charge of setting the rules that the network enforces.
blockchain technologies cannot escape the problem of governance. Whether they recognize it or not, they face the same governance issues as conventional third-party enforcers. You can use technologies to potentially enhance the processes of governance (eg. transparency, online deliberation, e-voting), but you can’t engineer away governance as such. All this leads me to wonder how revolutionary blockchain technologies really are. If you still rely on a Board of Directors or similar body to make it work, how much has economic organization really changed?
And this leads me to my final point, a provocation: once you address the problem of governance, you no longer need blockchain; you can just as well use conventional technology that assumes a trusted central party to enforce the rules, because you’re already trusting somebody (or some organization/process) to make the rules.