Apoliticism vs Alegality


#1

A recent attempt at “social censorship” (ie. using personal power dynamics to change how one communicates) got me thinking about this all-important distinction. Status claims to be “Apolitical”: https://our.status.im/on-apoliticism-social-movements-and-coercion/ but is such a stance really possible?

Here’s why distinguishing more clearly than the post above between law and politics is interesting. The question really is, are either fundamental to human relationship (and therefore organisation)? Certainly, law is just a useful fiction, constructed in careful and laborious language, which we use to scale our ability to relate to others (i.e. the law allows us to transact with those we do not trust). This means, given a certain set of technologies which allow relationship without trust by some other mechanism (in our case, even more exacting and now executable language), we can and should organise using means other than those deemed acceptable by outdated understandings of all the ways in which it is possible to relate. Gavin Wood has a great talk on alegality and I certainly think that building tools which operate outside the rulesets of other humans (no better or worse than ourselves) is a worthwhile and interesting thing to do.

However, is politics equally just a useful social fiction? I don’t think so. I think politics is fundamental to human relationship. It’s one of the major reasons scaling organisations is hard: at larger numbers, politics always becomes more important. If politics is the result of personal power dynamics between people, then it is inevitable in any group of human beings, and the attempt to deny it’s existence (or say it doesn’t apply to us) is foolhardy.

Let’s break down that Status post linked above. First, it might be better to go further back than just Ethereum for some Background. Is Bitcoin apolitical? Claiming so would be to ignore the FT article titled “Chancellor on Brink of Second Bailout for Banks” included by Satoshi in its Genesis Block. What exactly this implies about Satoshi and Bitcoin’s politics is less relevant here than the fact that it signals clearly that Bitcoin was not born into some impossible political vacuum. Any sufficiently powerful technology is inherently political (and even more so if using that technology does not depend on agreeing with the creator’s personal political beliefs or position of power).

So, clearly the issue here is definitional. Using our tools, which have “already been [largely] defined and expressed by the technologies we build upon” should not mean that you need to agree with our views, and the tools themselves should allow you to express as diverse a range of political and other opinions as possible without the possibility of censorship. We need to be a clear window and not let personal opinions influence how we implement Status. This much we all seem to agree on. However, this is itself a political stance! It is a political stance that values liberty and freedom of speech (and association) over “acceptable” political dogma and thought. It aims to achieve such political goals by being alegal: that is, operating outside the frame in which the social construct of law can be used to control others by people in positions of asymmetric power.

Let’s get even more background. “Politics” comes originally from the Greek politēs meaning ‘citizen’ and from polis, meaning ‘city’. It is a word which indicates how individuals navigate their relationships with the larger social organisms of which they are a part. It is part and parcel of what it means to be human (if you accept that umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu).

Jarrad’s article, much of which (esp. the latter half) I agree with, builds itself on one, simple premise:

Ethereum is a virtual machine the state of which is distributed over a p2p network that enables verifiable computing. Nothing more, nothing less.

Like Ethereum, the position of Status as a technology should be neutral.

Rather than pull this apart with a different reading list, I’m genuinely interested to hear what others think. Personally, I think the article is really suggesting that we be neutral in terms of how we implement what we build, which translates directly to a neutrality in terms of what people use it to achieve. However, this is - at least semantically - still a political stance, so we should not confuse ourselves with vague language that collapses politics, law and morality. Also, can tech ever really be neutral? And is Ethereum really just that, nothing more, nothing less? Tell me your views!

FAQ

Am I saying that anyone representing Status should be able to tout any political idea they like?

No, not at all. Politics has to do with relationships between people; a large part of human relationship is transactional; and there is a good business case to be made that Status’ messaging as an organisation remain as neutral as possible in order to reflect (or protect, or establish the lasting integrity of) the alegal nature of the tools we aim to build. I just don’t think we should confuse this practical, business consideration with somehow having an “apolitical” stance in general. Encryption, anonymity and free trade between sovereign individuals are inescapably political ideas!

What, then would you - in your personal capacity - say is the “politics” of Status?

Well, simply what I outlined above. Though we understand that such things are not binaries and always involve tradeoffs (which we actively seek to expose/educate about and implement neutral options that allow you to control the tradeoffs you, personally, are comfortable with), we value

  1. liberty and self-determination over both socially acceptable dogma and identity politics and
  2. individual sovereignty and privacy - in tandem with transactional transparency - over censorship (individual) or surveillance (individual or institutional; i.e. existing legal regulation).

#2

I would like to know more about this, can you share the example?


#3

If no-one has any responses to this post, then I suppose that is ultimate proof that we are (for now at least) actually apolitical and that I am wrong :joy:

@Bruno the answer to that question is far less relevant than the questions I pose, imo.


#4

Maybe I cannot recognize this symptom and need an example :confused:


#5

Suppose people are neutral on the topic;)

In all honesty, it’s just an insanely big topic, and potentially too encompassing to address in an async text-heavy modality.

My deeply under-informed opinion is that though platform we build might be apolitical for now, we are surely not; Political views are captured in the principles we signed.

In building a human interface, our beliefs will more and more intertwine with the platform we build. We make decisions about what we show and leave out all the time. There is inherent judgement in that. And that is fine. Judgement keeps us sane and alive. What we need to do is reflect on whether our judgment fits our beliefs and strive for our actions to express them as best as possible. We can strive for neutrality, but there will always be some residue of our judgement if only in the time it takes us to reflect and take action.

Can technology be neutral? Not if it’s build by humans.

Even if our actions in a perfect world would lead to a fully neutral platform, and I believe it can’t, the impact of it will never be neutral. The whole point is to bring about change because we foresee a different, better way of organizing social structures. Perhaps ‘impartial’, rather than ‘neutral’ suits me better. So the question becomes: to what extent do we take responsibility for this impact? I wish I knew at least my personal stance on this by now. I don’t.

So given in my view, we can only reflect on our innate judgement, strive for neutrality (perhaps impartiality) and question the extend of our responsibility, we need ongoing communication and lots of it. Openness, Transparency and Inclusivity are probably my favorite principles, as they enable us to understand how we operationalize all principles we laid out.

As a sidenote, in our continuous reflection I actually don’t see the biggest challenge in striving to remain objective and neutral in the times when we disagree with what we enable. But in refraining from equal valence in excitement when we agree with what we enable. Still shaping my theory of why I believe this is the case.


#6

Awesome response!!! :heart:

Yeah, I think this is another neat distinction, good thinking.

This is the ultimate question to end all questions (on this topic, at least)! And, I would say that arguing for total apoliticism precludes any possibility of having that conversation with genuine openness and honesty.

And just highlighting that again for everyone who makes it this far down the thread, I think you’re likely very right.


#7

Oh yeah that was totally me, I’ll own it, and I’ll do it again.

Andy posted an article from buzzfeed about Trump and it leading to his impeachment, which didn’t sit right with me but okay, what I didn’t like is I interpreted that someone on #status reacted by calling him an NPC. Status just alienated a user.

Yeah I really do worry about political action and I don’t want to alienate markets, like I said I would prefer to keep our window to Ethereum as clean as possible and expect the people working on Status to do a similar thing when they’re representing Status.

Ultimately we’re providing the tool for discourse to happen unhampered by us, and technology isn’t unbiased, but that’s why we need to be stricter on ourselves and aware of when we tread those talking points.

The Right and the Left are already in their information silo’s, so much so they have their own ‘Gab’ Twitter alternative and the own ‘Voat’ reddit alternative. Partisan platforms are only going to lead to further division, possibly civil war.

Quite frankly I don’t see how you can expect better communication between political communities if they don’t have a platform,a cultural artefact, that isn’t doing it’s best to being neutral.

Maybe it was wrong for me to flex and asking to be more mindful of it privately in DM. I don’t think so. It’s a fine line but there’s no need to dance around it. I agree there is an element of censorship, but I also didn’t flat out say he couldn’t, but considering my position and the implications it’s certainly social censorship.

We have plenty of material objects that are apolitical to politics and the lives of humans, rocks come to mind. Human can create artificial rocks without encoding their political beliefs into them. Maybe they stone people with them, but that’s a different matter.

Software is probably harder to do that, which is even more-so the reason to be more vigilant on the matter.

Ethereum community is already more left-leaning than it’s Bitcoin libertarian counterpart. Status will, one day, have it’s own community, it’s own shared beliefs and I’d like to maintain a stronger level of centrism or apathy for as long as possible.


#8

I don’t think so either, which is why I avoided discussing the detail of it. It was just an interaction that got me thinking about politics in general, and our stance as a community in particular. My actual push in writing the above was to illustrate that any core contributor should be able to “flex” on issues they feel are important, as honest and open dialogue actually helps maintain overall impartiality (which I now prefer to neutrality :smile:). So, let’s talk about artificial rocks.

If people did create artificial rocks, they would do so for some purpose. Purpose entails intention, and politics is always-already tied up with any human intention, because intention depends to some extent on anticipated interpretation, which depends on relationship, which is the root of politics.

People using my artificially-produced, cheaper rocks to stone each other is not a different matter, it is something for which I - as creator with intention - bear some responsibility. This is not to say I should be held entirely accountable for the actions of others, but rather that - if I accept some responsibility when designing/building the tech - I can actually make choices which better reflect my intention (to build cheaper rocks that allow more people to live comfortably, i.e. not in tin shacks). Such choices could include, for instance, some cool nanotech that turns the edges soft when a given rock is accelerated by more than some amount (which it would be in throwing, but not in laying).

This would be more expensive and harder, but it would reflect - in fact - a deeper commitment to creating technology which attempts to be impartial based on an understanding and historically-aware reading of the political uses to which rocks can be put.

I think this requires more explanation - why do you group centrism and apathy? The one is attractive to me, the other nothing more than a death knell.

EDIT: See point 2 here for more thinking which (kind of) aligns with this line of argument. “Szabo’s Law is politically loaded, not politically minimal, apolitical or anti-political”


#9

Also, because this is really meant as a fun and convivial discussion: