Governing in Nonlinear Time

DAOs have been renaming the units and flows of time. What if we took this turn to fresh language seriously?

Text Nathan Schneider
illustrations Mary Zet
Published 08 Jun 2023

Most organizations in our lives want time to flow the same kind of way. It’s capitalism at work: the only way to survive is to grow, up and to the right. Corporations want more profits and higher stock prices, countries want more GDP, and families want more income so the children can do better than the adults. One way or another, growth has to be continuous with time, and hopefully predictable. These are interesting times to live in, but time itself has become boring.

Among aspiring decentralized autonomous organizations, I have noticed a departure from this pattern: DAOs have been renaming the units and flows of time. They often demarcate their governance or operations in metaphors like “seasons,” “epochs,” “cycles,” “phases,” and “waves.” In practice, these may differ little from the “quarters” of conventional corporations. But the turn to fresh language invites us to rethink the flows of time altogether in how we self-govern. What if we take the renaming seriously?

Back in 2019, I coined the concept of “exit to community.” The idea was that, rather than conventional startup “exits” to an acquisition or stock offering, founders should aspire to guide their companies toward ownership by their communities. In some respects, the idea is radical. But it doesn’t go very far in rethinking time. It involves a linear progression from more centralized ownership of a project (among founders and investors, most likely) to more distributed ownership (among workers and users, for instance). In the years I have spent studying and working with cooperative businesses, however, I have seen how that linear story is only the beginning.

Nonlinear jolts of energy can help keep communities alive. And the linear drive for economic growth at all costs has been eating our ecosystems alive.

If a co-op doesn’t experience some renewal every once in a while, or even a revolt, its community ownership can decay into a kind of thermodynamic heat-death of diffused power and responsibility. In generations-old co-ops where this has happened, everyone seems to be just phoning it in. Just going in one direction means going nowhere at all. Maybe the exit needs to happen more than once, in various directions—from a founder to the community, and then over to a different structure when the time comes for a change. Nonlinear jolts of energy can help keep communities alive. And the linear drive for economic growth at all costs has been eating our ecosystems alive.

As a new species of organizations, DAOs are an opportunity to rethink how we govern with time. I have seen up close how DAOs shift across market cycles, from bull markets to bear markets and back again. The bull and bear versions of the same DAO can look like two totally different organizations. They can relate to money differently, incentivize work differently, and have very different priorities. Kevin Owocki has written, for instance, about “wartime” and “peacetime” DAOs, which are actually the same DAO shifting its structure with market conditions. Stellar Magnet goes further to imagine “transformative autonomous organizations”—collective creatures that are “able to transform their organization’s governance to become more hierarchical or more distributed as needed, easily flipping between modes.”

What kinds of modes might we want to plan and program for?

Precedents and ancestry

The practice of “governance archaeology” invites us to explore what has been done before—to listen carefully as well as critically, giving credit to our governance ancestors when it is due. And the archaeological record of human self-governance, much of it still lurking in the habits and muscle memory of communities today, offers many instructive examples of nonlinear design.

Owocki’s idea of the wartime DAO, for instance, evokes the Roman Republic’s concept of a dictator. This was an official granted extensive power during a temporary period, such as a war—power meant to be withdrawn once the crisis ended. As Julius Caesar demonstrated, dictators could have a hard time relinquishing their privileges. But many Indigenous tribes in North America have successfully employed distinct hierarchies for times of war and peace. A peace chief, for instance, might be expected to govern through consensus and negotiation, while a war chief holds more decisive powers in times of crisis. Among the Haudenosaunee, replacing a war chief and checking his powers was the task most of all entrusted to the women of a community.

There are many more examples of nonlinear designs for the temporality of governing. But most are more predictable than war or crisis; they are cyclical. David Graeber and David Wengrow have argued that seasonal variation in the governance of Paleolithic societies was very common. It occurred across the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, from the Great Plains to the Inuit. Earlier seasonal governance patterns survived in the seasonal festivals of medieval Europe, which temporarily reversed the social hierarchies with carnivals and jesters.

As patterns of weather and life change, so can social structure. Clans might gather into cities in one season, then disperse again in another. While most of these cycles occur on an annual basis, there are also cases like the Hebrew Bible’s injunction to leave land fallow and free the slaves every seventh year: a social reset, a leveler against excessive concentrations of power and wealth.

Among less-settled societies, where migration is part of life, it makes particular sense that politics would change along with place and conditions. Online life can be migratory, too.

Elsewhere, Graeber probes the practice of “Midwinter Ceremonials” among the Kwakiutl in the Pacific Northwest of what is now the United States. He writes:

“During this ritual season, the normal social structure was suspended, people even took on different names, and society came to be organized around rights to dance certain roles in the great ritual dramas[.]”

The season occasioned a phenomenon that Graeber refers to as the “clown police,” a combination of ritual theater and moral enforcement. This seasonal arrangement served in lieu of a year-round police force. The enforcers had term limits as a check on their power, and seasonal boundaries placed a limit on the scope of policing powers in general. Communities sought balance through a rhythm of alternating higher and lower levels of normative scrutiny.

Graeber and Wengrow find that, in seasonal governance regimes, “this shifting back and forth allowed mature and self-conscious political actors to be continually aware that no social order was immutable: that everything was at least potentially open to negotiation, subversion, and change.”

Those words are an interpretation, of course, and one that claims to summarize a vast range of experiences. Among less-settled societies, where migration is part of life, it makes particular sense that politics would change along with place and conditions. Online life can be migratory, too. We exit easily, join, and lurk. It stands to reason that governance systems should be malleable as well—“open to negotiation, subversion, and change.”

When exploring historical examples like these in more depth, we should be sure to recognize the cultural traditions we draw from. We should credit our sources and acknowledge any differences or adaptations that we make. In some cases, it may also be possible to establish relationships with the living communities from which these traditions originate, particularly if there is a danger of engaging in appropriation. Regardless, we should implement any lessons we learn in ways that bring more justice to the communities they come from, rather than continuing what are often long histories of suppression and co-option.

Designs and their discontents

I can think of two approaches to implementing nonlinear time in online governance: through decision-based or algorithm-based transitions.

A decision-based approach would enable people to enact a transition when they see fit. It might look like a vote of no confidence: a referendum occurs, and if it passes, some part of the existing governance structure gets wiped away. This could serve as a kind of emergency break when things go awry, temporarily shutting down a broken representative system, installing a random member as temporary dictator, or scheduling elections for the new representatives. This kind of approach would be responsive to how participants interpret their conditions, rather than relying on arbitrary metrics or a rigid timeline.

The other approach might establish certain algorithmic thresholds for when a governance transition occurs. The simplest way to do this is regular intervals of time—quarters, seasons, years, eons. This is how our 18th-century electoral systems work, offering up elections like clockwork. Familiarity and predictability have their virtues, and their rigidity might be more capture-resistant than popular decisions.

Algorithmic transitions might also be more dynamic. As suggested above, a DAO might shift its structure depending on signals about the price of its token or the value of its treasury; a bear-market DAO might be hierarchical and disciplined, while in the bull market, the priority might be to deploy resources as widely and creatively as possible. If low voter turnout threatened to trigger a temporary dictatorship, that might encourage more token-holders to vote. Perhaps a DAO that values experimentation could adopt a random selection of governance structures at random times, in order to keep the community from getting too settled.

The benefits that Graeber and Wengrow identify in nonlinear governance may not be appreciated by others, particularly those seeking to profit from communities. Investors may oppose disruptions that serve as a check on concentrations of wealth and power. Linear time is the preferred governance logic of capitalist corporations for a reason: linearity is friendly to continual upward growth. Societies on seasonal, cyclical governance cycles have tended to be subsistence societies—focused less on continual growth by some abstract measure than on equilibrium with their surroundings. Not much money to be made there.

To embrace nonlinear time in governance probably also means embracing a challenge to capital accumulation and other forms of domination. Just as religious calendars set their communities apart from others, distinct relationships to time in governance can be a path for making DAOs and other communities more fully autonomous—ungovernable to those who seek to rule them, and governable to those who want to rule themselves.

Governing in Nonlinear Time

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