The Product is the Process: Prototyping Reality with Public Assembly

Public Assembly is Building Infrastructure for a New Era of Collective Creation

Text Zine
Published 27 Jan 2023

According to design theorist Keller Easterling, solutions are part of the problem. When we innovate only in terms of a solutionist framework, Easterling argues in her book Medium Design, we optimize for static outcomes wedded to the status quo of product-market fit. Solutions are one-time fixes, usually implemented by someone else, which break as soon as the context they’re responding to changes (which it does, constantly). Solutions are blunt tools in the face of a reality that is interdependent and always evolving.

In lieu of such app-for-that thinking, Easterling advocates that we design for “protocols of interplay,” prizing relationships over neatly separated objects, complexity over convenience, and open-ended potential over single-purpose products. Building for interplay is indeterminate, which is also what makes it impactful.

Easterling’s ideas provide a useful preamble for the ethos of Public Assembly, a burgeoning DAO—born of Zora and now running in parallel—whose amorphous activities are organized around the core maxim to create what’s missing. Public Assembly’s current output includes educational materials, experimental prototypes, and a bank of resources that together provide an infrastructure supporting the fundamental right to create—a purposefully capacious framing that puts the principles of open-source engineering in conversation with the DIY ethos of independent punk labels. Rather than finished products, Public Assembly ships rigorously documented templates that encourage iteration and experimentation. Public Assembly understands that reality is made; it wants to build the culture, coordination tools, and technical literary necessary to expand the scope of who can make it.

In the wake of the DAO’s move to being fully onchain, ZINE’s Guy Mackinnon-Little spoke to the Public Assembly founding team—that’s Valerie Andy, Max Bochman, Dain Blodorn Kim, Neesh Chaudhary, Salief Lewis, Joey Lim, and Javier Szyfer, who together go by #FF89DE, about the project’s origins, collective agency, and leaving crumbs in the dark forest of the internet.

Guy Mackinnon-Little (ZINE): The stated mission of Public Assembly is to create what's missing. Everything else builds out from that core behavior. It's a statement that is very immediate and concrete in a certain sense, but also very expansive. You can stretch it to quite a high level of abstraction. What does it encompass for all of you?

Max Bochman: The way we interpret create what's missing is that it comes from a constant observation of the state of things around us, and then not being afraid to have opinions on how things are. If things are not correct or not how we would like them to be, then it's a call to action to correct those things. To do something that moves what we're seeing to a place where we would like it to be.

Dain Blodorn Kim: I would add that we're at a time when we just assume that everything is solved and everything is already done. It's a contextual statement—create what's missing. We're creating things that may already exist in some respects, but they don't exist in the context that we feel is important. It’s about not accepting what's already there and being complacent and continuing on this path.

Salief Lewis: There's also this mutual acknowledgment that there is a high capacity for things to exist and theoretically they're possible, but the actual linkages between things don't exist. Building those bridges and actualizing things that people think and conceive and have accepted should exist is part of it too.

GML: I really appreciate the through line that emerges; instead of thinking about engineering and design and creation in general as being about streamlining or optimizing an existing set of things in the world, you are instead trying to shift that locus towards seeing what isn't there and what could be there. What does that problem space look like that led you to come together as a collective in the first place?

Neesh Chaudhary: Max was a connection point for a lot of us joining together. For me, I worked on some curation with music that was our first product, Neosound, which was reflective of a lot of experiences we've had in the year. I did the Zora Hackathon in the summer and met Salief. We had an understanding because our project was about curation. In tandem I met Max online. I went to LA and I met him and Dain at a random Songcamp meet-up.

MB: That was the second day I moved to LA.

Javier Szyfer: I live in Argentina and I met Max through Developer DAO. We started bonding and talking about Zora and different scenes on Web3. We were talking about ideas for making music onchain which was the door to many aspects of the Web3 world, and specific to Public Assembly as well.

DBK: There's a pattern here. Max is no longer in LA either, because Max is an entity that is just this raw energy that gets channeled through whatever the physical infrastructure of the internet is and only appears in real life sometimes. I got connected to this concept through my position at Zora. I was a wild card. It's hard to figure out where Dain really belongs. I'm trying to learn a conventional product development flow in the context of a tech environment, but what I really care about is using the internet in the most exciting and positive way possible. It's just been really exciting to work with a group of people who feel an urgency to build and experiment and discover distribution models for our friends, for ourselves, for anybody.


MB: A quick bird's eye view: It's April. I meet Javier when I'm living in Buenos Aires. I also met also Astrosuka and Sofja of unun, who were also influential in the ideation that eventually led to Public Assembly. At some point, Joey DMs me on Twitter about my 100 days. We started our relationship there. I  then meet Dain, Neesh, Salief and Val similarly, right as I started at Zora. I met Salief in person in New York when I went to the Zora offices. I had talked with Val during the Metabolism Hackathon. I met Neesh in August when I first moved to LA. There was then this call to action to create what's missing in terms of products and in terms of this energy to collect people.

GML: Zooming out a bit, how would you position what you're doing against the existing models we have throughout culture and technology? If this is a different way of doing things, why is that difference necessary? How are the tried and tested formats or protocols not doing the job or falling short?

Joey Lim: One of the core experiences of modern life, at least in the Western world, is the acceptance of consumerism as the de facto state of being. This compounds into numerous tangential issues. For instance, the denial of the right to repair, which ultimately means, "Don't touch, just consume.” Once you buy, just look at it, just use it, but don't expand the boundaries of what owning means.

This is where Public Assembly decides, if not us, who is not only going to protect, but also create new doors for people who are constantly restricted to being mere consumers. We want to ensure that everyone has a right to create in the most approachable ways possible. We’re creating a way for people to understand that they can create. That could be through education videos that Val makes, or the work that Neesh and I do to inspire intrigue. We get people thinking, “What is the connection being made? What is fueling the product designs and the decisions that we're making?” Once we set the foundations for this intrigue, we have enough faith that people will take it in directions that make the most sense for them.

GML: It's not trying to present a finished, perfected model. It's about building this platform that others can iterate upon.

MB: Exactly

JL: We have no intentions of being a platform per se, but we want to provide an ideological jumping board so that people can actually test and play around with whatever actually interests them.

DBK: Repair is really salient in this context. Part of having individual and group agency is understanding how things are made. In an older era when there were physical, tangible objects in front of us, it was a little bit easier to understand. But in the world of network technology, everything is abstracted and far away from the consumer so it's hard to think about what it means to build things yourself. There's a really important thread there. We want the right to repair. I want to learn how to make this thing myself. The educational component is really important. We're rethinking what a product is. Maybe a product is actually a process and how you organically contribute to a larger space.

MB: Speaking to what Joey said about not really trying to build a platform—I think we also need to make it wildly clear that we are just a team that is inside this greater entity that is Public Assembly. The seven of us are calling ourselves #FF89DE, which is a shout-out to the hex code for a specific shade of pink that was prominent on the Neosound website. We are just the team. To do what we're describing is a potential goal for Public Assembly as a whole. It's obviously not possible to do that with just one team calling the shots and making all these decisions. While we're instilling foundational value, energy, direction, we by no means want to be the eternal leaders.

NC: We provide these templates in the sense that we're giving the building blocks and resources for individuals to learn. They then create new artifacts, become more creative, and proliferate a new era of creation that's defined by having the resources that we're giving them. Eventually, we want them to move away from our templates. The templates are there for you to become self-sufficient—for both online and offline. To speak to our influences, we're indebted to DIY crafting, early internet era. That ideology is our spirit. Raised By The Internet art collective, Brockhampton. Those are all influences.

We want to set new standards for what thinking in proposals is—thinking in different ways about how organizations like DAOs can give more power and structure to how ideas can live sustainably.

Valerie Andy: A lot of us are archival in the way that we build. Web3 or crypto are archival in the sense that it’s a dark forest, but you can leave mementos in the dark forest for the other travelers to come across and pick up along the way so that they can find light and maybe even find their path. It's building intuitive stamina through creating things that you naturally gravitate towards. It’s also teaching people how to find that confidence, especially when Web3 right now doesn’t have much self-validation and it’s difficult to sift through the noise.

JL: A precedent that I personally want to set is that I want to show everyone, not just designers or artists, that ideas are valuable. There is more than the end goal of becoming a company or a brand or a product. The idea can live as its own. It could iterate, it could tack on more meaning and value and purpose without having to latch itself onto a traditional endpoint. The whole consumer model has been predefined as a common destination. We want to set new standards for what thinking in proposals is—thinking in different ways about how organizations like DAOs can give more power and structure to how ideas can live sustainably.

VA: I also think that Public Assembly is like a home. Or a checkpoint for multi-hyphenates that don't necessarily want to be founders, but have things to contribute and want to know how they can start contributing. It is our own individual journeys—we're just building, we're not waiting for the next platform to come out. We're just surveying and immediately nipping things in the bud. We also want to create a culture that is not about the platform. It's really just about getting your idea out there and building the internet.

DBK: I'm older so I've got some references that I've been trying to reconcile, some inspirations from when I was a lot younger that really shaped my thinking. I'm going to show a physical artifact and explain what I think the connection is. I am referencing older DIY punk culture and especially collectives like the Dial House and Crass records where there was a very strong emphasis on cohesively presenting ideas—not just accepting what was mainstream culture. This is a seven-inch record that I got when I was 14 or something—it’s a split EP by Born Against and Universal Order of Armageddon. What's interesting about this object is that it’s not anything but what it is. It's a vehicle for expression and information. And while it’s a very antiquated vehicle for information and expression, there's some magical component to it. The cover is photocopied; there’s no shiny professional record sleeve. I loved the bands, but what was most exciting for me at that age was the sense that I could do this. I've more and more tried to express that same energy through the work that I'm doing. The first sprint was all about music distribution and how to empower artists just to remove the middleman and add visual expression. It's abstract but also very tangible at the same time.

GML: adequateI don't think it's abstract at all. There's a clear link between what you are cultivating with Public Assembly and the DIY sensibility of a punk label. I think the ways you’re potentially evolving that sensibility to be more scalable and sustainable are interesting too. The thing about doing everything independently and self-organizing and sticking it to the man is that it often exhausts the people behind that effort when there aren’t adequate resources. I’m reminded of that screengrab from Classroom of the Elite that Mat Dryhurst always shares: “As usual, you’ve mistaken isolation for independence.”

DBK: That makes absolute sense. The difference is that Public Assembly is not just aping the DIY aesthetic, but working to try build something parallel instead of directly against. The war is too hard to fight. Let's just move forward.

JL: In terms of sustainability and scalability, I'm personally thinking of evolving the idea of interdependence as a means to survive to interdependence as a means to thrive. Why wouldn't you hit up someone that has a better context or different skillset than you to actually build on top of what you're doing? Why wouldn't you utilize that? We're trying to provide that network of people. Let's make things as modular as possible, so people can take whatever they need and make their own thing.

GML: To ground some of that discussion, what are some of the templates that you have put together thus far and how do they embody the Public Assembly ethos?

VA: The first thing that we did before we even got to the platform was building out the foundations of a protocol. This was my first time actually exploring modularity and blockchains. People talk about it as this advanced topic, but when seen in action, it made sense.

We started with the curation protocol, and Neosound now lives on top of that as a fully decentralized music streaming platform. People can come in and remix and make playlists collaboratively through the blockchain. It was about literally building on top of something that already existed. That's our proof of concept; expand on what was missing from the overall music ecosystem. There was an urgency for it and it made sense at the time. It still does.

MB: I want to emphasize the meta aspect too. The entire time we were working on this project, we had a public Notion page where people were writing daily entries about their work and asking for feedback from anyone who was interested. It's not just making this app. It's not just trying to make the usage of NFTs as decentralized media better fit into consumer-facing products. It's how we, being in different places and coming from different backgrounds and having different skill sets, communicate with one another. The most important part is operating with full trust from people. It opens doors to being more productive, fulfilled, and inspired in every aspect of the project. The entire time felt like some type of magical experience.

VA: The amount of openness was extremely experimental for me, almost to the point of overwhelming. It’s Yale-level coursework on the types of contracts that we're making. So it was crazy that it was just on Twitter—just open on Notion for anyone to see. You have to unlearn a lot to be able to open yourself up to the internet.

DBK: To speak to that transparency, that's something that we've been talking about leaning even further into. It's an unlearning, like Valerie said. Everyone is so protective of their intellectual property, so worried that somebody is going to rip off their ideas. That’s why it’s good to experiment onchain. We’re trying to say, "Hey, don't be afraid of your concepts." Perfect is the enemy of good.

GML: It's not trying to present a finished, perfected model. It's about building this platform that others can iterate upon.

SL: We're figuring out how to exist within the Nouns model, which in some ways is pretty conducive to how we're already working. There's this element of uncertainty that is interesting—we have this fixed protocol that's governing our core operating structure to some extent, or at least the onchain part of it but then we have the values that we want to impart in the people that joined Public Assembly. We’re trying to find a balance within this fixed structure that has some ability to be malleable.

JL: We now have everything we need. Nothing is stopping us from being the best that we want to be and it's just really up to us to trust each other more, putting in good work and moving forward in good faith.

MB: At the logistical slash protocol level, there's now a way for Public Assembly to actually compensate people for work and energy and time. Someone can submit a proposal and someone will now get compensated for the work they're doing. This potentially ushers in a new culture around freelance work. What does it mean to be a DAO contributor versus a stereotypical freelancer? I don't know exactly how that will manifest but it's going to be on us to figure out. The founding team will have to pave the way, to leave mementos in the dark forest for those to come.

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