Scott Moore’s Mutualist Futures

The Gitcoin co-founder on collective intelligence and remaking the world.

Text Zine
Published 18 May 2023

Infrastructure is what we call wonders made of boring things. The modern world runs on the mundanity of pipes, powerplants, and plumbing. It’s the backstage of our lives: both in that it is often invisible and in that it is often where the magic happens.

Many believe that Ethereum is—or at least should aspire to be—something like the digital equivalent of this backstage of bridges, roads, and satellite systems: an open system with society-wide benefit. Few among them are as steadfast in their conviction as Scott Moore. As the co-founder of Gitcoin, Moore has helped allocate upwards of fifty million dollars to on- and offchain public goods via the organization’s novel quadratic funding grants and coordination tools, which equip communities with a democratic means of directing investment to the digital infrastructure that matters to them. The invisible and thankless work of making and maintaining sewage systems is hardly glamorous, but these kinds of systems are ultimately the bedrock of the bustling city above them. Similarly, much of the internet as we know it runs on open-source tooling whose developers seldom see a cent for their efforts. Gitcoin’s goal is to disrupt this pattern and provide decentralized, participatory tooling for these sources of core societal value to be recognized and rewarded as such, to bring the overlooked operating system of society into clearer view.

Beyond his work at Gitcoin, Moore has served as a core steward in public goods DAOs such as ENS, Gnosis Safe, and Optimism. His interest in broad social coordination also encompasses the politics of crypto itself, with recent writing and talks covering the messy factionalism of Ethereum and “networked states of mind.” Most recently, he’s started work on a new fund, Public Works, that aims to support the development of core open-source infrastructure at the pre-seed level and the creation of collective value outside of the venture capital treadmill.

ZINE’s Yana Sonoskaya spoke to him about bridging the degen/regen divide, harnessing our collective intelligence, and the inherently political nature of crypto.

Yana Sosnovskaya: In your own words, what is Gitcoin?

Scott Moore: To me, Gitcoin is an internet-native community focused on building and funding public goods. What we mean by public goods is very much dependent on our communities. We fund things that the community decides and votes on like Web3 infrastructure, climate, diversity and inclusion initiatives, internet activism, and maybe a few other rounds that I’m forgetting still, but those are some of the major ones.

YS: You recently rolled out the Grants Stack. What are the key differences with the previous Gitcoin Grants model?

SM: Gitcoin historically has been running a singular program, which is currently governed by the DAO. What that means in practice is that you have one institution, whether internet-native or not, that’s deciding where funds are going. The goal of the protocol is to distribute that power to other groups that want to define their own shared needs or their own community goals and then fund what matters to them. There’s a city3 round that we did with Jesse Pollak and those folks a few rounds ago—if you want to fund a variety of non-profit groups in Oakland, you can use this tooling for that without needing us to have any say in how you use it. If you’re Uniswap and want to fund the Uniswap ecosystem and fund things that matter to you, you can use it that way.

This expands the scope of things that people can do. Basically, we call it Allo Protocol, because it gives a broad range of ways that people can allocate funds to things that matter to them, whether or not they’re strictly public goods. Public goods are traditionally defined as non-excludable, non-rivalrous — the sun would be a good example of this. You can’t stop someone from having access to the sun and my access to the sun doesn’t exclude anyone else’s access. But the more interesting definition is around the positive externalities that public goods create. Things like open-source software produce large-scale positive externalities to people beyond the maintainers that use them, beyond the funders that contribute to them, and that sphere of impact in the context of people finding benefit from this good, which is still subjective, the measure to me of a public good. You could even say, in the protocol context, that people are funding their own local public goods versus us strictly having a monopoly on deciding what is a public good.

YS: Are there any other interesting models that you see in this space for fund redistribution?

SM: Absolutely. That’s part of the reason for this move towards the broader protocol world, where quadratic funding (QF) is one of many mechanisms. For example, one model that’s gotten a lot of attention lately has been retroactive public goods funding. The idea of specifically focusing on this retroactive approach to funding is really interesting. Although interestingly, QF does actually tend towards retroactive funding as well. Things like Ethers.js or WalletConnect or even Plasma Group were funded by quadratic funding in part because of the work that they had already done for the ecosystem and people recognizing that work.

I think the other one that is particularly useful right now is 0xSplits. Though 0xSplits is doing a lot of streaming-related funding, it’s extremely modular, it’s extremely simple to use. Zora talks about this a lot in the context of hyperstructures. [Fellow Gitcoin co-founder Kevin] Owocki has really taken to this as well on Twitter. There’s a need for simplicity over complexity when it comes to building primitives that people are going to rely on. I worry in Web3 that we overvalue complexity and overcomplicate the models that we put in place. The goal of these programs is to simplify the way that we make decisions about what we care about—the group of people that are going to make decisions about those particular local sets, because everyone is an expert in their local community. We want local experts to be the ones who are ideally deciding in a mutualist sense their own needs.

In all these ways, there’s a benefit to simplicity and scoping. A lot of the examples that I’m most interested in, in terms of other funding mechanisms, share that same simplicity. That is something that I think, as we move towards this next phase of development, we need to emphasize so that anyone in the community can feel like they understand and can use these tools for their own purposes. Those are the ones that come to mind immediately and are doing a great job at starting to simplify.

This is a concept that Glen Weyl talks a lot about, and part of what he is doing with the Plurality Institute. Pluralism, i.e. a diversity of different mechanisms and approaches, each of which has relatively simple measurable objectives and ways of operating, will yield better outcomes in the long run than more complicated monolithic protocols.

If you have a public park, it’s very hard to leverage anything from that particular local resource to create something new. If you have a piece of open-source software by contrast, anyone can add to it and fork it and iterate on it.

YS: Let’s talk about public goods. Is blockchain a public good?

SM: It depends. Open-source software is a public good and creates significant value because it is built in public. It is usable by anyone and no one can restrict your access to it, so by the traditional definition, it fits. But returning to positive externalities, the most interesting part of open source is that it creates very strong positive externalities because it’s composable. If you have a public park, it’s very hard to leverage anything from that particular local resource to create something new. You have this great thing, but it is very much bound to its initial conditions—where it’s actually located. If you have a piece of open-source software by contrast, anyone can add to it and fork it and iterate on it. In fact, it’s generative in the sense that the more of these pieces of software there are, the more additional composable tools are built and the more possible configurations of useful tools and products there are. Ideally, this leads to a pluralistic system of different pieces of software that can interoperate and work together.

Blockchain, when open-source, is also a public good to the extent that it builds on our collective knowledge of what is possible in terms of coordination tools—which is fundamentally what I would say blockchain is. But at the same time, the reason I can’t say blockchain in general is a public good is because sometimes in Web3 we overstate the value of the things that we’re creating. In the case of blockchain, the generative intellectual value is diminished relative to earlier projects that were able to make further strides in the frontier of possible innovation.

YS: When I think about that same question, I’m thinking about the entry barrier, both financial and technical, and how, from both of these perspectives, blockchain is inaccessible. Can a public good be as inaccessible as the blockchain is currently?

SM: Controversially, yes. Ultimately, there are a lot of aspirational ideas in the term “public goods.” Public goods are aspirationally nonexcludable and nonrivalrous. But in practice, the things we care about the most egregiously fail to fulfill those criteria. I like to give the example of a subway system. A subway system charges users a fee. People are literally paying tokens. It has a capacity limit and it is possible to restrict someone based on the fee, or based on their access to the city, from accessing that good. Despite that, the subway system helps citizens get to places that they care about, meet people they care about, and be part of a community. It helps those community organizations thrive and grow and even produce economic value. In turn, it creates value for property holders who accrue value around the subway stations. If we were to ask: should we be funding this as a community? If New York were to propose that they just stop funding the subway, I think most people would strongly object to that. The things we care about aspirationally are not the same things that we should care about practically.

Blockchain has a long way to go in terms of accessibility. In fact, one of my takes on the space is that we actually need slightly more infrastructure before we can get to a stage of adoption that is meaningful, but right now, the excludability or rivalry of blockchains is not sufficient to remove them from that definition. I think this is true for lots of things that we consider public goods. To me, it’s a frameshift that we need to make socially and normatively in order to actually fund the things that matter to us versus being caught up in the semantic baggage of the term “public goods.”

YS: You have studied political science, right?

SM: Yes, a long time ago now, yeah.

YS: What are your thoughts on credible neutrality? Is crypto political?

SM: I actually think crypto is fundamentally political. There are a lot of newcomers to the space that forget crypto’s political roots. I don’t think this means that crypto has one set of politics, but I think that any new system or technology or movement should have real values and principles behind it. You see a plurality of those values that horseshoe around from far libertarian philosophy—Bitcoin mentality—all the way to post-left mutualists with David Graeber-esque views of how we should coordinate collectively.

Neither of those perspectives are fundamentally wrong and what’s at the center of them is decentralization itself. When we think about something like crypto or Web3 or whatever new terms we come up with for defining the space, we should think about it in terms of decentralization first and then more importantly, decentralization with an aim, because we often use the term in the abstract without actually considering the ways in which we will use it in practical daily life. This goes back to the public goods piece where, again, we’re very aspirational versus practical.

Why should we be political and why should we have these principles? Because we actually can make a stronger case to the public. We can make a stronger case to activists. We can make a stronger case even to companies or governments if we have a clear idea of what we stand for and if we are able to back that with real use cases.

Crypto does two things: It dismantles existing systems and then offers prefigurative, new solutions to these institutional problems.

When I say that the politics of crypto is decentralization, I think what I’m getting at is that both sides of this horseshoe strongly disagree with the way that existing systems are run. There’s almost an anti-centrism embedded in the way that they view institutions. This is not because institutions are bad, but because institutions are failing in ways that are almost not insurmountable, and are very connected to their initial conditions, which were often 200 or 300 years ago—as in the founding of certain countries or the creation of certain corporate structures. It’s natural that we would want to reimagine those things as we start to think about building new institutions.

Crypto does two things: It dismantles existing systems and then offers prefigurative, new solutions to these institutional problems.

YS: Crypto is still pretty US-centric. Do you think that the individualistic mindset that comes with that is a barrier or an asset to the fight for decentralization?

SM: That’s a good question. I think individualism is probably too prevalent in our current society, especially in North America. The reason I say that is we’ve gone through a century of individualism where, whether you buy into Adam Curtis’ argument in HyperNormalization of Edward Bernays creating a manufactured consumerist mindset or whether you just look—practically speaking—at social opinions that have evolved since World War Two, there’s definitely been a market shift towards individualism that didn’t exist 200 years ago in the early days of the United States. I think Yancey Strickler has talked about this best; there’s this idea that we’re moving toward post-individualism in a reaction to that sharp swing of the pendulum. I think where we need to get back to is both understanding our individualism, and then reconciling that with the communities we’re part of and communities we serve. You can see that people long for this even from the way that people interact both in person and online in their search for a community. It has become unhealthy to believe we can only rely on ourselves versus relying on each other.

I think it’s important to have a sense of sovereignty and a sense of individuality, but we’ve lost a sense of connection with those around us. I actually think these issues stem from the same institutional problems where institutions have abstracted us from each other. Ivan Illich is a philosopher thinker that has talked about this much more at length than I have. When we rely on institutions for all of our needs, we no longer have to actually care about each other, and so it takes more effort to create that sense of connection. Fundamentally, when I say that individualism is too prevalent in society now, I actually think, unironically, that Web3 fixes this. Rather than relying on large-scale institutions, we can rely on new systems that we create with each other.

We often talk about coordination between individuals. I think in the next 10 to 20 years, we’re really going to be thinking about coordination between collectives. This is probably way too far out, but even if you look at AI right now, like GPT-3, GPT-4, the entirety of this massive language model is based on our own digital memory, our own history, even people that are long dead—there’s this really interesting movement towards collectivism and the question to me is, is that collectivism going to be decentralized? This is something that Divya Siddarth of The Collective Intelligence Project is talking a lot about as well. If we only think of each other as individuals, we’re really going to miss an important moment to coordinate around that scale of societal change.

YS: When you were talking about the things that we might actually be unprepared for in the long term, what are the blockchain use cases that you think are currently underexplored and would want to see more people pay attention to?

SM: On the one hand, we counterintuitively need more infrastructure before we can build better applications. That goes back to usability and ease of access for the general public. No one is going to go and sign with a mass transaction to pay for their coffee at a restaurant. We need more infrastructure to make things more usable. We need more real-world interactions. One of the major problems in philanthropy is that there’s lots of people with tons of money but no real sense of how to spend it in a way that creates actual impact. One use case I’m very excited about, and I’m biased towards this, is better distribution mechanisms for philanthropic use cases that can leverage experts to measure impact.

What is collective intelligence? While it’s the experts that understand the impact by measuring it and defining it, it’s the community that is continuing to leverage that feedback in how they allocate and signal their preferences for what should be funded. That feedback loop between experts and community, to me, is part of the process of building resilient ecosystems, especially if you’re using, to use your term, “credibly neutral technology” to do that. Anyone can deploy it and configure these different groups accordingly. That comes down to real infrastructure for usability. Honestly, it’s just better developer tooling because candidly, most people really don’t like writing blockchain applications, and it’s why you don’t see a lot of blockchain applications. You see a lot of new L1s instead, because the incentives are just set up so that funding is less interesting or lucrative than simply repeating something that’s already been done. Those incentives need to change.

YS: Can we talk a little bit about Public Works, the new fund you recently launched?

Scott Moore: Public Works is based on the idea that public goods are community infrastructure and community infrastructure can be investible. In Web3, we’ve seen examples of this across the ecosystem. xDai turned into Gnosis Chain, Plasma Group turned into Optimism. Products like WalletConnect and Uniswap would become core parts of the ecosystem. All of these, at some point, leveraged Gitcoin grants for nondilutive capital.

Ultimately, what we want to figure out is, if we are going to increase the scale of infrastructure that we’re building in the space, how do we do that in a community-first way? Public Works is focused on ecosystem funding for a lot of this core infrastructure at a pre-seed level. We want to see projects that need capital get it at a scale beyond grants. We don’t want projects to simply end up on the treadmill of venture capital for years, if not, decades to come. We’ve seen that with Web2, where products have effectively gone from taking one million dollars to taking a hundred million dollars without really ever interacting with the communities that they serve. There should be a much tighter feedback loop. In the process, what this fund does for Gitcoin as a separate vehicle is it gives the potential to gift actual value back to grants in the future, and hopefully then create more of these pieces of infrastructure that people need to reach mass adoption.

YS: This is not a venture model, right?

SM: Public Works is still going to follow an investment structure. There are two ways to think about the role of venture. One is as the fundamental driver of activity in the space. Two is as a supplement that helps communities on the path towards actual collective ownership. Zora, Gitcoin—a lot of these projects have taken venture capital, but I don’t think any of those projects have the goal of staying on that treadmill forever. People now care a lot more about the financials of a project versus what the builder is actually building.

The one fundamental piece of the fund is to help fulfill a better path for grantees after they’ve graduated from Gitcoin. But secondarily, it’s to give back and make Gitcoin grants as a program sustainable. I think that the question of sustainability is still very important in the space which sometimes tends to index too much on numbers going up.

What I hope for in the next ten years of Web3 is a better, more playful, more mutualist tool that will empower us as a community to work with each other versus being abstracted into all of these larger institutions.

YS: The final question: What makes you, Scott Moore, feel fulfilled at the end of the day?

SM: That’s a deep question. I’ve been in the space since 2015. I started after doing a bunch of machine learning work and getting my political science math degree. I stumbled into the space in a lot of ways because it represented a very optimistic, hopeful community at a time when I was feeling trapped in a relatively unfulfilling corporate structure. Over the last eight years, the piece that’s most interesting to me is the level of passionate interest amongst community members in fulfilling this vision and the people that I’ve met, the level of eccentric, sometimes very divergent and creative and inspiring thinking that they’ve been able to share with me and that, in turn, I hope I’ve been able to share with them.

The biggest thing that I’m hoping for from the actual models that we’re building in Web3, going back to Graeber—I’m trying to remember the exact quote—the ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it’s something that we make and we could just as easily make different. That’s from The Utopia of Rules, which is a great book. What I hope for in the next ten years of Web3 is a better, more playful, more mutualist tool that will empower us as a community to work with each other versus being abstracted into all of these larger institutions.

Scott Moore’s Mutualist Futures

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