Embodied Decentralization @ Ethereum Conference | 09/2022

Ethereum conference is a regular gathering of people interested in blockchain technology from around the world. In the frame of the JOY space at the conference, I hosted an EightOS session where we explored how decentralization of trust (often talked about in crypto circles) can be explored in an embodied way.

Interestingly, numerous principles in blockchain technology are very much similar to the patterns that are present in nature, due to the higher level of resilience and adaptability they provide (nature had to evolve this way to avoid a single point of failure and to have backup options). For example, blockchain, by design, has a high level of decentralization, which makes it more resilient against a malfunction or an attack.

Yet, when talking about “decentralization” as a concept, we approach it intellectually or in application to a specific engineering problem, losing the “sense” of what it might actually feel like. In my sessions, I proposed exercises where we could practice decentralization on the level of our individual and of a collective body (as a group). One simple way to experience it on the level of the body is to modulate a certain degree of tension by doing a difficult slow-motion exercises (e.g. a pushup) and instead of allowing the tension to build up in one part of the body, redistribute it among many parts, in a dynamical way, to delay the onset of fatigue. On the level of a group, there are exercises that allow us to experience how a certain cluster of actors can maintain their objective without a central point of authority, following principles rather than trying to reach objectives, maintaining a constant information exchange.

Another important element of blockchain is its immutability: a chain of events is recorded and then signed with a special cryptographic algorithm, which produces a hash — a sequence of symbols that can be used to verify the authenticity of a record. If somebody changes the original records, they would also have to recalculate the hash, which would come at an enormous cost to them, making it not worth it to tamper with the original records. This is how trust between parties is replaced with a cryptographic algorithm, allowing for several parties to “agree” on a certain level of truth and have the ability to verify this truth at every point in time. In this context, the notion of trust is not anymore based on belief, but on a constantly verifiable sensation. Every participant holds a key to the common “truth” and has an agency — within a collective — to verify this truth. A physical exercises – like the one shown below — enables us to experience this combination of interconnectedness and trust on the physical level. We are all individuals and, yet, we can only hold truth as a collective.

This approach has interesting ethical and aesthetical implications.

For instance, what happens when a link in the trust chain is broken? How does it affect the resulting structure and each individual within? On the one side, it increases the risk, on another side, the community may bifurcate, fork into two branches, each holding on to a certain pattern that it settled on to represent. It is also interesting to think about infiltrating such a group: what are the different strategies one may practice to enter a certain group on a physical level? Does one have to be disruptive or to use camouflage?

Aesthetically, it provides us with an opportunity to observe and experience decentralization and trust as an ongoing physical process unfolding in front of our eyes — an analog visualization of non-equilibrium dynamics.

Special thanks to Ola Kohut and Nadeya Hassan of JOY Space Berlin for hosting and organizing the sessions.