Dark matter, water, and the word "we." Describing power in DAOs

Originally published on quorummedia.xyz on September 2, 2022.

Writer: Samantha Marin

"Power is like water: it will go somewhere and it tends to accumulate in clusters: the more power a group has, the more resources they will have to aggregate power. The only way to counterbalance the concentration of power is intentionality and thoughtful implementation."

—Ted J Rau and Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, *Many Voices One Song: Shared Power with Sociocracy, *Ch.1 pg 15.

"Over 80% of all matter in the universe is made up of material scientists have never seen. It's called dark matter and we only assume it exists because without it, the behaviour of stars, planets and galaxies simply wouldn't make sense."

—Nola Taylor Tillman, Space.com, What is Dark Matter?

Areas where dark matter has been detected are colored in blue.
Areas where dark matter has been detected are colored in blue.

Image from esahubble.org, gathered from Wiki Commons.

Today, I'm going to explore one of the most contentious, slippery, and bungled topics in the DAO space today: power.

My thesis: when we equate governance rights with power, we leave out the other forms of power that agents use in a system.

I'm going to work on describing power as a concept and explore how it manifests in DAOs.

The second piece of my thesis: Like dark matter, I don't think power can be easily observed, much less controlled.

Let's begin:

Power is the ability to act

Power is more than governance rights.
Power is more than governance rights.

Tweet by @Caroline_Abry

In DAOs, we often confuse governance rights with power. **The ability to cast governance tokens to vote on a decision is not the same thing as the ability to act. **By giving a group governance rights we don't necessarily give them power: we simply give them governance rights.

When it comes to giving a group power, that isn't so cut and dry.

Power is much more slippery.

Power is the ability to put everything in motion to make that vote happen. Power is the ability to set rules around a proposal passing or a vote going through. It's the ability to push an initiative forward by requesting and securing funds, or to move it backward by getting the right people to vote "no," by vetoing, by fillibustering the forum, by delaying or gaslighting or any number of tools that come in the power toolbox.

In the words of Jacob Kaplan-Moss: "power is the ability to get shit done."

Getting shit done might look like shepherding a proposal from idea to execution and getting necessary votes along the way. It can also look like the inverse: stalling and debating and fillibustering a vote until it never goes through.

Power is when you see a direction and put things successfully in place to move toward executing it.

Power is getting to use the word “we” and following it with action

"Fundamentally, it’s the power of getting to use “we”: the power to speak on behalf of the organization. An individual contributor can’t say “we’re all getting new laptops” (well, they can, but it probably won’t happen); the CEO certainly can."

—Jacob Kaplan-Moss, The Three Kinds of Organizational Power

Power is the ability to be a decision-maker, to tell someone "yes" or "no" unilaterally, and to move confidently forward in one direction without significant blockers.

When working in a DAO, the word "we" can't be used very often in the way we know CEOs or directors to use it. But it can be used in different ways when coupled with action. Like these:

  • "We should update our twitter bio." + action taken to update it = power

  • "We should start a guild for this." + action taken to start the guild = power

  • "We should run a poll to get soft consensus." + action taken to run that poll = power

If you're new to a DAO and you hear people talking about wanting to run a poll in a meeting, whoever posts and carries out the poll will likely have more power in your eyes. At least that is my experience.

Action is necessary for the "We" statement to hold any weight. For the contributor to accumulate power, they must follow their promises with action. In the DAO space, action is more important than credentials. So action creates more power than credentials.

Power is not inherently good or bad

"Power, like water, is neither good nor bad."

—Many Voices One Song: Shared Power with Sociocracy, Ch.1 pg 16, by Ted J Rau and Jerry Koch-Gonzalez

Power, like water, is an essential fact of life. We cannot have productive human activity without power residing somewhere. It's not good or bad, it just is.

When someone has power, is powerful, they're not inherently a good or bad person. The same goes for someone who lacks power, is powerless. While it can be hard to separate our individual connotations with words related to power, I believe it's essential to get to the root of what power truly means to have productive conversations about it.

When designing for power in DAOs, we often think about the powerful people as being the "bad ones." Maybe the whales are powerful because they have more governance rights and can combine "We" with action to get stuff done. But they are often seen as bad, when in reality they're just actors in a larger system of power distribution.

If the powerful people turn into dictators? Not a good thing, of course. But power distribution itself is bigger than any individual person.

There's also another side of power: are the people with more governance rights the ones building the governance processes and writing the proposals? Identifying where the doers and the decision-makers are is often harder than simply looking at who the whales are, and is much more of a gray area than pure black and white.

Power is dark matter

"Dark matter is a hypothetical form of matter thought to account for approximately 85% of the matter in the universe. Dark matter is called "dark" because. . . it does not absorb, reflect, or emit electromagnetic radiation (like light) and is, therefore, difficult to detect. Various astrophysical observations – including gravitational effects which cannot be explained by currently accepted theories of gravity unless more matter is present than can be seen – imply dark matter's presence."

—Wikipedia, Dark matter.

Dark Matter is the stuff in the universe that we can't define, but know it must be there because of the way galaxies, planets, and stars move through the universe. Rotational paths show that dark matter has to exist, even though we can't see it.

Power is dark matter because it causes other objects to move without asking permission: it just does. It is a force we cannot see that is always present, and is neither good nor bad. And, it's hard for outside observers to detect unless you see what is moving.

An outside observer of a system wouldn't see that the power distribution of the system is causing it to move in a certain way: they'd just see that it moves that way, without anyone guiding it. They'd assume the system behaves that way. But the reality is that something intangible must be there to move it. And that is power.

Projected 3D map of Dark Matter, made with images from the Hubble Telescope.
Projected 3D map of Dark Matter, made with images from the Hubble Telescope.

Image from NASA on the Wiki Commons.

When applied to a DAO, this is like looking at a proposal that passed and assuming the voters were the people with the power to say "yes." But there are so many smaller nuances that cannot be accounted for in that simple view. There were likely months of planning and deliberation amongst different teams before that proposal went live. There were people who were consulted and others who were stiffed. There were people who gave their "okay" to move it along. There were people who the proposer asked for feedback far in the early stages, and didn't get a nod of approval from, so the proposer rewrote some key sections.

**There were so many steps before taking it to vote to be approved by the token holders, who look like they're in power, but often aren't—they're just the final yes in a long series of yes's. **(Of course, this is not true of every DAO. It's just something I've observed.)

This dark-matter-style, socially-constructed power system lives underneath every governance structure, no matter how intricately constructed.

We only see the power because of what it moves around it. We cannot see the power itself. To fully experience it we must be immersed inside of it, deep in the trenches of proposal moving and governance and DAO work.

Token holders may have power, but they also may not. Governance rights and power are not the same, and that the latter is significantly harder to track, design for, and wrangle.

Power is mysterious, slippery, and strange. But it's everywhere, all the time. Just like dark matter.

Power commands respect, whether consciously or unconsciously

Respect as a key piece of taking power.
Respect as a key piece of taking power.

Tweet from MC10.

Power commands respect because it forces other actors to change their path to go around it or flow with it. The power of a full river rushing past you commands respect unconsciously, because you must act differently when it is full of whitewater, and thus have fewer choices. A deer standing on the edge of a stream cannot easily glide through it when it has Class 5 rapids cruising past. The power exerted by one actor forces other actors in the system to change. But when the water is low and power minimal, the deer has more power—increased agency and choice—to cross the river.

The same goes for planets and dark matter. Dark matter is not conscious and is not consciously telling planets to orbit a certain way (as far as we know, of course. I'll sidestep the theology today). But the planets (also unconscious) must bend their orbit paths to the power of the dark matter: they don't have a choice but to respect the dark matter.

**When someone in a DAO is powerful, their words and messages and forum posts are given more weight than those of others—more respect. This is true even if the system wasn't designed to give more power to this person. **There isn't anything tangible being exercised with this kind of soft power: it's simply dark matter pushing quietly in the background.

For example, a single person commenting that they dislike the direction of a particular forum post can shift the entire conversation away from executing that post because of the respect given to that person, and therefore the power they have in the system. This is true even if the person isn't aware of the power they're exerting.

Power is what’s left over when the entire system has been designed

"The primary evidence for dark matter comes from calculations showing that many galaxies would behave quite differently if they did not contain a large amount of unseen matter. Some galaxies would not have formed at all and others would not move as they currently do."

—Wikipedia, Dark Matter

When you've designed everything in the system—from governance rights to team structures to documentation practices to decision-making processes—power is what's left over. It's the stuff you can't design outright for because it will do it's own thing.

Power is everything that's left over. It's the movers we can't see. It's the energy that slips between our fingers.

In theory it can be designed for—this group has the power to approve treasury transactions, that group has the power to onboard and distribute new talent throughout the DAO—but a good power design requires the agents to buy-in to the power design, which is easier said than done. I'm not sure if a "power design" in the way I'm thinking about it is even possible.

Anyone with imbalanced power can block others in the system, whether through malicious means or not. It doesn't matter how many tokens you hold or what your role says your job is or what your team assumes you're responsible for doing. All that matters is how you actually exercise the power you have.

In the case of the known universe, there are a lot of leftovers.

If you took away dark matter and dark energy, the universe would be basically empty.
If you took away dark matter and dark energy, the universe would be basically empty.

Image accessed on Consciousness and the Universe, data and imagery provided by the ESA.

I'm not sure if power is 95% of DAOs, like dark matter and energy is for the universe. But I could be convinced.

Power is agency, problem-solving, and self-direction

"Instead of waiting for someone else to solve the problem—as much as you think it makes sense—just run ahead and do it yourself even if you’re not sure you can. In web3 land this could mean building a frontend or tool on your protocol that you thought the community should build. Within a company it may mean proactively pushing ahead on an area of a project that another team would be expected to do. In a community it might mean holding a dinner or event to create the space to discuss a certain issue or theme. "

—Patronus Problems by jacob, co-founder of Zora

The power that is actualized and distributed in DAOs is the power of agency. You get to choose your adventure. You get to reclaim your power and vote with your actions. In DAOs, as in life, how you show up matters. With the freedom of self-expression, you are faced with a nebulous question, what are you going to do with it?

—Siddhearta, Finding Freedom and Agency in DAOs

No one can just "give" you power. You take it yourself.

Part of the reason I don't believe you can just be granted power is because no one can give you the skill of self-direction. No one can teach you to guide your own actions. The idea can be coaxed out and cultivated, but cannot be granted via a shelf of self help books or a podcast by a motivational speaker. It must be discovered within.

Given that we were all brought up in a system of command and control, of sit-still-and-listen, of four-year degrees and five-year plans, realizing you have the agency to solve your own problems and that the universe won't solve them for you is quite a powerful thing. Realizing that there's no life path anymore, just a wide open expanse of blue sea, is terrifying and liberating. It is the true first step toward taking your power.

Having this realization in a DAO—and in any workplace—is incredibly important. Moving away from the learned helplessness we get in the workplace, and into our true agency and power, is pretty incredible stuff.

Take power by taking agency in your DAO. Making choices will lead to more power and more agency and more power and more agency....and the loop continues.

Power can emerge from ownership

I have noticed that DAOs tend to be better at enabling collective ownership at scale, even if their cultural understanding of the rights, responsibilities, and accountability associated with ownership is comparatively [to co-ops] underdeveloped.

—What Co-Ops and DAOs Can Learn from Each Other by Austin Robey

Even though DAOs are still figuring out what shared ownership means—as described in the quote above—it's incredible how they enable it at the scale that they do. Shared ownership is one of the main things that gets me excited about DAOs and what brought me into the space in the first place.

Shared ownership can create power because, in most of humanity, the owners are the ones who exercise the power. It's strange to take ownership over something that you don't actually own.

Which is why the "everyone's an owner" rallying cry statements of Pluralistic-Green, pre-web3 companies fall pretty flat.

Ownership creates the conditions for power.

You own a house, you use your power to paint the walls the color you want. You own a garden, you use your power to plant the vegetables you like to cook and the flowers you like to see brightening your yard.

Ownership is not explicitly necessary for power—you can still take hold of the dark matter of power and wield it without ownership—but ownership can be a shortcut to create the conditions for power.

You cannot tell someone to use power because they're an owner or to not use power because they're not an owner. But it would be weird to be an owner of a house and leave the walls as unpainted drywall when you move in, and would be equally weird and unlikely to take a bucket of paint to a wall that you don't own in a city you might not live in tomorrow.

When you own something you have an inherent motivation to improve it and work on it. Which creates agency and action. Which creates power.

Power can be associated with trust

". . .trust is the use of any assumptions about the behavior of other people."

—Trust Models by Vitalik Buterin

When an actor in a DAO is generally trusted in the community, they gain power, particularly through relationships. For example, an early leader in a DAO may have a lot of power. When they express their views in a certain way, the community may bend to accommodate those views because the community trusts that this individual has the DAO's best interest in mind and makes decisions that are good for the DAO.

That's why founders are such an important piece of the power puzzle in web3. In an industry where we are building trustless systems, we still need leaders to trust. Founders often become those de facto trust centers and accumulate power via trust.

Giving away power may be nearly impossible for founders unless they ghost the whole web3 ecosystem, even if they give away all the governance rights. For example, Andre Cronje gave away all the governance rights of Yearn to the community, but still remained a key figurehead of the protocol and revered in the DAO's onboarding materials. Even though he gave away all YFI (governance rights) it's nearly impossible to give up power (the dark matter) without completely stepping away.

The bonds of trust are stronger than most things in our universe.

Power is necessary to life

"Water that is allowed to flow will stay fresh and will reach all the places in the garden, nourishing each plant to flourish."

—Many Voices One Song: Shared Power with Sociocracy, Ch.1 pg 16, by Ted J Rau and Jerry Koch-Gonzalez

Rau and Koch-Gonzalez call Sociocracy "a complicated irrigation system," which distributes water to all the necessary places in the garden without over or under watering any specific area.

This complicated irrigation system to distribute our dark matter of power sounds fantastic. But I believe it's a lot harder to distribute real power because it's so slippery and hard to see. Even when you think you're distributing power to all corners, you might just be distributing governance rights that don't come with the dark matter style of power.

Like how an incoming tsunami is too much water at once, and a long drought is too little over a long period of time, power can be too much or too little at a time.

And power increasing at an overwhelming scale in a single direction will rip the system apart.

We'll turn to dark matter's even stranger sister—dark energy—for an idea on what an influx of power in a single direction could look like:

The phantom energy model of dark energy results in divergent expansion, which would imply that the effective force of dark energy continues growing until it dominates all other forces in the universe. Under this scenario, dark energy would ultimately tear apart all gravitationally bound structures, including galaxies and solar systems, and eventually overcome the electrical and nuclear forces to tear apart atoms themselves, ending the universe in a "Big Rip".

—Wikipedia, Dark Energy

A big rip. I don't wish this fate on any DAOs. But power is stronger than any person in any DAO.

The question is how it is used.

Quorum is a metalabel for creators shipping work about DAOs. Check out Quorum’s newsletter, podcast, and Twitter.

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