Redefining Work: Unlocking Potential through Decentralized Collaboration

Bob: Would you walk us through a typical day?

Peter Gibbons: Well, I generally come in at least 15 minutes late — I use the side door (that way Lumbergh can’t see me) — and after that I usually just space out for about an hour.

Other Bob: …Space out?

Peter Gibbons: Yeah I just stare at my desk. But it looks like I’m working. I probably do that for about an hour after lunch, too. I’d say in a given week, I probably only do about 15 minutes of real, actual *work*.

[scene fades and time passes]

…The thing is, Bob, it’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care.

Other Bob: Don’t… care?

Peter Gibbons: It’s a problem of motivation, alright? If I work my ass off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don’t see another dime. So where’s the motivation? Did I tell you that I have eight different bosses? Eight! So every time I make a mistake, I’ve got eight different people coming by to tell me about it. My only real motivation is not to be hassled — that, and the fear of losing my job, but you know, Bob, that’ll only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired…

Office Space (1999)

Even if you’ve never sat within the taupe confines of a partitioned desk, it’s not difficult to envisage the existential desolation of life as an office drone.The image seems to somehow encapsulate the essence of so much of what is wrong with work in the modern world. Perhaps it’s so unpalatable because within those walls you are reduced from a self sovereign individual with hopes, passions, and aspirations, to a fungible cog in a great mill of bureaucracy. The belief that your time and mental energy are being prostituted to a faceless corporation, exerted upon a pursuit with no compelling goal, and all to the disproportionate benefit of those above.

The experience that many have as a result of working life is a profound feeling of powerlessness: the inability to change circumstances, or exercise will over how they direct their effort. Especially in the west, where individuality is championed, it is common for a person to feel helpless and trapped in a job, unable to escape the necessity of meeting the ever increasing financial obligations their salary has afforded. What makes the struggle of office life so ‘soul-crushing’ is not merely the need to sell your time and effort to survive though — it’s the indignity at having so little choice over how that time and effort is spent. The degree to which a particular job ‘sucks’ is directly related to the amount of effort that we have no choice in expending. It is an affront to our innate expectation of agency. Agency is dignity, and dignity is a human need.

Calvin & Hobbes, credit: Bill Watterson

Conversely, for most, a feeling of agency is essential to our engagement and fulfilment in a role. In the ‘dream job’, we would set our own hours, work on only the tasks that we chose, and we’d see the fruits of our labor result in meaningful production. In the ‘dream job’, work wouldn’t feel like work because work would be an extension of our own will.

Some people get close to that. They might be a talented freelance designer, writer, or software developer that has somehow managed to find their niche, and work has bent to their will. Such individuals are the exception rather than the rule though, and often have a trade in which they do not need to work on a team or collaborate with others too much to produce value. The life of a freelancer is, by definition, the life of work apart from others. A freelancer chooses not to be a part of ‘the firm’, and instead works independently, choosing which projects to accept and which to reject.

We can also imagine a dynamic entrepreneur who possesses the maximum amount of agency — whose work flows from their drive towards self actualisation. They choose exactly when and where to direct not only their own effort, but the resources of their firm.

The mechanism for the entrepreneur’s direction of the firm has traditionally been the hierarchy. Authority in a hierarchy is concentrated at the top and flows down in a tree-like structure. Power is delegated and divided amongst ever more numerous and less influential subordinates. This structure has worked well for the most part, and has enabled all kinds of human collaboration for tens of thousands of years. Hierarchies do a great job of handling two inescapable facts of work: some people are better than others at doing certain tasks, and more can be accomplished collaboratively than individually.

However, now it’s time for something completely different. Not because the traditional firm is ‘broken’, or because it’s necessary to overthrow traditional power structures, but because new technologies enable us to to collaborate and coordinate activity towards collective endeavour in ways which were previously unimaginable. That, we think, is pretty exciting.

In a typical organization, the rules for decision-making, compensation, ownership, and seniority exist in documents. Colony encodes the rules of an organisation in smart contracts deployed on the Ethereum blockchain. This approach to work is:

  1. Trustless. The Ethereum blockchain enforces the rules of an organization. Members can’t break the rules or change them arbitrarily at the expense of other members.
  2. Open. Strangers can collaborate on a colony without formal hiring processes, contracts, or fear of being cheated. Participation is open and fluid.
  3. Meritocratic. In this trustless, open system, members earn payment or ownership commensurate with their contributions to the colony.

Put simply, Colony is infrastructure for “open organizations”: self-organizing teams that run via software, not paperwork.

It enables a group of people to collaborate on a shared project without needing to trust, or even know one another. This is a new paradigm for coordination without centralisation; not a firm, but a fluid.

Instead of being monitored and evaluated by someone higher up the hierarchy, any individual’s merit within a colony is calculated through systematic peer review of completed work, and represented numerically on the blockchain. This number, by virtue of being rooted in trustless consensus, entitles the individual to direct shared resources of the firm within the remit of their expertise.

Like the freelancer, a worker in a colony has the ability to move between projects at will. Unlike the freelancer, however, there is no longer the restriction of independent work for other people. Instead, she may work on projects and tasks that are part of a larger shared endeavour, and in which she acquires ownership and influence proportional to the value of her contributions.

This is the vision of the Colony protocol: a system by which people can coordinate complex and collaborative work, in which contributions toward shared goals are justly rewarded, and through which an individual can maintain a level of agency not traditionally possible. From each according to their ability, to each according to their reputation-weighted token holdings.😜

This is the first in a series of three posts.

Tomorrow (Thursday 28th September) we will release Colony’s long awaited technical white paper.

On Friday we will be making an announcement.

Colony makes it easy for people all over the world to build organisations together, online.

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