Colony is infrastructure for the future of work: self-organizing companies that run via software, not paperwork. Dr. Aron Fischer, Co-Author of the Colony White Paper.
Peter Lee: Tell us a about Colony?
Dr. Aron Fischer: Colony is about enabling people to work together on projects that matter to them. It’s about giving individuals the opportunity to contribute towards a common goal in the ways that they are best able to. The Colony protocol is a new type of more fluid organizational structure that we think will allow for a company or project to better allocate shared resources, adapt to changes, and manage all the day-to-day coordination activities that are traditionally handled by something like a bureaucracy or management hierarchy. Colony allows all of these functions to exist as automatic processes on the Ethereum blockchain, which means the organization could (in principle) be totally decentralized without a single point of failure.
Peter: Aron, first things first. Love your personal website and got a kick out of it for some strange reason. I’m going to share it – http://www.aron.guru/
Peter: Your company site is also actually very good for explaining what colony.io does and here’s the link which I recommend everyone take a quick look at – https://colony.io
As one of the writers of the Colony white paper, how did you come upon that role and what was the experience like writing that whitepaper? Give us some insights to that whole whitepaper process.
Aron: Coming up with the whitepaper required a lot of brainstorming, coming up with and subsequently discarding ideas over and over. The challenge was to balance what we wanted to achieve (flexible, practical, meritocratic governance) with what was technically possible (in terms of transaction cost, block gas limit etc.) and making sure that the results were game-theoretically sound as well.
My background in mathematics was in category theory and topology, not in game theory per se, but my mathematics certainly prepared me for the process of conjuring up complex (or sometimes even convoluted ) schemes and breaking them down analytically. I should add here that the other principal author – Alex Rea – has a PhD in physics. We’d always poke holes in each other’s suggestions until we found something that worked.
Our writing process was iterative. We’d have brainstorming sessions “governance summits” where we would all meet in person at a whiteboard, followed by weeks of tidying up those ideas and attempting to write them up. During this writing phase we’d invariably discover new issues, leading to the next cycle.
Peter: What is your involvement and role with Colony now that the whitepaper is written?
Aron: The whitepaper has been written, but we do not assume that it contains the final truth on anything. It is a blueprint based on which we are developing the protocol. We predict that once Colony has launched and real people start using it for real world projects, that we will learn a lot more about what works well and what needs tweaking. Indeed already now feedback from the developers currently implementing the features described in the paper and feedback from external reviewers is prompting us to adapt what we have written.
My involvement currently involves talking to such reviewers and incorporating their ideas and their feedback. Furthermore I am presenting our ideas to a wider audience, on podcasts, conference calls as well as at meetups and conferences. Every time we bring our ideas to new people we end up with valuable insight, especially if they come from a different field entirely – social scientists and students of social choice theory, political scientists, economists, managers from companies using holocracy, non-profit organisers to name just a few.
Peter: Who benefits from Colony and how?
Aron: The Colony platform is not prescriptive in how it is to be used, but we can imagine various use-cases. The common elements are openness and flexibility. A large company using Colony in-house may find that Colony benefits them in making better use of their workforce, locating pools of unused talent – let’s call it a company that is “open internally”; other companies may use Colony to manage external contractors, making it very easy to allocate work and compensation to outside parties – let’s call this company “open externally”; and finally, Colony allows for a new organisational structure that is entirely open, self-organising and self-governing, based only on the rules and laws encoded in our smart-contracts.
In such an organisation, the value of work contributed to the common goals by any individual directly translate to greater ownership or influence within the organisation. It empowers anyone to become an integral part of the Colony, to take ownership of their work and earn ownership of the enterprise.
Peter: This is potentially very transformational. All types of organizations (and sub-organizations) where people come together to accomplish a common goal and purpose could be affected. If implemented fully (or, even partially) this could be an economic transformation. What type of people are most likely to succeed in these types of decentralized organizations? What skills and capabilities do they need to have? How can they prepare themselves for these changes?
Aron: It is hard to predict the exact set of qualities that best allow you to thrive in this ecosystem. One point that stands out however is initiative.
The open and flexible nature of Colonies means that you do not have to wait for management to give you work, to appoint you to a task. You are rewarded for taking initiative. If you see a project you like and if you think you can contribute, there should be almost no hurdle for you to jump in and just “do”. At first, this may be about finding a task listed that you think you can work on and applying for it; but soon – as your reputation in the Colony grows – it transitions to you actually creating tasks, goals, budgets and workflows for yourself and for other members of the Colony.
Secondly – and this is where our understanding of how Colonies will function is still in need of empirical data – it will be helpful to be someone who is conciliatory and persuasive. Colonies function best when the team is in agreement and consensus is valued highly. Abrasive personalities will likely find that they get caught up in the Colony dispute resolution system over and over which would slow them down and impose costs. Thus bridge-builders would more likely find themselves overseeing and managing projects than bullies. This is however a social question and not a technical one. The Colony system is skewed towards consensus building and away from voting and formal dispute resolution on the blockchain, but ultimately this is something we will have to observe ‘in the wild’ to see how well the balance holds.
Peter: What don’t people know about Colony that they should?
Aron: One of the most important aspects of Colony is that we (that is Collectively Intelligent Inc. – the company building the Colony Network) do not control the colonies. If you start a Colony, you do not depend on us to keep it running, you do not have to trust us to store your data. The Colony is an independent and autonomous entity living on the Ethereum Blockchain. We strive to make it easy for you to launch, manage and interact with a Colony, but ultimately we are only providing a service, we are not gatekeepers.
Peter: What about governments? In building out Colony, what thought has been given to whether governments might be able to use Colony; and, are there certain areas in government you think Colony would be especially useful?
Aron: I like this question.
A lot has been written about using ethereum or another blockchain in government, but usually the focus is on voting, direct democracy, liquid democracy or other voting schemes. But government is about more than voting for representatives.
Colony is meant to function not just for executive “board level” decisions, but to handle all the small, day-to-day, mundane decisions that make up any enterprise. It is therefore completely plausible that Colony could be used “in-house” at government agencies and bureaucracies that would make them more nimble and more responsive while also improving the experience of their employees.
Remember that a Colony’s token does not have to represent a currency, and indeed in the government agency case I’d assume that the Colony’s token takes on the function of an internal tracking token, allowing the agency to maintain an overview of who does what and identifying which departments are functioning well or which ones are understaffed.
Peter: What’s the best part about working at Colony?
Aron: To me personally, the best part of working at Colony is the overall optimism. It is clear to all of us that blockchain technology represents a paradigm shift in the power-dynamics of the internet and by extension, in society. We can put tools directly in people’s hands that previously required middle-men and gatekeepers. There is a real pioneer spirit in the Ethereum Community in general and at Colony in particular in which everyone is excited in using these new technologies to make the world better and fairer for everyone.
Peter: What does Colony look like 5 or 10 years from now?
Aron: It is hard enough to predict what this space will look like next month!
The hardest technical challenge for us is making the decentralised and blockchain backed Colony protocol as cheap, as easy to use and as responsive as current web services. However, the scalability issue affects not just us, but the entire blockchain ecosystem and it is therefore the prime focus of current research. I suspect that most of these issues will be solved in the coming years so that in 10 years time all of us will be using blockchains even though most of us won’t even be aware of it.
For Colony specifically, we will be adapting the rules of governance based on real-life empirical data from our users. The best form of self-governance at the workplace has not yet been invented, but Colony might just be the platform where groundbreaking new ideas will emerge.
Peter: How about the Colony ICO? How is that coming along and what can you tell us about that?
Aron: As you may be aware Colony was going to be distributing tokens last August, but we postponed the sale due to legal concerns over selling pre-functional tokens.
Of course having a widely distributed token is essential for the functioning of the Colony Network in a game theoretically secure way and therefore we will have a public token sale to launch the network. Our current estimation is for that to happen in the Summer of 2018.
Peter: This is not directly related to Colony but we should all be thinking of this. How can we save the earth, this world and humanity? Name one person, company or organization you feel is really having an impact in this area and why?
Aron: To save the earth, this world and humanity we have to solve the collective action problem and the tragedy of the commons. If destroying a forest gives profits to a few people, but preserving it gives humanity much greater benefit, we should preserve the forest. Today’s problem is that the benefits of keeping the forest are so thinly dispersed while those of destroying it are concentrated. There is hope that decentralised governance mechanisms will allow us to collectively overcome such limitations by making large scale coordination and cooperation cheap and easy.
There are too many groups and project working on these questions for me to single out any one of them, and I suspect in the end it will not be any one project that provides the “killer app”, but that it is the synergies that arise from all of them that will prove truly revolutionary.
Peter: What can you tell us about yourself that our audience probably doesn’t know?
I come from a family of musicians. My father and uncle are both conductors of opera and of symphony orchestras, my grandfather was too; I have cousins who are conductors, or singers or pianists. As such I was an odd one out, being drawn more to mathematics and science.
In the end however I discovered how much the two fields have in common. Mathematics at a higher level is also a very creative endeavor and it is your aesthetic judgment that guides you more than any analytical point of view. I was in academia for a long time and learned to appreciate some of the most abstract and beautiful mathematics in the world. The sad part is that unlike music, mathematics is not very accessible to many people and I could not share the joys of discovery with friends and family outside of academia.
While it might not be possible to perform mathematics in the same way one might perform music, there is a lot you can do in presentation that is not currently valued. I love good exposition and good lecturers. Indeed I like to learn some abstract concepts and then break them down and present them understandably to a class or seminar.
I have taken this love of presentation with me in my transition to blockchain based work. What we are doing is very now, perhaps somewhat complex and unfamiliar and I enjoy presenting our ideas to a wider audience, infecting them with our enthusiasm and perhaps even recruiting them for the movement.
I had already thought about issues the are relevant to Colony long before the invention of the blockchain. All it takes is a few hours of being bored stiff at a student parliament or student council meeting at any large academic institution to begin to daydream about a better way to coordinate collective action and fund allocation.
Until I met Jack du Rose, I’d never really thought about coordinating effort in a business, but as we began talking I could see how many of the same principles applied. Ultimately I hope that Colony will grow to encompass a much wider range of use-cases than either of us imagined.
My chronotype is such that I end up sleeping very late – usually around 2am every day. On top of this I sleep about 9 hours every night. I do not function well on less sleep. I don’t think I’d survive long in a corporate office setting. Indeed my most productive time is late at night when there are no more distractions.
Dr. Aron Fischer
Colony White Paper