The DisCO CAT and DisCO-Tech

Introduced in the DisCO Manifesto, the DisCO CAT1 (Community Algorithmic Trust) is a series of modular software platforms designed so people can teach themselves, play around and, ultimately, build viable DisCOs. In this sense the DisCO CAT is like a big ol’ analog synthesizer. If you’re not familiar, old-school analog synths are massive contraptions full of options, allowing you to hook cables together, like telephone switchboard operators, and create all manner of crazy sounds.
Unlike the imposing musical contraptions of yesteryear, our CAT is being designed to be super user-friendly and inclusive, with unnecessary information and components being kept in the background. The foremost priority is getting people to learn DisCO by playing… until the game gets real and you may have already built your own DisCO! 

Take this chapter in the DisCO Elements as a catnip-like whiff of what’s to come, though, because this publication is not about the DisCO CAT. That most mysterious of entities will be the centerpiece of the upcoming DisCO PinkPaper, which will describe the tech being developed for DisCO and why we chose those particular technologies and their affordances. 
Just like life, we think that software is always in development, and that we can use this understanding to our advantage. With “change is the only constant” as our mantra, we will work in Perpetual Beta, and our components will be modular and concurrent. In this chapter we will describe the overall vision.  At the time of writing2, we’re just starting to assemble the Free/Libre and Open Source Software Elements that constitute the DisCO CAT.

The DisCO CAT is subdivided into two main components: Culture and Structure. From the DisCO Manifesto:

“Distributed cooperative practices should never be solely dependent on technology, protocols or governance models. These are only tools to facilitate and strengthen our collaborative culture. There is a fundamental tension in all commons governance between culture, or that which defines the group’s shared motivations and visions for the future, and structure, or that which formalizes the group culture into recognizable legal and institutional forms, and enables certain capabilities. Culture and structure are interdependent in a commons, but they also can pull in different directions. Creating resilient, self-organized communities requires an artful balance.”

Representing the culture side, we have the DisCO FLOOR. This functions as a gateway to a series of apps and sites helping you to build your own DisCO. 
Here’s a rundown of the DisCO FLOOR modules at various stages of development:

The DisCO BALL is DisCO’s main knowledge base, offering documentation of best practices for DisCO development and management. The DisCO BALL will provide semantic categories linking to further resources and examples from the self-hosted wikis maintained by each DisCO LAB (powered by Semantic MediaWiki (SMW) and Tweeki). Two early examples in development are the DisCO MOTHERSHIP and Guerrilla Media Wikis. Much of the material found therein is being updated and adapted for inclusion in the DisCO BALL.

DisCO BLOCKS is an interactive DisCO Governance Model builder. BLOCKS displays the basics of DisCO Governance through a series of questions and prompts, with graphic materials and drop down texts for more details. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, communities can prototype DisCOs, value flows, governance, etc., through drag and drop “Governance Modules”, presenting recurring solutions to common DisCO challenges sourced from various DisCO LABS and experiences. These modules also serve to program the basic function and value flows of the DisCO DECK, as we’ll see below.

The DisCO JOURNEY will feature interactive materials to explain DisCOs in plain language through a series of short, didactic articles, complemented by pop-up vocabulary definitions, infographics and videos (see below), TL/DRs, quizzes and games. Taking a pop-science approach, it will be based on our previous work in the Commons Transition Primer.

BALL, BLOCKS and JOURNEY are the three main/most visibles modules under the DisCO FLOOR subdomain. Other standouts include: a directory, handbook, audiobook versions of the DisCO Manifesto, Elements and PinkPaper, more publications, articles, infographics and videos, a graphic novel (because who doesn’t need more comics about feminist and commons-oriented coops in the new abnormal!). All of these culture and knowledge resources are implementing Web Monetization (WM),4 a way to convert any given website’s traffic into revenue  for the community to support the development of DisCO. 

New technological standards must transcend purely transactional exchanges and enable social and solidarity practices. As we will see in Chapter 6 (Care before Code), volunteer and activist work can depend upon a degree of privilege that makes access unequal and can lead to burnout for marginalized persons. From ownership to decision-making and voluntary social practices, the DisCO CAT prototypes sustainable pathways for socially and environmentally focused work that explicitly requires the creation of digital commons (documentation, content, storytelling).5 All current DisCO LABS contribute resources that can benefit from Web Monetization, as well as other community solidarity byways, such as Circles UBI, Open Collective, Seeds, or Given enough real world experience, these can help to ensure the sustainability of decommodified but socially vital work.6 

Our tools are browser-based, and our methodology is dedicated to value mutualization and fair exchange among cooperatives and generative economic entities. Along with Interledger, Web Monetization is also a key component of the DisCO DECK, as we’ll see below.7

So, if the DisCo FLOOR and its various modules cover the culture part of DisCO-building, what about the structure? Structure can comprise both the legal and technical. On the former, the DisCO Research Circle is investigating transnational, DisCO-appropriate legal frameworks8 (among other research directions), which will be the subject of future papers.With the caveat that all the modules described under DisCO FLOOR, are also technical/structural (this is not a binary), the heart of the Structure side is the DisCO DECK.
The DisCO DECK is a highly adaptable platform to facilitate the value tracking, redistribution and payment protocols of any given DisCO’s governance model.9 Based on the Valueflows economic vocabulary, DisCO DECK balances lightweight, federated tech for accounting. In the near future we will provide options to incorporate select DLT and blockchain technologies10 for transactions and value mutualization with other DisCOs and generative economic entities. In contrast to an automated platform auto-executing smart contracts (i.e., DAO), the DisCO DECK will help support mission-oriented cooperatives in new, inclusive economic flows that support all their members.

The DECK is being developed around three main components:

1. Configurable modules for value accounting with adjustable ratios and characteristics including productive and reproductive work metrics and modes of tokenization, integrations for automated value tracking and time tracking tools.

2. Interactive real time visualizations of value stream ratios, personal and team dashboards, economic projections and budgeting tools with intuitive drag and drop graphic interfaces.

3. Financial tools enabling democratically executed transfers of value. This includes transferring credits among DisCO members and nodes, DisCO Federations, regular and Platform Coops, as well as between DisCOs and other SSE11 entities. It will also support conversion of credits to fiat and cryptocurrencies with bank and wallet transfers.

Unlike a typical DAO design, the DisCO CAT (and DisCO DECK in particular) doesn’t assume it immediately gets things “perfect” by delegating  everything to smart contracts.12 Based on DisCO’s modular methodologies for community deliberation,13 all DECK components will allow for granular customization. This will allow its processes to be:

1. automatically executed by the CAT

2. automatically displayed by the CAT but only executed via customizable permissions and  members’ votes (based on their governance model)

3. individually permissioned

It’s important to be mindful of how one thinks of processes and value flows in these contexts. In DAOs, everything has predetermined and, to some extent, immutable meanings, values, and contracts. In real life everything is determined by relationships. We can enter into new relationships, relationships can change over time, and we can expand the range of entities with whom we can be in a relationship (the trees, the water, all the “things” around us). Each configuration of relationships provides a specific prism for seeing reality and making decisions. The software tools we use can either reflect or ignore that ethos. They can give space for those changing relationships or build an idealized, algorithmically executed snapshot, imposed at large. The DisCO CAT aims to embody a flexible sense of relationality and involvement. Instead of just having a contract which allows no deviations, we can deliberate and weigh the state of the world as seen through the many relationships of our community, and make more appropriate decisions through our community conversations. We can give each decision the appropriate attention and care needed for the maintenance of all our relations instead of adhering to careless contracts, no matter how “smart” they may think they are.
For those about to geek, we salute you! 

GEEK-SPEAK ALERT! Non-tech-enthusiast readers are free to skip ahead to the “After hours at the DisCO-Tech” section below. Don’t worry, the DisCO BALL and JOURNEY (see above) will provide the relevant, non-techy explanations, videos and infographics.

Now then, let’s get geeky: Our DisCO DECK implementation is being built within the CommonsPub/Bonfire Ecosystem. The DisCO DECK is an Elixir based app set up on a DisCO server. It’s based on open standards and protocols, meaning anyone can implement additional features or capabilities in any tech stack as long as they use those same shared protocols and vocabularies (specifically ActivityPub and Valueflows). This means if the need arose, anyone could create their own version of the DisCO DECK with their favorite tech stack and it would still interoperate with the other federated applications. By using ActivityPub, the DisCO DECK will become part of the “fediverse”.14 Each DisCO can have its own Deck and communicate with other DisCOs or other groups in the fediverse through ActivityPub, which includes social networking. Economic networking occurs through Valueflows. The architecture may also employ blockchains for logging compendiums and transacting with other entities. If a DisCO found it useful to store files in IPFS, new modular applications can easily make that possible.

By that same token, the federation layer (ActivityPub), can be swapped out for a communication layer, such as Secure Scuttlebutt (SSB) or a blockchain. SSB is a perfect fit for DisCOs in places where connectivity might be intermittent, while a blockchain would be a good fit for DisCOs that have good connectivity and want their full history of activity to be distributed across all nodes participating in the blockchain network. It may even be possible to allow for interoperability between the different modalities by creating bridges between ActivityPub and SSB or a specific blockchain.15 In this potential configuration, the blockchain based nodes could conveniently serve as a backup for the federated nodes.16

The capacity for DisCO value transfers with other DisCOs, and also transfers between DisCOs and regular coops and collectives, is being built through Interledger, with future modules also capable of working in TenderMint. Interledger will enable DisCOs to use emerging open web payment standards17 like Web Monetization and Payment Request. At first, this will let DisCOs transact in any cryptocurrency supported by the Interledger settlement engines. Once more of the work is done to integrate with Coil’s live Interledger network, DisCOs can choose to ditch traditional payment services for certain types of transactions.
After hours at the DisCO-Tech 

The different modules of the DisCO CAT have been designed to play together nicely.18

For example, some prospective DisCO-verers want to get together to build a DisCO, maybe it’s online or maybe in person.19 The group has already taken the DisCO JOURNEY: they are familiar with the framework and have some initial ideas about how to adapt it for their needs. A process of community discussion on value and values begins, aided by the DisCO BLOCKS. The group is presented the DisCO Principles and the base governance model, to digest at their speed. Through question-based prompts, they decide which blocks to drag and drop into their first draft DisCO Governance model. They can also create their own blocks and add them as new modules.

As they play this game together, DisCO BLOCKS is busy spitting out data in the background, with two destinations: DisCO DECK and DisCO BALL.20

The group’s governance decisions and value ratios serve to create their own customized DisCO governance model, particular to their DisCO, the situation and their needs. This bespoke model is then placed on a holding page in DisCO BALL. From here, the group is given the tools to set up their own self-hosted DisCO Semantic Wiki. All the new knowledge and modules they create are then ongoingly fed back to the main DisCO BALL semantic Wiki.

Concurrently, these value ratios which are embedded in the group’s governance model are also being programmed into the instance of the DisCO DECK Software they’ll be using. This, in Valueflows is known as a value equation: the group’s values and their interpretation of the Seven DisCO Principles are now reflected in their own DisCO DECK, ready to be rolled out. 

Does everyone live happily ever after? Probably not, but if there’s two things that this world needs is a) more trees and b) more coops.21 The DisCO CAT is a way to make the latter more fun and make sure everyone’s heard, that tech design is not led by investors or otherwise narrowly focused actors, and that our privacy, autonomy and the right to use our own energy and creativity towards socially and environmentally restorative ends is upheld and maintained with care.
Finally, it’s important to note that all the toys in the DisCO CAT’s playpen (i.e.: DECK, BALL, BLOCKS, etc.) are not developed in absentia.  Oh, and: all of the DisCO technology (culture and structure) is being designed and developed by a team consisting largely of women. Mic drop. 

We’ll be actively testing the robustness of these resources and technologies alongside the DisCO LABS, reworking to fit them around their needs, not our assumptions and biases. The DisCO CAT may be a cat that wants to take over the world (I mean, have you seen the world lately? Cats would do so much better!), but it still wants to do so according to the needs of the people doing the work, staying with the trouble.
1 Cats have many lives and the DisCO CAT is no exception. Apart from being the umbrella term for DisCO’s platforms in development, she’s also the moody author of the DisCO.beat newsletter.
2 December 2020.
3 Confession time. For one of this paper’s lead authors (Stacco Troncoso), DisCO’s musical/philosophical roots lie in the Funk, the Blues, EDM, Avant-garde Jazz, Punk and No Wave more than late seventies disco. So it’s been really hard to resist the temptation of giving in to Saturday Night Fever references. Stacco will write more about this and how sound design and signal flows factor into DisCOnomics in a future article.
4 We love the possibilities that Web Monetization brings but really would love to suggest a better name! The overall DisCO Project has been awarded two grants from Grant for the Web: a $100K fund to “... boost open, fair, and inclusive standards and innovation in Web Monetization”. Search for and ValueFlows in the Grantees page. We are currently developing WM-specific plug and play modules that can intersect with the DisCO Governance Modules for various communities.
5 The digital/material commons binary is misleading, though: all digital commons depend on physical infrastructures, often built on precarious or even slave labor and massive resource extraction. As Dmytri Kleiner says “Technology is built out of blood”. By that same token, we also envision DisCOs functioning totally outside the digital realm, or through offline networking, such as Secure Scuttlebutt.
6 Complementary to the footnote above, the creation of digital commons is still predicated on the growth of the digital technology industries (and their concomitant exploitation of Mother Earth and her descendants) to make access to digital technology cheap. How can we create processes with a lessened focus on dissipating energy?
7 Web Monetization and Interledger, are being built as modules of the DisCO Floor and Deck platforms, explicitly tying it to the template DisCO Governance/Economic models.
8 Other research directions are listed here, and there are more to come.
9 As you’ll see in the next section, the value equations pertinent to these governance models are actually facilitated by the DisCO BLOCKS.
10 In this we’re particularly interested in the work of Informal Systems, a burgeoning DisCO themselves, who work on the Cosmos Network building parallel blockchains through Tendermint consensus. Remember, not every DLT is a blockchain.
11 Social and Solidarity Economy. Here’s ILO’s introductory page to the SSE. In truth Valueflows can handle all sorts of value transfers, including full decommodification (which within the DisCO “parcel” of Valueflows is called “UnDisCO”). More to come in the DisCO PinkPaper.
12 Read the small print, really...oh, it’s too long? That was precisely the point!
13 These are based on this section of the DisCO Governance Model and will be implemented as configurable modules in the DisCO BLOCKS.
14 From “federated” + “universe”.
15 For the especially technologically astute amongst our readers, there are several hurdles to this. The primary hurdle is figuring out exactly how to map identities across the particular channels. The second hurdle is ensuring permissions are respected. We’ll likely need to implement an identity server or mapping service that also helps manage private keys (since losing keys means there’d be permanently irrecoverable data — aka useless junk — in the blockchain).
16 This requires individual federated nodes to run a bridge to a blockchain so their data can be written to blockchain.
17 These are currently draft specifications, which means they are currently moving targets. However, it doesn’t mean they aren’t already useful. What limits them is browser support, but browser plugins could easily provide all the functionality. In fact, Coil already has browser plugins to implement their Web Monetization provider.
18 Do you want more info about the DisCO CAT or the DisCO Project’s general direction for the next few years? We’ve already linked to this entry in the DisCO MOTHERSHIP wiki during the present chapter. This is our sketchpad for DisCO Project features and modules. Sometimes out of date, always being updated, it is our public repository for the Project.
19 Dear Future Readers: this publication was completed in December of 2020. You may have noticed that a few things have happened to a lot of people this year!
20 Those who are technically minded might wonder if this might relate to the software architecture. It doesn’t. It’s just a useful metaphor.
21 So why not make some tree-planting DisCO-coops?

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