Blockchains as Infrastructure and Semicommons

30 Pages Posted: 18 Jul 2022

See all articles by James Grimmelmann

James Grimmelmann

Cornell Law School; Cornell Tech

A. Jason Windawi

Princeton University - Department of Sociology

Date Written: July 1, 2022

Abstract

Blockchains are not self-executing machines. They are resource systems, designed by people, maintained by people, and governed by people. Their technical protocols help to solve some difficult problems in shared resource management, but behind those protocols there are always communities of people struggling with familiar challenges in governing their provision and use of common infrastructure.

In this Essay, we describe blockchains as shared, distributed transactional ledgers using two frameworks from commons theory. Brett Frischmann’s theory of infrastructure provides an external view, showing how blockchains provide useful, generic infrastructure for recording transactions, and why that infrastructure is most naturally made available on common, non-discriminatory terms. Henry’s Smith’s theory of semicommons provides an internal view, showing how blockchains intricately combine private resources (such as physical hardware and on-chain assets) with common resources (such as the shared transactional ledger and the blockchain protocol itself). We then detail how blockchains struggle with many the governance challenges that these frameworks predict, requiring blockchain communities to engage in extensive off-chain governance work to coordinate their uses and achieve consensus. Blockchains function as infrastructure and semicommons not in spite of the human element, but because of it.

Keywords: blockchains, infrastructure, semicommons, governance

JEL Classification: K00

Suggested Citation

Grimmelmann, James and Grimmelmann, James and Windawi, A. Jason, Blockchains as Infrastructure and Semicommons (July 1, 2022). William & Mary Law Review (2023, Forthcoming), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4152068 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4152068

James Grimmelmann (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States

Cornell Tech ( email )

2 West Loop Road
New York, NY 10044
United States

A. Jason Windawi

Princeton University - Department of Sociology ( email )

Princeton, NJ
United States

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