DR KELSIE NABBEN
Dr Kelsie Nabben completed her PhD in December 2023 at RMIT University.
Decentralised Technologies: ‘Self-Infrastructuring’ Resilience
Kelsie’s thesis research focuses on how groups of people build, use, and experience digital infrastructure by investigating the resilience of decentralised technologies for people that use them. Here, resilience denotes the capacity for adaptability and transformability when faced with external threats, internal vulnerabilities, and opportunities, in relation to shared goals (Folke, et. al., 2020). The concept of resilience encompasses adaptivity across both social and a technical dimensions of a system (Tantri and Amir, 2019). Public blockchain networks and associated distributed protocols can be considered socio-technical infrastructures, meaning that social and technical components shape one-another and are inextricably linked (Star, 1999). While much scholarly attention on decentralised technologies focuses on technical facets of resilience, such as cyber risks and security, decentralised technologies also serve an enabling infrastructure for social coordination. Despite their significance, there is a lack of empirical research concerning the development, application, and utilisation of decentralised technologies. This research addresses this gap by investigating the infrastructural practices occurring within decentralised technology communities. It determines the affordances of these tools in fostering resilience by discerning the circumstances, means, and extent of their resilience-building capacity for users.
Drawing on the theoretical framework of infrastructure studies, which contends that the purpose of infrastructure emerges during its use (Bowker, et. al., 2010), this research examines decentralised technologies in practice. Through three ethnographic cases, the thesis illustrates people’s conceptualisation, construction, and experience of resilience, as well as the factors leading to its breakdown or failure. The cases traced are a “Decentralised Autonomous Organisation” (DAO) that crowdfunds grants called “GitcoinDAO”, a “crypto state” that manufactures and distributes open microchip hardware called “Kong Land DAO”, and a peer-to-peer data management protocol that is used to “content address” data before it can be stored in a variety of contexts called the “Interplanetary File System” (IPFS).
The research identifies a unique practice in decentralised technologies known as “self-infrastructuring”. The term “infrastructuring” describes the ongoing processes involved in infrastructure management, including designing, building, operating, governing, and maintaining (Star and Bowker, 2010). Self-infrastructuring is defined as when individuals and groups of people have the ability to actively participate in designing, owning, operating, governing, and/or maintaining their own infrastructure in relation to perceived threats, opportunities, and goals, by adhering to pre-determined rules. This practice requires attention to the full technological stack of both software and hardware, as well as a strong motivation and commitment to navigate the significant time and effort inherent in running and maintaining one’s own infrastructure.
For a decentralised technology community to consider an infrastructure as resilient, the capacity for self-infrastructuring must be possible. While self-infrastructuring can bolster resilience against certain threats, it can also limit resilience by introducing new vulnerabilities. When self-infrastructuring does not occur or is inadequately integrated across the technical and social-institutional facets of decentralised infrastructures for communities to both create and adapt their own boundaries, resilience breaks down. In numerous instances, there remains unresolved challenges in terms of how to implement self-infrastructuring, both in technical and institutional aspects, within a decentralised framework.
Kelsie’s thesis presents an empirical contribution to knowledge to inform the enhancement of resilience in the development and usage of digital infrastructure, as well as academic and policy discourses concerning the objectives and practices within decentralised technology communities.
Prof Ellie Rennie, RMIT University
Assoc Prof Chris Berg, RMIT University