Governing the red planet

How blockchain can help humanity create a better future on Mars.

Governing the red planet
Photo by Mike Kiev / Unsplash

Imagine the year is 2199.

It’s been nearly two centuries since the first humans arrived on Mars. The people of Earth have since constructed launch sites, underground scientific labs, and production facilities that operate within an economy of their own. The Mars colonial system is on the verge of self-reliance.

As a neutral territory dedicated to the expansion of human civilization, the red planet is governed by a diverse community of colonists who operate without a centralized authority. Colonists are empowered to vote on issues facing the colony and the people of Earth are included in decisions that pertain to humanity. Interplanetary trade and communication are a core part of the Earth-Martian relationship.

For people on Earth, the high-risk high-reward asteroid mining industry presents an appealing reason to make the journey. A colonist's family back on Earth would be well cared for thanks to the industry's outsized returns. For the people of Earth, Mars is the Silicon Valley of the 2190s.

For many colonists, however, the most appealing factor is the chance at a fresh start—to build a better world for humanity. A world where software enforces decentralized governance at scale, enabling a self-sovereign colonial ecosystem where progress finally gets the incentive structure it deserves.

This is the story of MartianDAO.


An old problem

Today, a reasonable debate on the feasibility of colonizing Mars would inevitably arrive at an economic standoff.

The most obvious question is, "how do we pay for it?"

…except ‘we’ really means ‘the government,' making things political.

What we ought to be arguing instead is whether governments should be the primary decision-making authority for the future of our civilization.

After all, if Mars is to be a human endeavor. Should it not represent human ideals?

Politics blind us from seeing the possible world where governments are not the only funding mechanism for Mars colonization.

But the reality is, until now, it was not previously possible to support the kind of collective action and money pooling system needed for this to be a truly planetary effort.

This is a seemingly simple requirement on the surface, but a wicked problem under the hood.

Not only do we need a system for pooling resources and making collective decisions on a planetary scale, but the first task of designing this system leaves humanity in a paradox: how does a society design an economic system that must create and follow its own set of rules without a centralized authority maintaining order?

And if that isn't problematic enough, to be truly fruitful, the system must incentivize continued contributions without creating an unfair monopoly or granting any one party too much control.

Society has conditioned us to believe that this type of self-organizing, decentralized system is not possible; that humans are not capable of working together in such a way, never mind at such a scale.

If recent history has taught us anything, however, it’s that technology has a funny way of changing the world.

MartianDAO

Solving the problem of funding and allocating Mars financials is, of course, not the only thing that makes colonization hard. But without it, nothing else is possible. And there are some clear problems to address.

In my view, the path towards achieving the Martian state outlined in the introduction of this essay [let's call it the Martian ideal] is best taken with a decentralized blockchain protocol [2], effectively making the Mars colonial system a DAO.

Blockchain provides four core features that make the Martian ideal possible:

  • A distributed system: the underlying technology is run on many computers working together to uphold the network.
  • Digital currency: money that can be stored and transferred over the internet without a mediating party.
  • Immutability: transactions are listed on-chain forever. We can see where they come from, where they go, and where they are held.
  • Tokenization: the ability to create tokens that can be assigned a value and grant holders certain utilities.

While many other features of a blockchain like non-fungible tokens [NFTs] and on-chain voting mechanisms would be important aspects of the ecosystem as a whole, it is these four core features that make everything else possible.

At the foundation, a distributed network of computers ensures the system is resistant to attack and without a need for centralized control. Nodes verifying the network can be built into almost any piece of technology we might use on Mars. Digital currency empowers colonists to transact both with other colonists and the people of Earth efficiently and with minimal bureaucratic restrictions. Immutability ensures accountability, authenticity, and enables public verification. Tokenization extends beyond programmable currency to enable far broader utility and incentives.

The rules of the protocol

Governance and tokenomics represent the rules of the protocol.

Governance defines how decisions are made while tokenomics define the monetary policies of the system. These rules are programmed into smart contracts.

While governance and tokenomics are separate concepts, in a mature system, they would be highly interrelated.

Let’s consider an example: imagine a law on Mars where colonists pay a land tax. Tokenomics would define how the tax is calculated and could automatically collect by verifying the non-fungible deed to the land in the owner's wallet. If colonists wanted to change the tax rate, governance would define that process with a procedure for submitting a proposal to be voted on by other colonists.

When voting on a proposal, voters will need to consider the optimal amount of decentralization to achieve the Martian ideal. [1] For example, requiring a 51% majority to change the rules.

The ideal governance system may require some experimentation, and system designers must think in terms of centuries–not decades–because the system must include features with implications for the future of Martian civilization such as incentive structure and wealth distribution. As a hedge, developers can program a reset into the Martian constitution after a given number of years has passed. [2]

The process of reviewing and voting on initial proposals at a planetary scale will be one of the most difficult but necessary parts of this process to reach an equitable outcome. This initial method of constitutional proposals is the idea of metagovernance—"the rules that make the rules." [3]

Once a design has been selected, only then should a system be devised for pooling resources that:

  • allows anyone to contribute
  • is capable of interplanetary transfers [4]
  • enables participation in the Martian governance process

Pooling money prior would place unnecessary pressure on early contributors.

While the goal is to create a decentralized system, there must be strong enough incentives for people to contribute in the first place. Without an economic incentive motivating behavior, only those with an intrinsic desire to go to Mars will have any vested interest in the state of the Martian colonial system.

Consider that if MarsCoin is the reserve currency on Mars and the colony becomes self-sustaining and prosperous, it should attract investors and more colonists, pushing up its value. In this model, the same technology that allows you to exchange capital for resources on Mars can be used to invest in the mission as well.

Adding utility to a token to complement its central purpose as a currency is one of the most promising things about cryptocurrency. For example, we could design a system where voting power is a function of the amount of MarsCoin one purchases. Alternatively, we could take a retroactive approach to incentivize engineering by airdropping a separate class of governance tokens after users make contributions to the system. [5] In fact, we could develop as many derivatives of MarsCoin as we need, each with a different purpose, like stablecoins or reputation tokens, each of which could add value to the ecosystem in its own ways.

The limits for a well-tokenized system to incentivize progress might seem endless, but designing digital infrastructure underlying a planetary socioeconomic system can have unintended consequences. Tokenomics must be considered with absolute scrutiny if the goal is to achieve [and maintain] the Martian ideal.

It is far more difficult to fix an unjust system than it is to design one that is just to begin with.

While there are many pitfalls in tokenomics designs that can go unforeseen before a system reaches critical mass, governance is the critical factor for maintaining decentralization in the long run. And the list of governance pitfalls is no shorter.

We should take lessons from current experiments and their outcomes. ENS for example implemented a governance system where one can delegate their votes to a trusted party, but when a few trusted parties maintain a majority of votes, we are effectively centralizing the system.

Moreover, if governance and tokenomics are too intertwined, such that power is too closely correlated with the total amount of MarsCoin one holds and there are no measures in place to cap one’s governance power, we may risk centralized parties emerging with a disproportionate amount of decision-making power. This is contradictory to the ideals of decentralization.

Addressing this is difficult. Because of human nature, there may always be conflicting and communal interests that lead to lobby-like behavior. However, since not everyone can physically contribute, it will be hard to incentivize financial contributions without putting some weight on monetary contributions as a path to having a say in humanity’s future.

Luckily, in a world of programmable money, distributive justice is just a few more lines of code.

Some ideas:

  • A colonist-contributor split: for every MarsCoin minted on the blockchain, an additional MarsCoin is minted into a locked Martian treasury. These coins will ensure that colonists always have 50% governance power, but the coins will never be used for making transactions to retain supply scarcity.
  • Governance utility caps: no matter how many coins an individual entity holds, they will never be granted more than 5% of the available voting power.
  • Stochastic parliament: using a random number generator, parliament members could be nominated at random from the colony. The colony could then choose who they’d like to delegate their governance tokens to over the term, which would then be locked until the following term.

I'm by no means an economist and there are far better ideas out there. It’s probably a smart decision to avoid designing a system where the reserve currency is tied to policy-making decisions in the first place. But maybe not always. I simply aim to demonstrate how different incentive mechanisms can be built into a systems design.

There are limitless possibilities for designing the hyperstructures that power the Martian ideal. This kind of smart-contract-based system would run forever, for no cost other than the energy to run the network, without maintenance or downtime.

What’s beautiful about this system is that in the future, if there is majority agreement, it can be updated. To change the rules of society with a pull request is a revolutionary way to change the world.

DAOs' unique applications further extend to the way they reward their members. Decentralized finance [DeFi] protocols enable novel reward mechanisms like staking, while NFTs can be used to unlock token gated rewards for their holders. Staking works by locking up your investment within a protocol. In return, you're offered interest for providing the protocol liquidity.

Staking could offer a unique way for colonists and contributors to leverage their capital while ensuring enough liquidity to keep critical projects moving.

The asteroid mining industry could leverage NFTs to grant a stake in certain asteroids on the belt. These asteroids are to some degree a gamble, but a lucky draw could mean generational wealth.

Then, asteroid NFT holders could stake their asteroids to effectively lease them out to miners. They could then mine them for resources while owners are paid out in fees.

This only scratches the surface of DeFi utility and NFTs on Mars. NFTs could one day represent ownership of all assets—asteroids, land, real estate, and of course, rocket ships.

A purposeful future

Today MartianDAO is a thought experiment, but it could one day be a reality.

You’ll notice that I didn’t spend much time in this essay trying to convince you how Mars should be governed. Rather, I focused on the various ways blockchain technology can revolutionize modern governance, given the chance to rebuild.

One man’s ideas mean nothing without the support of the people.

That said, I welcome the opportunity to start fresh–to correct the past failures of civilization and build a better future for humanity. One where power cannot be concentrated to a handful of players; within a system that cannot be cheated.

I’m boldly optimistic. Everything I’ve outlined in this essay is technologically feasible today.

Reaching Mars is inevitable. Building a better civilization is up to us.

It wouldn't surprise me if people have trouble with these ideas. After all, none of us will see this through in our lifetimes. But the reality is that Earth will not be around forever, and neither will humanity if we do nothing about it.

Given the opportunity, we ought to consider that building redundancies for the survival of the species is for the greater good of humanity.

Surpassing the great filter requires embracing technology to achieve things that we were never before able to do. And to do so without fear–with love and admiration for humankind.


Footnotes

  1. How to quantify decentralization—MartianDAO will need to use indicators like the Nakamoto coefficient to maintain the optimal level of decentralization for Martian progress.
  2. Of course, voters could overrule the constitutional reset with something like a supermajority ruling.
  3. “‘The rules to make the rules’, an important post by Paul Frazee” — Vitalik Buterin, co-founder of Ethereum; tweeted,1.26.22.
  4. Interplanetary transfer is possible with the technology we have today. However, there is approximately 20-minutes of latency between data transfers from Earth to Mars. A protocol would likely need to be devised to account for this. However, I imagine that this would be relatively feasible to accomplish without much concern over price changes if such transfers could only be made in the form of stablecoins.
  5. e.g., Ethereum Name Service [ENS] governance airdrop, Uniswap airdrop, SOS airdrop, etc.

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