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The Price of Everything

Do Plantoids Dream of Electric Arts Council Grants?


I was at the Blockchain Workshop in Sydney last week, whereupon among many wondrous things I did happen to see the very future of the arts economy in what Primavera De Filippi, a researcher at the Harvard Berkman Centre and founder of the Okhaos artist collective, calls the Plantoid. A Plantoid is to a plant, what an [Android]( is to a man.

The Plantoid hires artists to make copies of itself. Now I appreciate that this might sound a little crazy, but I’m completely serious: our new robot plant overlords need your bitcoins to hire artists in order to replicate and evolve.

Let me start at the beginning.

The tangible aspect of the Plantoid is a pretty standard although aesthetically-pleasing gears-and-steel contraption controlled by a Raspberry Pi processor. What’s more interesting is its intangible aspect, its soul perhaps, which is an Ethereum-based smart contract on the [blockchain](, making the Plantoid an autopoietic decentralised autonomous organisation (DAO).

Even the smartest and most worldly of Conversation readers will probably struggle with at least some of the concepts in that last sentence, so work through the links: that’s what they’re for.

But the basic idea is that Plantoid is a new species (it’s a new species of “plant”, which are no longer carbon-based, but rather blockchain-based) that exists as both a physical presence and also as a virtual legal and economic presence on the blockchain through the techno-legal agency of bitcoin and smart contracts. It’s a “blockchain-based entity”, as De Filippi explains.

The Plantoid interacts with the real world through its DAO, providing explicit contractual incentives for artists, and other humans, to participate in its reproduction process by feeding the Plantoid with bitcoins. The Plantoid has its own Bitcoin wallet.

How did the Plantoid get these bitcoins? Someone else gave them to it, because they liked it, because it did something valuable for them. The prototypes at the Sydney Blockchain Workshop did a little wiggle and dance, with a glittery noisy light show. It’s primitive perhaps, but it was a form of appreciation. And it was evolutionary successful, in the sense that the Plantoid got bitcoins. When they get enough funds, the Plantoid’s smart contract triggers the reproduction process by calling for bids from artists to submit ideas as to how the Plantoid could replicate. Those who initially funded the Plantoid will evaluate these submissions, and once consensus has been reached, the Plantoid will hire and pay the artist to produce a new copy of itself.

Do you see how that works? Real plants use insects to pollinate and reproduce; the Plantoid uses humans and bitcoins to reproduce. The funds are not directly given to the artist, but rather to the Plantoid which accumulates capital, through its Bitcoin wallet, until it can afford to hire an artist to reproduce. The hiring is done automatically, through a Bitcoin transaction issued as a result of the governance structure encoded in the Plantoid’s smart contract.

This model is a further elaboration of the open-source model of production, which enables artworks to evolve on their own, regardless of the will of their original creators.

The actual mechanism by which Plantoid reproduces is pretty interesting, and incorporates an internal reward incentive or pyramid scheme. The Plantoid is connected to its ancestors and its descendants who it can transact with through the blockchain. It is also connected with its patrons, who gave it bitcoins. Those patrons get to vote on the submissions from artists vying for the reproduction contract. As the Plantoid cannot decide on the merit, humans help it with the decision, thanks to a blockchain-based consensus mechanism.

And the contracted artist gets to reinterpret the Plantoid, within the confines of its founding protocols or DNA. In this way the Plantoid adapts and evolves into different directions, which each constitute a particular evolutionary branch.

The artist is incentivised not just because of their contract for service, but also because they will become part of its future inheritance. The Plantoid uses most of the bitcoins for reproduction, but it also passes some back at each stage to its ancestors (a 5% royalty in the debut configuration), and the artists who made them. Hence, the more successful a Plantoid is, the more it will be able to reproduce, and thus the more money will pass back to the original creators. Primavera points out that this is actually an evolutionary self-sustaining pyramid scheme.

The Plantoid is a fascinating and enormously fun conceptual experiment that shows some of the radical promises the new blockchain technology may bring.

First, it enables the artwork itself to be an independent agent, which is both autonomous and self-sufficient. The artist doesn’t own the artwork. In fact nobody can own the artwork: that would be equivalent to slavery. The artwork owns itself and hires the artist to create a replica of itself. That’s what it means to say that it is a decentralised autonomous organisation.

Second, this creates a new arts economy and ecology that has no need for intellectual property. This means that the constraints of intellectual property, such as restrictions on use, are also unnecessary and even detrimental. Indeed, the Plantoid (and its creators) actually benefits from encouraging dissemination, reuse and remixing.

Third, the Plantoid need not be a rapacious profit-hungry beast (although it could be). The COALA Plantoid has its protocols set (and inherited by all descendants) to make it a charitable artwork, as 50% of all profits it accumulates for reproduction are transferred to the COALA organization. So different governance structures are not only possible but are actually desirable as Plantoid seeks to survive and prosper in different human environments.

So send bitcoin to the Plantoid, so it can hire an artist to reproduce itself.

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