The Why Paper

Connecting key concepts and influences to outline what Decentralized Agency is and isn’t yet, but could be. A timestamp of where our head is at.

Color variation of “Collisions” artwork by Ezekiel Aquino commissioned by Decentralized Agency

I.

Privileged enough to have spent our twenties as career advertisers (a copywriter and an art director respectively), we were always in pursuit of more agency. That’s what we told ourselves. Industry recognition, praise from peers, a raise: it was all in service of more creative freedom—more of a say. We went freelance so we could be even more free, until there came a point where we considered a practice of our own. But why? Was more freedom really the answer if we’d only exercise it within the confines of the same system?

As our body of work within the commercial sphere grew, so did our awareness of its structures, and of wider societal and planetary issues besides. Increasingly dissatisfied with the lopsided value systems at the core of all of these, the sense of agency we craved became a need to challenge these dynamics. Not an unfamiliar narrative, surely: someone sets out to change their corner of the world by doing the work they know so well, but “differently.” 

The idea of putting our names together, perhaps with other freelancers in our network, seemed like an attractive possibility. While continuing to work separately, both geographically and contractually, we could form a different type of studio. One distributed across people and places. A decentralized agency if you will. A semi-formal network of trusted peers who come together using a shared infrastructure to work and develop ideas. 

But was this enough to change the structures we had identified? We were never going to chart a grand escape from capitalism. That’s a moot point. But we knew we wanted to avoid the more alluring trap, which we’ve seen one too many times, of trying to merge profitable work and critical work. Selling acclaim back to oneself as a false sense of agency to make a difference is tempting, yet often prevents what the point of it should be. It’s one of capitalism’s clever tricks: an illusion of action that mainly amounts to virtue signalling, while further obscuring any meaningful change.

What would change look like for us? We have come to believe it starts with working from an alternative structure, distinct from the ones we engage to earn money. Rather than accelerate our commercial work by bundling our strengths and accumulate even more freedoms for ourselves, we want to leverage the freedoms it already affords us. Not to pursue what’s commercially viable but rather what can shape viable futures. To create a foundational support system that runs beneath our personal life and work. A way of connecting at a deeper level. A community-scale social infrastructure for artists, writers, designers, thinkers, friends, collaborators.

Not an ad agency. But the decentralization of our own agency, as in the action of bootstrapping us out of our self-destructive tendencies and the lonely ascent of independence. 

II.

One definition of agency is the capacity to act “independently.” But a misconception around the need for independence can often get in the way, as if agency is only achieved by the individual who rejects all external forces to forge their will to create. This is blatant auteurism—the belief that a project should primarily reveal the wishes of a single creator (auteur). The term originated in cinema yet no one fully works alone, least of all film directors, but neither writers (who work with their editors), or fine artists (who, if not with assistants, work with the materials that others provide). Of course there are exceptions, but few do it all alone, especially when considering “the enmeshed whole through which each of us lives” (what Benjamin Bratton calls an epidemiological view of society).

Orson Welles directing Citizen Kane, recently revitalizing the auteurism debate in Cinema with the release of David Fincher’s Mank

Those who work in advertising are more enmeshed in auteurism than they might be willing to acknowledge (us included), aiding and abetting the cultural production of individualism. The cult of self. And yet, before reaching the singular status of “creative director,” young people in the ad industry learn to present themselves somewhat in opposition to this narrative. The traditional creative duo of copywriter and art director, even when it’s shaken up to become copywriter and technologist, or art director and developer, forms a primary relationship in early-career creatives that nurtures the plural form. It’s not I, it’s we who made the latest campaign, we who are working weekends, we who got hired, or we who got fired for that matter. 

Of course the level of performativity in this we depends on the bond between the two people. Elvia Wilk and Nora H. Khan have each written timely critiques of the simulated we. The false solidarity of “we’re in the same boat”, spoken by those who are in fact supposed to be the boat itself (pointed out by Nora H. Khan), as well as the fantasy of “we-ness,” as if talking to each other about the world we hope for would be enough to create it (pointed out by Elvia Wilk), are both aspects to be aware of. Yet talking about one’s work in the plural is not only a great liberation for those cautious of their ego, but also an acknowledgement that all projects have more than one person behind them, and should have. As such, Decentralized Agency is about fostering those relationships that can form an accountable we to speak from, but even more so, one that can catalyze the work we actually want to speak of.

III.

2020 declared an end to certain myths. Western culture’s insistence on independence, and its absolute fatal failures, has been thrown in sharp relief. While individualism has historically been challenged from a wide variety of corners, and community-led initiatives and collectivized approaches are nothing new, this year seems to have initiated a shift. One that was already underway, and like so many has merely been accelerated by 2020. We hope it is here to stay.

Caitlin Cherry, Nicole Maloof and Nora H. Khan launching education program DarkStudy

A renewed belief that our capacity to act is much greater when broken out of isolated independence and into networked interdependence is echoed throughout a plethora of initiatives that have popped up in the last few months. From the aptly titled podcast that first made us aware of the term Interdependence (by Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst), to a free toolkit for freelance illustrators called Tyrus (by AirBnB), to Other Internet’s writing on Squad Wealth (by Toby Shorin, Laura Lotti and Sam Hart), to UBI on the blockchain (by Circles), to education program DarkStudy (by Nora H. Khan, Caitlin Cherry, and Nicole Maloof) and artist space Anonymous Club (by Hood by Air).

We need each other. As much of a cliché as that is, it’s a truth that persists. No matter how individualistic western culture has become, our productivity has increasingly been habituated to rely on others. Of course, as with the counter to auteurism, exceptions exist; people who truly, independently, motivate themselves. We are not those people. Doing it all on our own quickly becomes doing nothing at all. We need pressure from outside ourselves. And while the pressure of planetary and societal issues at hand are enough to make our head spin, we’ve come to realise we need a support system to effectively work on them; an external force of accountability.

In a precarious age when everything is commodified, including time itself, it’s no surprise that our sense of accountability is so closely tied to financial responsibility: to ourselves, our families, our boss, clients or funders. Education too, with its swollen price tag, becomes about not wasting the time and money we put into it. With pro-bono projects, it’s about the money we know others are putting on the line, whether by letting us work with their brand, their space, or even just taking up their time. Could we generate this kind of productive pressure separate from capital? When one of us began asking that question—voicing the suspicions about starting a practice which opened this paper—the other stumbled upon a possible answer at the Terraforming design research program at Strelka Institute. 

During five months at Strelka—submerged in discussions on how to redirect the material flows of Earth, for it to remain a viable host for Earth-like life—weekly assignments were combined with arbitrary deadlines. A tuition-free program, supported by a stipend, meant there were no personal finances on the line, nor those of clients that could threaten to turn the lights off on their way out. Instead, productivity came from a sense of accountability to one’s peers; structure and deadlines implied you’d face a few dozen of your fellow researchers, who’d be ready to listen to your efforts, and critique them too. An external force of shared interests.

These feedback loops have of course always fueled communities. Even in the smallest contemporary form of community, the group chat, people turn to each other for feedback, advice or just support. We did so too, but not often enough. Whether we were being overly cautious of other people’s time, or lacked the structure, we simply didn’t rely on our peers as much as we could, wasting our collective potential. To this end, Decentralized Agency is not just a collective, but also a framework for other collectives to tap into their potential.

IV.

Early sketch and braindump of the potential Decentralized Agency framework.

The open framework of Decentralized Agency consists of suggested stru ctures, templates and tools—based on what we’ll be using ourselves—to form the foundation for anyone’s own collective. We hope it can offer a way to foster productive pressure between peers, while getting the most out of the triangulation of sharing knowledge, feedback and support.

The framework is constructed around three pillars:

  1. Daily communication (structure)

  2. Weekly check-ins (deadlines)

  3. Periodic output (visibility)

To encourage effortless yet continuous collaboration, daily communication (1) is set up through a Discord server (think Slack but lighter) with three distinct channel categories dedicated to knowledge-sharing, feedback loops, and social support (a plug and play template for this is included in the framework). The weekly check-ins (2) form arbitrary deadlines while locking in positive pressure and personable exchanges. And finally, periodic output (3) bootstraps motivation with visibility and commitment, even if it’s just a weekly newsletter, monthly blogpost or quarterly publication. Those looking to adapt the framework should feel free to apply it based on their needs. Until we implement it more broadly ourselves, we won’t know what works best either. But through trial and error, we’ll hone in on our ideal approaches and update them in the open framework along the way. Perhaps the weekly check-in becomes bi-weekly, perhaps Discord is exchanged for Matrix.

Screenshot of the welcome channel of our Discord as the hub for Daily Communication. While this view is for members only, the last channel “the-lobby”  is open for all, come have a chat.

Lastly, we knew the framework would require ground rules so it could actually be binding (to a degree). For good reason, blockchain technology has saturated conversations about binding structures. From tokenized community initiatives such as Friends With Benefits, to Mattereum’s material asset standard for physical goods, to the UBI experiment Circles, there are plenty of exciting and innovative ways people are taking advantage of blockchain’s abilities to enable new forms of social, material and economic relations. 

As we began to define our ground rules, implementing guardrails and hardwiring some core principles, we considered blockchain’s smart contracts too. Rules—from operating as cooperative rather than corporation, to equal voting rights for every member, to collective projects requiring unanimous agreement without obligating anyone to be “hands-on” involved—can all be automated through smart contracts: making them unbreakable, transparent and consistent. But at our collective’s current scale, the effort seemed too high for the pay-off. For now, our ground rules will rely on social contracts rather than smart ones, using old-fashioned trust. Nonetheless, we’ll continue to investigate the potential of fortifying some of our foundational mechanics, and make sure to update the framework if we do. 

V.

During a 2010s roundtable discussion hosted by Spike Magazine, the gallerist Amadeo Kraupa-Tuskany looked back on the decade saying “things became so complex that people know what they are against, but it's really hard to define what you're actually for.”For us, defining this, especially while deliberately trying to embrace the complexity of it all, remains a work in progress. One thing we know we’re “for” is starting the work. 

We have romantic notions of revitalizing an intellectual free flow akin to Cafe Society. We aim to embrace the ethos of a true studio with a digital open-door policy, perhaps livestreaming some of our weekly check-ins or work sessions. We want to partake in residencies and host them, adapting outreach techniques like those of Contact. We aspire to create projects that merge Lab2046’s taste-level, with Keller Easterling's theory of Active Form and Jill Magid’s object-based provocative storytelling. Maybe we’ll even become a physical home for talent. 

The ARK 1 by Lab2046

We haven’t figured out how to do any of this yet. But if our aim is to break with self-destructive tendencies then inertia has to be the first one. There are plenty of others. From personal relationships with technology as defined by the attention economy, to the seemingly insurmountable task of decarbonizing the global economy, to caring for those already affected by the negligence of these systems. Our collective’s interest is purposefully broad. Hopefully, the open framework is too. Adapt it as you see fit, start your own collective, and reach the more specific goals you might have in mind.

For the first time, we don’t feel threatened by the fact that something we’re working on isn’t original. “Collectives” and their initiatives are shooting out of the ground like mushrooms, and in fact, we hope many more will. Some have been around for years, others just for a few days. Let a thousand communities flourish. From Black Socialists in America, to Friends With Benefits, PFWGuide, Interdependence, Other Internet, Social Service Club, Dark Study, New Models, Lot2046, Anonymous Club, Trust, Laboria Cuboniks, Strelka Institute, Neo-Metabotabolism, Marine Snow, Arts of the Working Class, REAL Foundation, Urbit and many more we’re either forgetting or simply haven’t discovered yet: we are invigorated by the plurality of forms that are put into practice, and we hope ours can contribute to that body of work.

Sharing our thinking in this paper and our process through the open framework, is a first step. Now that it’s out in the world, we can’t wait to move on to the next. We hope to see you there. Until then:

Use the open framework yourself. 

Explore our ground rules. 

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Join the open lobby of our Discord.

We are forever grateful to the people who became part of the “we” for this article  with their feedback, contributions and insights. In addition to the sources we link throughout, we’d like to personally thank Yasmin Dikkeboom, Daniël Sumarna, Pierce Myers, Hollie Beever, Lillie Ferris, Matthijs Klip, Niek, Saba Babas-Zadeh, Matiás Jansen, Gilles de Brock, Robbert Maruanaya, Andrea van den Bos, Philip Maughan and Frédérique Albert-Bordenave.