Thomas Cox, employee number three of Block.one, shares his views of the world, talks about decentralised governance, and points out we all need purpose, whether we are right or wrong.
I was preparing for my interview with Thomas Cox I asked a number of people what I should ask. One bright wag said I should ask him why, in this era of transparency, his current work is in the dark. I did ask that question half-way through and he would not only not enlighten me, he also refused to give me a possible date for when he will go public. Given that lack of information, one might be forgiven for thinking this was going to be a very dry interview. Quite the opposite, my friends, quite the opposite. This is another roller coaster of an interview with new ideas, unfolding knowledge and endless learning. Welcome to meeting another Blockleader to follow.
Thomas is possibly best known as a founding member of Block.one, the entity that created the EOS blockchain. However, he is not a propeller head at all, far from it. He is a self-confessed generalist or jack of all trades as he says disparagingly. “I am mediocre at a wide variety of things which makes me handy when you need someone quickly with some knowledge, not all just some.”
His original degree was in behavioural science which he never thought he would use and now uses every day. He tried his hand at journalism but that didn’t work out, yet his writing skills come in useful in business. Then he went to work for Oracle and that was formative as he spent 15 years working with relational databases.
“When I left Oracle I thought I’d never work with a database again but of course then I met blockchain – the slow, decentralised database. So all of my career has led me inexorably towards blockchain.”
Thomas is also very keen on understanding how teams work but when he joined Block.one he thought he would not use those skills anymore as he was working with a software house but of course any company needs people skills. Finally there were his hobbies of looking at complex systems or gaming. “Again I thought I’d never use those in real life…” his voice trails off at this point as he has been proven wrong yet again.
“Being a generalist is a good thing. Blockchain is so new we are importing experts from cryptography, from game theory, from economics: and these experts are great in their field but we need to put them all together and that, I have found, is my role.”
Thomas likes looking at patterns. Being at the blockchain coal face can mean people literally cannot see the big picture. He likes to back up and see if there are patterns, from other industries perhaps, clues that can help him solve the endless blockchain problems.
“Not everything is blockchain. It may be new but there are many elements important to it already existing in other forms. People think, for example, that governance is new but it is as old as the hills. Society has been doing stuff as long as we’ve been able to record it, from the earliest caveman paintings.”
Thomas brings out another career choice which again fits him for blockchain. Back in in 2002 he was the Libertarian candidate for Governor of the State of Oregon. When asked how he did, he replies nonchalantly that he lost. “But I lost in an interesting way: I got 11 times more votes that I was told I could reasonably expect to get. As an outsider I was able to speak my mind and that made for interesting debate.”
Here Thomas and I compare notes. I, too, ran in a political election, the 2014 European Parliament Elections, and found it an exhilarating experience running as an independent. “It can be a lot of fun,” agreed Thomas and he added. “As long as you are not too fond of winning.”
Thomas understands people and that political run was his first attempt at managing a large number of volunteers. “I like to understand what makes people think differently and fight and how that can get in the way of proper consensus.
“For example, everyone involved in a dispute probably thinks they are reasonable and right. But it is hard to extend that same assumption to the other person on the opposite side of the argument, especially when they are so wrong.
“I keep a journal so I can look back and see when I was wrong – it might not be apparent in the heat of the moment but hindsight can add great clarity.”
Thomas speaks of a TED talker [Kathryn Schulz] who called herself a ‘wrongologist.’ In her talk, she asks her audience what it feels like to be wrong. Exactly, it turns out, the same as it feels when one is right.
For a moment I grapple with this concept and then the lightbulb comes on – of course if you are wrong but believe you are right, the feeling is the same. It is only afterwards, with awareness, that shame or embarrassment might kick in.
“People take positions and these can be fragile but rather than fighting the position, why not ask you opponent why they think like that. If you look for the value that underpins the position, then you may be able to change the position and maintain the value.”
In his views on achieving consensus, Thomas explores the values that inform voters. “For example, if you think you might be a part of a minority, then you would vote to support minorities, but what if you were part of a majority, then you might favour majority views. Or maybe you don’t know where you might be – how can you vote then effectively.”
Now we are moving into the direction of Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns before Thomas speaks of decentralised communities and how they manage to work together. “There is a system called Sociocracy 3.0, which lays out very specific techniques on how we can optimise team and individual performance. Money or tokens are not the main incentives, especially for creatives. In fact, it can have a positively negative impact.
“Instead the three things that drive people are autonomy, mastery and purpose. For example, in the EOS community what drives people is not having faster, cheaper blockchain but running a decentralised community that makes the world a better place in very specific ways.
“There is a huge number of artistic, creative people in the EOS community that makes it very different from other technology-led chains. Women are well represented in the EOS community, as, too, are people with empathy. This is not mistake or coincidence. The EOS ecosystem was brought into this world wrapped with a higher purpose.”
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Back in February, Thomas knew that his work on governance at Block.one would be complete at the time of the mainnet launch in June. In charge of governance in the pre-live days, he had been almost the sole arbiter of what went where and he admits he got a lot of things wrong. However, now the governance of the live EOS ecosystem is in the hands of the community and Thomas moved instead to StrongBlock in July, with other former members of Block.one. It was at this point in the interview that Thomas refused to give me any information on StrongBlock and what it will do – except that he is chief of governance.
He also works with EOS Alliance as the executive director, a role he agreed to only with the proviso that the Carver Model of governance be used. Thomas explains that this Policy model very clearly defines how a board should interact with staff providing really good documentation to produce best practice. “Vital in the non-profit sector,” he says.
Again Thomas points out that word ‘governance’ is used in the title. “Did I mention that before,“ he asks laughing.
I point out it’s the G word or was that the G spot. Thomas ignores my non sequitur.
“The mission of the EOS Alliance is to help the community self-organise: not to organise them but to have them organise themselves. Consider birds flocking or fish shoaling – they look like one entity but they are not - that’s an advanced state of inter-individual communication. Birds are intelligent creatures that can live, eat, procreate as individuals, yet they choose to flock.
“Moreover, flocking can be achieved using three simple rules that give way to complex adaptive behaviour. Translate that to governance and the trick is to find simple rules that can be put in place to help humans create complex adaptive behaviour.
“Because if you get complex rules in governance you get mal-adapted people with stupid outcomes. We see this in bureaucracies all the time.”
Thomas speaks of patterns again, this time fractal patterns, such as nested layers. It is important for him that decisions are made in the smallest of groups and still be effective. “This means that you are not [solely] in a group of 10,000 trying to make your voice heard but in a group of say twenty. Maybe even a group of twenty that you choose to join because of shared values or interests.
The small group can then send delegates to a larger grouping where a bigger decision may need to be made or coordinated.
“But most of the time you manage yourself and now we are back to Sociocracy where simple rules hold sway and people can self-organise.
Thomas, while still refusing to speak on StrongBlock, has just co-founded a new organisation. The International Society for the Study of Decentralised Governance (ISSDG). The Society is made up of half academics and half practitioners, across any type of decentralised governance entities and from all blockchains. The group will include also non-blockchain practitioners but who work with decentralised governance. His view is that the society will include people who study things like game theory or economics or tokenomics.
“It needs to be a cross-disciplinary effort where we can all show up with a beginner’s mind. That means confirming what are we pretty much sure is to pretty much true in a given discipline – not the cutting edge stuff that people are going to fight about - but the basics. So we can share what we know in our discipline that other people in different disciplines that they may not have found as yet and which may be useful.”
Thomas draws from Colonel John Boyd, an American fighter pilot whose thinking allowed Americans to dominate airspace for decades.
“Boyd advocated for the creation of mental models and then you will be in a position to nominate the best model, faster. This way you can make a decision and act while your opponent is still trying to choose his action.
“By allowing for the combination of ideas in novel ways we are going to be able to raise our game, and teaching the ABCs of complex systems and operation theory and how to negotiate: It’s the new curriculum for new humanity to engage with itself. Our Society will allow people from very diverse backgrounds come together to tackle decentralised governance."
I point out that there is so much fresh thinking in the blockchain industry but Thomas counters by saying the reason for this is that much of how we operate is already taken care of, automatically.
“For example, consider refuse collection – you don’t have to worry about that – it is already sorted in your city. This means, with some 90% of living taken for granted – we can solve the next set of challenges – pollution, education, climate change etc. But these are more interesting problems.”
Thomas described a recent Freakonomics podcast where someone made recordings of Chopin's concerts back in the 1930s. The pianist was considered the best in the world at the time but now the exact same recordings are used to demonstrate how NOT to play those same pieces. The winning golfers in the 1900 Summer Olympics would barely get on a high school team today. It is the same across all sports.
“Sports are totally agnostic in terms of who you are (colour/gender/height etc) what only matters is performance. The ability to teach the basics moves everyone up. When we can do the same across other areas of life, we shall see the same acceleration. If we can look at what people have mastered and then teach these skills directly to the next generation, then those students at age 16 will have same skills only learnt by say age 30 of the previous generation.
I mention in closing that the number of new ideas touched on in our conversation is vast. There is so much more thinking and rethinking in this industry, to which Thomas replies:
“The world is passing strange. If you ever find yourself bored, then you are not paying attention”
For more information - visit Thomas Cox on linkedin