Note — Dec 12, 2021

The Pirate Codes

Steven Johnson picks some bits of his recent book Enemy Of All Mankind to show how pirate ships were organized with very democratic and egalitarian codes, providing some useful examples for today, especially with all the talk about DAOs and organizations working (in part) through programmatic rules. Dreams of complex contracts splitting revenus from client work between multiple freelancers, putting aside money, managing access and voting right trough tokens, etc. seem quite hypothetical for the average person and current state of tech. But a simple project split along very simple rules (à la pirates) between a few people, non-chain or on a non-speculative, low-carbon chain…

The articles on board eighteenth-century pirate Edward Low’s ship spelled out the economic terms as follows: “The Captain is to have two full shares; the Master is to have one Share and one half; The Doctor, Mate, Gunner and Boatswain, one Share and one Quarter.” The rest of the crew were granted one share a piece. Henry Every and his men adopted a simpler structure: two shares for Every, one share for everyone else. […]

The pirates were vanguards as much as they were outlaws, building codes that ensured the collective strength of the ship and guarded against excessive concentration of both power and wealth. At the very moment the modern multinational corporation was being invented, the pirates were experimenting with a different kind of economic structure, closer to a worker’s collective. […]

Maybe the next radical idea in governance is being hatched right now in some gameworld somewhere, given the openness to experimentation and new possibilities that games have always afforded us.