Soul-Bound Tokens

I’m posting this here as a personal reaction (copy of a private note I sent to someone else on this topic). I accept that some are very committed to existing crypto / blockchain ecosystems as the basis of an alternative ‘decentralised society’, ‘DeSoc’, and may take offence at critique or doubt.

To me this seems like ‘shamanistic’ promotion of a new thing ‘they’ call ‘DeSoc’ to try to breathe life into a flagging blockchain and DeFi universe. Particularly when ‘they’ is a club of familiar distinguished names (Vitalik Buterin from Ethereum and Glen Weyl from mathematics, economics and game theory)
for example.

Here is the paper that has been hurriedly issued:

It’s nice to see the leadership of the ethereum ‘community’ coming to the conclusion that there’s a problem with NFT’S and identity and the placing of PII (personally identifiable information) on immutable blockchains.

It’s nice to see them ‘discovering’ ZKPs and Verifiable Credentials and referencing them.

But I wish they would acknowledge that identity is a human thing. ‘Digital identity’ does not exist.
This ‘tokenisation of souls’ they seem to invoke makes me think of some scary future dystopia.

Blockchains (plural, interoperable) may one day have a role in cryptographic decentralised key management (at the bottom of the stack, or as a niche component elsewhere)… but even for that they are not strictly necessary.

It’s therefore very cynical to pretend they are a solution for everything in the identity stack and to propose that an alternative society can be built on it.

Complex systems have unintended consequences… rather like the identity tragedy of a public registry system that very efficiently dispatched Dutch jews to concentration camps in ww2.

Give people wallets to hold provable things about themselves if they want them, but please don’t tokenise people or their souls.

The paper makes some very questionable statements about Verifiable Credentials as an established standard. Perhaps if they do have global ambitions they should turn up at W3C identity-related groups like CCG and ask questions and contribute to the debate there.

In short, I am interested more in a ‘commons’ of identity and human rights and less about property rights.
I don’t agree with the statement in the abstract that “Key to this sociality is decomposable property rights”. Making an ugly marketplace of identifiable identity attributes seems a backward step, with many risks. However, I do think there are some great ideas and tools within this work that could help build and safeguard a community of proven trust, without ‘over-sharing’. You can be smart without a smart contract, after all.


I regret not having read the paper yet. I like the idea of property rights ‘decomposing’ into the commons. Sounds a bit like exiting to community.

Also reminds me of Compost, the publication from under the editorial direction of Mai Ishikawa Sutton. Mai is an author of the DWeb Principles and I sense quite aligned with the mortal human sympathies @Nick_M expresses.

I guess I still have to read Vitalik and Glen’s soulbound paper to see what they think these words mean.


@richjensen, yes I wish they had written ‘decomposable’ in the sense of biological decomposition and exit from hyper-financialisation into community and a commons. Unfortunately (I think) they mean it in the mathematical or computer science sense, not in that lovely natural, biological sense of composting you refer to, or the thermodynamic sense (increasing entropy), or even the sense of ‘all things (must) pass’ (George Harrison, Timothy Leary and Lao-Tzu).

I’m being harsh on the authors of SBT, I know - they too would probably sign up to the Dweb principles - and they are very well read and researched. But…

Their approach seems to rest on a concept of very fine grained and differentiated property rights for seemingly everything and everyone. They do recognise the perils of unregulated hyper-financialisation seen in DeFi and propose mechanisms to regulate and punish abuses. It feels In this way they hope to create a ‘machine’ to support a better world, but one fundamentally based on property, scarcity, primary and secondary markets and a modified form of quadratic funding / voting. It’s a very grand scheme and… of course, all on a blockchain, perhaps one blockchain to rule them all?

Personally I don’t think we understand our own planet and our own ecosystemic systems well enough to attempt massive undertakings of this kind, but they are very welcome as a thought experiment and a review of prior thought (…but I note that Marx andProudhon didn’t get a look in :slight_smile: ).

As far as ‘digital identity’, personal data and ‘soul’ is concerned, I think human rights have more to offer than property rights.

I think the paper concludes more modestly by recognising

“There is more than one road to DeSoc, including a number of non-blockchain based frameworks”


“may eventually offer even greater trust across social distance, because they can harness transitivity of trust relationships—like trusted introductions—rather than relying on SBTs issued by well-known, high-status institutions (like universities or DAOs).”

I agree that these, smaller, human-scale modest initiatives and experiments are promising - they mention Backchannel (one of Cade Diehm’s collaborations) as an example.

Another great part of this paper is the discussion on tweaks to Glen Weyl’s quadratic funding/voting: to give ‘cooperation across differences’ more weight. This is welcome new thought in governance (although I don’t understand all the maths :sweat_smile:). I just don’t see why it needs to be bundled up with all the grander ‘soul’ stuff…

Do man’s visions last?
Do man’s illusions?

Take things as they come

All things pass