“We expect too much of new buildings, and too little of ourselves.”
― Jane Jacobs, The Death, and Life of Great American Cities
One does not call oneself a proper New Yorker if one hasn’t complained about the subway. That citizens endure such agony only reveals how indispensable this infrastructure is. A New Yorker’s life is spent “in transit,” rushing up the stairs to the station platform, getting on and off and to transfer, and feeling relief as the train rumbles over impossible social distances.
The complex transportation system that supports over five million journeys a day was an audacious dream that took almost a century to realize. Consider one of these projects — Second Avenue Subway — which was received excitedly when it was proposed in 1920.
However, it soon proved a prime example of the pitfalls of bureaucratic power-brokering — conflicts of interest between politics and capital halted the proposed project again and again. Optimism for the project’s completion ebbed and flowed depending on political priorities. It wasn’t until 2017, a century after the initial proposal, that the $17-billion project finally started serving passengers.
A turning point occurred in 1988. Just as the failure of the entire project began to seem inevitable, four young city planners sat down in a crumbling old office on Lawrence Street in downtown Brooklyn. They spent weeks poring over statistics that measured travel time, ridership, crowding, and delays. With just one phone and one computer, they analyzed how rerouting trains, skipping stations, and overnight shuttle services could improve the performance and productivity of the subway system. Their plan was by and large the one that now supports over five million journeys a day.
What made the difference? They were not power brokers, but rather citizens and prospective passengers of the very system they were designing.
For anyone whose vocation involves the building and designing of systems of software, the dynamics around bottoms-up design and top-down execution must feel familiar. Individuals who are users of the system desire to improve it with no conflicting incentives but to improve their ways of living, goodwill, and reputation.
Builders of digital infrastructure should keep these lessons from our forebears in mind while considering the different affordances and requirements of the new medium. In “Roads and Cities, ” Nadia Eghbal made a brilliant juxtaposition between physical and digital infrastructure:
Physical infrastructure is built to last, which is partially why these projects take so long to plan, fund, and build. The London Underground, London’s public rapid transit system, was built in 1863; the underground tunnels dug for the subway system are still in use today. The Brooklyn Bridge, which connects the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan in New York City, was completed in 1883 and did not undergo any major renovations until 2010, over one hundred years later.
Digital infrastructure not only requires frequent maintenance and upkeep to be compatible with other software components but its usage and adoption change frequently as well. A bridge built in the middle of New York City will have fairly consistent and guaranteed usage, commensurate with the rise or decline of the city’s population. But a programming language or framework could be extremely popular for several years, then fall out of favor when something faster, more efficient, or simply trendier comes along.
In short, physical infrastructure traditionally frontloads investment costs while digital infrastructure, despite the absence of intense physical labor, much lower upfront cost, and nonlinear scalability, requires immense time and energy for ongoing maintenance and improvement. This makes sense: the most difficult and complex in real estate is building the first instance of a piece of infrastructure whereas in digital infrastructure, stakeholder management is an ongoing task that only gets more complex as operations grow.
The question is then how to incentivize and sustain digital infrastructure that prioritizes its citizens. Currently, the only path to longevity and sustainability for digital infrastructure is to pursue venture capital funding, corporate or ad-hoc donations, or simply to become an open-source commercial software for large enterprises by building a dedicated go-to-market and customer success team.
The flaws of each approach are apparent. Venture capital is a viable path if what the core team desires is rapid commercial growth, but it often creates boom-or-bust outcomes. Meanwhile, corporate donations can challenge the neutrality of the infrastructure, and ad-hoc donations shorten the horizon for planning and resourcing labor. Finally, becoming a service provider requires significant upfront capital, and even the most well-funded of enterprise SaaS companies have rarely allowed money to flow back as donations to the initial community of open-source developers who laid the foundations of their success.
The story of the internet is often one of open-source labors of love that quickly become gated, even from their own workers who are eventually stripped of optionality and agency. In today’s environment, more and more functions are regarded as fungible, to be delegated to anonymous freelance services and marketplaces whose workers have little autonomy and ownership over the work they produce. Workers are left to relate to each other as rectangle boxes on a screen rather than evolving, multidimensional bodies.
It’s not hard to extrapolate the future from these little rectangles. It is the future of a hyper-gig economy where only technically literate solopreneurs comfortable with building their own brand can achieve a meaningful moat through individuation, and most are treated as fungible.
At STATION, we believe a permissionless, decentralized railroad built by the people could fundamentally change the relationship between our work and our identity. We’re building the talent infrastructure and network centered around contribution and collaboration. Our goal is to empower internet-native workers by validating their contributions on-chain and helping connect them to the most interesting opportunities and connections based on that data.
At its best and most democratic, infrastructure offers social connectivity while affording those who have been marginalized on the outskirts of society the opportunity to pursue economic and creative freedom — be they writers that publish visual novels online, amateur gamers with a passion for digital fashion design, or teachers whose income currently depends on the rules of the platforms they serve.
This infrastructure does not currently exist for crypto. It’s currently extremely difficult for newcomers, especially if they are not technologists themselves, to navigate the ecosystem, quilted together across Discord servers and Telegram group chats.
However, we realized there was a deeper disconnect among those looking to build a financially sustainable, open-source future. Quite simply, for brilliant folks not currently in crypto, being asked to leave traditional tracks to jump into the great unknown without any guardrails or clear path is a tall order. The questions that came up when we interviewed brilliant friends who had not yet made the leap into crypto were not about how crypto worked, but questions around identity, meaning, and impact. Who’s in crypto, and why do they care about it? Why would I consider contributing? Why does it matter to me now? Why does this matter at all in 5 years? These questions are as important to understand the motivations of individuals as well as those of organizations. There’s a myriad of content out there explaining what crypto does, but few are answering these more fundamental questions of identity and meaning.
We believe that there is no single correct answer to these questions. The Internet is never static, but always evolving. The answer to those questions isn’t prescriptive, but something that helps people take action and form relationships.
The atomic units of our product are Profiles, Terminals, and Contributions. Everyone will have a Profile on Station that aggregates their Contributions across platforms, their on-chain interactions, the groups they represent, and their closest collaborators. They will discover and get directed to values-aligned Terminals (projects, DAOs, or protocols) that are actively looking to attract and onboard more contributors through grants, RFPs (Request for Proposal), and bounties. By submitting Contributions to Terminals and tagging collaborators along the way, the Profiles will be further enriched and legitimized.
The rapidly increasing fidelity of on-chain social data, the increasing adoption of SSI wallets, and the increasing sophistication of contribution-driven tokenomics have inspired us to iterate quickly on the products and services to connect passengers to the places that will be most excited about the value they have to offer.
For example, someone with a $WRITE token who also mints poetry on Hic Et Nunc will be able to discover others with similar interests and projects that are looking for writers. Someone with a consistent POAP portfolio should be given higher priority consideration when protocols or DAOs evaluate the matriculation of new contributors. Someone with a background in financial modeling and analysis should be given the opportunity to suggest improvements to protocol treasuries or token design mechanisms. And perhaps most importantly, newcomers will understand how and where to contribute in crypto, the paths others have taken, and what is possible for them if they do come on board.
Web3 is as much of a technological as it is a social movement. As life migrated online during the pandemic, we saw a surge in crypto-related innovation, including the thrilling Defi summer and an abundance of new NFT projects and platforms. People collaborated in a frenzy on Discord and Telegram. We realized it was possible to coordinate people across the world. New kinds of work were enabled, along with newly crypto-enabled means for rewarding such contributions. Just like the four young planners on Lawrence Street in 1988 who were redesigning the city’s public transit system, the power lies with those who have the initiative and the desire to realize new opportunities for work and ownership.
We dream of a future of meaningful work for everybody. We know this dream is audacious, but we also believe that it is tractable for the first time. We at Station are huddled, not in an old office in Brooklyn, but in a cozy corner of cyberspace. We’re studying the communities and natural desire paths of those arriving in crypto, and building infrastructure thoughtfully and joyfully in anticipation of the millions who will soon arrive asking for directions. We hope to not only hand them a map they can trust, but welcome them aboard and support them in whatever journey they take.
If this is a dream you’d like to be a part of, sign up for early access here.
If you’re interested in contributing, please reach out here.