Steven Nam is Managing Editor of the Stanford Journal of Blockchain Law & Policy and an advisor for the MIT Media Lab’s Digital Currency Initiative, where he works on their Cryptoeconomic Systems Journal. Mr. Nam was previously Distinguished Practitioner at Stanford’s Center for East Asian Studies and Chief Strategy Officer for a Palo Alto-based blockchain startup. Mr. Nam double majored in History and Ethnicity, Race & Migration at Yale.
How’d you get involved in blockchain?
Right out of college, I deferred for a year before entering Columbia Law. I then was an antitrust attorney in New York for four to five years. Did the usual corporate law track and eventually got kind of tired of the soulless work. I went back to school to earn an M.A. in Political Science, enjoyed the subject matter and decided to pursue academia. So I returned to California after about ten years on the East Coast (starting at Yale) and lectured at UC Davis Law School for a year. In hindsight, the courses I taught often covered decentralizing innovations in traditional legal fields; for instance, in corporate accountability, human rights law and policy, etc.
Long story short, I was going the academic route when one of my old buddies from Yale, Anthony Di Franco (YC ‘05), kept bringing up blockchain and crypto. I thought to myself, “What is this guy talking about?” And I’d get busy and forget. A while later I did my due diligence and was startled to see that the underlying technologies could be a gamechanger. I was especially intrigued by the polycentric governance side of things.
At the time I caught the bug, I was visiting at Stanford and doing my usual antitrust research. Being right next to Palo Alto, searched for blockchain startups on a whim. I remember trying a “Blockchain + Art” query and found a startup where I wanted to consult for a bit, but ended up as the Chief Strategy Officer. After about 7 months, I heard there was a new research group at Stanford Law School, the Stanford CodeX Blockchain Group, and figured that I’d learned enough and wanted to join up.
The Blockchain Group’s earliest project was to launch a first-of-its-kind academic journal, the Stanford Journal of Blockchain Law & Policy, which I led as Managing Editor with the support of a super editorial team of fellow academics and practitioners. I’m the type to barrel into something head-first and then figure out the details on the way. It’s been great. Managing the Journal probably takes up to 80 percent of my time, and I enjoy serving as an advisor to projects with the other 20 percent.
How’d that turn into a job?
We decided to publish bi-annually – two online releases per year along with their print versions. The website goes over the main points in the “About” section, but I will say that probably the biggest impetus for the Journal’s creation was the need for far better signal-to-noise in the space.
I was already looking into increasing decentralization in various fields before, and one that’s become heavily decentralized, for better and worse, is publishing. Traditionally there were barriers to entry, but the advent of decentralized publishing models, including social media platforms, has added complexity. There’s been a lot of rush to judgement, a lot of crossfire, not only among the crypto/blockchain non-believers, but also among tribal proponents of the space. I sense a method to the madness at points, and of course an overall need for discourse, even on “Crypto Twitter.” With the Journal, even as we disseminate knowledge, we’re steering clear of judgment calls and sniping. We’re trying to further the space in this way, and it really is a job.
Everyone has their own opinions on it. Crypto Twitter is a phenomenon — many involved in the space follow the tweeting. It’s just this constant, never-ending discourse, often between tribes divided into different projects. There’s also a lot of good information when it’s more neutral in tone, and sometimes even when not.
I’ll say this: I follow maybe 60+ of my favorite sources, real knowledge banks. Like with any good decentralized space, reputation is very important. So the best accounts on Crypto Twitter will only post excellent content that they can stand by, and there’s a lot of mutual learning despite contrarianism that comes with the territory.
What book would you recommend?
Blockchain and The Law: The Rule of Code by Primavera De Filippi and Aaron Wright. Many attorneys, legal wonks, and policy experts who’re interested in blockchain or crypto have read the book.
The authors give a pretty fair overview and outlook of their thoughts on the space and its trajectory; they talk about possible boons, ramifications, and so forth. They put the development into a broader framework — for example, noting BitTorrent’s relevant legacy — rather than starting everything with Satoshi Nakamoto. It’s a pretty accessible book.
I think our Journal also has something for everyone, in a sense. Some of the articles might be more technical, especially if the author has technical training or education, but much of the content centers on policy or governance ideas and don’t need to dwell so much in the technological weeds.
Most popular articles?
One of the more technical-leaning articles that got a lot of reads was on decentralized exchanges. It was written by Lindsay Lin, legal counsel at Interstellar. She did a very good and balanced overview of DEXs.
Another popular piece was by Professor Robert Hockett. He wrote about his vision for mainstream digital currency’s use under government purview. He’s actually a main advisor for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the perspectives he shares are very fresh and interesting. He notes digital currency can be deployed to correct existing economic and societal gaps and ills.
One more. The lead article for our latest issue is about blockchain and fiduciary duty. The subject is one of the lightning rods for discussion in the blockchain legal and governance space. Basically, the article was going over whether certain developers should have a fiduciary duty in the running of public blockchains, and its conclusion is a firm “no.” One of our peer reviewers mentioned to me that not only were the arguments themselves sound, but that there was also an excellent overview of general governance mechanics.
What would you like to say to the readers?
Good question. This goes back to the concept of decentralization. I think that cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology, again, are part of a greater fabric of decentralization that has entered everything from publishing to business models like co-ops, to diplomacy, to human rights, and even to pharmaceuticals (and biohacking). I think rather than unproductive infighting over what is first-to-market, what is the superior technology, who are the winners, who are the losers… rather than obsessing about those questions, we should understand that the technology is pioneering a more decentralized, hopefully fairer society for everyone – and we shouldn’t lose sight of this. That’s what I would really love to emphasize. What’s the point of fighting the same old battles, of becoming what we’re trying to replace? What’s the point of trying to be the biggest umbrella paradigm, the “one ring to rule them all” in a given sector? We at the Journal are going to continue with our mission of trying to help advance the space by way of meaningful discourse.