Last week, the third Satoshi Roundtable event was held in Cancún.
The meeting is controversial to many, because it’s invitation-only and therefore is “elitist” by nature, which is supposed to be against the ethos of Bitcoin.
I disagree. Anyone who has ever frequented forums (and I have almost 20 years experience in moderating them) knows that forums and mailing lists have both benefits as well as drawbacks. It is sometimes very necessary to be able to speak continuously and not have someone butt in with his or her considered opinion immediately.
One of the most interesting reports from the meeting was penned by Rick Falkvinge, and to me his report highlights one of the biggest problems that the proponents of decentralised blockchain (in this case Bitcoin) software have: they almost always look at the world as if the human equation is an undesirable one that can and must be stamped out.
Falkvinge obviously had no problem making good contacts at the meeting, which would make sense for someone who is a bit of a legend in crowd activation. For who doesn’t know, Rick Falkvinge is the person who started the Pirate Party in Sweden and managed to gain entry for his party into the European Party on a shoestring budget. He is also the author of Swarmwise, which explains his philosophy on how to activate crowds.
Most of the “good” he mentions in his report has to do with relationships. The “bad” however, focuses on the “technology only” perspective that seems to permeate the community. When you read the report, you get the distinct impression that here we have a group of extremely selectively intelligent people, who are incapable of understanding simple concepts like compromise and all that this entails. This view is reinforced by an interview Falkvinge gave to Cointelegraph.
Code is Law?
It is really shocking to see this blindness in action. The DAO experiment was a case in point to show how such thinking can have truly silly consequences.
The DAO was launched on a platform that boldly proclaimed that “Code is Law”. The basic idea behind it is that the community (along with developers and miners) will set down the Law and that it will evolve gracefully and need to further parties involved.
Of course, this stance means you put zero value on other kinds of knowledge that have nothing to do with human relationships, which are the basis of such things are courts and legal representation, not to mention the concept of trust in the first place.
Then the DAO suffered a hiccup (yes, i do enjoy understatement) in the form of an exploit that drained 3,4 Ether(eum) from the system in the space of a few hours, after which some developers did the human thing: they intervened in a less than constructive manner.
I do not want to go too deep into the aftermath (please google if you want some light reading), but the ironic outcome was that the Ethereum community was in uproar and eventually the developers had to step in and propose fixes. This in turn lead to the splitting of Ethereum into ETH and Ethereum Classic.
The point I am trying to make is not that the DAO was an idea that should not be tried (DAOs are interesting to say the least!), but that to leave out simple human incentives is ridiculous and betrays a lack of understanding in the world and reality.
Satoshi’s original goal has been co-opted, not only by banks, but also by anarcho-capitalists who want to blow up his original ideas to such proportions that Bitcoin (and by extension “the blockchain” idea) is not only under attack from the outside, but from the inside as well.
There is one sentence in the original whitepaper that shows what the extent of the project used to be:
What is needed is an electronic payment system based on cryptographic proof instead of trust, allowing any two willing parties to transact directly with each other without the need for a trusted third party. Transactions that are computationally impractical to reverse would protect sellers from fraud, and routine escrow mechanisms could easily be implemented to protect buyers.
Note that this says *nothing* about “and no human should be involved at any stage”. Bitcoin does not do away with trust, it does away with the *need* for trust when making transactions with bitcoins. Likewise, a blockchain doesn’t do away with trust, it does ways with the need for trust regarding anything transacted purely on that blockchain. Anything external (and I am looking at you, Asset backed Tokens!) still requires trust, as does anything touched by external data or opinion.
These are things outside of scope for a blockchain to resolve. Shouting louder and louder for it to do something it was not designed to do will not make it so and will hurt the truly unique achiement it represents.
In the three years i have been active in crypto (that’s the cool name we use when we want to differentiate ourselves from “corporate blockchain”) I have seen many attempts at any form governance fail. This would not be a problem if this was for a good reason, like having one party take over control over a complete project. Often it’s just a straight refusal to accept any kind of oversight, because “control is bad” or “we need consensus”.
I think this is one of the most obtuse stands I’ve seen anyone make, as it implies there is no value in knowledge (“I refuse to listen to anyone, even if his experience is of value”) or shows the misunderstanding that a word can cover several definitions (technical consensus is something different from social consensus).
It furthermore shows a lack of regard or awareness of prior work in this field. There is a large body of work about governance in Open Source projects available, of which at least a basic knowledge of the Cathedral and the Bazaar should be compulsory reading. Compulsory, I hear you say? Yes! Because not taking into account prior ideas will in the best case just slow us down, in the worst case lead to stupid and unnecessary mistakes.
Even Mikhail Bakunin, one of the fathers of anarchism, didn’t refuse the benefit of knowledge:
Does it follow that I reject all authority? Far from me such a thought. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or the engineer. For such or such special knowledge I apply to such or such a savant. But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor the savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and censure. I do not content myself with consulting a single authority in any special branch; I consult several; I compare their opinions, and choose that which seems to me the soundest. But I recognise no infallible authority, even in special questions; consequently, whatever respect I may have for the honesty and the sincerity of such or such an individual, I have no absolute faith in any person.
One of the things I have always admired a lot in the way blockchain platforms are set up, is the inherent governance structure in place. I’ve not seen it described better than in a presentation by George Papageorgiou at a Bitcoin Meetup in Amsterdam. You can find his presentation here.
Satoshi, whomever he was, not only was well versed in the technical side of interaction, he also was skilled in the human side, and to neglect this vital part is to miss the point.
Time to grow up
In order for us to grow, we need to see the need to benefit from knowledge, and also the need for human interaction and consensus.
If we do not bring a knowledge of how to reach social consensus into the blockchain movement, we will not move forward. We will just deteriorate into a clashing mess of people with the vain hope our consensus software is going to magically solve our problem for us.
Far from what people seem to think, this does not require anyone to bow down, but rather to be strong enough to see the larger picture and ones place in it. It takes a lot of strength and inner conviction to be able to listen and collaborate. There’s far less of that involved in shouting matches.
I’d love to see some real work done on consensus mechanisms that incorporate the both technical and social consensus. This requires delving into the social sciences and the work done there. It will and should lead us into the area of negotiating skills and the skill of argumentation and convincing people. And it needs to lead us to the methods people have to express opinion and how we can remove middle men there, without losing sight of the fact that raw data is useless.
We might as well make the failure of reaching consensus now power this search.