Ethereum as a gateway to Computer Science

Sami Kivela
Nov 21, 2018 · 6 min read

I want to share my story of an unusual way of approaching Ethereum and blockchain technology.

As the development of Ethereum basically stems from a community of computer scientists, software developers, cryptographers, business strategists and venture capitalists, what if we use Ethereum itself as the principal medium of learning about these fields? What if we turn the process on its head and think about what profound changes blockchain adoption can mean for someone with a completely different background?

Well, that someone is me. I first heard about blockchain in spring 2017 as I was working as Senior Lecturer in a Higher Education Institution in Finland. This organization operates in the fields of social work, health care and communication, providing Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees and shorter dedicated courses. It is mainly funded by the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture and owned by Christian foundations rooted in the Scandinavian Protestant welfare state tradition.

Spring 2017 was a time of soul-searching for me. My fourth child had just been born and I guess I was still gasping for something more intellectual to do, although being a dad is absolutely great. So how to get yourself something new to do? Enter the quest for PhD!

Ok, but which subject? I have a Master’s in Theology with Comparative Religion major from 2005. When I started those studies back in 1999, I was initially really going for Computer Science, but as we used to have tough entrance exams in Finland, I found my math and physics skills from College too weak to be able to prep up sufficiently.

Theology looked like an exciting option as I browsed through the University of Helsinki syllabus: philosophy, history, psychology, sociology, communication and so on. Really versatile stuff for a thinker like myself. But even then I still tried to enrol in another university for Computer Science, and also a Theology degree in King’s College, London. Got approved to all three of them but eventually decided the University of Helsinki, as that was the option I had personally worked hardest for. No complaints, theology gives you historical perspective and holistic thinking skills like no other discipline.

Fast forward a few years, travelling in South Asia doing research on Buddhism and Hinduism, and finally landing a permanent job as a Lecturer (see above). That institution got me hooked for 13 years and I was really enjoying most of those years. But you have to understand how far we were from anything resembling the basic concepts of blockchain and Ethereum.

So in spring 2017 I was wondering whether to strive for PhD in Theology or focus on Education. Sustainable development was also really close to my heart, so the first drafts of the research plan borrowed heavily from sustainability science. A bit of complex adaptive systems theory, cybernetics and the idea of stigmergy as a self-organising principle of ecological and social systems.

And that brought me to blockchain. Really hard. Not before long I was watching countless hours of Youtube videos on the subject, and increasingly those including Vitalik Buterin, the founder of Ethereum (for those 15% who don’t know yet). How he expressed things and what he talked about was both exciting and irritating.

Exciting, because the general discourse on blockchain seemed to promise a lot for global responsibility, social justice and sustainability, and somehow Vitalik’s thoughts resonated very convincingly for me. And irritating, because I often could not follow his reasoning and also because I questioned the overall capability of blockchains to solve many of the human problems it was claiming to solve.

So Vitalik’s rhetoric was a perfect challenge on many levels. One of my answers was: ”Hey, I’m a really intelligent guy too, I can surely understand him, and I must!” This was just intellectual envy, and it took some time to accept that his rational mind just operates in a league of its own compared to mine, and I love him for that.

Another reason for respecting him and the whole Ethereum project is because they are really doing what they say to be doing. Don’t just talk the talk but walk the walk, and by this I mean how the end goals of decentralization are manifested in practical choices. As the whole package of democratic ideals is somehow constantly at the peril of being lost to Lambos, a quick ICO buck and hate speech on Twitter, I always admire how people like Vitalik, Aya Miyaguchi, Joe Lubin and many others seem to express notable tolerance and vision.

So the Ethereum community has had its fair share of ethical difficulties, as it has also had to bear the activities of all the projects operating on the decentralized platform. But somehow the community has been able to withstand the many governance challenges so far. And how it is handling the small details proves to me this is still the blockchain community I want to believe in.

Sure, there are mechanism design principles, cryptoeconomic ideas and interesting leanings towards Radical Markets nowadays, and I still partly struggle to understand them as I have no formal economics training and I guess will never be comfortable enough to fully operate in the formal language of mathematics.

But with my own background, having a decent academic career and the experience of countless research and development processes in social work and health care education, I humbly represent ”the other” in this world. That is, all the millions of people who might not come from a developer or investor background but who are nevertheless deeply touched by the decentralization ideals and early-stage implementations in the space.

What started in spring 2017 has led me to change my PhD subject to ”understanding Ethereum as a holistic phenomenon”. This includes that I must get a better feel or how developers and startups operate, hence the need to first learn to code and start my own business. Those goals were written down in the research plan a year ago, and now I’m actually going there.

Started learning JavaScript and other front-end tools to be able to write in Solidity and develop smart contracts. Also started learning Python as a step towards Vyper. Have spent time with quicker languages like C, C++ and Java, understood why Go was still a good choice for the beginning in the form of Geth. Getting better with the Linux command line and learning security issues for bug bounties. Thinking of integrating Ethereum and machine learning and building a team.

And knowing that languages and frameworks are not the real deal in CS but it’s all about problem solving. Algorithms and data structures, here I come one day! And linking this all to cryptography, economics and game theory, it’s hard but doable.

The professional profile I envision for myself? Someone who understands both humans and machines. Someone who knows that technology should be a servant for humanity’s greater causes, but it can also change things a lot for the better (although ecologically we should still try harder as a population).

I am not an existential technology maximalist thinking tech can solve all our problems, but we do wise to try our best with tools such as Ethereum currently in our hands. Society is also a lot deeper than economy, so Ethereum needs all of us ”others” to help it spread as much and as wisely as possible. Gladly, this has been the direction all along.

So yeah, my daily activity now consists of building my soon-to-be-launched digital value company (especially for the benefit of the Ethereum community but also broader causes) and just learning, learning, learning about Computer Science in every way. It has become a passion no doubt.

What triggered this passion for CS? In my case, it was first and foremost Ethereum in spring 2017.

Unusual? Maybe. Worth it? Absolutely!

Sami Kivela

Written by

Born in Helsinki, entrepreneur, writer, motivational speaker and Youtuber. Passionate about paradoxes, impossible conflicts and helping all unlikely winners.

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