The Evolution of Blockchain: From Philosophical Fringe to Core Infrastructure
By Nervos Network on Altcoin Academy
Does technology have a soul? In a literal sense, this is an absurd question. The concept of the soul is a metaphysical one with little apparent relevance to the rational, logical, numbers-based world of engineers and developers.
But all technologies arise from specific circumstances and aspirations that can imbue them with a distinct philosophical undercurrent. This emerges from the realities, needs, and hopes that have driven their development. And we would be wise to be mindful of these ideas when using a particular technology to build tools and platforms that people, businesses, and governments are likely to adopt and possibly even co-opt.
The notion of keeping in touch with the philosophical origins of a technology has particular importance when we are talking about blockchain. This new, disruptive, even controversial paradigm, is steeped in anti-establishment thinking while simultaneously poised to become a pillar of global government and commerce.
This means two things: one, mainstream incumbents will begin seeking to enter the blockchain space and define it on their own terms; and two, those who have backed decentralized platforms from the beginning will have to make real choices about how best to move them toward achieving their potential.
It’s worth taking a moment to remember the currents that drove the invention of blockchains and cryptocurrencies. As one article recently summarized, their origins lie largely in the libertarian, “cypherpunk” movements of the 80s and 90s. These movements were rooted in distrust of governments and central monetary authorities, which were viewed as having too much power and being prone to corruption and abuse.
Bitcoin was developed to address these specific concerns. It can be seen as the apotheosis of a long line of related movements stretching back to the 60s counterculture and anti-war movements. These movements imprinted on their members a deep distrust of centralized power in all its forms. Together with a recognition of the emerging importance of digitization to exert greater and greater control, and surveillance over individuals, these currents gave rise to the various schools of thought that ultimately birthed crypto. The ideas that drove these movements in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s were centered on using cryptography to give control of data — particularly financial data — back to individuals in the face of the rapidly encroaching digital world and all its pitfalls.
Many people in the crypto community — particularly longstanding, passionate developers and advocates — continue to share and/or sympathize with these ideas. They continue to develop platforms with an eye toward transparency, trust, egalitarianism, and individualism. This ideological clarity imbues blockchain systems with a strong raison d’etre.
Now that the technology is more widely available and gaining traction, new actors are likely to step in who may not have the same worldview as crypto’s originators. In order best to shape the future growth of blockchain, we must answer honestly those questions about how much its founding philosophy is to be a guide for what’s to come.
This much is certain: blockchain will grow and evolve tremendously from where it is now. It is too technically powerful not to. It has the potential to reshape our systems of government, regulation, business, finance, ownership, and much more. In achieving this, it must — like the Internet before it — make the awkward transition from insurgent outsider to core infrastructure.
Nevertheless, it will always retain its origins on the philosophical and technological fringe. If blockchain has a soul, it is in the cypherpunk and libertarian strands of thought that ultimately led to its development.
Blockchain and its community should continue building ambitious projects to remake global economies and information systems. But as we do so, we should bear in mind the deep commitment to decentralization and transparency that gave us the blockchain in the first place.