With a philosophical — and existential — interest in decentralization, the rise of the Internet in the 90s excited me. And then disappointed me. But then blockchain and true decentralization came along and its truly radical possibilities got me excited.
In 1998, I finished my doctorate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley where I’d studied the beautiful, peculiar logics of making sense in a world without a center, without any absolutes or fixed points, without a ground. Sense and ethics — I’d learned from Nietzsche, Deleuze, and Foucault — don’t disappear when the center gives way, they proliferate as they become protean, emergent, in flux.
This happened to coincide with the rise of the Internet. Mind you, I wrote my dissertation on a MacPlus using four floppy disks. This computer had no visual browser; I used Telnet to get my email. But the Internet was exciting, promising a decentered world of networks, a radical democratization of ideas, things, and access: sense-making without a center. And so I soon landed a job as the second employee for what would become the multi-award winning ArtandCulture.com, writing and eventually running product.
It was incredible! We built a way to navigate the arts — all the arts from furniture design, visual arts, and film to dance, philosophy, literature, and music — at multiple angles at once: vertically, via a vast taxonomy; and horizontally, via a keyword-driven algorithm that was visualized in a Thinkmap-style animated data cloud. Meanwhile, San Francisco was abuzz with the possibilities of this new medium. It was electric.
Of course, this wouldn’t last. Come 1999, after the so-called burst bubble, there’d be a radical redistribution and concentration of capital. Sites like ArtandCulture had funding pulled for more immediate financially rewarding sites.
Over the next 19 years, I saw the effect of networks without networked capital: a massive centralization of data, experience, identity, and wealth. Rather than proliferation, we have the most dominant monopolies in history — Amazon, Facebook, Google — and what some are calling the greatest legal concentration of wealth here in the Bay Area.
Personally, I did fine as I reinvented myself as an independent brand strategist and would go on to work with some of the biggest names in tech — FitBit; this very platform, Medium; up and comers like Leanplum, Ironclad, InfluxData, and Clearbit; and many more. But while these companies do great things, after more than 20 years of doing this and seeing the grotesque centralization of both experience and capital, I was becoming dour, to say the least.
And then I met Edward Hickman of Anatha who, over a series of long phone calls, explained to me why blockchain, smart contracts, and decentralization matter and how they could truly change the world. This was not just a communication network; this was the decentralization of everything from corporate structures to capital itself.
There are a lot of interesting things about decentralization — the elimination of financial institutions as intermediaries as transactions become peer-to-peer; the massive efficiencies of smart contracts in matters such as escrow and dividend distribution; the potential to create digital signatures on content ensuring creators get paid, not corporations; apps with non-centralized servers the government can’t shut down because it deems something immoral; and so much more.
But the two things that continue to get me excited about decentralization are the overhaul of corporate structures — the real seat of power in this world — and the proliferation of currencies that create accountability. To me, these are the reasons all those who assume blockchain is a silly fad should pay heed.
Overhauling Corporate Structures: Corporations without Customers
The existing corporate model is based on extracting as much value from customers and then hoarding that wealth. As customers, we hand over money and our information and get very little in return. Sure, we get use of the platform to share pictures and stories with friends. But that turns us quite literally into products that are bought and sold to the highest bidder (via ad sales). Meanwhile, executives and shareholders enjoy enormous financial reward. It’s as ugly as it is absurd.
With a decentralized structure built with smart contracts, this relationship can fundamentally change. We can have what Edward Hickman calls an information resource economy in which our information is value we can choose to sell or not — much like gold or oil — and with which we can profit (or not).
Meanwhile, the corporation itself no longer has executives at the center with shareholders siphoning revenue for their personal use. In this decentralized model, people own the coins they use in this or that network — and hence are owners of the network. Everything is transparent and, as they say in the industry, immutable: the rules are not at the capricious or greedy whim of the few. The network operates as it operates, autonomously.
Suddenly, those who were once products become partners sharing in the collective fate of the network. Now, rather than profits being pulled from the pockets of people then siphoned by centralized owners, all participants are owners of the network (no doubt, to different degrees) and therefore share the wealth. We are no longer reduced to being customers, consumers, users, or products. We become participating partners at the level of both governance and wealth distribution.
And that, alas, is a radical restructuring of the world. Rather than value constantly being extracted and accumulated by the few, it’s generated by and for all. Rather than an economy premised on scarcity, this breeds an economy premised on abundance. This is revolutionary — and all done outside the insanity of the stalled political arena.
Capital with Accountability
In the national fiat system, we are all at the mercy of the federal government. It singlehandedly decides if it wants to drive value up or down (as it decides to print more money or raise interest rates). Meanwhile, the US government spends our money, our taxes, on all kinds of things I sure don’t support.
But with the rise of cryptocurrency, that national currency now has to compete with other currencies. And we can choose which currencies behave in ways we support. This is huge, as capital itself is now accountable by what it finances and how its network governs.
Imagine, for a moment, the incredible power and freedom that could come from opting out of the US government’s fiat system, refusing to participate as long as it spends money waging war, devouring the planet, and reinforcing its bloated military-police power. Because, thanks to cryptocurrency, you don’t need dollars! You can choose currencies that you support and that support you, your interests, and your ideals.
And Oh So Interesting
Needless to say, it’s unclear how this will all play out. Fiat is not going down easy. But you have to admit, it’s interesting! For this philosopher turned brand strategist, deep in Bay Area tech, this is far and way the most interesting thing that’s come my way. I’m no longer thinking about “disrupting” the mattress, toothbrush, or sneaker industries. I’m thinking about disrupting the very way corporations and wealth distribution function.