I know the signs — constantly thinking about her, gazing adoringly at her photos, longing for her tender touches and wild play, composing love songs and singing in the shower— I am infatuated again. She’s a kitten, 100% felis catus. Her ash-and-snow tabby stripes are a beauty worthy of Michelangelo, to my eyes. I am experiencing my virgin infatuation with a kitten, but why do you care? The world is full of countless more dramatic stories clawing for your attention. The banal pleasures of a stranger are boring. Hot steaming romance? That’s interesting.
Maybe you hate kittens; that’s not the point. You have loved somebody or something before. You understand how it feels. Love grows from a tiny seed. The endorphins of first romance transform into a stout and persevering commitment. Passion interrogates you: What do you live for?! So what I love can thrive! True passion accepts no lesser answer.
If you’re just visiting for the kitten, you can skip to the end now. I’m getting to the blockchain part now. Causing your love to thrive…blockchains can be useful for that.
We can use “blockchain” to refer to something larger. Technically, a “blockchain” is a tool (one of many) for protecting integrity of data essential to a community of peers. Some call these tools the cryptosphere. The cryptosphere together with many other things (e.g., people, property, ideas…) make up a much larger system and movement for peer-to-peer organizing.
As an essential tool for securing a common ledger, “blockchain” reflects an essence of public ledgers: their purpose as a cooperative enterprise for security of shared information, using protocols transparent to all members. A secure public ledger enables many social goods, including privacy, diversity, identity, mutually supportive communities, and the possibility of self-governance. Privacy is the foundation of all these virtues. All must have equal power to keep secrets and make durable records, or tyranny creeps in through many back doors.
Those vested in existing power structures are skeptical about the vision of end-to-end transactional and information privacy. They claim privacy will empower organized violence, fraud, and other criminal behavior. Fear of privacy is a sickness. All records can be discovered with enough effort, all the more so data in public ledgers! Criminals cannot help but leave evidence of their crimes in secure public ledgers as in other places. Ledgers don’t enable crime any more than any other resource. In fact, such ledgers can be used to catch criminals.
We can’t eliminate crime using surveillance by government monopolists. Taken to extremes, surveillance creates a class of dependent victims — the surveilled — powerless to defend themselves. We create secure communities by empowering individuals to freely pursue their passions without harming others, and take responsibility for pursuing their dreams. Such communities value and reward reputation, identity, and fair conflict resolution: all the virtues that make pervasive criminality impossible.
Public ledgers are community projects by nature. Transgressions will always exist. Preventing and repairing the harms is part of what healthy community does, and does not depend on a powerful central authority. Too often, the biggest enemies of community are those claim a monopoly over enforcement power, resting their power on the barrel of a gun. The more powerful the political authorities, the greater their insistence on near absolute surveillance powers. By seeking to undermine privacy, they would replace community with tyranny.
Meanwhile, accomplished experts and pioneering entrepreneurs in the blockchain space push for privacy. Appropriately, because blockchain is a cryptographic protocol, and privacy is why cryptography exists. For example: don’t miss this recent interview of David Chaum, it’s interesting and will warm the hearts of true believers. He advocates cryptography for mutual benefit, not grabbing for the biggest possible slice of the fascist pie.
Among many other topics, Chaum describes the privacy features he built into Digicash, a system for protecting the identity of transactors. If you want to dig deeper than Wikipedia, Chaum’s Blind Signatures paper is a good place to start. Digicash relied on a central clearinghouse, such as a bank. Blind signatures enable a clearinghouse to authenticate transactions without knowing who the counterparties are. The protocol relies on trusted authorities and was supported by some banks. Conveniently for enemies of financial privacy, Digicash failed shortly after launch for a variety of reasons, including lack of demand.
The Bitcoin whitepaper came out in 2008, twenty-five years after blind signatures. Bitcoin was invented to solve a different problem, avoiding the need for a trusted authority instead of transactional privacy. A need for a trusted authority was a fatal weakness of electronic cash before Bitcoin. A clearinghouse would set up, and then the bank police would march in to shut it down. Consider e-gold, for example.
Bitcoin could have been designed for greater transactional privacy, but wasn’t. Only Satoshi knows why, so let’s not waste time speculating. If you’re curious, Satoshi recognized transactional privacy risks in the Bitcoin whitepaper. Transactional privacy is possible but requires that transactors diligently avoid reusing the same public keys, which is inconvenient.
Blockchain can more conveniently support private transactions depending on design of the larger system. Networks like ZCash support private transactions these days. Chaum is evolving the Digicash privacy ethic in Elixxer in a parallel direction. He explains how Elixxer works in this fascinating video. Elixxer deserves further attention as a platform for more compelling cryptographic applications, offering some profoundly beneficial features. Chaum’s website is also well worth a visit. A comparison to ZCash would be interesting but a diversion from the topic at hand.
How much privacy is the right amount? At the privacy extreme, everything is anonymous. The strangers surrounding you are sealed up in identical black boxes and you can know nothing about anyone you are dealing with. Isolation of the individual is absolute. Totally private, totally anti-social.
At the other extreme is absolute transparency. Everything is out in the open. All shames and embarrassments are publicly known, all relationships, all actions, all assets and all liabilities. We as a species are not ready for total transparency, however liberating it might be. We will lie, steal and kill to keep our secrets, and prey on our own weak.
Practical solutions fall somewhere in the middle, where social goods like identity, reputation and inspiring leadership are produced. Networks like Elixxer that strike a new balance of privacy are essential to finding new and beneficial applications for cryptographic ledgers. The technology can support even more compelling use cases than an alternative medium of exchange or store of monetary value like Bitcoin. When blockchain satisfies essential needs that no other technology can, it will burst all present boundaries.
Back to hot steaming romance. Our deepest desire is to protect, nurture and enjoy the things we love, however selfish or generous our loves may be. Love understood broadly is the answer to the use case question. Blockchain can provide a balance between transparency and privacy that helps us mesh our love stories with our neighbors in mutually optimal ways, while granting each maximal freedom to chart their own honorable course. It can move beyond currency to society at large and so become indispensable for everyone. Even kittens will be better off for it.