A Gnostic Internet
Blockstack aims to fundamentally change how we, as digital citizens, interact with each other within the digital realm. In many ways, Blockstack and similar initiatives bring back the Internet to its original intention— to help connect us to each other, share knowledge, and thrive.
The basic concept of Blockstack is to create a digital environment where digital applications exist independently to your data.
I interpret Blockstack’s views on the Internet through a theological frame. I am not overtly religious but have always been fascinated by historical echoes of how technology affects our contemporary lives. I find the current tensions of decentralization similar to the early struggles in organizing the Christian faith.
That, digital currency, whose market cap recently exceeded $200 Billion was introduced to us by a pseudonymous entity should provide enough cause to transition from rational -to- spiritual in less time than it takes to validate a bitcoin transaction.
Gnosticism can be considered one amongst many forks in the early days of Christianity. Gnosticism’s main principles emphasized and centered on the individual’s ability and potential to realize salvation through the discovery of Gnosis or Knowledge. Lets call that Truth DB.
The Gnostics believed that every individual human mind was capable of realizing God consciousness.
In blockchain terms, this implies that every human being contained all the HashPower needed to mine for Truth DB and all we needed was a certain protocol to govern our physical & mental actions to attain this TruthDB.
These teachings ran counter to the then contemporary forces of consolidation and centralization to organize the often cryptic teachings of Jesus Christ. These organizing forces led to a form of spiritual top-down bureaucracy that later expanded to many layers of middlemen (Popes, Cardinals, Bishops, Priests, Nuns etc.) who promised a path towards TruthDB.
The organized church based its existence on the premise that the individual was incomplete and would require some third-party support to connect with TruthDB.
Gnosticism, on the other hand, was based on a pre-existing spiritual completeness of the individual which could be realized if they could develop ways to look inward and discover Truth DB aka spiritual mining. I’d be remiss not to mention the Gnostics’ less popular beliefs that included vegetarianism, the elevation of the female to spiritual equal, and a somewhat dismissive treatment of human reproduction.
It is therefore unsurprising that Gnosticism was decreed as heresy, actively stamped out by Bishops, Popes and Crusaders across Western history as it posed an existential threat to the afore mentioned spiritual bureaucracy.
The 1945 discovery of Nag Hammadi Papyri by an Egyptian farm boy along the backwaters of the Nile was considered to be archaeological dynamite. The codices allegedly contain some of the earliest recordings of Jesus Christ’s teachings and form the basis of the Gnostic Gospels which presented many problems to hard-won and calcified interpretations of the Bible.
The 2009 whitepaper titled “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System” was discovered on similar backwaters of the digital rivers, a cyberpunk mailing-list called metzdowd.com and has created problems to the hard won and increasingly calcified interpretations of the financial system as we know it today.
An ecclesiastical internet
In my eyes and many others; Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and nation-states have increasingly evolved to become the digital equivalents of megachurches in Vatican proportions.
These digital megachurches provide us much needed digital services but rely on us turning over our digital identities and personal data which in-turn are aggregated and analyzed to affect our preferences, and ever more increasingly, our perceptions of reality. (#Fakenews)
The more they have on us, the more powerful they get and the more they can proselytize to the un-connected. (#FreeBasics)
These popes, bishops, priests, nuns, and middlemen of our digital monopolies & megachurches spin glorious tales of salvation through digital means (often embedded in cookies that capture your personal data and track your online behavior). It is tempting to compare these to the wafers and sacramental bread handed out during communion but I might be stretching it.
These middlemen also include the vast cyber-security military-industrial complex who take on roles not dissimilar in motivation & coordination to crusaders, and dare I say karsevaks, jihadists, and similar entities who define their actions by protecting us from foreign hackers out to pillage our digital lives.
Digital salvation in an ecclesiastical Internet is achieved by living in harmony within a paternalistic panopticon that forces us to engage in a submissive relationship with our digital overlords who promise protection of our digital identities and personal data as a condition for offering us a service towards TruthDB. This doesn’t need to be the way the Internet works.
Towards a Gnostic internet
The internet started out with a vision of anyone can get online and anyone can communicate directly with anyone else.
- Ryan Shea BlockStack co-founder
If our digital lives, like our spiritual lives, are intrinsically tied to matters of identity, then a Gnostic versioning of the internet offers a digital life based on emphasizing individual control of our digital identities and personal data.
Digital salvation on a Gnostic Internet implies living with the gno-ledge that our identity and data lie within our control and that we can engage in a narrative that ensures a digital communion with a larger community of smaller service providers.
Only time will tell whether we will see yet another digital inquisition to stamp out the resurrection of Gnostic ideas on the internet or whether, this time, the megachurches will fade away into obscurity and provide us with the means and ends to thrive alongside one another.
Motivations on viewing a decentralized internet through a theological prism:
- Union Square Ventures partner Albert Wenger’s talk on the decentralization of knowledge using a Motivation x Coordination framework to describe incentives, opportunities, and limitations of decentralized knowledge-structures.
- Voltaire’s Bastards: The dictatorship of reason in the West, and On Equilibrium written by Canadian philosopher, John Ralston Saul, some of my earliest encounters with a Humanist school of thought.
- Sam Frank’s Power and Paranoia in Silicon Valley, Harpers Magazine, Jan 2015.
- Thoughts about a decentralized local street maintenance where every city street is assigned monetary agency to control and regulate its own lifespan.
- Gaia.com’s Ancient Civilizations
- BBC’s 1987 The Gnostics: Knowledge of the Heart
- Dan Carlin’s Celtic Holocaust that describes in great detail, the decentralized structure of the Gauls vs the centralized Roman state.
- Werner Herzog’s Lo And Behold: Reveries of the Connected World