People have been programmed since the dawn of time: to feed and protect the tribe, to worship, to fight, to produce. “Programmed people” could be a concise definition of civilization itself. The programming of people has been the work of human institutions — emperors, churches, armies, schools, corporations — imprinting their truths, their dogma, onto people, sometimes with deadly force.
The digital age has all but destroyed the power of dogma. The Internet has made the world’s knowledge instantly available and free to (almost) everyone. There is little room for incontrovertible truths on the planet today, and so a new and subtler method for programming people has arisen: influence. People are now programmed to buy, to vote and to act based on the influence of social networks and advertising (often treacherously intermingled). For the institutions that program people, rigid dogma has been replaced by profiling, targeting, and the dopamine-fueled gamification of content.
The new bosses look a lot like the old bosses: massive centralized institutions that program people to achieve their objectives. We are undoubtedly better off today — there is less violence and more diversity of opinion — but we are no freer from institutional programming. We only have the illusion of freedom because we have sacrificed ourselves and become the product. This is all about to change.
The seeds were sown by economists and game theorists in the mid-twentieth century. One of them, Leonid Hurwicz, received the 2007 Nobel Prize in Economics “for having laid the foundations of mechanism design theory.” He theorized about the design of economic incentives by institutions and governments to achieve goals such as social welfare and private profit. Hurwicz died in June 2008, at the age of 90. Four months later, a white paper appeared online by an unknown and mysterious author that described a profound implementation of the Nobel-winning theory. The paper was entitled “Bitcoin: a Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System.”
Bitcoin relies on a game theory mechanism in which independent entities (miners) freely choose to invest their own time and energy (proof of work) to validate transactions on a decentralized, global ledger (the blockchain) in exchange for a reward (bitcoin). The “mechanism design” inherent to Bitcoin incentivized independent and non-cooperative parties to act in an aligned manner that allowed Bitcoin to explode into a $200 billion global market. Bitcoin, in fact, heralded a new way of programming people (miners) — through economic incentives — and did so for the first time in history without the need for a centralized institution.
Blockchain technology has evolved over the past decade and its range of capabilities is on the threshold of dramatic expansion. Ethereum introduced a programmable blockchain in which tamper-proof “smart contracts” could be deployed to the blockchain and instructed to distribute money (Ether) based on future events. Ethereum and cryptocurrency tokens in general promise “programmable money,” and when money is intrinsically programmable, we have an entirely new way of programming people.
Today cryptocurrency tokens are being used to program people in only the most rudimentary ways and only a few people at that. Early adopters have been programmed to purchase and run mining rigs in exchange for tokens. Speculators have been programmed to chase cryptocurrencies with ever-increasing prices. When and how will the mass market be programmed by tokens to buy, to vote, and to act in their daily lives?
Decentralized applications (dApps) are being developed on top of programmable blockchains that re-imagine identity, advertising, social networking, content delivery, commerce, law, supply chain management, search, digital rights, insurance, collectibles and everything else we do online today. However, dApps will not be enslaved by the advertising business model that dominates today’s Internet. dApps and the blockchains they execute on will incorporate mechanism design (also called cryptoeconomics) to reward user behavior with tokens. For example, BAT tokens reward users for their attention; ERN tokens reward users for actively participating in social and professional networks; REP and GNO tokens reward users for participating in prediction markets; Filecoin, SIA and STORJ reward users for making their hard drives available for decentralized file storage. In most of the cases, the tokens earned by users can be instantly exchanged for fiat currencies and are literally money. There will also be tokens that represent non-fungible value such as social capital, reputation, and status. The “projects” that spawn these tokens are generally not corporations, and when they are, there is a plan to release the tokens from corporate control once their footing is established. All of these projects, and many more that are yet to be conceived, will allow consumers to experience the online services they expect without devaluing their privacy, time and attention. People can still be programmed but without the oversight and agenda of global corporations and governments.
The programming of people has been a progression from dogma to influence to incentives, a progression that leads to increasing personal freedom. Dogma is orderly, but rigid and prone to exclusion and stigma. Influence is subtler yet insidious with its theft of privacy, time and attention. Incentives, through mechanism design, reward specific personal choices, but also place a “dollar” value on every aspect of work, life, and play. Protocol and dApp developers are free to create projects that reward both the noble and the diabolical. Cryptocurrency tokens will protect the environment, for example, by paying developing nations to reduce emissions and stop clearing rainforests. They will ensure that artists and creators are paid instantly and directly by those who respect their work. They will revitalize social networking by rewarding people for genuine engagement rather than passive consumption. But cryptocurrency tokens will also be devised to reward assassination, human trafficking, and every form of human exploitation.
Programming people is about to become very easy. Individuals will be free to program other individuals as well as entire societies. Centralized institutions have been excised by design and will no longer be available to intervene and protect. People will be free to program and be programmed. Let us hope our better selves prevail.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS AND RESOURCES
I first heard the term “programming people” at Devcon 3 in November 2017, in a presentation on cryptoeconomic mechanisms by Karl Floersch of the Ethereum Foundation. In his presentation, Karl credited Mike Goldin at Consensys with coining the term.
I am grateful to Josh Stark, Richard Hendrix and Alan MacIntosh for reviewing and commenting on early drafts of this post.
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