According to some sources and measurements, poetry is all but dead.

I’ll admit. I have very few logical comebacks against the uselessness of poetry. When examining the strange, disjointed lines of Gertrude Stein, for example, the students in my Introduction to Literature Class scoffed and rebelled — no, revolted.

If you have ever read Gertrude, you understand. Her ceaseless repetition of basic vocabulary in subversive patterns is a bit like listening to nails on a chalkboard… only louder and more persistent.

That was the point of Stein’s poetry: to subvert accepted norms and institutional power (social contracts, gender, government, and even language) through ceaseless repetition and re-positioning. She played the “I cannot change your mind so I will change the language you think in” game. Her poetry starts off playful, even coy. Then, gradually, it grows violent, tearing through our delicate understanding of self and other, man and woman, meaning and culture, violating even the most basic of principles to make a singular point — which is that there is no point.

She is infuriating and fascinating, and her poetry is all this and much worse.

At least, that is what I told my students.

My elaborate explanations fell on deaf ears trained by brilliant academic advisors, life experience, and practical career preparation. They called BS on my academic fluffiness. One particularly daring student wrote a single word over and over again in her final essay (meant to be a 1500-word examination of the impact of poetry on society following World War II).

Touché, daring student #1. Touché.

As for poets, there isn’t much I can muster in our defense. Particularly for those like me: a poet with an MFA from a Buddhist university founded by hippies in a parking lot, hippies who simply wanted to get paid (by a government they despised) to write, meditate, and drink whiskey amongst their newly appointed gurus. Or even worse, a poet (hi!) with absolutely no measurable comprehension of computer science.

Who, or what, could possibly be more useless to the data revolution and our reimagining of society through the power of technology? Given the right algorithm and basic data, any computer can write damn fine poetry. It’s a simple input/output process. An equation to harmony. Why even create poetry (as a human, that is)? Why does it matter? If it’s all just 0s and 1s, in some sense, why is it important? Why is it necessary? And what does it have to do with the blockchain?

It’s true that as a poet, it would be much easier to sit in the shadows of this revolution and emerge, from time to time, in a reflective, academic sort of way. But for me, it is important to be in the trenches, a part of and an active contributor to this space and its future. Because, poet or not, I am a firm believer that this technology is critical to a free and creative future.

I need blockchain to be all that it promises. And if you’re a fellow writer or artist, so do you.

Now, I’m not arguing that developers should cease their developing in favor of composing sonnets. Nor am I arguing that poets, artists, and philosophers should trade their art and words for lines of code and Deep Learning 101. I am, however, arguing that there are commonalities between these disciplines, and that examining this common ground would benefit the world we all happen to exist in.

Shall we build the argument, then?


Decentralization, or the transfer of power away from a centralized authority, aligns with Thoreau’s ideal of rugged individualism: living, working, building, and creating according to one’s own unique ambitions, desires, and visions. It’s about true freedom, the open road, the possibility of realizing one’s potential and carving a place for oneself in the world with nothing more than grit, sweat, and ingenuity.

This is romantic, idealistic, and frankly, impossible in our modern world.

Despite our call toward individualism, we are also members of a larger social system. To do much of anything, we must rely on and participate in that system — trading money for goods, separating truth from non-truth, and of course, protecting and ensuring the lives we have built within society.

Our ability to flourish depends, at the most basic level, on trust — that everyone else will behave and act according to the tenuous rules and expectations holding society together. We must trust in each other, in our currency, and in our contracts (both official and understood). But trust is a tricky thing. It is difficult, if not impossible, to trust someone you do not know — and even then, trust is easily abused and defrauded. How can we be certain that our information is accurate? That our contracts are honored? That our investments have value?

This is where centralized authorities come in. While we cannot know everyone, these authorities can. And we can, in turn, trust them. They provide a single point of governance and control, helping to verify information and ensure compliance (i.e. everyone is doing what they are supposed to be doing). This allows our society to function.

But centralized authorities are prone to corruption. They often abuse power. They are subject to bias and subjectivity. And, as they store and hold the information and data that allows our world to work, they are vulnerable to fraud and attack (thus making us vulnerable to fraud and attack). They make our lives easier and our society possible — but in exchange, we sacrifice our ability to control the shape and nature of our lives (and of course, of our data).

Indeed, our democracy, technology, and even art are defined by a persistent distrust of large, centralized third parties — and by an attempt to minimize their inevitable pitfalls (corruption, abuse of power, and tyranny) while taking advantage of their benefits.

A true dance with devils.

Virginia Woolf noted the need for this distrust and structures to protect individual agency in her essay, “A Room of One’s Own.” She outlined the danger that centralized power poses to creativity and free thought, as well as the importance of privacy and control over one’s individual finances and economy.

Throughout literature, movies, and music, we have celebrated and romanticized the rugged individual, the outlier, the creator — charting his or her own path often in direct opposition to the institutions seeking to control, manage, and mitigate their lives and choices.

George Orwell painted a portrait of a terrifying future in which individuals had sacrificed privacy for the illusion of stability and order. His work was a warning not against a specific line of thought, but against giving a trusted, centralized authority the power to dictate which modes of thought are acceptable.

Jack Kerouac inspired a generation by revealing the possibility of the open road and the allure of active rebellion against outside expectations and social constructions.

As shown by the banking crisis of 2009, the advent of “fake news,” “free speech zones” on college campuses, established and government-approved public school curriculum, political corruption, Facebook’s rampant misuse of data, data breaches, fraud and credit manipulation, and rampant bias and propagation of misinformation within nearly all media outlets (to, of course, inspire outrage and ultimately, ratings), centralized institutions — regardless of intent or vision — will easily succumb to the gravity of power. They will seek to subvert and limit individual freedom and agency in the process.

It’s a vicious cycle: individuals fight for their individuality, then turn to order and structure to mitigate behavior and make society “better,” which leads these authorities to grow and abuse that power (as the world works far better when individuals are not individuals, but cogs in the wheels of production).

You see, individuals’ abilities to choose as a result of their own thinking, in accordance with objective information and the guidance of their own values, logic, and desires, is power. That power is a threat to anyone or anything invested in controlling, dictating, and predicting behavior.

Individual choice is always the problem, from efficiency’s point of view.

This isn’t evil as much as it is practical.

It is, for example, almost impossible to program a self-driving car to recognize and accurately respond to every single possible human behavior. It is far easier to simply limit and better control human behavior.

It is far easier to ensure the functioning and well-oiled machine of governance if a population’s behavior is censored and managed.

It is far easier to build a successful company if you can predict control not only the behavior of your target audience, but the playing field itself through litigation and regulation.

Again, not evil — logical.

(Maybe just a little evil.)

“Our society is not one of spectacle, but of surveillance.”
— Michel Foucault

Surveillance, or at least its assumption, is an inevitable end for any major institution, with the goal being to more efficiently control those under surveillance — to see, and through seeing, limit the possibilities common people consider. To limit the thoughts they allow themselves to think, the options they consider appropriate, the truths and knowledge they believe in, and the actions they consider taking.

Often, surveillance is propagated with the best of intentions:

  • To protect us from internal and external threats
  • To eliminate fraud
  • To ensure fairness and equity
  • To ensure efficiency
  • To guard us against our worst individual impulses
  • To protect us from our own tendency towards self-preservation at the risk of societal collapse

Despite these best intentions, there is no denying the consequences of unchecked surveillance and centralized power:

  • The loss of individual agency
  • The loss of innovation and creativity
  • The abuse of that power to censor and stifle individual thought, action, and creation
  • The tendency towards tyranny, violence, and genocide to ensure and maintain control, and to eliminate human choice

We may argue that there are checks and balances in place, that current technologies, governments, and organizations cannot and will not be drawn to these past mistakes and trespasses. That we have grown better and beyond the histories that made us. What is insanity if not doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?

And yet, around the merry-go-round we go.

Regardless of intentions or moral high ground, all ideologies, projects, and organizations that realize mass adoption and power will meet this fate. They will all argue for control and for limiting personal freedom and individual choice within a society (for our own good, we are always told).

Why can’t we just get rid of centralized institutions and break the cycle once and for all?

In many ways, we need these centralized authorities. We need them to act as third parties, to keep records, to verify information, to check our worst impulses as individuals, to create incentives and guidelines for behavior, to build the trust and expectations upon which civil society and our quality of life depend.

We don’t like them; we don’t trust them; we couldn’t do it without them.

What, then, to do?

History answers with a cycle of violence. The rise and fall of empires, governments, corporations — dictatorships upset by revolutions that themselves become tyrannical dictatorships, windows that become prisons to be challenged, torn down, and built again.

I think blockchain has a better solution, a mathematical one.

In fact, I believe blockchain just might negate the need for these authorities. It may enable us to, at the very least, check their power through forced transparency.

What is blockchain?

Blockchain is the embodiment of decentralization: a transparent, public, append-only ledger that enables trust without the risk or danger of trusting. It is a way to ensure transparency of transaction while protecting individual privacy and autonomy. It is, simply put, a shared database that enables peer-to-peer transactions without the need of a centralized third party to manage, record, or verify them.

I know what you’re thinking, my poet friends: a ledger…how exciting…

But, take a moment. Think about it.

Information and transactions recorded on the blockchain are distributed (meaning that there is no single fail point); it is immutable (meaning, due to distribution, encryption, and the complex mathematical processes that must be engaged in for a transaction to go through, it is nearly impossible to go back and change or alter a transaction; it is un-censorable, in a sense); and it is decentralized (meaning that no one individual controls the network or the ledger).

Add in smart contracts and secret contracts (a contract enforced by and satisfied through the blockchain — a self-satisfying contract, in a sense) and you have the ability to transform how we, as individuals and as a society, engage in transactions.

In short, you cannot bribe a blockchain or smart contract; you cannot delete it; you cannot censor it; you cannot hack it. A blockchain has no desire or bias, no incentive or underlying motives — even if the record is inconvenient for a governing body, even if it is disagreeable, even if it isn’t what the public wants or what an authority likes, that single point of truth remains and is accessible to anyone and everyone.

That is the strength and the potential of blockchain technology: it creates a verifiable source of truth that is not subject to the limitations, bias, and abuse of centralized authorities. It is a truth that is not owned by anyone, but that can be accessed by everyone; a truth that cannot be censored, hidden, or changed, no matter what.

This technology has rather huge implications and potential use cases:

  • Land: Verifying who owns what. Consider the applications in countries devastated by civil war, and the ability of these records to cultivate individual wealth and stability.
  • Exchanging money securely across vast distances for minuscule fees
  • Digital gold: Currencies on blockchain, such as bitcoin, could be considered a kind of digital gold. They give us the potential to preserve and create wealth, particularly in countries lacking stable financial institutions or currencies.
  • Securing and verifying authenticity: Imagine seeing the immutable history and journey of diamonds, art pieces, degrees — the ability to confirm ownership and verify authenticity (as well as ethical integrity).
  • Medical records and research: Insurance companies, doctors, nurses, and patients could easily access, share, and communicate data, eliminating countless middle men and the possibility of communication failures and misinformation.
  • Managing electrical grids and bandwidth: Blockchain enables us to more efficiently manage and distribute electrical grids, power outputs, etc.
  • Library and journal databases: Imagine a network enabling the efficient sharing and exchange of information.
  • Higher education: Transcripts, student records, admissions, registrar…all of these costly systems could operate exclusively on the blockchain.
  • The economy of data and social media: A Facebook-type network could pay you to access and use your data.

Think of any activity in which you must go through a third party to verify, store, and access data to complete an exchange (of money, property, information, etc.). Now imagine cutting out the middleman, taking back control over your own data, and greatly reducing, if not eliminating, transaction fees.

Are you excited yet?

Because this tech is in its infancy, there are issues: questions of risk, access, and scalability. There are also issues with individual responsibility (there is no “whoops” key in blockchain — immutable means “in-editable”). Likewise, blockchain is useless if we cannot protect individual privacy. And we cannot ignore the recent ICO phenomenon, scams, money grabs, and corruption reminiscent of the “tech boom” in the late 90s.

But dismissing blockchain’s potential in favor of focusing on its current failings would be like dismissing the internet in the 90s for its slow speeds, cumbersome applications, and lack of infrastructure.

The tech, the idea, the possibility is there — we’ve found a way to truly scale decentralized platforms.

And it sets my imagination on fire.

I like to think that poetry’s love of, and need for, blockchain is rather obvious: Blockchain cultivates open systems and unparalleled transparency; it empowers individuals and lays the groundwork for a truly decentralized society. This — transparency, individual agency, accessibility, individuals creating, learning, and doing business in a space of unrestricted and uncensored possibility — is any poet’s wet dream. At least, I like to think so.

But why does blockchain need poetry?

All structures, of all intentions and visions, of all hopes and potential — from tyrannical governments to nonprofit organizations, from institutions of higher education to ICOs — begin with an idea (perhaps, even, an idealist vision). Then they realize that idea through amassing funds, power, and influence; they focus their actions and energies towards a singular vision through force, will, and regulation.

Even tech committed to decentralization will become centralized at some point — at least, the people and company behind the tech will. This is the natural progression of success, a process upon which all development depends: the movement from innovation to mass adoption and acceptance, to power and the struggle to maintain it through control.

But this process is also meant to be subverted, to be challenged. Creativity, innovation, possibility — it must have something to imagine against. I would argue that poetry is one of the best, most tangible, and most accessible representations of this rebellion.

There’s just something about poetry that ignores the hard lines of human nature.

After all, what is poetry if not a rebellion against the conventions and assumptions of our most basic institution, language? This act of rebellion is a critical part of the evolution of human society. Poetry is a means to push against present limitations by first subverting and then imagining beyond them. Poetry is critical to a fault, a constant mirror of our humanity and of the truths we would prefer to ignore. It seems trite (how could just a few words have any real impact?); however, these small words are a powerful force, a failsafe against the worst tendencies of our world and society.

Poetry can, for these reasons, highlight both the need for blockchain in our present world as well as the continued need for a critical eye as the technology continues to develop.

Poetry trespasses. It reduces the complex vocabulary and requisite knowledge of our separate worlds and disciplines to a single shared experience that both poet and audience continue to live and relive.

As our technical world builds and shifts, as we continue to reimagine society and witness the data revolution, I can think of nothing more important than actively “checking” power and centralization through the critical lens that poetry, art, music, philosophy, and others provide.

As human beings, we have a tendency to divide and conquer along various lines and imagined differences. There is a perception that “others” who lack our specialized knowledge or experiences cannot possibly understand us. Thus, walls are established. Blockchain has, for example, amassed a following, and that following has guarded itself from infiltration. Complete with its own specialized language, its code words and expectations, its fear of outsiders and ridicule of so-called “normies,” we have made it difficult for those outside of the space to enter, learn, contribute, and share.

We often seek to create confidence within our work by assuming the ignorance of others and propagating their inability to contribute to or understand our work. It makes us feel good (intelligent, powerful, compelling, important). And what a shame. Because in order for blockchain to change the world, the world needs to trust it, and to use it.

Perhaps that is poetry’s greatest strength: its recognition that you do not need to know in order to understand.

Nothing is more poisonous to innovation, adoption, and development than making ideas inaccessible. In fact, great ideas — and the path to realizing those ideas — depend on shattering walls, reaching across lines, and actively collaborating beyond our comfortable circles of thought. And there’s just something about poetry that ignores the hard lines of human nature.

Poetry trespasses. It reduces the complex vocabulary and requisite knowledge of our separate worlds and disciplines to a single shared experience that both poet and audience continue to live and relive. In this way, poetry is not only a mirror, it is a door that we can open and walk through again and again. And this door eviscerates our codes and passwords, all barriers to entry, instead charting a path for connection and cross-disciplinary conversation.

Poetry, unlike many other modes of connection and communication, is also accessible to nearly everyone. Regardless of education, socio-economic class, race, sexual orientation, gender, political views, geographic location, or even time in history, poetry speaks to the emotions, relationships, desires, and realities that define our shared humanity. It brings us together while simultaneously empowering us to individually decide upon and dictate meaning.

Much like blockchain empowers individuals to take control over their own data, poetry enables individuals to take control over, and raise, their collective voices. Not only can anyone understand poetry (and that truly being the point — that no one interpretation is superior to another); anyone can actively contribute to and participate in its creation. This accessibility makes it well-known, trusted, admired, and valued (all things that blockchain could take advantage of and learn from). It also helps individuals, otherwise divided, to connect through shared experiences and to then acknowledge and build upon their shared humanity.

Perhaps that is poetry’s greatest strength: its recognition that you do not need to know in order to understand.

To quote the brilliant Marianne Moore:

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all 
 this fiddle.
 Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one 
 discovers in
 it after all, a place for the genuine.
 Hands that can grasp, eyes
 that can dilate, hair that can rise
 if it must, these things are important not because a
 high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
 they are
 useful. When they become so derivative as to become 
 the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
 do not admire what
 we cannot understand

And fostering that understanding? That place for the genuine? Connecting the technology and possibilities of blockchain with our shared humanity in the “real world”?

There can be nothing more important.

There is a certain nuance to being human, a particular diversity and detail, that is nearly impossible to pinpoint and define.

Some call it context — but regardless of what it is, there is no denying its reality or its importance to comprehension and meaning. And this nuance (or context) is currently impossible to mimic or articulate within programming.

Perhaps this is best explained through example: a computer writing poetry according to raw data and advanced algorithms, let’s say. Sometimes, the poetry is quite pleasant, passable. Much of the time, however, it is incomprehensible goulash, a “vomiting” of language onto a space, arranged with mathematical precision according to syllable and rhyme, but absent of any meaning or depth.

Or another example. YouTube auto-play. Despite the seeming perfection of both the data collection and the algorithm managing it, auto-play often gets it horribly, terribly wrong. Doubt this statement? Watch a children’s cartoon on counting and let the auto-play roll.

Go on. I’ll wait.

Within about seven videos, you are going to find yourself, and your auto-play, in a very dark, strange, adult space.

Or, pick a sports video, a movie clip. Let the system think. Watch and wait as the search terms, keywords, and data mesh into a strange, incomprehensible mash of light, sound, and media that actually has nothing to do, meaning-wise, with your viewing history or expectations.

How, you may wonder, did I get from a TED talk on privacy and data collection to a movie clip of Hostel 1?

Because, while a computer recognizes the raw data and can draw upon it accurately, it does not and cannot compute how the meaning of that data shifts according to context and nuance, how two things that are the same are actually not the same, how a Mickey Mouse cartoon that is appropriate for children is not the same thing as a Mickey Mouse fetish video, despite having nearly identical keywords.

Words have their own meaning, but that meaning can change when placed together…or in different situations…or among different audiences…or in different time periods…

The variables of comprehension are nearly infinite and perpetually shifting.

Humans are exceptional at recognizing and responding to these nuances, of learning and adapting to them. For a computer program, however, these nuances and their impact on meaning are an impossible challenge (at least currently).

Poetry, with its strange and wondrous ability to bring words, sound, imagery, and emotion together in unexpected ways, reveals these nuances and reflects the fluidity of meaning within human society.

It is, for these reasons, starkly and definitively human. And maybe, just maybe, it can help us and our programs to better comprehend and appreciate the nuances of being human.

Our technology says something about our humanity: who we are, what we value, how we see ourselves, our relationships, and our world. It must. We designed it, after all.

Poetry, art, and music don’t just say something about our humanity, they represent it. They display it so that it can be experienced, felt, shared, remembered. Poetry is not so much a thing as an action, and that action leaves behind something tangible: a portrait of our humanity.

It is a portrait that is not only created, but communicated — and this is key. It is shared with everyone, indiscriminately, with the expectation of its active debate, criticism, and reimagining — the creation of new meaning and thus new possibilities. A certainty.

That it will inspire.

That it will transcend.

There is nothing beyond language that can do this (nothing physical, at least): transcend the limits of time and space, reach through the ultimate of impassable boundaries of our reality to impact, alter, change, and inspire human perspective on both an individual and cultural level, to realize unity by celebrating and encouraging individual perspective and interpretation.

The poetry of our decentralized future will not be written; it will be lived.

Because words have the uncanny ability to build connections and establish relationships that defy reason, that do not require physical contact or even mathematical sense, poetry (art, music, etc.) is the door through which we connect, we wander, and we explore the emotions, moments, memories, and relationships that make us human. A poem captures a moment and illuminates that moment in all its raw, chaotic, colorful, emotional, impossible, unquantifiable humanity.

And that snapshot of humanity? It matters — to blockchain, the sciences, our digital revolution — as this is the portrait that we embody and reflect, that we live and celebrate, that we then program into our elegant systems.

We are seeing the beginnings of a data revolution, meaningful musings of machine learning, deep learning, AI, and decentralization. We are using the power of mathematics and programming to reimagine how we define value, how we trade, how we interact, and how we document the transactions and relationships that make our world, our economy, and our art, tick. I can think of no greater need than to reflect on what it means to be human, to begin collaborating on the portrait of our humanity that will be programmed into the systems and architectures of our future.

And this articulating the sum of our humanity, the mirrors we build, the vision that we choose to live beyond us, that weaves the narrative of us — this is our responsibility: poets, creators, visionaries.

The poetry of our decentralized future will not be written; it will be lived. The poems of the future will be built not with words, but with data.

Let’s get to it.