A Letter to the Blockchain Community
Blockchain people, listen up! I get it…
I get it that you love this technology and the potential it holds. I like it, too! It allows me to transfer information and value from one end of the globe to another, securely, verifiably, cheaply, and within seconds, all without an intermediary that takes advantage of his special position. This is quite an achievement, and lots of smart people are working on making it even better.
I get it that you have high hopes for what spreading the use of this technology can accomplish. Competing with conventional banks, bringing down our corrupt fiat banking system, funding political activists shut out of other payment pathways, attracting commercial enterprises to a way of doing businesses that allows them to avoid taxes altogether and thus force governments to give up undue powers. You have noble goals and I applaud that.
I get it that you are highly intelligent and willing to fight for your beliefs. Many of you have given up a great deal for this movement and the values it champions: your careers, your friends, a comfortable life. Some of you even sit in jail for victimless “crimes” where your only wrongdoing was to make governmental agencies feel threatened. I empathize with you and understand your plight — though my sacrifices cannot come close, I myself have given up friends and a stable life to build something I believe will put a dent in the universe.
I know that your heart is in the right place.
But there is one thing you have to get…
The world does not want your freedom.
Understanding this matters a great deal if you want masses of normal people to adopt your technology. The uncomfortable truth is that a large part of the population, if not most people, not only do not care about attaining the degree of freedom you desire but also don’t, and never will have, an incentive sufficiently large to pay the price for attaining it. What they demand are security and certainty, both of which are in low supply these days. What’s more, in our complex global economy and due to a rapidly increasing number of jobs being automated away, these people find themselves in a situation without income and no clear prospects for the future. That’s scary!
It should come as no surprise then that, rightly or wrongly, people in that mind space would ask for and support somebody promising to fix their problems, create jobs, and advocate for their interests.
I bring up Trump here because you will viscerally react to my mention of him, allowing me to drive home my larger point: you will not be able to reason these people out of their beliefs. Education will not do the job. No amount of articles, conversation, statistics, facts, or pleading will convince somebody with little to lose and a lot to gain.
But before you get all smug about your moral superiority that not voting and “seeing through the spectacle” supposedly grants you, consider this. They, as is so often the case, have a point in bemoaning their loss of economic opportunity. There is at least a kernel of truth in there. Thanks to decades of inflationary monetary policy combined with growing government spending, wasteful management, expensive wars in foreign lands, a highly fragile and parasitic financial system, and rising tax burdens, the economy is in its worst shape since the Great Depression. Can you guess who’s bearing the brunt of that burden? Working class America. Millions upon millions of Americans of working age are out of a job and rely on governmental assistance in the form of food stamps and social security. While, in your mind, asking a (non-)politician to “fix” this problem is a silly proposition and futile, it makes a lot of sense if you feel like you have been betrayed by “the system”.
Which leads me to a second point: the distrust in politicians and the media, while justified, is but a symptom of our relationships, economics, ideas, and concerns surpassing human scale. I have already gone into great detail describing the emergence and effects of this uniquely modern phenomenon elsewhere. Suffice it to say, it has upended the world as we know it, creating new opportunities and wealth as well as posing new challenges. Human software (mind) and hardware (brain and body) have trouble operating effectively within the enormous complexity of forces and causal relationships that influence our individual lives.
What we don’t understand, we fear. What we don’t possess but see others with, we desire. With sugar and shiny buttons, please…
Blockchain doesn’t matter to people other than you
The reason I explain all of this is to persuade you on both the emotional and rational level that selling the masses on blockchain tech by explaining its mechanisms will not be successful. By now, even the most fierce freedom fighter reading this should question whether the intricacies of smart contract design really matter to the average Joe (they don’t). What I propose in its place is that you save all that energy you spend fighting people on Facebook and posting Zerohedge articles with a plea to “wake up, people!”, and instead direct it towards the production of simple apps that solve a real problem and just work. Even I, with my far above average computer skills, the technical knowledge of blockchain tech, and experience as the organizer of the world’s first residential developer training for Ethereum, have trouble naming even three (!!!) non-buggy and genuinely useful apps. OpenBazaar is the great exception here, but after that I struggle.
But I’d like to see you go a step further and build apps that, though they may employ blockchain technology under the hood, don’t actually advertise this fact. Instead, they would focus on providing an outstanding service and let the tech do its work in the background. Because that is how you gain normal people as users: by solving their problem and having them pay you for it.
I find it strange that this has to be said to people that pride themselves on their knowledge of economics and business…
The Futility of Systems without Human Involvement
Now, don’t give me this argument about how you want to remove human error from the equation entirely. It’s not going to happen and you’re foolish for believing it’s possible, let alone desirable. Very few people want humans gone from these processes. Only wealthy cryptocurrency holders and unusually intelligent anarchists and libertarians with legitimate fears of being hacked or defrauded by cybercriminals and government agents want to go through the effort it will always take to guard against the above dangers by making sure they are the only key holders of several double encrypted cold wallets in secure locations around the globe. Most people forget their e-mail password at least once a year. Expecting them to jump through hoops only to make a transaction or secure their meagre savings is foolish.
This, in my view, is indicative of a larger problem that I see in the crypto circles: unrepentant techno-utopianism, and with it the attempt to avoid dealing with the very difficult problem of building functional and trustworthy institutions — you know, with humans and stuff…
I understand that you recognize the injustices perpetuated by governmental agencies and corrupt corporations. You may have fallen victim to them yourself. But no amount of technology will solve the problem for you, and believing otherwise only sets you up for failure.
It doesn’t surprise me in the least that the entire crypto community struggles so much with governance. If your general disposition towards governing people and their things is one of disgust, failures like Mt. Gox, The DAO disaster, and the numerous exchange hacks are bound to happen, and not only once but repeatedly. Until this community takes seriously the task of building durable, adaptive, and just institutions that assist regular people in navigating the uncertainties and hardships of life, it will remain at the fringes of society.
A Call to Action
Let me be very clear: if you don’t step up and accept this task, those with lesser motives will, and the crises and crashes and injustices will continue as before. Get away from your computer screen for a moment, take a walk, and think about how badly you want to see that “free society” you advocate. Try and search inside yourself to find out how much of your advocacy may be attributed to a juvenile “anti-attitude” resulting from your misfit status, and how much of it truly stems from a deep care for the wellbeing of others, whether kin or not.
If it is more of the former, I wish you good luck and condescendingly tell you that, maybe, you will grow up some day and understand.
If it is more of the latter, I congratulate you on walking the road less traveled, sacrificing so much along the way, and urge you to connect with me and others that take responsibility for fixing the problems we see in the world. It is with truth telling, dogged persistence, and a willingness to do the unpleasant and boring work of the day, that we will reintroduce trust into society and restore justice to the institutions governing it.
Blockchain or not.