People often speak of the cryptocurrency space as a step forward, or even a revolution, in human freedom. Indeed, if you spend enough time reading about blockchain tech on the internet, you might come away thinking it were some kind of magical, liberating fairy dust to be sprinkled over any number of societal ills in pursuit of some new technological utopia.
But what, if anything, does this technology actually have to do with freedom, and how does one separate the hype and hyperbole from its true potential?
Well, What is Freedom Anyway?
First, it might be good to ask what we mean by freedom. The term, of course, is a loaded one. Few words in the English language have been marshaled for so many various causes, been so widely used, over used, abused, and watered down. But what does it actually mean to us today, and in this specific technological context?
While many of us in the developed world may take the word freedom for granted, it has very real and significant meanings for those living under repressive regimes: the ability to speak your mind, to choose your way of living, to go where you want when you want, to provide a future for your children.
But even if you live in the “free world”, there’s often an apparent tension between individual freedom and group freedom or collective wellbeing. There are ages of philosophical debate behind this, but most free societies draw a line between where one person’s rights end and another’s begin — or between the freedom of individuals and the wellbeing of communities.
In a free society, what responsibility do sovereign individuals have to the commons? How do you situate one individual’s right to freedom with another’s right to not be abused, or to collective rights to the environment, shared resources, and healthy, thriving communities? How, in a world of individual free agents, do you deal with the inequalities that will inevitably arise between those who are fortunate or highly competent and those who are disadvantaged or who lack the skills to thrive in a constantly evolving economy?
According to American economic theorist and author of The Third Industrial Revolution, Jeremy Rifkin, we’re currently in the midst of a generational shift in how freedom is conceptualized. As a prominent economic advisor to the EU and China, his ideas are actually carrying weight in the design of global infrastructure and and economic development.
He claims that the definition of freedom we’ve had since the Enlightenment is based on the idea of individuals as independent, sovereign, autonomous agents. But as human social norms evolve alongside the pace of technology, increasingly younger generations predicate freedom on being embedded and thriving within networks and communities. For today’s youth, Rifkin claims, being independent and isolated from networks is something to be avoided at all costs. If indeed this is the case, we’re moving away from a definition of freedom as individual autonomy, towards one of community access and engagement, and on thriving as collectives.
But are these two versions of freedom mutually exclusive? Are individual, autonomous freedom and networked freedom actually irreconcilable?
Not if we can successfully design systems to reconcile them. If the potential of blockchain can actually be realized, we can have both. While the technology is not some magic wand that will definitively answer all these questions and bring about a new utopia, if the design is in large part motivated by a concern for freedom, it would appear to promote a synthesis of both autonomous agent and network versions of the concept.
By giving people the ability to control their own money, Bitcoin brought autonomous agent freedom to the world of banking and finance, and at the same time, sparked one of the greatest collaborative networks in human history. But not only are cryptocurrencies themselves often the products of decentralized collaboration between developers and community members, their design also enables networks of peer-to-peer economic collaboration on an unprecedented level, regardless of geographic or political context.
But finance is far from the only use-case for this technology. Self-sovereign ID systems, if successful, may also bring increased freedom from corrupt institutions and repressive governments, as well as increased privacy rights and freedom from fraud and data theft. If built with privacy and human rights in mind, SSI has the potential to promote individual sovereignty, peer-to-peer collaboration, and more efficient philanthropy and humanitarian aid.
Sifting through the multitude of hasty ICOs and apparent get-rich-quick schemes, you can find a number of promising projects working to correct the excesses of centralized institutions, gatekeepers, and rent-seekers, putting power back into the hands of individuals and voluntary networks. Even if the success rate of such projects ends up being low, even if it’s far lower than the surprising 48% of companies that survived the dot-com bubble, the technology will still help push forward the broader movement towards decentralized, open source, peer-to-peer systems built around human rights and freedom (at both the individual and network level).
Sure there’s a lot of hype (there always is at the beginning of a new technology), but there are also some very interesting things happening, and maybe, just maybe, some of those things will actually prove successful.
While debates will continue about what kind of “killer apps” beyond Bitcoin might be possible for distributed consensus protocols like blockchains, they do by nature enhance both individual autonomy and group collaboration on a potentially vast global scale.
Despite the hype, perhaps cryptocurrency, blockchain, and the wider move towards decentralization is not about utopian idealism but about anti-dystopian pragmatism, providing a hedge against both black swan events and slippery-slope dystopian trends in censorship, privacy, and economic manipulation. But it’s also not just about defending against things we don’t want to happen. It’s about facilitating things we do want: social entrepreneurialism, individual autonomy, collective collaboration, a range of new possibilities that haven’t even been imagined yet.
It’s All About Systems Design
Though the effect of the blockchain space may be increased freedom, it’s more a movement of systems design than any political philosophy. And designing better systems involves game theory and, in particular, the fundamental question of how to align incentives at both the individual and network level.
If you can iterate these systems in a way that offers not just an alternative to the status quo but an improvement upon it, then there’s plenty room for success — if you can design them so that the benefits are noticeable and valuable, despite possible trade offs, with as little sacrifice as possible in terms of convenience. It’s an ambitious goal, for sure, but a possible one. How do you go about designing a system that people can either A) never worry about because everything is securely (and as trustlessly as possible) managed in the background, or B) take full personal control of? This would account for both those who want autonomy and those who just want a convenient, seamless experience without worrying about the details.
No technology is a magic wand. The move towards decentralization is not an end in and of itself but a means, and one of the more promising we currently have, of taking us to the next stage in the evolution of individual sovereignty and global collaboration. While individual, face-to-face, trust-based relationships will always be the most important to us, technological innovations are often necessary for societies to scale to new levels of organizational complexity.
The human world, and indeed the world of life in general, is and has always been a network of patterns of individuals and their relationships, a majority of which have been collaborative rather than competitive. Just as language was necessary for us to band together into large tribes, and just as writing was necessary for us to form the first cities, perhaps this new wave of technology will enable, even more so than the internet already does, a new level of global collaboration, independent of the ever-fluctuating imperatives of centralized authorities and nation states.
While blockchains probably aren’t going to free us from all the ills of centralized corruption any time soon (remember when domestic appliances were supposed to free us from our daily toils?), these technologies are, at the very least, a next step in the evolution of this ancient process of collective organization and the expansion of freedom.