Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄
🎵 The song for this post is Finesse (Remix), by Bruno Mars feat. Cardi B 🎵
It's hard to write novel things, so rather than rehash the points, I'll just point to some of my favorite pieces on blockchains, cryptocurrency, and decentralization:
Ten years in, nobody has come up with a use for blockchain, by Kai Stinchcombe. I love his subheading "whatever the opposite of a futurist is." It makes a pretty compelling case that many of the "revolutionary" applications of blockchains have been about as effective at replacing their incumbents as Wile E. Coyote is at catching birds. Which! Doesn't mean they can't succeed! Just that they haven't, very comically.
The Problem with Calling Bitcoin a "Ponzi Scheme" by Preston Byrne, which details how cryptocurrencies manage to capture the working parts of both Pyramid and Ponzi schemes while reducing their weaknesses to getting caught, ferreted out.
Summer Hale has an essay that touches on Federated vs. Distributed vs. Centralized very intelligently from the perspective of risk and empowerment, using Mastodon as an example.
Some thoughts and reflections follow, but 👆🏼 is the better reading to do 😄
Exchanges that are distributed, anonymous, and unmoderated by design are a very alluring idea. Consider the romantic image of revolutionaries against a despot communicating through a secure channel that the state can't intercept, or some modern Galileo saying important, unpopular truths who can't be silenced by the orthodoxy because they can't be identified.1
I think these channels are important, and deserve being built and defended. However, I also think most of their proponents are remiss for not acknowledging other realities about them:
They can reinforce existing power structures as much as they thwart them
New systems and technologies require access, and that is usually gated. It would have been hard to participate in the 90's dot-com boom without computer access. Who were the first to get cell phones, and the increased productivity as a result? The Internet and Google Search? YouTube may have "freed" many content creators from the inefficiencies of TV, but you needed a camera and decent upload speed to be one of the early YouTubers.
Unless you specifically design your Enabler Of Freedom around the folks who need it most, the ones who will usually benefit the most strongly will be the ones who need it least.
Friends who go to the "dark web" tell me it's about 20% what most people expect it to be (radical political discussion by anonymous avatars) and 80% unadulterated vice: child pornography, drugs, slave trade, and hackers selling stolen passwords and credit card numbers.
Yes, HACK THE PLANET and all that, but when you allow nobody to police it, well, you allow nobody to police it.
Actual safety vs. state-level actors is Hard As Hell
Except when they really want to police it.
One of my favorite arguments gun fetishists make is that we need unfettered and untethered 2nd Amendment interpretations so that we can be sufficiently armed to fight the government, in case they become tyrannical or murderous to their populace. Uh, yeah, the government have tanks and fighter jets. We spend more on our military than the next 7 nations combined. You and your tough-guy friends with AR-15s aren't going to topple trained professionals with that level of equipment.
Similarly, while the mathematical primitives underlying all this tech is sound, as the old saying goes: "In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they're very different." Using all this tech in practice proves to be crippling, and I consider it unlikely you'll topple that orthodoxy.
Look at how the creator of PGP refuses to use it. Look at the complications in executing an air gap. Consider ways that Tor's benefits can be made null. World-ending vulnerabilities like Heartbleed and Spectre? How much do you wanna bet that they were discovered by State Intelligence well before researchers, given that the government uses undisclosed vulnerabilities regularly?
Let's not forget the xkcd on this:
So, yes, build that decentralized network so The Thoughts Of People Can Be Free, but unless you address that pesky "society" and solve 3-4 other hard problems:
If the powers that be ever do encounter a challenge, there's a good chance your New Effort won't be a magical tech that prevents them from getting found out and murdered anyways.
Criminals who don't threaten the existence of the state enough to get the big guns pointed at them (or are so numerous they'd overwhelm the big guns) will be empowered more than they already are.
Your network will probably just be a bunch of privileged early adopters who may only support noble causes in spirit and intention but end up hurting it (think little Julian Assanges).
I repeat: build and defend these tools and networks. I'm in no way saying not to, nor do I mean to diminish the people and work that brought us here. But please be mindful of the above.
Paraphrasing something I remember tef saying: if you ask programmers to solve a problem that's 90% social and 10% technical, they'll spend most of their time on the technical bit. The technical bit is (comparably) easy. Blockchains, 10 years in, still feel like a very cool solution in search of a problem.
Additional Fun Reading
Sometimes programmers hit me hard with great senses of humor. So there's a great little language called Scheme, of which some nerds made into another great language called Racket. Michael Burge used Racket to make a new Scheme dialect for writing blockchain applications, called Pyramid Scheme.
1. ^ One of the tells that Ender's Game is good fantasy but shouldn't be read as taking place on any planet approaching our own is the bit where 11 year olds are given access to anonymous message boards and able to influence global politics through "the marketplace of ideas" because They're Geniuses Like You, Dear Reader.
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