My friends know that I think the road to a livable future will be built by expanding humanity’s intelligence and overcoming our “natural” limitations by creating new technology. Already, in order for billions of us to share the earth we’ve needed to invent technology to overcome diseases, communicate across vast distances, even fly. But now, the technology we have created is about to replace the majority of work people do to earn a living, making our future appear disturbingly uncertain. Along with that, our public square, the internet, has become full of toxic tweets, weaponized social media, and enough disinformation to make you wonder if you can even tell what is true any more. As a livable future has become less visible on our horizon I’ve been wondering if there really is anything at all out there to which I can attach my technological hope. I think a glimmer of a possibility has appeared.
I’ve noticed a creative wave gathering in our culture, forming out of the idea of using what is called blockchain technology to build a decentralized network right on top of the internet. I happen to live in a surfing town where we’re always on the lookout for waves, and I’ve been looking at this one. Riding it also gives me something constructive to do instead of just sitting around avoiding the news, trying not to look at social media, and lamenting the ‘widening gyre.’
If you haven’t already looked into any of this blockchain stuff it can be a steep learning curve. But it’s really just a ledger kept on the internet, and what is different is that the contents are validated by a mathematical process rather than certified by a trusted central authority. Importantly, distributing the contents of the ledger across the whole network instead of holding it in a central place does a lot to keep it safe from human knavery. The system assumes no one is inherently trustworthy and so provides no way for malefactors, even super rich and powerful groups of them, to substiute false information into the ledger; the vast distribution of the data makes that impossibly impractical. How do we know a block is a real ledger block containing the true contents and is not ‘fake news’ or data that has been manipulated in some way and substituted into the chain? Remember, in order to be accepted in the chain blocks have to be validated by a mathematical process that is open to the whole network. If anything has been altered in a block the math will not agree with the rest of the chain, and if the network does not agree the block is mathematically valid it is not made part of the chain. Almost 20 years of continuous security of the Bitcoin blockchain can be seen as a real world test of relying on this system instead of a trusted central authority. You might reasonably wonder “Then who is actually running all this?” The answer is “everybody who is participating.”
It’s also hard to understand how just participating in a network generates value – ‘money for nothing.’ But if you can grasp that participating in the validation of information in the public distributed ledger (what is called “mining” the blockchain) is a form of work, then it’s easy to understand being compensated for it by the network. After all, the network is getting value out of this validation of its data, and you deserve a share of that value for being part of the computing that went into validating it. Worrying about how we can have a universal basic income after all the jobs are taken over by robots and software? An answer is staring us right in the face.
In fact, once I started looking at the potential uses for blockchain technology I realized teams of creative people are already working on using it to create applicable solutions for many problems of modern life that appear intractable these days, including securing identity, allowing trustworthy voting, and providing a more workable communications environment where anonymity does not also allow toxic behavior to thrive.
So I’m buying some Ether, and some of the Global Messaging Tokens offered by the Mercury Protocol. I also plan to support Blockstack, the Internet Of People, and some other like-minded efforts. Not to make money by speculating in alt-coins, although that would be great, but to support the development of an alternative system of information flow built directly on top of the existing system, one that might encourage more positive ways of interacting and is designed to be resistant to the kinds of corruption that are poisoning our common interests. The communities whose work I’ve mentioned are trying to build self governing, self sustaining internet ecosystems that are also, in some cases, literally capable of standing alone. Reading their “white papers” you find them all wanting the same things out of this – which turn out to be the same things I want and I know you want. No revolution required, just the evolution of a better way of doing things, more like moving from broadcast TV to Netflix. Perhaps at some point governments and corporations will catch on that this threatens their hegemony, and to stop it they may decide to go full Orwell, forbidding the passage of any information between people that they cannot see and censor. They will tell us it is to protect us from terrorists and criminals, but I’m hoping that by then enough people will have figured out what is really happening.
If any of this piques your interest here are some of the links I followed in learning what little I know about this stuff:
This is the earliest and most comprehensive overview I found of what this is all about, and these folks have fertilized several other efforts that have since split off from the original project. The second link is to the main effort going on right now.
The Mercury Protocol is the effort I’m actively supporting right now.
This is the other effort I have registered to support by buying their tokens when they are offered in a few days.
This is a journalistic style overview of what blockchain technology is all about with a lot of good details. It is what turned me on to the Mercury Protocol and made me think more about all this.