"You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
R. Buckminster Fuller
I stumbled upon the Bitcoin white paper sometime in the summer of 2011. Once I finally wrapped my head around what it was, I enthusiastically sent it around to my programmer friends. The underlying ideology behind the technical implementation resonated with me. My friends and I had several lively discussions about the white paper and who this mysterious character, Satoshi Nakamoto was.
I was bootstrapping a startup at the time, so I filed the white paper away and shifted my focus back to the task at hand. Nevertheless, I kept tabs on the evolution of blockchain technology over the next few years. Then in 2015 I finally took a deep dive. Tinkering with Ethereum smart contracts and other blockchain tech soon led to consulting gigs with several blockchain-based ventures. I now find myself in the fortunate position of being able to apply what I'm good at towards something I'm genuinely passionate about. It’s exciting to be part of a movement defining the next evolutionary step of trade and finance based on transparency and immutable trust, that being tokenized assets/securities.
In this article I want to offer the vision behind this from my perspective and, by way of an unlikely historical analogy, put forth some ideas on where we are now, how this new era might manifest, and the potential impact it will have.
A Database of Virtue
Over the span of a 17-year career in tech, I’ve chosen to work with many technology platforms for various reasons. Usually those choices are based on pragmatic engineering logic or business/market requirements. But when I think about why I went all in on blockchain, I arrive at a very peculiar reason:
It’s because I’m morally aligned with it.
That might not sound all that peculiar, but technology and morality rarely coincide in a single platform. That's significant because I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. What began as an obscure, open-source software project curated by a small group of zealous adherents has evolved into an entirely new industry that reached a market cap of $700B and has already massively disrupted fintech and early-stage venture funding. But Bitcoin’s significance isn’t just technical innovation, the industry it spawned, or its impact on fintech.
It’s significant because it’s a cultural artifact. A cultural artifact with uber utility.
It’s common to hear tech founders talk about how their project will change the world. The reality is that truly world-changing technology is historically rare. World-changing tech is limited to a handful of inventions and discoveries like the printing press, electricity, penicillin, radio, semiconductors, the internet, etc. The tech we develop in between these historically significant advancements is — if we’re honest — merely about novelty and convenience. It’s clear to me that the blockchain is indeed bona-fide, world-changing tech. Not so much because of what it does for us, but because of what it does in spite of us.
Chris DeRose, the host of Bitcoin Uncensored, has called the blockchain a “database of virtue”. I think that’s an apt description. Where other systems lose cohesion because of self-interest and greed, the blockchain maintains cohesion via a network of Chinese-finger traps held together by self-interest.
It gamifies self-interest to create trust, a.k.a. virtue.
It creates a mathematically provable and consistently reliable domain of trust for transactions, completely removing the need to purchase trust as a commodity from a third-party “authority”.
Really think about that for a minute. There is an existential thread here that reaches from at least as far back as Hammurabi’s Babylon and all the way to the mechanics of the modern nation state. If you pull that thread, our assumptions about the role of government, the individual/collective, and economics start to unravel. Programmable money has real potential to solve “the tragedy of the commons”. That’s absurdly non-trivial.
Anyone calling this a Ponzi scheme is either woefully misinformed or threatened by the implications.
And, this is why some governments and institutions fear the blockchain. I can’t say that I blame them. We all witnessed how institutional malfeasance and greed created the subprime mortgage crisis between 2007-2010. It’s widely accepted that Bitcoin was in large part, created as a direct reaction to that. And not just a technological reaction, but an ideological one. The question of whether the blockchain could have prevented the subprime mortgage crisis is up for debate. But I think this article by George Samman does a damn good job of making the case.
To use the computer as an analogy: If you think of modern finance as an operating system for markets then Bitcoin is a bug fix. The bug is human greed.
The Absolute State of Crypto
In general terms, if we aggregate, distill and categorize all the events that have led up to the current moment in the blockchain space, we arrive at what appears to be two factions at odds with each other.
Faction 1 — we’ll call the Crypto Faction: The original Bitcoin supporters and their ideological progeny.
This faction might be described as being comprised of cypherpunks, anarchists/anarcho-whatevers, libertarians, Austrian School economics pundits, and in general techies and entrepreneurs who resonate with varying degrees of the philosophical milieu this faction represents.The core credo of the Crypto Faction seems to be about preserving and promoting what they see as the sovereignty, privacy and liberty of the individual. Personally, I align with this philosophy.
Faction 2 — we’ll call the Status Quo Faction: The established governments of various nation states, adjunct private sector institutions, and the bureaucracy, politics, and financial incentives that bind them together. As far as the Status Quo Faction is concerned, the United States government is rightly receiving most of the focus, because most of the rest of Faction 2 will be responding directly or indirectly to their lead here.
Their core credo? Shouldn’t it be the preamble of the U.S. constitution?
“To form a more perfect union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
Some may argue, certainly the Crypto Faction would argue, that the U.S. government isn’t executing the noble cause put forth in the preamble. It’s often derailed by cronyism, graft, and blind bureaucracy. I think that argument is valid, and seems to strike close to the heart of why these two factions are at odds with each other. I don’t believe there will be a definitive winner or loser in this battle. I think there is a real possibility that the two sides will merge into something new.
Something unironically wonderful that has never been possible until now. How might that play out?
Early Christianity and Bitcoin
To grok any new paradigm and where it might lead, I find it helpful to look for a historical analogy. It seems as if human nature is fairly predictable across analogous situations.
In the case of Bitcoin, we have a black swan event that consists of the rise of a decentralized ideological movement led by a small group of zealous adherents which threatens a vast and powerful, established, institutional authority. At the core of this ideological movement is a manifesto, in this case executed in code, created by a mysterious figurehead who vanished before the movement got started. Looking back through history, I can find only one event that fits this pattern: The rise of Christianity. If we simply do the comparison on semantics alone, I think we find a very useful historical analogy.
Black swan event? Check.
Small group of zealous adherents? Check.
Ideological movement? Check.
Manifesto? The Gospels. Check.
Mysterious figurehead who vanished before the movement really got started? Jesus. Check.
Existential threat to the status quo? Roman Empire. Check.