The Crypto Promise of a Cyberian Paradise

1x05 The Crypto Promise of a Cyberian Paradise

Facebook's announcement of Libra should come with zero shock attached. The social media company's entire business model revolves around keeping people within their walled garden, invading all aspects of their attention and lives. Creating an internal ecosystem that includes micropayments makes as much sense as their purchase of VR company Occulus. What does it mean to live in a digital world, and how can Facebook complete its transition into a Weyland-Yutani-esque mega-corporation?

Azeer Azhar had an excellent analysis of Libra in the paid version of his Exponential View newsletter. He discussed some of the finer points of the technology, and it's potential geo-political impact. In many ways, Libra sends a false sense of openness by creating a non-Facebook owned entity to manage the technology, while the Calibra "wallet" essentially creates a cryptocurrency transfer mechanism, but allows Calibra-to-Calibra transfer outside of the Libra blockchain. This parallels (to a certain extent) what the Lightning Network is trying to do with Bitcoin--a transaction layer based on trust that only needs to go to the blockchain when its time to reconcile the balance. The difference is that Facebook wholly owns Calibra, and it's clear that they want to use this to create their own financial ecosystem for their users. You can even see a Black Mirror future were Facebook users are "awarded" crypto in their wallets for their engagement in the Facebook ecosystem.

This sort of control runs counter to the entire purpose of blockchain technology and cryptocurrency. The purpose of something like Bitcoin was to provide an immutable ledger of transactions that could be verified in a way that was permission-less without requiring "trust" in the traditional banking sense. Nobody controlled the network: Not banks, not governments, and certainly not social media giants.

Bitcoin is a natural extension of the cypherpunk movement. This same movement gave us PGP, Julian Assange, and the left libertarian ideals of what privacy and security should truly entail. It has been a growing movement in spite of the opposition of government and corporate entities, and it is likely to continue to grow after revelations of internal conversations in the Trump administration about encryption (although kudos to Tim Cook and Apple for seeing the slippery slope of backdoor technology for government use a few years back).

This history of a digital cryptography subculture runs parallel with the history of money, and it's detailed a great deal in Finn Brunton's Digital Cash: The Unknown History of the Anarchists, Utopians, and Technologists Who Created Cryptocurrency. It's a question of freedom, and was one of the founding ideas of the computer movement.

Early computer culture opened up a new dimension to the disenfranchised, the experimental, and those dissatisfied with the economic and political climate at the time. From the late 70's to the early 80's and the Reagan administration, those on the fridge coalesced around the computer as a place to find Timothy Leary's "others." This meant a strange mix of psychedelics, computer science, self-help, and even the occult. Socialists, post-capitalists, and anarchists reveled in the freedom that person computers provided, and even to this day, many of those early sub-genres still influence the computer industry.

The multitude of ideas and principles from various sub-genres also can cause problems. The extreme conclusion of some of these intersections can lead to anarcho-capitalism--a combination of libertarian principles, Randian philosophy, and yes, cryptocurrency thanks to its decentralized nature.

But what does this lead us to? Latin America is filled with havens for disgruntled American, Canadian, and European citizens, bringing their privileged ideas and wealth to countries in turmoil, while carving out paradise because of the exchange rate. The increasing value of cryptocurrency has led to events like Anarcapulco, various communities popping up, and ultimately the much publicized death of John Galton, who embraced the anarcho-capitalist lifestyle, while eventually setting up his own drug business in Acapulco--something that likely was the immediate reason for his murder.

The moral here is that Galton took cryptocurrency and cryptography as a means to circumvent the state, and express his freedom. In the end, his choices cost him his life, as not everyone subscribed to his values. What is the moral of the Facebook announcement? What are the repercussions when the company attempting to control currency has a different set of values than its users.

Decentralized currency and currency exchange might be the most empowering technological innovation to come from the Internet thus far. But what are we going to do with it? --Michael Szul & Bill Ahern

Want to take this conversation further? We're experimenting with a public team on Keybase--an end-to-end encrypted messaging, file, and identity management service. Check out our public team here. You can also contact Bill and me directly from the chat feature. --MS

Editor(s) Note:

Interested in artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and chatbots in particular? Don't forget that Michael wrote a book: Building Chatbots in TypeScript with the Microsoft Bot Framework.

Where is Cryptocurrency Taking Us?

Something is only worth as much as somebody is willing to pay for it. That's pragmatic commerce. Investment markets were meant as a way to stabilize commodities, stocks, etc., but margins trading turned investments into speculation-driven enterprises, while banks continued to gain more power through consolidation and deregulation.

Bitcoin has value because people see a need for decentralized, potentially anonymous transactions. But Bitcoin's electricity consumption and environmental impact has become a huge cause for concern. The Lightning Network is attempting to resolve this by adding an extra transaction layer before getting to the Proof of Work of the blockchain. Ethereum is trying to move towards a Proof of Stake algorithm as a response.

Keybase--a tool that Bill and I use for communication--recently partnered with the Stellar Foundation to include Stellar wallets in their application. Stellar uses a consensus protocol that is supposed to make up for Bitcoin's shortcomings, while also providing border-less economic transactions through token transfers and bridges.

Nobody doubts the value of a decentralized ledger. The Linux Foundation funds the Hyperledger collective, which has two different blockchain solutions: Fabric and Sawtooth. The problem is that to ensure appropriate widespread decentralization requires incentive for people to run nodes. Proof of Work has been the most successful, and all cryptocurrencies rely on a reward system as an attempt to provide incentive.

What is the appropriate balance between moral responsibility and liberating decentralization, and where can blockchain take us that other computer science concepts can't? --MS

The New Dawn of the Cypherpunk

As linked to earlier, here's a throwback article from January where we discussed the history of cypherpunks, and how blockchain technology is allowing them to come into their own. --MS

Blood Diamonds

The Long Now Foundation has done some fantastic work centered on long-term thinking, which often includes scientific, ethical, and technological debate. They do seminars on a regular basis that I consider to be the thinking person's Ted Talks. Recently, they had a talk with Brian Behlendorf about blockchain technology, its uses, and its future.

Brian had a fantastic example about how blockchain technology was being used by the diamond industry to cut down on fraud, as well as the sale of blood diamonds. Previously, this was accomplished with paperwork, but today, Everledger is a growing company obsessed with tracking diamonds, reducing counterfeits, and fighting gems from war. The technology involves using the blockchain to track attributes of each diamond, and upon sale, those attributes are verified by the buying agency. This has reduced fraud in the diamond industry exponentially, which is having an equivalent affect on diamonds that is on-par with electronic medical records in healthcare. --MS

New Holland Brewing Sour Inc

New Holland Brewing Sour Inc

When I bought this, I acted too quickly and only saw "stout" and "cherries." When I got home, the "sour" text was now visible. The context here is that I already know I don't like sour beer. I gave it a shot. Who knows, maybe it's more stout than sour. Plus, New Holland Brewery makes one of my favorite stouts: Dragon's Milk.

It's not good. I wish I could review this from the perspective of one who enjoys sour beer, but it just tastes thick and sour. If you do like sour beer, I would imagine you know what to expect and you would probably enjoy this. For anyone like me, I don't recommend it. --BA