(written by Conor O'Higgins at the New Year 2015/2016)
Bitnation have kindly granted me a scholarship to the Hydra bootcamp in Exosphere, an entrepreneurial community in Chile. I will spend two months in a community, hanging out with smart people, kicking around ideas for start-ups, talking about radical decentralization and new applications of blockchain technology. I hope to come away with a tribe and a mission, a mission to build new social power-structures.
New social power-structures are a-comin' one way or another. If you are smart and young now, in 2016, you are part of the corps that chooses what they will be. What sort of society do you want the next generation to inherit? We can build any kind of world we want.
Me: I choose to stand on the side of democracy and peace. I think public discourse often forgets to ask a basic question: what is the purpose of power-structures like the state? It is not to dole out moral judgments; only God and Santa Claus can do that. The state serves to coordinate group action (I can't build a road by myself), stop murderers, thieves, and fraudsters, and provide an economic safety net. We should reject the authority of the state in all areas except these (such as when it interferes in our personal lives), and make sure the demos has it by the throat in these three areas.
The current power-structures overreach in many ways. They aim to give the powerful more power over the demos. For me, the Snowden leaks were like a bucket of ice-water waking me up to this sinister development. Orwellian surveillance is far from the only abuse of power, but it's the first one that stepped on my own human rights in a major way.
Some people say that it's the job of spies to spy, and that justifies the behavior of Five Eyes. No. We settled the tension between law enforcement and privacy satisfactorily a long time ago: when John Q. Law wants to spy on me, he goes through a process, proves reasonable suspicion to a judge, and the judge issues a warrant. There are legal and illegal wiretaps, and programs like PRISM are the latter. People say they don't care about privacy because they have nothing to hide – an argument that, as Snowden said, is exactly like not caring about free speech because you have nothing to say. It is interesting to me that I never heard these arguments before 2013; no one was calling for mass warrantless surveillance then. It is only when they found out that mass warrantless surveillance had been happening for some time that they gave in to it, as though they will accept any world the rulers decide on.
Five Eyes and their apologists are outraged that Snowden let us know what they were doing, even though they pump money into finding out what we are doing. They want something like a poker-game where the citizenry is forced to reveal its hand to the government, but the government hides its cards from the people. (By this metaphor, Daniel Ellsberg, the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Glenn Greenwald, and Julian Assange are in the business of flipping the government's cards face-up.) Nixon feared Hoover because "he has a file on everybody". Unless we stop it, the corporate-state alliance of the future will have far fatter files on far more people. Knowledge is Power.
I view major changes to this poker-game and other social power-games as inevitable, but the kind of changes as chooseable. The internet has spread into many spheres of life. It has come to dominate academia, banking, commerce, music, television, marketing, event management, travel, real estate. In the next 20 years, more and more social structures will be digitized: education will go online in a way we have not yet seen, the smart grid will turn energy into an information technology, food supply chains will be digitally tracked, digital fabrication will turn manufacturing into an information technology, and e-voting will make governance an information technology.
But just saying these things will become digital doesn't tell us anything interesting about who's in power.
We can allow ourselves be led into an Orwellian nightmare, where information technology is used for surveillance and marketing. Gigantic market-research companies like Google and Facebook will use the internet as an all-seeing informant, telling it what to advertise to you. What are we in this world?
Technophobes like Noam Chomsky lack the imagination to think of digitization as anything other than the Orwellian nightmare. They think more technology necessarily means more surveillance.
Cypherpunks/crypto-anarchists make up for this deficit of imagination. (Remember that "Freedom won't come through Love, and it won't come through Force. It will come through the Imagination".) Let's imagine a new web! It is possible. To say it is impossible is the moan of a lazy weakling.
As far as I can see, any web that supports democracy needs the following features:
Bitcoin is the flagship of crypto-anarchism. It ticks all these boxes. It is fully transparent: you can see every transaction happening in real time here, and yet, unless someone chooses to make their address public, it is nigh-impossible to tell who is behind the addresses, allowing it to be private enough for drug deals. It is fully decentralized, in stark contrast to currencies issued by central banks. No one is in charge of Bitcoin, making it incorruptible, not in the sense that a good man is incorruptible, but in the sense that mathematics is incorruptible. (Incorruptible because of design-choices, see?) It is cheaper, faster, more secure, and easier than bank transfers. It may well make its inventor a billionaire.
Storj, a new project I very much like, is faster and more secure than Dropbox (its centralized competitor) and pays you to use it. How's that for competitive advantage?
Here's one proposal for a post-Snowden web, Web 3.0. I can't fully endorse it because I don't fully understand it, but seems about right. I think torrents (simple peer-to-peer file transfers that have been around for years, and are very fast) are great, but it's problematic that they identify users by IP addresses. Torrents need a more private way to identify people. I think the Interplanetary File System is probably great, but I need to learn more about it. Namecoin is a way of registering domain names without ICANN; this is a part of the puzzle, because who the hell appointed ICANN kings of the internet? I don't know enough to say if a meshnet will be necessary or practical.
The blockchain may be our most powerful weapon. Bitcoin was the first, biggest, and best-known blockchain, but there are others. Blockchains are tamper-proof for at least 2 reasons: the data is distributed in many computers at once, and the data must all be valid and cohesive (like a tapestry where you can't remove just one thread without it messing up the whole). If people trust a blockchain to transfer $147,000,000 from one account to another, then we can trust a blockchain to transfer a vote from a citizen to a candidate. (I am writing this just days after Haïti's elections, using paper ballots, were marred by vote-tampering.) Follow My Vote are developing blockchain-based voting. basicincome.co is one of several projects with the ambitious aim to pay out universal social welfare through the blockchain.
I want more things like Bitcoin and Storj in the world! That is why I am flying to Chile a week from today. I want my niece to grow up in a world that uses decentralized, private, transparent, open-source applications for voting, collective decision-making, dispute resolution, creating and certifying standards for consumer goods (safety certification, organic certification etc.), and all the functions of the state-corporate alliance. If we build enough of them, and they are good enough, we do what Bucky said: we make the old power-structures obsolete.