I apologize. I get it. You hear “blockchain” and you immediately think “shady get-rich-quick schemes” or “bubble of magical fake Internet money” or “libertarian enfants terribles,” and when a true believer tries to explain to you why you should care, why it will change the world beyond just minting a new set of paper oligarchs, you think “wait, why not just use a database?” I hear you.
And you’re not wrong. In the developed world, at least, there isn’t a lot that Bitcoin can do which isn’t already handled better, and more safely, by banks and credit cards. The vast majority of other cryptocurrencies are basically penny stocks in an unregulated global stock market, except for the ones which are basically games of chance in a global casino, and the ones which are Bitcoin except actually secret and anonymous, which are technically amazing but don’t necessarily inspire greater confidence in the general applicability of the whole concept.
Ethereum is more interesting, you might grudgingly concede, with its whole “world computer” concept, running code and storing data on what is essentially a decentralized permissionless virtual machine scattered across thousands of nodes worldwide — but nobody actually uses it except to host the aforementioned stock market / casino, plus maybe the occasional memetic CryptoFad, and even if people did want to use it, they couldn’t, because it doesn’t scale.
All (currently) true. And let me hasten to stress that I’m not saying blockchains are going to take over the world. I stand by my stance that they are the new Linux, not the new Internet. I think it’s optimistic to project that they’ll wind up directly used by any more than a few percent of the population, those driven by the technology or the politics rather than convenience and ease of use.
But I think the existence of that alternative will be very important, because the mainstream Internet, the traditional Internet, and especially traditional social media, are poisoned by two original sins.
The first is advertising-driven media. This is creepy enough in and of itself: it leads directly to user tracking, browser fingerprinting, ad retargeting, clickbait farms like Outbrain / Taboola, ads that crash mobile browsers or obscure the content you actually wanted to see, autoplay interstitials which make TV commercials seem inobtrusive, etcetera. But it’s catastrophic for social media, because it incentivizes ever more engagement, which in turn incentivizes outrage generation, fake news, demonization of “the other side” whoever that may be, etc. — because those things lead to greater engagement, which lead to more advertising income. No matter what social media executives may say, the black hole of more money, higher profits, hitting their targets, and getting their bonuses will keep tugging at them, inexorably, so long as their business model is driven by advertising.
The second is the simple fact that, unless you design against this from the very beginning, technology tends to centralize power, courtesy of Metcalfe’s Law and other winner-takes-most effects. Which leads inevitably to the situation wherein a Facebook bug (an inexcusable but honest error) compromises the accounts of 50 million people, and in many cases their Tinder and Spotify and whichever other third-party accounts, as well … because Facebook has grown to be a centralized identity power on the Internet. And what can these people do? Which alternatives can they switch to? If they’re very upset and very resolute, they might be able to change to … other, equally centralized, similarly advertising-financed identity providers. But don’t count on it.
That’s why the mere existence of a permissionless decentralized alternative, one not financed by ads, one not ruled by any central titanic company, is important. And, my friends, I know you don’t want to hear this, but it’s getting really, really hard to imagine a decentralized network with a new financing model that doesn’t involve blockchains in one ore more way, shape, or form. This doesn’t mean we’ll all have to keep some kind of “wallet” full of private keys and run blockchain nodes on our phones and laptops. Some of the most interesting decentralization initiatives, notably Blockstack, use blockchains so subtly that you’ll hardly notice it. But they’re vital to them nonetheless.
So please, get over your knee-jerk repugnance. Look beyond the manipulated markets and the crazy casino. Accept that the fringe who first accept and champion a genuinely new idea tends to be disproportionately lunatic, especially if the idea relates to money … but that does not mean the idea itself is inherently so as well. There’s something more interesting than made-up money and get-rich-quick schemes going on here, and while I think it’s unlikely it’ll ever conquer the mainstream, I do believe there’s a genuine technically, politically, financially, and socially interesting alternative movement being born, behind all the sturm und drang and laughable scams. Watch carefully. Think again.
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