Steve Randy Waldman has a nice thing about consensus forming applications in his most recent article on open science, econometrics and cryptocurrency.
I’ve done a more formal thing about it for AV which should be out on Monday, but I wanted to expand here because some of the stuff he says happens to complement my interest in power consolidation through propaganda and mythmaking.
In fact, I was telling xxhshste (cryptographically obscured) the other day as we were meandering through the Frieze art fair — a fair I find fascinating precisely because of the cultism and mythmaking at hand — about my undergraduate academic thesis on the significance of Apollo to Augustus. I shan’t bore you with too many of the details, suffice to say Augustus identified with Apollo so that the public would come to associate the god’s key attributes with the Augustan era, Pavlovian style.
(A piece of art at Frieze which drew my eye.)
The Augustan approach was thus a hugely successful exercise in reverse psychology and subtle persuasion/brainwashing of the masses. And it succeeded precisely because the symbols and associations were never too overt. Augustus didn’t want to tell people he was the divinely favoured son of Apollo –a.k.a the light of the sun personified. He wanted them to make the association themselves. This is because he knew that a man who arrives at a belief via his own “proof of work” is much more likely to trust the conclusion.
Augustus’ great genius, consequently, lay in the realisation that if he planted just enough seeds in the public consciousness or dropped just enough clues in public art and infrastructure — not too few, not too many — he could guide the public’s factual evaluation and decision-making processes. Which, of course, amounted to the manufacture of consent.
Augustus in that sense was a pioneer in the art of using subliminal messaging to skew and corrupt public consensus.
The technique was so effective it changed the minds of a people who were so profoundly distrustful of absolute monarchy (that they had structured all their social systems to never allow it to manifest) into accepting absolute rule open heartedly.
And while publicly Augustus tried to make it look very much like leadership was a heavy burden to bear, privately, absolute rule was always his aim.
And this sort of thing is exactly what I worry about whenever anyone suggests consensus-based applications are the future.
Now, I don’t want to rehash the same old arguments I’ve already made about Bitcoin (in particular) being a bait and switch re-enactment of Animal Far which exploits public gullibility to create an even more oppressive system than the one it is on the surface trying to get rid of. I’ve written plenty about this before.
What I want to explore, on the back of Waldman’s post, is why so many highly intelligent people seem to believe that the blockchain consensus-forming technology behind Bitcoin, might be a revolutionary technology in and of its own right.
I think the use of the word “revolutionary” is the clue here.
That’s because it suggests none of this is really about technology, money or assets at all. But rather that it’s really about politics, hierarchy and anacyclosis.
On that basis “belief” in the potential of the blockchain is just another manifestation of the age old desire to transfer power from the elite to the masses.
The only difference is that for some reason people seem to think that because our communication tools are better this time around the revolution might actually be effective. And by effective I mean that it creates a new order which doesn’t open itself to a whole new corruptive influence on the back of it.
At this point I would like to state for the record that I have absolutely nothing but respect for anyone who wishes to make a fairer or more just system. But I remain skeptical about the blockchain as a path to empowerment because I think too many people mistake it as being the sort of technology that leads to absolute outcomes, when really it’s about using technology to better organise a still highly fallible human race.
Xxhshste said to me that the reason he’s excited about the blockchain is because he thinks there’s a real need to have a distributed publicly owned backup of all the important stuff in the world that needs to be documented or tracked.
I don’t disagree. It would be lovely if I knew that a transaction I did with a corrupt individual who might otherwise “overlook” that the transaction ever happened could have recourse to a public ledger that could stand by my version of events.
But there are two issues at hand. The first is, so what?! Just because something is documented doesn’t mean people will believe it or act upon it.
None of this resolves the issue of enforcement.
Just look at all the vast amounts of people who routinely deny documented fact and science, despite benefiting from those publicly acknowledged discoveries on a day to day basis. Or, for that matter, who disregard the law unless it suits them. The great irony of libertarians’ fascination with blockchain is that the blockchain only works for a civilised and subservient society which agrees to honour its findings and succumb to its protocol.
Unfortunately there will always be those who subscribe to it only when it suits them. And that’s because there will always be those who see it for the abstracted version of reality which it is.
The second issue is who forms the consensus anyway? And how can you be sure they won’t be skewed or biased by stronger forces?
In the current incarnation, the bias is controlled by the embedded payoff. Everyone has an interest in defending the ledger because there’s too much at stake if the system can be corrupted. So, for as long as there’s a payoff provided to those defending the system, and the system’s defence is the only thing that guarantees the value of that payoff, the thing is kept (relatively) honest.
But the payoff still has to come from somewhere. At the moment the payoff comes from the transfer of wealth into the system from outside. It originates from the product of someone else’s more conventional work, and flows to those expending real energy and resources keeping the blockchain honest. Which, by the way, is why there’s an arms race to attract ever greater transfers of wealth into the system.
All fine and dandy, except what happens when the cost of defending the blockchain gets so expensive it requires a disproportionately large transfer of real-world product (the product of someone else’s work) to the hands of those with the fastest computers?
Fine. Remove the payoff, you might say?
Well, that’s precisely what the new generation of blockchains are trying to do from scratch. Except you’ve guessed it. If you remove the payoff those expending time and energy defending the consensus-formation process must be compensated in some other way or else they’ll walk away leaving only the most cost-efficient processor defending the system.
The most obvious way is via transaction fees. Unfortunately, paying 1,000 people to simulate the processing job of Visa (and then to reach a consensus) is likely to make it 1,000x more expensive than Visa. What’s more their costs are unlikely to be uniform, so a universal fee will not be equally compensatory, meaning once again you end up with some getting more exploited than others, and the structure and control of the system orientating to the “defenders” with the lowest marginal costs.
Which is why if you remove the payoff the whole thing fails. You end up with a classic transaction fee led “business’, which due to the cost of operating the system inevitably reduces the many to the few (via the standard forces of monopolization), and we end up with a small number of people controlling the system, no better no worse.
So, raison d’etre consensus
The ethereum approach which Waldman references, of course, is to attach some form of raison d’etre to participation. Again, a highly noble endeavour. Except. How are you ever going to convince people that it’s really worth their time and energy to participate in defending the payments, contracts, registry system of the world. Why should their computer resources be overcrammed by processing transactions or contracts on the other side of the planet among a community of people they have no interest in?
Raison d’etre makes sense, but only on a local basis. And for that reason it can never scale, because as soon as you get a babysitters club blockchain running up too many costs due to the burden of processing all the world’s babysitting coupons, you will get fragmentation towards the local geography or pool.
The raison d’etre approach, in other words, can only exist with extremely selective and localised blockchains that are relevant to the individuals participating. And even then, there’s always going to be a business opportunity for anyone who comes along and says, “hey, don’t waste your time having to defend all these systems you participate in yourself, we’ll do it for you, you can trust us, and you go and play tennis, or whatever”.
The only raison d’etre approach that can ever work is if human self-determination and life itself depends on it. I.e. when the cost of not participating is so great, that it turns you into a manipulated drone with no privacy, no self-determination and/or when your life becomes meaningless from non-participation.
Unfortunately, however, there will always be a sector of society that will happily accept and even enjoy this sort of pre-packaged life. We know this, because it has always been so. And it will remain the case for as long as people can be convinced (through subtle persuasion) that their inferior life is the one they want, are responsible for and can’t change. And even better, if they can be persuaded to actually think they’re getting a bargain because they don’t have to work and all this stuff they get is free.
In my book treating blockchain as a revolutionary empowerment tool runs the risk of taking our eyes off the real power abuse issue. So what if some small section of society is empowered by the blockchain when the rest of society ends up being hopelessly exploited because there is and always will be an information asymmetry between those who can be bothered to defend their freedoms and those who are happy to trust others to do the heavy lifting for them.
Enough musings for now, I might be back with some choice extracts from the Chomsky classic, “Manufacturing Consent”.