The cryptocurrency movement is the spiritual heir to previous open computing movements, including the open source software movement led most visibly by Linux, and the open information movement led most visibly by Wikipedia.1991: Linus Torvalds’ forum post announcing Linux; 2001: the first Wikipedia pageBoth of these movements were once niche and controversial. Today Linux is the dominant worldwide operating system, and Wikipedia is the most popular informational website in the world.Crypto tokens are currently niche and controversial. If present trends continue, they will soon be seen as a breakthrough in the design and development of open networks, combining the societal benefits of open protocols with the financial and architectural benefits of proprietary networks. They are also an extremely promising development for those hoping to keep the internet accessible to entrepreneurs, developers, and other independent creators.
This relationship between protocols and applications is reversed in the blockchain application stack. Value concentrates at the shared protocol layer and only a fraction of that value is distributed along at the applications layer. It’s a stack with “fat” protocols and “thin” applications.We see this very clearly in the two dominant blockchain networks, Bitcoin and Ethereum. The Bitcoin network has a $10B market cap yet the largest companies built on top are worth a few hundred million at best, and most are probably overvalued by “business fundamentals” standards. Similarly, Ethereum has a $1B market cap even before the emergence of a real breakout application on top and only a year after its public release.
The fact these lazy seeming workarounds foreshadow later popular protocols seems to tell us something about decentralization. The progression of centralized hosting → Napster → Kazaa → BitTorrent seems to represent the minimum viable decentralization required to stay alive as defined by the law at the time. These lazy workarounds match because decentralization isn’t the product, it is just a means of staying alive.Plenty of people went further with decentralization and anonymity, but it wasn’t necessary for staying alive and it only mattered to a privacy-focused minority of people. Beyond staying alive, decentralization is a weakness not a strength. In many ways, 2005’s BitTorrent was more centralized than Kazaa, but it decentralized file transfer and outsourced content discovery which made it more resilient than Kazaa which decentralized search at the protocol level.
Decentralization and other technological tricks help keep technologies online which wouldn’t last if they were centralized, but they don’t fully solve the problem. Instead, it seems like decentralized technologies depend on activists in order to fully realize the vision of the technology. Bram played this part by open sourcing his protocol, limiting his ability to profit from the system, and creating an environment where killing his client would basically do nothing to stop BitTorrent usage. The Pirate Bay is a more obvious example of activism and they go hand in hand with Piratbyrån’s anti-copyright mission. Yes, there are private torrent trackers and public options besides The Pirate Bay, but no one has provided the continuity and resilience that The Pirate Bay has in staying alive no matter the cost.
Decentralized technologies don’t take the legally impossible and make it unstoppable. Decentralization is a tactic for diffusing risk for many and lowering the risk for the activists that operate the most sensitive parts of the system. We see the same with Tor, where the risk of participating in the system is concentrated at the exit nodes which can attract undesirable legal attention. Without activism, we would have beautifully designed decentralized technologies which are impossible to use in practice.
Ironically, Bitcoin’s success depends on the same critical factor as a state-issued “fiat” currency: the collective trust of its community of users. Their confidence in the accuracy of the ledger of all Bitcoin transactions is what makes the currency viable. Law-abiding citizens want efficient, reliable payments. Bitcoin’s mysterious creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, realized this. His 2008 white paper said a great deal about cutting out banks; it said nothing about evading the rule of law.
Cloud Communities: The Dawn of Global Citizenship?, kickoff contribution by Liav Orgad
Citizenship in Cloud Cuckoo Land?, by Rainer Bauböck
Citizenship in the Era of Blockchain-Based Virtual Nations, by Primavera De Filippi
Global Citizenship for the Stay-at-Homes, by Francesca Strumia
A World Without Law; A World Without Politics, by Robert Post
Virtual Politics, Real Guns: On Cloud Community, Violence, and Human Rights, by Michael Blake
A World Wide Web of Citizenship, by Peter J. Spiro
Citizenship Forecast: Partly Cloudy with Chances of Algorithms, by Costica Dumbrava
The Separation of Territory and State: a Digital French Revolution?, by Yussef Al Tamimi
A Brave New Dawn? Digital Cakes, Cloudy Governance and Citizenship á la carte, by Jelena Dzankic
Old Divides, New Devices: Global Citizenship for Only Half of the World, by Lea Ypi
Escapist technology in the service of neo-feudalism, by Dimitry Kochenov
Cloud communities and the materiality of the digital, by Stefania Milan
Cloud Agoras: When Blockchain Technology Meets Arendt’s Virtual Public Spaces, by Dora Kostakopoulou
Global Cryptodemocracy is Possible and Desirable, by Ehud Shapiro
The Future of Citizenship: Global and Digital. A Rejoinder, by Liav Orgad
Another Kind of Radical Market
The book as a whole tends to focus on centralized reforms that could be implemented on an economy from the top down, even if their intended long-term effect is to push more decision-making power to individuals. The proposals involve large-scale restructurings of how property rights work, how voting works, how immigration and antitrust law works, and how individuals see their relationship with property, money, prices and society. But there is also the potential to use economics and game theory to come up with decentralized economic institutions that could be adopted by smaller groups of people at a time.
Perhaps the most famous examples of decentralized institutions from game theory and economics land are (i) assurance contracts, and (ii) prediction markets. An assurance contract is a system where some public good is funded by giving anyone the opportunity to pledge money, and only collecting the pledges if the total amount pledged exceeds some threshold. This ensures that people can donate money knowing that either they will get their money back or there actually will be enough to achieve some objective. A possible extension of this concept is Alex Tabarrok’s dominant assurance contracts, where an entrepreneur offers to refund participants more than 100% of their deposits if a given assurance contract does not raise enough money.
Prediction markets allow people to bet on the probability that events will happen, potentially even conditional on some action being taken (“I bet $20 that unemployment will go down if candidate X wins the election”); there are techniques for people interested in the information to subsidize the markets. Any attempt to manipulate the probability that a prediction market shows simply creates an opportunity for people to earn free money (yes I know, risk aversion and capital efficiency etc etc; still close to free) by betting against the manipulator.
Posner and Weyl do give one example of what I would call a decentralized institution: a game for choosing who gets an asset in the event of a divorce or a company splitting in half, where both sides provide their own valuation, the person with the higher valuation gets the item, but they must then give an amount equal to half the average of the two valuations to the loser. There’s some economic reasoning by which this solution, while not perfect, is still close to mathematically optimal.
One particular category of decentralized institutions I’ve been interested in is improving incentivization for content posting and content curation in social media. Some ideas that I have had include:
- Proof of stake conditional hashcash(when you send someone an email, you give them the opportunity to burn $0.5 of your money if they think it’s spam)
- Prediction markets for content curation(use prediction markets to predict the results of a moderation vote on content, thereby encouraging a market of fast content pre-moderators while penalizing manipulative pre-moderation)
- Conditional payments for paywalled content (after you pay for a piece of downloadable content and view it, you can decide after the fact if payments should go to the author or to proportionately refund previous readers)
And ideas I have had in other contexts:
Twitter scammers: can prediction markets incentivize an autonomous swarm of human and AI-driven moderators to flag these posts and warn users not to send them ether within a few seconds of the post being made? And could such a system be generalized to the entire internet, where these is no single centralized moderator that can easily take posts down?Some ideas others have had for decentralized institutions in general include:
- TrustDavis (adding skin-in-the-game to e-commerce reputations by making e-commerce ratings be offers to insure others against the receiver of the rating committing fraud)
- Circles (decentralized basic income through locally fungible coin issuance)
- Markets for CAPTCHA services
- Digitized peer to peer rotating savings and credit associations
- Token curated registries
- Crowdsourced smart contract truth oracles
- Using blockchain-based smart contracts to coordinate unions
I would be interested in hearing Posner and Weyl’s opinion on these kinds of “radical markets”, that groups of people can spin up and start using by themselves without requiring potentially contentious society-wide changes to political and property rights. Could decentralized institutions like these be used to solve the key defining challenges of the twenty first century: promoting beneficial scientific progress, developing informational public goods, reducing global wealth inequality, and the big meta-problem behind fake news, government-driven and corporate-driven social media censorship, and regulation of cryptocurrency products: how do we do quality assurance in an open society?
All in all, I highly recommend Radical Markets(and by the way I also recommend Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Inadequate Equilibria) to anyone interested in these kinds of issues, and look forward to seeing the discussion that the book generates.
It is high time to end the hype. Bitcoin is a slow energy-inefficient dinosaur that will never be able to process transactions as quickly or inexpensively as an Excel spreadsheet. Ethereum’s plans for an insecure proof-of-stake authentication system will render it vulnerable to manipulation by influential insiders.And Ripple’s technology for cross-border interbank financial transfers will soon be left in the dust by Swift, a non-blockchain consortium used by all of the world’s major financial institutions. Similarly, centralised e-payment systems with almost no transaction costs – Faster Payments, AliPay, WeChat Pay, Venmo, PayPal, Square – are being used by billions of people around the world.Today’s coin mania is not unlike the railway mania at the dawn of the industrial revolution in the mid-19th century. On its own, blockchain is hardly revolutionary. In conjunction with the secure, remote automation of financial and machine processes, however, it can have potentially far-reaching implications.Ultimately, blockchain’s uses will be limited to specific, well-defined, and complex applications that require transparency and tamper-resistance more than they require speed – for example, communication with self-driving cars or drones. As for most of the coins, they are little different from railway stocks in the 1840s, which went bust when that bubble – like most bubbles – burst.