The Blockchain Is a Reminder of the Internet’s Failure
The same utopian promises that bloomed during the Internet’s early days are back. Be afraid.
I remember the day I fell in love with the Internet as well as I remember the birth of my children. The summer of 1993; I was a reporter at the alt-weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian and my editor assigned me a story about an anime convention in Oakland, California. I asked the organizer of the conference where I could find some otaku (fanboys) to interview. “They all hang out on the Internet,” he said.
I didn’t have Internet access, but I had a modem and a CompuServe account that I used to exchange emails with my uncle. An hour spent lurking in a CompuServe anime forum sparked a life-changing epiphany. The online world, I realized instantly, was a fantastic reporting tool. I learned more about anime in that hour than I could have in a week spent tracking down interview subjects via landlines. I knew right away that I had to break out of the CompuServe walled garden and start homesteading the wild Internet.
From that day forward, my Rolodex might as well have been carved on cuneiform tablets. Within a week, I had figured out how to use my wife’s University of California, Berkeley student account to telnet and gopher and FTP my way around the pre-web “Net.” Within the year, I had quit the Guardian (although not before dropping a cover story — “How to Connect to the Internet”) and started writing for a brand new magazine called Wired.
I loved the Internet. But 25 years later, I see the words “the blockchain is the new Internet” scrolling down Twitter and I want to shake my news feed by the scruff of the neck and growl: Have you people learned nothing?!
As is so often the case with new converts, I was an instant over-the-top evangelist. And why not? Dreams formerly relegated to pulp science fiction novels had become reality: the library of all knowledge was just a few 14.4 baud beeps and gurgles away. I was far from a libertarian but I do confess to resonating to John “cypherpunk” Gilmore’s declaration that “the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” Totalitarians, corporate overlords, and media monopolies: beware! Your gatekeeping days were over! The Internet had set us free.
Gosh, I loved the Internet. But 25 years later, I see the words “the blockchain is the new Internet” scrolling down Twitter and it’s all I can do to keep from screaming: Oh man, I fucking hate the blockchain. I want to shake my news feed by the scruff of the neck and growl: Have you people learned nothing?! Call me apostate, or maybe just an aging grouch, but if the blockchain really is the new Internet, we’re all screwed.
Let’s get a few things out of the way. I do not hate the blockchain because I fundamentally question the technical merits of cryptographically-secured, distributed-database technology. Nor do I hate the blockchain because of how quickly Initial Coin Offerings turned from “innovative way to raise startup capital without selling your soul to venture capitalists” to “how fast can we scam a whole generation of crypto-suckers out of their cash before security regulators slam the door on our collective ass?” I don’t even hate the blockchain because bitcoin seems, at this point, primarily a way to transmute massive amounts of electricity into a speculative, climate-change accelerating investment commodity. There are a great many smart people working on blockchain implementations and a ton of money pouring into the space. I am prepared to concede that some useful applications will emerge that make my life more convenient and don’t break the planet. A few years had to pass between Mosaic 1.0 and the debut of Spotify and streaming Netflix and the iPhone. There’s still plenty of time before we call this round of innovation a wrap.
No, my problem has little to do with the actual technology. My gripe is with human faith in technology. The same kind of utopian promises that bloomed during the Internet’s early heyday — “freedom, fairness, and equality for the society of tomorrow” — are on the tip of every bitcoin miner’s tongue. The passion of the true zealot is everywhere: “The blockchain will set us free.”
But if there is one thing that we should have learned from the history of the last 25 years, it is that digital networks and computers and code are no solution to human brokenness. With each passing day, the opposite seems more likely to be true. Pressure exerted by the Internet cracked some long-existing social fissures wide open.
Instead of gaining access to the library of all human knowledge, we ended up card-carrying members of Jorge Luis Borges’ “Library of Babel” — that infinite biblio-nightmare that stockpiled every possible iteration of gibberish along with the real books written in real languages.
Instead of leading us to truth, the Internet gave everyone the unparalleled opportunity to build their own personal knowledge universe, catalyzing a comprehensive unmooring of society from actual fact that has surely been a factor in the rise of Trump and a global turn towards propaganda-fed authoritarianism.
I respect the idealism of blockchain developers… But I am confounded by their inability to see that they are falling victim to exactly the same fallacies their hacker forebears embraced.
Instead of freeing ourselves from the manipulation of corporations and governments, we have bequeathed them the most powerful tools of panopticonic surveillance and control ever invented.
The smartest blockchain developers that I have talked to do not deny these truths of what the Internet has wrought. On the contrary, what gets them most excited about the future is their confidence that blockchain technology is the antidote for all the toxic ills unleashed by Internet anarchy. Once their dream of perfectly decentralized, unhackable, smart-contract-executing “trustless” tech is perfected, they believe, central banks and government tyranny will be rendered impotent, nation-state borders transcended, voting fraud and fake news made impossible. The blockchain, in their view, is a teleological apotheosis, the perfection of progressive human civilization through technology.
At the heart of this vision is the idea that human messiness can be abstracted away by clever code. In a “trustless” system, public key cryptography and the “consensus” generated by distributing a database across multiple nodes eliminates the potential for fraud or corruption or exploitation committed by any intermediary. Smart contracts will automatically execute the terms of any deal, without getting bogged down by human fickleness or well-capitalized litigation. Tyrants will be powerless against cryptocurrency-funded freedom fighters organized in decentralized networks.
That’s the theory, anyway. But it misses the most important point about human messiness. The indisputable fact — obvious to anyone who has studied the history of technology or simply been alive for the last 25 years — is that living, breathing humans will deploy any conceivable technology for both good and evil, for the realization of both freedom and tyranny, for greed and power, and just plain mayhem. The Internet gave white supremacists a voice denied to them for decades; nothing is going to stop them from figuring out how to use blockchain technology for bigotry. Smart contracts will be tested in human courts. Regulators will regulate.
Decentralization is the first commandment of the blockchain faith. But what did William Butler Yeats tell us happens when “the center cannot hold”? Things fall apart!
I respect the idealism of blockchain developers who, I believe, are sincere in their faith that they are building a better world. But I am confounded by their inability to see that they are falling victim to exactly the same fallacies their hacker forebears embraced: this notion that we can code ourselves out of the deep holes we’ve dug; that we are building utopias in our virtualities that will finesse away the imperfections of human character.
It seems to me increasingly clear that we need to spend less time abstracting away our humanity and more time pressing the flesh. Instead of seeking out the anomie of decentralization, we need to figure out how to come together. To successfully deal with the failings of humanity, we have to spend more time with humans and less time thumbing our smartphones.
It’s not hard to understand the urge to declare that “the blockchain is the new Internet.” The mid-90s were a giddy time; the astonishingly fast transformation that swept through the culture was unlike anything in recent memory, and if you were riding the shockwave of that blast, it was exhilarating. Linked together in a global network, the computers that Steve Jobs called “bicycles of the mind” promised to take us anywhere we wanted to go. And, of course, a whole lot of people ended up making quite a bit of money off the new digital infrastructure. So who wouldn’t want to return to optimism of those days? Peace, love, and the Internet, man. It was so groovy.
That’s why I loved the Internet so much. Because of that sense of possibility and hope and progress. But that’s also exactly why I hate the blockchain. Because it reminds me of just how illusory those promises turned out to be.