It’s important to remember how utopian a social media-dominated world seemed in 2008. Social media was thought of as a democratizing force. In a world of large media players and gatekeepers, social media would give everyone a voice and level the playing field. It seemed improbable, but if we could just pull off wooing the average person off of legacy old-world media, a democratized utopia awaited us. Now that this is our reality, we see how misguided much of that original vision was and the problems that were obvious in its fundamental design.
Now that we’re in our most intense flurry of innovation in our next tectonic shift (towards decentralized systems) I think it’s important to pause and learn from the mistakes of the last disruptive transition. We need to envision the reality of a decentralized computing world in order to best arm ourselves against building another dystopia. The following are some aspects of decentralized systems that I worry about.
A Paywall to Citizenship
Part of the allure of the decentralized web is that it has incentives built into its core. Free was one of the most dangerous lies web 2.0 told us. We excitedly opened up our lives as treasure troves of data to the first companies the world has ever seen who were actually smart enough to productize it. Many decentralized systems allow us to shatter that illusion by building real incentives into exchanging data, exchanging value, viewing content, storing content, or any of the other fundamentals of the new web. I.E. instead of Google hosting a file of mine for free (in exchange for my data) someone will host it for me securely in a decentralized system in exchange for siacoin or filecoin or storj.
I recently bought one square on the thousand ether homepage. It was my first time really interacting with a dapp and it was definitely pretty cool. I excitedly got metamask working on my browser, transferred the necessary ethereum, bought the square, and dove into the source code to see how everything worked. I didn’t really think much about the .1 ETH I spent to do it until later.
.1 ETH in USD today is $45.97 (that’s without fees). At minimum wage in the US that’s over 6 hours of work. Picking two countries at random, in Bulgaria’s minimum wage that’s over 28 hours of hours and in Senegal’s that’s almost 100 hours. Preexisting global inequities are exacerbated by the move towards a global currency and decentralized systems with incentives built into their core. What happens when more of what we envision moves in this direction? How does this play out with identity, citizenship, storage, content, etc? All these systems can be designed so they’re not exclusionary, but a lot of the fundamentals of our current solutions don’t lend themselves to that.
As hellish as google is, one can still go to youtube, type in “how to change a tire” and watch a video of how to do exactly that by paying only the entry fee of watching some ads and feeding the beast more knowledge (assuming they’re in the half of the world with the bandwidth and that there are no country-level content restrictions). Maybe the ultimate version of a world build on things like BAT and Dtube or Viewly or something can keep the strengths and lose some weaknesses, but I can definitely see them turning into things that wall people out. Just think of the services google alone provides for free… maps, notes, contacts, email, photos, social media, search, AI assistance, video streaming, documents, file storage, etc.- for every one of them that gets replaced with a decentralized system there’s a new chance that someone who paid the entrance fee of control and privacy may get walled out of a world built on direct incentives.
Currently the buck stops at the centralized authority. When the centralized authority has complete control it can police its domain however it sees fit. This can allow the authority to ban harassers and enforce its terms of service. However, participants in centralized systems upon which they grow dependent have no choice but to work with the centralized authority when they are ill-served because they are at its mercy. We’ve seen it play out how horrible this can be.
On the other hand, a decentralized system must be self-policing or anarchic. How do we deal with issues of harassment, impersonation, theft, spam, or even user error in decentralized systems? In systems of open governance, how can we prevent a majority citizenship from enacting something which benefits them but harms a minority citizenship?
There’s no password recovery feature on steemit because building one is impossible. There’s no customer support to call if I send my BTC to the wrong address, it’s just gone forever. These are problems.
On their face, decentralized systems seem like a playground for harassers, bigots, and people engaged in illegal activity. To some extent today they very well may be. Still, I have faith that with careful design decentralized systems can be much more robust than the centralized ones that exist now.
The New Kings
The early investors in cryptocurrency are now god-level rich. As more of the world’s wealth shifts towards cryptocurrency their wealth will only grow. Conversely for those who never bought in, doing so is predicated on having existing wealth and being in a position to be able to risk it. I’ve seen the views espoused by some of the crypto-rich and whether I like it or not (I often haven’t), they’re immensely powerful people now. I hope they use this power wisely. I also hope wealth redistribution works its way into these systems (…not you clamcoin).
There’s no way around it, mining just roasts electricity. Proof-of-space seems like a pipe dream. I don’t know of any real progress being made on this front but if you know of any please do share.
Five million different coins and five million different protocols for five million different cases means maybe, just maybe one of them might work. I’ll never ever be able to ask Microsoft’s Cortana to miracast an Amazon prime video onto my samsung TV. Today’s flaws make it so that even though we’ve broken down every one of the technical barriers to do so, I’ll just never be able to do it. Maybe someday I’ll be able to ask decentralized systems to do every one of those steps, but the standards wars along the way are going to be nearly insurmountable.
Can I make a transaction on an app store running on Ethereum using a country’s cryptocurrency under cvc identity, which is also hooked up to my browser of EOS apps where I use the app I bought? Time will tell, but in the short term every bone in my body doubts it.
If bitcoin cash has underscored anything, it’s that decentralized systems can certainly be co-opted and manipulated. This is especially true when they’re as small and volatile as something like a current-day cryptocurrency. The total market cap of all Bitcoin at the time of me writing this is $156,250,363,588. For scale, Apple’s market cap crested $900,000,000,000 this year. It took only a rumor of Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin’s death to wipe out 4 billion of the ETH market cap. If a massive incumbent (be it a government or a company) sees its power slipping there’s no reason they can’t make moves to dominate mining or ownership of a currency to take control. If people grew to depend on a decentralized system (cryptocurrency or not), then that system was co-opted and recentralized, it could be dangerous to all involved.
Whatever we don’t see coming
I’m sure the worst of the new web, like with web 2.0, will be the things we don’t see coming…
We’ll fix it eventually. I’m sure of it 🙂