The 21st century world is connected, but not centered. These are both good things. Connections link people, cultures and ideas. Indeed, all the great advances in human history have been the result of social and economic networks.
Without the trade routes of the Indian Ocean, the Islamic world would never have acquired the numerals of India that now form the foundation of our mathematics of science. Without the coffeehouses of 17th and 18th century Britain, the Enlightenment probably wouldn’t have materialized. Genius dies in isolation; connection is the engine that drives human progress.
By contrast, the centralization of power is highly correlated with disaster and suffering. Some say that this is the iron law of oligarchy – i.e., as any institution, private or public, becomes larger and more complex, power will inevitably become concentrated in the hands of a small elite. It’s also inevitable that we’ll experience earthquakes and hurricanes, but this doesn’t stop us from trying to mitigate the damage of such natural disasters.
The incentives of our traditional economies have made oligarchies a practical certainty. We are now at a technological crossroads, however, which will allow us to change these incentives, keeping power in the hands of the people. And blockchain could be a key component of this process.
Blockchain should be anti-bloc. What does this mean? Simply put, that a truly decentralized blockchain will, by its very nature, resist the centralizing and homogenizing forces that tend to form into power blocs. We must not forget that blockchain is also a means to an idealistic end. When Satoshi Nakamoto mined the Bitcoin genesis block, he embedded a reference to an article in London’s newspaper The Times about the 2008 financial crash. The gesture was not subtle: Satoshi believed that centralized banks and central governments had failed their constituents.
It’s increasingly difficult to distinguish between our “online” and “offline” lives, so it’s hardly a surprise that regimes that wish to control their citizens – or even transform their citizens into “subjects” – do so by controlling the internet. It’s a scandal that even a single country is unfree, but across the world, governments are growing more restrictive and more repressive. These regimes actively ban services, put up firewalls, gather data, monitor critics and mass-produce lies.
Blockchain represents an alternative to this shift toward authoritarianism by enabling ad-hoc, censorship-resistant, peer-to-peer connections. An authoritarian state cannot seize a blockchain’s distributed P2P servers, nor can it flood the market with counterfeit cryptocurrency. The perfect blockchain doesn’t destroy economic, political or financial power, it merely distributes that power by using consensus to hold each other accountable to the truth of history.
We shouldn’t assume that all political power is wielded by explicitly political entities. Some of the largest blocs today are major tech companies and other multinational corporations, which often rival nation-states in influence and power. Where does their power come from? In many cases, it depends on the user data stored in their central servers, as well as the analysis of that data. Privacy and data-gathering scandals have been near-weekly occurrences for the past several years, and they show no signs of stopping.
After all, the biggest companies have more knowledge of their users than ever before. Google already has staggering amounts of personal data for most of its billions of users; after spending billions to acquire Fitbit, it will soon have even more. Netflix doesn’t just track what its viewers watch, it even auto-generates content thumbnails for individual users. Facebook is perhaps the most controversial data-gatherer: Mark Zuckerberg and his associates have received congressional summons to discuss just how grievously the company has abused public trust.
Although blockchain has genuine political potential, truly decentralized blockchains will require deviation from today’s practices. When the first Bitcoin was mined in 2009 and 2010, just about any internet-ready computer could participate. The first Bitcoin found its way into dorm room laptops, aging internet cafe machines and PCs in rented studios. Anyone, anywhere – provided they were online – could mine Bitcoin.
As difficulty increased and Bitcoin’s value appreciated, however, centralization became a fact of mining. No longer could anyone with a computer successfully mine. Now, the miners were specialized machines in anonymous server farms clustered near cheap power sources. The technology became ever more powerful, but decentralization broke down.
Let me be clear: Bitcoin still has a vital role to play in bringing blockchain technology to the masses. And the work it has done in providing a currency to people afflicted by authoritarian oppression and hyperinflation cannot be understated. But the limitations described above are real nonetheless, and future entries into the crypto landscape must strive to overcome them.
Blockchain and decentralization can serve as essential countermeasures to growing political and corporate authoritarianism. In countries that are already free, decentralizing tools grant greater freedom. They permit their users to opt out of systems that they believe are unjust – or even merely inconvenient. In authoritarian regimes, blockchain and related technology provide a way to evade injustice and to organize against it. These are the first steps in reclaiming the freedom that has degraded since the dawn of the 21st century.