Last October, exactly 365 days after leaving my last job to travel and work on personal projects, I joined ConsenSys, the leading Ethereum organization. It was a surprising landing spot to many, including myself — not a super obvious next step after digital education, strategy consulting, and political philosophy studies. I’m not a developer, or an anarchist, or a big crypto-investor.
But it was actually the result of a search for the best way to make an impact in what has become my deepest interest: the growing social divides, blind spots and tunnel vision in our fast-paced, polarized, no-nuance societies. As I explored the space, I realized how dramatically decentralization could alter problematic power structures, that token-based incentives could re-align behaviors with long-term values, and that cooperative networks could become the most effective tool social organization we’ve ever seen.
I also came to learn that the builders in this ecosystem were unbelievably open and well-intentioned, and formed a powerful community eager to learn and do good (this was before the late 2017 craze and the recent buidl movement). After exploring some areas close to my experience (education, politics, and business), I narrowed in on an area that was both a critical need now and extremely relevant to my questions around how organize and group: identity.
Finally, I came to believe that some of the attitudes that dominated this community were a bit narrow, over-confident and a bit utopian, perhaps dangerously so. That sometimes the exuberance over the potential of blockchain to help us coordinate can make us overlook the downsides of these powerful new tools, forgetting lessons we should have just learned from the arc of Web 2 and its impact on how we relate to each other. And that, maybe, I could champion some alternative perspectives as we develop these technologies. That’s what this article, and my role in the ecosystem, is about.
It’s not new to point out the growing divides in society the last decade. Trying to understand the roots of this and ways to counter the trend has been a huge focus of mine for a while, from angles of morality, psychology, history, spirituality, reason, evolution and technology. (If any of my own product ideas to attack this problem had shown more promise, I’d be working on that today).
It’s also become popular to blame the rise of technology for some of the polarization we face today. In no way do I mean to absolve them, but technologies like Facebook are just tools: tools that let us do more. They give us more wealth, more choice, more freedom — and in this case our own human nature leads us to choose tribalism. We like to hear beliefs we already hold, to meet people we find similar, and to be validated in our own preconceived notions. Tech makes this, like everything else, easier and faster. In a world flooded with choice, we flock to extremes and to our own biases. There’s no reward for nuance or considering others’ positions.
What does this have to do with blockchain? More than anything else (to me), the tokenized networks that blockchains enable are coordination tools. They let you (any person or group) organize a large, disparate group of people around a goal with very little work or cost. You can have the alignment of a small group and the scale of a large group; the flexibility of open source projects and the granular reward/evaluation of a lean team; the fairness of machine-applied code and the agility of re-writing it.
With tokenized networks you can spin up groups of people with shared alignment to work on any idea you can come up with, specific or general. Challenges of collective action is the entire reason government exists — we could now do huge swaths of the work governments or other large organizations do with far less waste and negative side effects, incentives that are guaranteed to stay aligned(!), and infinite flexibility on how local or global any given issue should be.
With these networks, we could change (or at least try to alter) the dynamics that have led to such a polarized, extreme culture. Instead of a single election for a single government representative for all things, we could design distributed networks for each function of government, each with their own form of voting and influencing based on how much the issue matters to the person, combining real math and real human nature (rather than the faux ‘rational man’ assumed in economics) to find optimal and fair outcomes.
We could change the incentives that have led us to be more extreme, to seek confirmation in groups with similar views and short-term validation from photo likes. We could design products and rewards that lead us to good long-term outcomes, to things that challenge and educate us, and that add real value not addiction. Maybe we won’t, but now we can.
Swept up in all this excitement though, some of what I heard on the utopias of a networked world took it too far: code for all laws, tokenize everything, a world coordinated by blockchain…this isn’t just impractical, it’s misguided. It celebrates the upsides but ignores the downsides of this trend, which has become our habit in such a polarized world.
There are a number of possible downsides, from the potentially catastrophic, to the overconfidence in our ability to design large scale systems (law or code). The one that most caught my concern is exemplified by Naval Ravikant’s viral tweetstorm on replacing networks with markets. Markets are efficient; they have been a huge force for good. They are not always all-good (even Adam Smith said so in his other book).
Three different forces govern how we behave:
- Markets: all sides look for the best objective outcome for themselves (e.g., a flea market)
- Contracts: all sides agree to play by certain rules that are best for the group in the long-run to follow (e.g., speed limits)
- Culture: shared norms that guide behavior in uncertain (unplanned for) times (e.g., response to 9/11)
They each play a critical role, and the balance between differs across organizations, societies and time. When one is stronger, the others typically are weaker. As contracts (laws) play a more significant role, more behavior is defined and culture needs to carry less weight, and so gets weaker. This isn’t necessarily good or bad, but it can be either depending on the situation.
Take a micro example: marriage. A marriage is a contract, specifying certain agreements you make to each other. But really, the majority of what makes most marriages meaningful is not in the signed document, it’s the relationship: how you show affection, split chores, settle fights, raise kids, take time away. A relationship is a 2-person society. You agree on a few ground rules up front (contract), you negotiate a few things here and there (market), but the relationship hinges mostly on the shared norms and behaviors you figure out together as you go (culture). Or at least it has..
But now we’ve got smart contracts: we could put marriage on the blockchain! We could tokenize it and put market dynamics to the relationship! All those parts of couple life that are constant debates could be handled and optimized and incentivized back and forth with marriageCoin, and if something’s not working we’ll have the governing body update the code in the marriage smart contract. It would be objectively fair to both sides, incentivizing the right splits of various parts of family life properly, arbitrating disputes about who was slacking through transaction records…
This sounds terrible, I hope. Marriage should not be based on contractual or market norms but primarily on cultural norms, for practical reasons (not just moral ones): a family is not a predictable, negotiated situation and will require good reactions to unpredictable long-term developments. Who will handle an unexpected (not coded for) crisis better together, the family who has always let coded rules dictate behavior and has no other built up norms to fall back on, or the family that has developed strong relationships through unscripted life together?
Society is no different than marriage: as we add markets and contracts, we will lose culture. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, always. It’s certainly not a reason to put a stop to the benefits we can unleash through networks. But it is a very real downside worth considering before we put a token or smart contract to everything. We cannot code for every situation, and the closer we get the more we may erode the social bonds that we depend on in those unpredictable, uncertain moments when we need it most. How much culture do we want to encroach on? Because we know that one set of governing norms will crowd out the other.
In the internet revolution we built amazing technology that has added wealth and health and welfare of many kinds to nearly every part of the world. It has been an unbelievable force for good. It has not been all good. While building Web 2 we focused exclusively on the benefits of connectivity, power, globalization and choice. Now we’re very aware of the echo chambers, extremism, and other issues that same tech enabled, perhaps too late to change the nature of it. I now work on uPort, where we are trying to give people control over their identity, data, and social graphs. What if people use these tools to double down on narrow identity groups, ‘tribalism,’ and us vs. them mentalities?
As we build Web 3, let’s be more aware of the nuance this time. Yes, let’s rush to build more tech, more markets, more contracts, more incentivized networks, more unbelievably powerful new ways to organize ourselves for good. Let’s usher in all the good those can bring, which I believe are revolutionary. And let’s also consciously leave room in our heads and our teams and our schemes for the lessons of history: coded networks are not the only system at play in our world, and we need to be thinking about the impact we are having on all of them.