This series of articles is based on a book about bitcoin and blockchain that is to be published but not yet named. There are not only such maverick theories as this article, but also a lot of personal stories in my report writing career, and a lot of sarcasm that should make you laugh. Well, this excerpt can be regarded as a draft – welcome your feedback.
To read the second part of this series, click here.
By 2019, it will be very easy to identify the origins and long-term prospects of bitcoin’s cryptopunk. Our digital world is increasingly being monitored and data collected by big companies, using these data to influence us. At the same time, our monetary system is becoming more and more digital, but at present, the default leader is the bank, who can even freeze legal transactions immediately under orders. And blockchain technology – can provide a technology to balance these trends.
There is no doubt that the development of the Internet will lead to a great change. If we do not take more direct and effective measures, it may eventually lead to a bad situation: large media platforms control what you see, and continue to collect user data to sell advertisements, which is more invasive than other technological changes in history.
Many people will see that blockchain and other digital privacy technologies will play a major role. Of course, blockchain has both good and bad sides. Money laundering and tax evasion balance with personal privacy.
In human history, social changes driven by technology have taken place many times. The most striking analysis comes from a group of media scholars in the 20th century, including Harold Innis, his student Marshall McLuhan and his student co-author Walter ong. Although Walter ang is an American, this school is still called the Toronto School.
In the broadest sense, the Toronto School and its successors believe that major changes in communication technology, such as the change from the original printing to the later broadcasting media, have had a broad and fundamental impact not only on society, but also on human consciousness. We are going through another kind of Transformation Driven by digital and network technology, which fundamentally compresses the experience of time and shortens people’s attention. The wide adoption of blockchain technology may lead to similar profound changes in society and consciousness, and the direction may be very different.
But first, digging deeper into history may make it easier for you to accept this prediction. Let’s take a moment to look at what some people think is the most important technological influence in human history: mass produced text, or printing.
As early as the 15th-16th century, the large-scale production of books was still a new thing in Europe (movable type printing first appeared in China in the 8th century). Because religion was almost indisputable dominant ideology at that time, which was most related to Roman Catholicism. Church authorities are opposed to the large-scale dissemination of religious texts, especially the translation of the Bible into local languages, which may make it easier for ordinary people to think independently. The church considers itself the only effective interpreter of the Bible, and the Bible is almost the only important human knowledge.
Of course, these are all self-centered arguments from the church. The church is also highly autocratic and centralized. Because of its monopoly on ideology, it has a lot of secular power. The first Gutenberg Bible (Latin) was printed around 1454, which laid the foundation for the printing of various English and German Bibles in the 1530s. Through the “open source” of the Bible, it contributed to the religious reform of Martin Luther Protestants. Protestantism is the pioneer of individualism, critical thinking, enlightenment, secularization and what we call “Modernity” in a broad sense.
There is no doubt that the Catholic Church has lost its power because printing technology has destroyed its monopoly on ideology. But it was replaced by a new power structure – most importantly, in the 20th and 21st centuries, it was replaced by modernist secular, religious, political, cultural, and scientific small-scale liberalism. After a period of turbulence, the new system established its own centralized control, from elite journals in the 18th and 19th centuries to corporate television, radio and newspaper networks in the 1920s and early 21st century. While allowing more diverse narratives than the religions that spread from Rome to medieval European farmers, the high costs of television production and newspaper printing ultimately led to close relationships with leaders who were supposed to offer neutral views.
Just as printing the Bible translated in the local language essentially allows Christians to split freely, now social networks allow anyone to share their interpretations (or just fabricated facts) of world events, and this technology also causes the collapse of the status quo. The decentralization of knowledge can not only give more power to the public, but also make people with weak ideas more vulnerable to the influence of mythical ideas.
These conflicting and profound social changes reflect Marshall McLuhan’s most famous view on communication technology: “media is information”. In short, the key to the Internet is not what people use it to say to the world, but the way in which potential technologies constitute communication. Take the Internet as an example, which includes its global geographical scope, its high speed, and the relative difficulty of controlling the spread (at least compared with radio and television or printed newspapers).
However, McLuhan’s thinking on media and its information is much more extensive and poetic. First, he thought critically about what we don’t usually think of as the media, especially the electric light. McLuhan believes that electric light is the ultimate pure medium, which has no content in itself, but changes the basic structure of human life through its influence on reshaping communication. He inherited this extensive research method from Harold Innis. Harold Innis discovered his way of thinking about media through his research on railway. He also believed that railway is a kind of media because it connects people (and communicates like mail).
McLuhan uses various abstract standards to analyze the media, and his subtle method is the most obvious. For example, McLuhan believes that printing is a cold medium because it requires readers to abstract their bodies from the world and consider pure thoughts. In his opinion, this is the reason why the enlightenment came into being in the society of printing letters. In contrast, he believes that radio and television are hot media, which are connected with people at the emotional level rather than the rational level. McLuhan believes that the speed and popularity of electronic media will bring us back to a less rational and more tribal society. In the 1950s and 1960s, people made such predictions, but unfortunately, what we see today has proved to be correct.
Harold Innis has a similar set of basic classifications, which are more relevant to our research on blockchain. Empire and communication, one of his major works, examines the role of media in the establishment, development and maintenance of a great empire. Using this title, he assumes that certain media are time bound, because they convey a message to the future and guarantee the longevity of an empire. In this category, he includes things like Egyptian pyramids or Greek temples. Other media, such as parchment or telegram, are bound by space because they spread quickly and (combined with other means) can extend the scope of power centers in the same period.
Network digital information is essentially a kind of “spatial binding” technology, which has huge coverage and speed, but its inherent persistence is limited – it exists on one or several hard disk drives and projects across distances, but it is not necessarily recorded or stored on the endpoint. It doesn’t have any permanent storage in its origin: Although we are lucky to have something like Internet Archive in a short time, we already know that most of the early Internet has disappeared. The transience of many digital storage formats means that private archives will degenerate and disappear in decades or even years – Zip disks and CDs are much more fragile than paper. It’s also important that systems like Twitter are designed specifically for transience – even if your tweets are later dug up to embarrass you, they’re mainly designed to be seen in a few hours. In addition, the absolute amount of content on social networks makes them easier to use at will.
The most fundamental and important feature of blockchain technology is that it breaks the balance between time binding and space binding ability of media. It has the speed and universality of any digital media – you can read the public link from anywhere through an Internet connection. But different from getting data on the Internet, writing data to the public chain, whether it’s sending pure transactions or writing data to distributed account books, has greater persistence – it may be the persistence of paper or stone. It’s certainly not like a telegraph, it’s more like a pyramid, but it’s digital and can be seen everywhere on the Internet.
This kind of persistence, like the persistence of pyramid, has a price – literally, it is the economic cost of writing blockchain. The governance systems such as transaction costs, block rewards and difficulty adjustment will generate incentive mechanisms, which will make the public blockchain continue to operate without any vulnerable individuals’ direct participation. The durability of pyramid depends on the natural properties of stone and other materials, while the durability of blockchain depends on the social properties, especially the market economy.
Please note that what I emphasize here is the public chain. These systems are just like bitcoin and Ethereum. As long as they have the right equipment and knowledge, anyone can access, use and maintain them (“mining”), and attract maintainers through the built-in economic incentive mechanism. These blockchains are very different from the various “private” blockchains operated by the Alliance (so-called “licensed blockchains”). All of these do not have the most important specific characteristics for the profound and long-term social transformation. Most importantly, because they are not publicly mineable or (in many cases) available, there is no reason to think that they are more durable or live longer than any other private system, or lack of social support, a large user base, or distributed dynamics constantly attract defenders. If the critical mass of a particular participant in a private blockchain disappears, the whole system crashes.
Even the persistence of any particular public chain depends on the dynamics that we don’t fully understand – there’s no guarantee that the public chain you launch today will survive in three weeks, let alone a century. For example, extensive experiments at this stage may have created a series of unknown security vulnerabilities, and we hardly know what the long-term social dynamics around smaller block chains will look like. Of course, the market is a key part of any decentralized blockchain, and it’s hard to imagine these systems surviving the massive transformation to another economic organization.
But it is entirely possible that a public chain as widely used and technically sound as bitcoin will last for hundreds of years. It’s visible and persistent everywhere at the same time.
Blockchain is an invisible obelisk, which has universality and strives to remain eternal like weak human beings.