Devcon closed with a long perspective by Stewart Brand, the 79 year old who played a part in the 60s cultural revolution and the 70s+ code revolution, popularizing the term personal computer and coining the phrase “information wants to be free.”
Asked how ethereum or blockchain tech can interact with institutions without sort of being co-opted by them or disempowered by them, Brand said:
“Ethereum is an institution… I think institutions is how humans collaborate on things. We see civilization as 10,000 years old, and in a sense what’s that honoring is the invention of agriculture and the institutions of towns. The way that people could collaborate in more levels than just hunting and gathering…
Anything we do as innovators is blending in with that long story. A lot of it is institutional… and human nature is very difficult to move, it’s complicated and a rich thing. Tools are easy to move, they’re easy to invent, they’re easy to deploy when they work… hackers just make a better tool that works around the things that are not working well in the world. Sometimes that involves inventing new institutions.”
Sometime just walk away, he said. Find a way to do things differently. Find your own freedom from these institutions, but civilization is an argument.
He later refined it to say that walk away is what adolescents do. Collaboration starts reasserting itself as you grow older. That’s growing into a form of maturity, responsibility and public service. So it’s not walk away, it’s keep moving.
Is there any advice you have to the people here to create a nuclear reactor without creating a nuclear weapon? Asked an unknown member of the audience.
The Fifth Risk, a book Brand recommends, tells some astonishing facts about the US government. A lot of amazing things go on in government that is not taken enough advantage of, data collection in particular.
What’s the ground truth of the society that you’re in? The tools you’re making, with that ground truth, you can learn to reflect the stuff that’s happening in the real world.
So Brand says, further adding that the current administration is trying to shut down access to this information. Funny situation, instead of fighting the government, we’re trying to fight for government at its best.
What are the points of the existing institutions, like governments, that are worth not just engaging but in keeping? Find the institutions that are doing fine things, burrow in to where there’s the good stuff.
Don’t solve a problem just because you can imagine it. Wait until there is a problem, and go after them. If you over-anticipate them, you will design freedom out of the system, says Brand in closing.
Making this conversation with the nearly 80 years old interesting in two angles. First, old age is telling us what we sort of already know. Things are or can be complex. Second, it tells us what we already guessed, there’s good and bad in much of everything.
The idea of ethereum as an institution suggests that the bargaining power of an individual has been amplified into the bargaining power of a collective. It is not man against the machine, but man in a collection in a playing field. Institution “bargaining” with institutions.
The risk there of course is that the institution turns against the man, rather than other institutions turning against the institution.
For between institutions, they’re at level. Yet the man, and the institution, are at dis-level. And at the same time the men, and of course women, are the institution.
Meaning we are the collective at the same time as we are the individual. That the collective is us, while at the same time the collective is the other, the institution.
In certain areas, our work – so done in this collective or institution – is valuable. Yet the institution can turn against us, and prevent us from accessing our very work. Brand, as you may know, fought in the 60s for the picture of earth taken from the moon to be published.
That very powerful image was denied to men by the institution – at least for some time – even though the men were the ones that actually took the image.
That means the institution can take a life of its own, but only if the institution is seen as something abstract, as not a collection of men and women but a living thing. As the other, rather than the us.
Thus the contradiction of we can run away, of we can keep moving, of we can build our own institution, of we can take the better parts of other institutions or work with them.
When what Brand must mean is that we need to realize we are the government, we are the corporation, we are ethereum. Rather than there being an abstract gov or an abstract corp that acts. We act, the humans.
And humans sometime can make mistakes. Showing the powerful image of earth can and did change the world. Thus someone within the institution can easily take the view that showing such powerful image may not be beneficial. Yet that someone is not the institution – the collection of men and women. Thus that someone, as an individual, can be challenged. So removing the institution part, and seeing the man.
In other words, the abstract concepts we have created, like an institution, a government, or a corporation, or indeed ethereum, are little more than an extension of ourself, with us, as men and women, having full control over them.
If we don’t like it, we can walk away, create a better institution, work with the better parts of other institutions, or more concisely said, we can behave as we truly are, the architects of this entire complexity.
We can demand rational behavior, and while knowing some can cheat, we can still refrain from trying to presume guilt, for otherwise we code freedom away. While still demanding accountability to rationality.
One has the choice of focusing on optimism, or negativity. One has the choice of blaming the institution or the man. One has the choice of presuming guilt or goodwill. One has the choice of seeing wholistic labels, or individual qualities.
With the determining factor so being our choice of focus, reasonable focus. For, after all, we are the institution and indeed civilization.