Power Is the Problem, Not Privacy

Originally, this piece began as a response to Tobias Stone’s article Your Privacy is Over, but apparently, in addition to dark places to hide, Mr. Stone also enjoys exercising the power to squash dissenting opinions. And since responding to articles on Medium is really just a vain attempt to get noticed anyway, it’s probably best that I simply post it here.

If you haven’t read Stone’s article, please, give it a read (and some claps, if you’re into that shit). It’s super paranoid, defeatist, and great. For some context, I’ll summarize.

Soon quantum computers will be able to access and analyze everything about you, whether you posted it voluntarily or it was scraped from the giant Data Warehouse of Pervasive Surveillance in the sky. To quote,

“Not only will you have no privacy in the future — any privacy you thought you had in the past will vanish as well.”

While I agree that our current society is unfamiliar with such a paradigm, I struggle with the idea now circulating that privacy is the default, that we are somehow losing something that was previously inherent to the human condition.

In actuality, the reverse is true. Early societies lived almost wholly without privacy. And they were better off for it. In terms of a well functioning society, utter transparency is preferable to total privacy.

Now I grant that the situation to which the esteemed Mr. Stone alludes is a somewhat different dynamic than that of a small tribe of nomads. Still it seems that what he is really saying is that a tiny cohort of elite will be able to know everything about all of us, and that they will use that knowledge to their advantage. Which is an entirely different issue than whether or not complete transparency is a good thing.

The question then, in my mind, is not how we might conceal our imprudence, but who are these individuals and entities we’ve enabled to weaponize our own actions against us? And why are we allowing them this power?

Again, to quote Stone,

“Ultimately, everything will be tracked by the state, connected by ever more sophisticated algorithms, run on ever more powerful computers, until dissent becomes impossible and there is no escape. How do you oppose a system like that?”

By refusing to accept its legitimacy, for starters.

As Mr. Stone points out, this is the new reality, and it’s not going away. But it should be noted that these are our actions we’re talking about, and we should be accountable for them. In this sense, pure transparency is a benefit to society. The literal eye of God, motivating us to be the person we know we should be. It’s a mental construct humans have utilized for millennia, only made material. I’m not convinced I need to be afraid of it. And I certainly don’t believe that the solution lies in creating ways for people to avoid it.

In a Motherboard piece, Jason Koebler makes the case that we should, if not actively safeguard it, at least not naively cede our genetic code to large, centralized data stores. While this is generally wise advice, what it does more than anything is illustrate the real cause for concern. From a biological standpoint, our DNA is an immutable fact. It cannot be meditatively altered or changed, post conception, even if I wanted to. It is who I am. So why should I fear its being common knowledge?

Because someone might use it against me.

This is the issue we ought be focused on, not privacy. Why do we condone, if not actively substantiate, a society where such behavior is tolerated? A society in which these types of activities are not only allowed, but requisite and rewarded?

This is what concerns me, not the likely disturbing abstract of my personality that could be created from my Google search history. Surely any true friends of mine will grant me that minor indiscretion, and, in fact, already do.

We Must Not Surrender the Blockchain

Blockchain is a technology with monumental potential.

Unfortunately it is falling prey to the same myopia that has hampered human progress since its beginning.

The overwhelming thing that blockchain provides is cohesion. For the first time in our history we can visualize our collective activity, as a species, in the same way as nature views us, and itself, as a unified, interdependent body.

From space, the earth is a single entity.

This perspective is what blockchain promises to be. That is, if we don’t allow our baser instincts to co-opt it.

I read an article in Outside Magazine years ago about CFCs. There was one passage that really struck me. In it, the author crossed the border to Metamoros, Mexico, following the trail of bootleg R-12. Use of the gas was illegal, but recharging old automotive A/C systems remained a thriving black market. At one point, the Mexican smuggler, who could not fathom why this was an issue, released some of the banned chemical into the air, saying “see, no problem.”

If you compartmentalize, then you can externalize. To the Mexican smuggler, right then and there, CFCs caused no harm, but we know that they cause ozone depletion, with global effects. For millennia, and still today, this is how human beings have interacted with the world. We consider the portion that concerns us, directly, and we disregard the rest.

It is exactly this tendency, and practice, that has lead to climate change, environmental degradation, species extinction, human exploitation.

In years past, we had an excuse, because we were literally incapable of comprehending relationships, and our place in them, that were beyond the immediate. But modern technology has changed all that. Now we have satellites that can image the entire globe, and a networked communication system connecting nearly everyone on earth.

Wikipedia is amazing, not because of any individual article, or even all of them together, but rather because they all are linked, just as they are in real life. Blockchain promises to bring limpidity, not only to the whole of human knowledge, but to all of human activity as well.

On the blockchain, pure transparency assures complete security.

No one can steal your identity, because it is immutable, fixed permanently in relation to that of your parents, and their parents before them. Once on chain, virtual reality ceases to exist. Instead, reality is virtualized.

Reality is. That we portray or imagine it to be different does not change it, so there is no reason to conceal it, unless it be nefarious. No one should fear placing the entirety of their existence on the blockchain, at least not for fear of others. On chain, the only thing one has to fear is one’s own self.

Imagine if there was a public distributed blockchain ledger during the Holocaust.

Would the world have stood idly by while the Nazis registered people at concentration camps and stockpiled poisonous gas? This is the level of transparency and degree of scrutiny that the blockchain is able to provide.

The purpose of the blockchain is not to build Dapps and make initial coin offerings. Its purpose isn’t to create more tools of inequity, division, and surveillance. It is to remove the shackles of preferentiality and injustice, to exorcise the power of dominion, to enable self-sovereignty, to make us each accountable to the unified global community of which we are, incontrovertibly, a part.

There Are No Private Blockchains in Nature

Reality is a distributed ledger.

When it comes to blockchain and cryptocurrency, we seem to have gotten ahead of ourselves. In the race to capture what we can of the stream of capital rushing into the space, we have failed to consider its greater implications, seeking to reconcile this radically new precedent to our current paradigm rather than enable it to realize its true potential.

It’s time to take a step back and come to grips with what this new technology really means for humanity.

Let’s start with the fundamentals.

The world is a finite place, easily transcribed by simple, albeit vast, math. There is only so much land, water, air, minerals, solar radiation, we could go on and on. We like to think of it as boundless, unfathomable, but it is not. It is limited and calculable.

This physical reality exists in a framework of space and time. In space, it can be organized and reorganized, moved hither and fro. In time, it moves linearly in one direction, as far as we can tell.

So does the blockchain.

It is frightening to think that there is only so much in the world to go around. Is there enough for me? It becomes daunting to consider, so we don’t. Instead, we assume it is infinite, and we devise schemes to try to obtain as much of it as possible for ourselves.

Fair enough. That is one way to go about it. And you could probably employ blockchain to help you accomplish that.

But that is not what blockchain is.

Blockchain is DNA.

Blockchain is a way to transcribe the composition and configuration of our known reality over time. Do with it as you like, at its most essential, that is what it is.

The question then becomes, who owns a map of the universe?

From the perspective of the purist, this question is again answered by the technology. Because it is decentralized, we each control our portion of that which makes up the whole. By the fact of our very existence, and our contribution to the collective same, we are all sovereign actors upon it. No greater authority conveys that legitimacy upon us, though many presume to do so. It exists a priori.

So if I am master of my own domain, assuming that to be a hash of my genetic sequence, my birth date, and my family tree, who is master of the commons?

Ah, there’s the rub.

Let us turn again to the fundamentals.

The commons, in our case the biosphere, exists, as does all that it contains. For these purposes, let’s separate those into two categories, life-seeking and non-life-seeking. Because we’re talking about humans, we’ll focus on the life-seeking.

Since the biosphere exists sans any predominance, each and every life-seeking entity has full right to the entirety of it. This gives rise to competition, which is the mode in which mankind has functioned up to this point.

Competition has created the framework of hierarchy, authority, legitimacy, and title that we understand to be the meta reality of today. Past competitions have set forth who controls the ledger and who does not. What gets written in it and what does not.

I suppose blockchain could be used to see this persist.

It would, however, be a poor use of its potential.

Even if we changed nothing else, placing the entirety of this record on the blockchain, and recording every transaction henceforth, would absolutely revolutionize the world. Gone would be the opportunity for duplicity, ambiguity, and manipulation, let alone the cost, associated with our current system of registry and transaction. In its place, transparency, self-sovereignty, and empowerment. 

This is the purpose of blockchain.

To progress the human enterprise from a reductive endeavor into a collaborative one. To shine a light into the dark areas where avarice has lived. To connect humanity through a single, common thread. To realize the ideal that is the world wide web.

Which, by the way, is how the world is actually organized in the first place.