除夕夜，在春晚和鞭炮声中，刷着红包，读完了《Beyond the Bitcoin Bubble》。
The real promise of these new technologies, many of their evangelists believe, lies not in displacing our currencies but in replacing much of what we now think of as the internet, while at the same time returning the online world to a more decentralized and egalitarian system.
Publishers find themselves becoming commodity content suppliers in a sea of undifferentiated content in the Facebook news feed. Websites see their fortunes upended by small changes in Google’s search algorithms. And manufacturers watch helplessly as sales dwindle when Amazon decides to source products directly in China and redirect demand to their own products.
Even Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web itself, wrote a blog post voicing his concerns that the advertising-based model of social media and search engines creates a climate where “misinformation, or ‘fake news,’ which is surprising, shocking or designed to appeal to our biases, can spread like wildfire.”
strong arm of regulation and antitrust: making the tech giants subject to the same scrutiny as other industries that are vital to the public interest, like the railroads or telephone networks of an earlier age.
those interventions are unlikely to fix the core problems that the online world confronts. After all, it was not just the antitrust division of the Department of Justice that challenged Microsoft’s monopoly power in the 1990s; it was also the emergence of new software and hardware — the web, open-source software and Apple products — that helped undermine Microsoft’s dominant position.
The blockchain evangelists behind platforms like Ethereum believe that a comparable array of advances in software, cryptography and distributed systems has the ability to tackle today’s digital problems: the corrosive incentives of online advertising; the quasi monopolies of Facebook, Google and Amazon; Russian misinformation campaigns.
They even claim to offer an alternative to the winner-take-all model of capitalism than has driven wealth inequality to heights not seen since the age of the robber barons.
That remedy is not yet visible in any product that would be intelligible to an ordinary tech consumer. The only blockchain project that has crossed over into mainstream recognition so far is Bitcoin.
the potential power of this would-be revolution is being actively undercut by the crowd it is attracting, a veritable goon squad of charlatans, false prophets and mercenaries. Not for the first time, technologists pursuing a vision of an open and decentralized network have found themselves surrounded by a wave of opportunists looking to make an overnight fortune. The question is whether, after the bubble has burst, the very real promise of the blockchain can endure.
all the major information technologies of the 20th century adhered to a similar developmental pattern, starting out as the playthings of hobbyists and researchers motivated by curiosity and community, and ending up in the hands of multinational corporations fixated on maximizing shareholder value.
Blockchain advocates don’t accept the inevitability of the Cycle.
think of the internet as two fundamentally different kinds of systems stacked on top of each other:
One layer is composed of the software protocols that were developed in the 1970s and 1980s and hit critical mass, at least in terms of audience, in the 1990s.
above them, a second layer of web-based services — Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter — that largely came to power in the following decade.
For all their brilliance, the inventors of the open protocols that shaped the internet failed to include some key elements that would later prove critical to the future of online culture. Perhaps most important, they did not create a secure open standard that established human identity on the network. Units of information could be defined — pages, links, messages — but people did not have their own protocol: no way to define and share your real name, your location, your interests or (perhaps most crucial) your relationships to other people online.
Facebook is the ultimate embodiment of the chasm that divides InternetOne and InternetTwo economies. No private company owned the protocols that defined email or GPS or the open web. But one single corporation owns the data that define social identity for two billion people today — and one single person, Mark Zuckerberg, holds the majority of the voting power in that corporation.
You can’t fix the problems technology has created for us by throwing more technological solutions at it. You need forces outside the domain of software and servers to break up cartels with this much power.
But the thing about the master’s house, in this analogy, is that it’s a duplex. The upper floor has indeed been built with tools that cannot be used to dismantle it. But the open protocols beneath them still have the potential to build something better.
Why did the internet follow the path from open to closed? One part of the explanation lies in sins of omission: By the time a new generation of coders began to tackle the problems that InternetOne left unsolved, there were near-limitless sources of capital to invest in those efforts, so long as the coders kept their systems closed.
History is replete with stories of new technologies whose initial applications end up having little to do with their eventual use.
First, Bitcoin offered a kind of proof that you could create a secure database — the blockchain — scattered across hundreds or thousands of computers, with no single authority controlling and verifying the authenticity of the data.
Second, Nakamoto designed Bitcoin so that the work of maintaining that distributed ledger was itself rewarded with small, increasingly scarce Bitcoin payments.
What Nakamoto ushered into the world was a way of agreeing on the contents of a database without anyone being “in charge” of the database, and a way of compensating people for helping make that database more valuable, without those people being on an official payroll or owning shares in a corporate entity. Together, those two ideas solved the distributed-database problem and the funding problem.
At least during the internet bubble of late 1990s, ordinary people were buying books on Amazon or reading newspapers online; there was clear evidence that the web was going to become a mainstream platform. Today, the hype cycles are so accelerated that billions of dollars are chasing a technology that almost no one outside the cryptocommunity understands, much less uses.
Token economies introduce a strange new set of elements that do not fit the traditional models: instead of creating value by owning something, as in the shareholder equity model, people create value by improving the underlying protocol, either by helping to maintain the ledger (as in Bitcoin mining), or by writing apps atop it, or simply by using the service. The lines between founders, investors and customers are far blurrier than in traditional corporate models; all the incentives are explicitly designed to steer away from winner-take-all outcomes. And yet at the same time, the whole system depends on an initial speculative phase in which outsiders are betting on the token to rise in value.
all these different fragments of your identity don’t belong to you; they belong to Facebook and Amazon and Google, who are free to sell bits of that information about you to advertisers without consulting you.
You should own your digital identity — which could include everything from your date of birth to your friend networks to your purchasing history — and you should be free to lend parts of that identity out to services as you see fit.
identity should work on a truly decentralized internet.
But even if this new form of identity became ubiquitous, it wouldn’t present the same opportunities for abuse and manipulation that you find in the closed systems that have become de facto standards.
An open identity standard would give ordinary people the opportunity to sell their attention to the highest bidder, or choose to keep it out of the marketplace altogether.
the same kind of system could be applied to even more critical forms of identity, like health care data.
A token-based social network would at least give early adopters a piece of the action, rewarding them for their labors in making the new platform appealing.
In the identity system proposed by Blockstack, the actual information about your identity — your social connections, your purchasing history — could be stored anywhere online. The blockchain would simply provide cryptographically secure keys to unlock that information and share it with other trusted providers. A system with a centralized repository with data for hundreds of millions of users — what security experts call “honey pots” — is far more appealing to hackers.
The blockchain channels the energy of speculative bubbles by allowing tokens to be shared widely among true supporters of the platform. It safeguards against any individual or small group gaining control of the entire database. Its cryptography is designed to protect against surveillance states or identity thieves.
But to believe in the blockchain is not necessarily to oppose regulation, if that regulation is designed with complementary aims. Ideologically speaking, that private data store would be a true team effort: built as an intellectual commons, funded by token speculators, supported by the regulatory state.
We spent our first years online in a world defined by open protocols and intellectual commons; we spent the second phase in a world increasingly dominated by closed architectures and proprietary databases. We have learned enough from this history to support the hypothesis that open works better than closed, at least where base-layer issues are concerned.
the beautiful thing about open protocols is that they can be steered in surprising new directions by the people who discover and champion them in their infancy.