The Metaphysics of Blockchain: An Early Essay About The Coming Changes

By Thomas Dylan Daniel | FutureProof | 27 Aug 2020

An Uncommon Question: What is metaphysics?

A metaphysics is a set of assumptions that enables people who believe these assumptions to navigate the world more easily, but at the cost of reduced creativity and the risk of loss of identity.

What the fuck does that mean?

Well, in layman's terms you could say that a person's metaphysical assumptions about the way the world works can be observed by following their responses to the philosophical bastard questions, such as "Does God exist?" and "How did the world start?" This sort of questioning got its name from Aristotle, who studied for 20 years under Plato in ancient Greece. Plato's teacher was a famous philosopher named Socrates, and Alexander the Great was Aristotle's student.

What Socrates did that was so bizarre and so special was that he would go around Athens, asking people questions and highlighting contradictions in their systems of belief. But Socrates was no metaphysician. Instead, he was a soldier, renowned for his ugliness and his toughness. He delighted in destroying metaphysical systems, and an argument could be made that his student, Plato, felt the same way. Platon is Greek for broad, and Plato himself won the Olympics for wrestling twice, so perhaps it's safe to say that philosophy was started by conquerors and bullies, but that's all beside the point!

The point is simply that a bunch of tough guys started asking hard questions 2500 years ago and gave birth to a technique of metaphysical interrogation which has remained unbettered all this time - but that may be about to change. What we're talking about in this article is so groundbreaking and earth-shattering that every culture on earth will be rapidly and profoundly impacted by it. The very way we view the world will be shifted by seemingly mundane and increasingly rapid shifts which will take place as the result of an increase in adoption of a technology known simply as "Blockchain."

Why will the changes in our assumptions be significant?

If you made it through the first section without assuming I was a crackpot because I discussed philosophy or because I discussed blockchain, kudos to you! You have a truly open mind. Fast and loose, we're going to walk through the set of economic assumptions which undergird the "traditional" values I and many of those in my generations and the one or two generations immediately before us were brought up with.

There are seven core assumptions (more because I like the number 7 than anything absolute) and they are:

1. Scarcity is necessary

2. Authority is necessary

3. People are bad

4. Work is good

5. Learning is a luxury

6. Income is a necessity

7. Value is static and universal

Let's take a quick peek at each one.

Scarcity is necessary

I was taught this in economics classes and most likely, so were you. The idea is that the world contains a finite number of resources and a potentially infinite number of uses to put these to, over which people necessarily must compete.

Now, I never said these core assumptions would be overturned completely. The point is that they will be tested in new ways and will change shapes to adapt to new needs. Will the core assumption of scarcity still be a good assumption? You bet. But things which we used to assume about the world as a result of our concept of scarcity will change in surprising ways. The first and perhaps most significant, in terms of our daily interaction with it, is work.

Rather than scarce time, workers will leverage their cognitive abilities against tasks they choose for themselves from the blockchain-based networks which will power the internet of the future. This is a fundamental assumption shift which will simultaneously demand more of each of us, performance-wise, and allow us more freedom to pursue our own interests and talents. Work will be less local and more performance-incentivized starting last March and continuing until sometime like forever.

The problem in the past with scarcity was not simply a material scarcity, however. Information was incapable of flowing from one place to another to enable maximum efficiency in the markets. From present day problems such as damaged Amazon packages to older ones such as fresh produce or fish (or COVID-19 testing kits) arriving spoiled due to improper transportation, one fix is necessary: information about what is where and what need looks like topologically is getting more trustworthy and transmission speeds are increasing - and blockchain intends to make the information completely trustworthy and the transmission instantaneous, while simultaneously minimizing the cost of so doing.

Authority is necessary

The political right wing is famously confused about authority these days. They love to talk about how important the police and military are, yet they demand their right to bear arms against tyranny by just such authorities. This is the result of a sort of compromise which unfolded in a unique way in the United States under the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Basically, people were incentivized to settle new lands by the government, and that government had a very difficult time enforcing its laws in the new settlements. Chaos reigned as a result, and the American love of the police was born.

The left wing is not much more lucid, unfortunately. The government needs to regulate capitalism, yet the values system of the forty-hour work week and the Christian God are very much to be respected and idolized. In the United States, the political spectrum is more of a whorl of different colors than an intelligently laid-out compass of values and self-consistent ideologies.

Everyone who does not identify as an anarchist likely supports the proposition that authority is necessary in one way or another, but the justifications for authority have come under hot debate in recent decades. This is one sense in which authority is utilized by society to solve certain problems we have. Yet this axiom is held true in another sense - by both wings of the political spectrum and the centrists and most of the extremists as well.

The second sense of the necessity of authority is best illustrated by a good look at the financial system. Banks are insured by the federal government to allow citizens to store value. The Federal Reserve oversees monetary policy which is also aimed at stability or inflation in terms of value. The Democrats have problems with income inequality under this system and the Republicans abhor taxation, but everyone uses the US Dollar to buy things. Everyone participates in the economy.

The changes coming to this microcosm of American metaphysics are just as dramatic as those which have already begun to chip away at the problem of scarcity. And the changes which will result from the process which has started will be just as significant. Taxation is only one way to fund an economy - inflation would work just as well if it were designed properly and if individuals had sufficient access to increasing amounts of currency. The single acceptable store of value in the United States was the US Dollar for many, many years.

Cryptocurrencies have already both funded governance with inflationary currency designs and begun to make major inroads against the US Dollar as a store of value and as an exchange tool. Unlike the 2017 cryptocurrency spike, the 2020 cryptocurrency revolution includes a significant amount of working technology and a seemingly bottomless market for applications of this tech. From social currencies which achieve value in the art world, to "gas" tokens used to make transactions on networks, to security tokens which represent stake in one of an ever-increasing number of new online businesses - the economy has a new global and rapidly expanding information layer to it.

People are bad

Philosophers have debated the general and natural nature of human beings endlessly, without ever resolving the question satisfactorily. My generation was taught that people are bad by propaganda against Nazis, by violence in newspapers and TV news, and by a general sort of morbid focus in our information culture which centered around the worst of our kind. I understand this completely - Nazism killed over six million people in horrific ways. Violence terrifies us and grabs our attention, which causes news networks to earn more money. Movies and books and TV shows need villains to move plots forward.

And yet, this open question remains unresolved because the goodness or badness of people in general is a dialectical problem. That is, some things some people do some of the time are good, and some things some people do some of the time are bad. Most things are mundane enough to not really matter to us. So the assumption that people are bad must serve a different purpose: it exists to facilitate our values systems as we develop them.

An example: hacking.

At Facebook, "The Hacker Way" was a major concept for a long time. The company viewed itself as young and scrappy, and it developed accordingly. This led to disaster ultimately (imagine that) and a more refined values system is developing. Hackers have the reputation of being bad people - they're the ones who steal our credit card numbers and spend our money (that we worked for!) on whatever it is they want at the time. They're also clever and innovative, which is undoubtedly what Zuckerberg was thinking when he chose the slogan.

The thing that's happened both for Zuck and for the rest of the free-thinkers who used to be interested in hacking is simple: it got easier and less risky to make a living by joining the team of people who want to build a better future.

So, this assumption doesn't hold up very well. Sir Francis Drake was a revered pirate, Robert E. Lee is an American traitor who is revered in many states, and General Ulysses S. Grant, who won the American Civil War to end slavery, isn't on very many statues. History is murky and character perceptions shift according to the information people are presented with as well as the order in which facts are related.

This problem ties back into both the information problem we were discussing above in Scarcity and the social relation problem we looked at in Authority. At the end of the day, we don't have a good reason to believe that people are bad - in fact, evidence is growing to support the conclusion that people are bad communicators but overwhelmingly helpful and sweet. The optimistic position regarding blockchain technology is that a common fount of reliable information will help to get us all working together.

Work is good

Why do people think work is good? I side with Joe Strummer on this one. Fortunately, we don't need to think very hard to realize that this assumption falls directly out of the previous assumption, that people are bad.

What would everyone be up to, if they weren't working all the time?

Most of the evidence seems to suggest that people would in fact spend more time with our families and be happier if we worked less. But the truth is that we would work anyway. I've been working on philosophy and losing money at it for over a decade now because it is simply worth it to me to do everything I can to become the best person I can be.

That's what it means to say you want to have a positive impact on your world. It's a well-studied philosophical problem as well, known as ethics.

Work is not good or bad. It is a fundamental characteristic of human nature. The purpose that the assumption that work is good used to serve was pretty beneficial in the times when humanity had to farm by hand, for example, but nobody wants to do that sort of work.

So we enslaved each other and forced people to do it, but that was shitty, so we invented wages and tractors and now a very small number of people who presumably enjoy farming are able to handle all of that sort of work for the rest of us. It wasn't the work that was good, it was the end result of being able to build cities and computers and cars that we, as a species, wanted.

The authoritarian overtones of capitalist work are equally tiresome at this point. Let's just build machines to do the bullshit in the company of people who genuinely love that sort of thing while the rest of the humans figure out what it is they love to do and do that sort of thing.

Coca Cola is implementing blockchain for inventory management. There is no reason a US Government-backed US Dollar token couldn't enter circulation as the primary global reserve currency in an inflationary implementation and offer rewards to polluters who cleaned up their game.

Shipping is a major source of carbon, and worse, the bunker oil that the largest ships in the world burn has a lot of sulfur in it, which dissolves in the ocean and lowers the pH - killing all sorts of animals faster than new ones can adapt and evolve to suit the most important ecosystem on our planet.

By building an inflationary petrodollar, the US Government can incentivize the use of cleaner fuels - and then expand this model to further increase green energy development.

Work is, in fact, good - but it needs to be smarter and it needs to be more accommodating and more rewarding. Cryptocurrency can help.

Learning is a luxury

Why does college cost so much money? There is only one reason: governments do not levy enough taxes (or at least do not allocate enough funds) to cover the cost of attendance for everyone who wants to go to college.

Money thus becomes a barrier to entry, and yet another gatekeeper in that primeval struggle we all face as we fight for the right to know.

Learning is not a luxury. Learning is a necessity. Everyone should have access to the best teachers and equipment to self-educate on any topic they should choose.

Let's be real: knowledge is power. Bad people might learn how to hurt us! And this is true, but it is not new, and hence cannot be a defeater for the proposition that learning is a necessity.

I apologize for the analytic philosophy language. That sort of thing happens from time to time. The important take-away here is that trustless systems will make excellent teachers. Learning will come to be seen as a pillar of all human life, not an elitist luxury, as blockchain develops and ed tech progresses to support more and more students with better and better courses for less and less money.

Income is a necessity

Income seems necessary to us - even to the point at which I might look like a lunatic or a moron for questioning the concept - because everything we do costs money. We have these constant outflows of resources to keep ourselves healthy, fed, and sheltered. Not to mention all the self-medicating and recreation we do!

How on earth could income not be a necessity? I don't actually see a way that a human being could live in the world without continually intaking new resources, and any way we construe that seems likely to merely reinforce the basic concept that cells need to take in oxygen and nutrients to survive. That's the foundation of the assumption that income is necessary, and I think it's strong.

That being said, there's some leeway in how we produce income. Passive income, such as that produced by an economy in which the governing principle is ever-increasing inflation and continuous payouts to participants on networks (look up PoS blockchain models if I lost you on this) is about to be tested in a huge way: Ethereum2.0, the hotly anticipated update to the largest non-Bitcoin cryptocurrency and decentralized computing network, will be a PoS inflationary model which incentivizes behaviors all the way down to the specification of the hardware used by validators which participate in the computational activities implicit in blockchain.

Think about that.

The network, a decentralized mass of human ideas and silicon processors, is going to tell people which sort of computers they can use to run it.

It blows my mind. I believe this may constitute a strong argument that artificial superintelligence - get this - involving human beings using their brains as processors has crept up and become reality. Too bad nobody told Nick Bostrom or Ray Kurzweil!

Profundity aside, I mentioned this because there is real, objective, quantifiable and qualifiable work that people can do as well as an objective framework by which to evaluate said work.

How do you succeed in the new world?

Help make the blockchain more efficient. Buy the network tokens that make the most sense. Use the new financial products that make you the most money. Be rational, do what is in your best interest, and respect the new frame which is developing.

Not everybody is going to jump on board with this sort of thing, but the changes will seem gradual and normal enough to most of us that it will take over and replace the old internet models very rapidly.

Already, rich people spend far less of their income than poor people. Their friends own everything and hook them up. Imagine if everyone had access to that sort of social capital - and then take a moment to think about the fact that social networking is the engine which will lead to the massive value creation involved in the project blockchain ultimately has been designed for: quantification of the entire world, to ever-increasing degrees of precision.

The thing is, social structures won't tell you what to do. You'll pick what you like and what you know best and what you love, and they'll all be far more similar than they are today. Then you'll need to interface with the network to get things you need or want, and figure out the best way to contribute value so that you end up where you choose to be.

It isn't absolute freedom, and there is certainly the potential for abuse or exploitation any time a human system of social engagement is involved, but, some of the problems we have today that we overwhelmingly hate will disappear - inevitably to be replaced by new problems, but we'll probably be happier and have more time to focus upon our favorite parts of life.


Value is static and universal

This is an old throwback to aeons ago when everyone was obsessed with getting to heart of the matter re: reality. At the end of the day, even if we could access it with certainty, our description of it would have to be uncertain because language is too abstract to communicate precisely the same message twice (this is why there are good writers and bad writers out there). Ultimately, the greatest compromise the masses of human bodies have made with each other over the past few centuries has been the collective effort to quantify the value of an individual's time spent doing something they dislike.

Why do we dislike work? Mainly because we aren't always making our own decisions while we're working. We are serving the interests of someone who we may not like very much. But most of all, there are other things we might choose to do with the time we spend working.

All of this feeds into a massive and almost universal arrangement in which some of us do work and others pay us for it. Salaries and hourly wages are different ways of getting people to do the most possible work for the least possible money - an antagonistic relationship between value managers (employers, investors) and value creators (creatives, employees). Nothing is to say this is good or bad, but the set of assumptions this arrangement has facilitated has reached the end of its usefulness to humankind.

Frankly, I'm a bit surprised it lasted as long as it did. Blockchain companies such as Numeraire (NMR) have at long last proven that it is possible to quantify the results of a given individual's labor and pay said individual upon the basis of the value of this creative activity to the network.

Numeraire runs a hedge fund which has paid over 7500 programmers and data scientists to algorithmically crack the stock market. I'm not sure what the returns are like there, but cracking the stock market and cracking the economy are two different things. The FAR more important chunk of the information nugget here about Numeraire is that it's possible to distribute a task to a network of highly qualified experts and get something like the job done! In perhaps the most difficult mathematical problem facing humanity, no less.


Where does this leave us?

Frankly, here, your guess is as good as mine. This has been one of the most difficult and time-consuming research projects of my life. I wish I had all the answers, but I don't. I'm not a utopian because I don't think blockchain will solve all our problems, but then again I'm hardly a pessimist on the subject. I suppose I'll have to wait and see what ends up happening just like the rest of us.

At the end of the day, I believe there is value in creating this narrative about the assumptions which will be tested and in some cases proven inaccurate in the future, but I expect this article to be a gigantic flop and to be honest I'm only writing it because I really and truly just need to. Why? I don't know. Perhaps blockchain is a cult and I've had too many sips of the kool-aid. Perhaps there's something really here. I certainly think there is, but you have no reason to trust me. I don't even really have any reason to trust myself.

So, go back and read through again. Think of this essay as a puzzle. What am I wrong about, and what sort of evidence do you have to support that position? At the very least, I believe I've identified areas here which will feel some amount of impact upon the development of technological innovation in the future, but I'm not from the future so there's little I can offer in the way of certainty.

Puzzles, then. Interesting ones.

Thank you for reading, and I will enjoy reading your responses.

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Thomas Dylan Daniel
Thomas Dylan Daniel

Hi! I’m a philosopher, writer, and scientist from Texas. I’ve currently got two books out: And Further From Home: A collection of philosophical short fiction


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