Is Blockchain a Reflection of Human Progress?
Blockchains allow us to transcend physical and national borders by sending money or executing transactions with anyone across the globe. Apart from this sort of commercial connectivity, blockchains and digital currencies will enable us, or challenge us, to overcome psychological barriers of cooperating with unknown peers.
Kindergarten all over again
Although we interact and transact with many different people every day, humans are not overly experienced at dealing with so many names and faces.
Given our 2.5 million year human history we are, at least evolutionarily, much more comfortable as tight knit wanderers than we are as denizens of sprawling metropolises. We may not realize, but we’re still learning to cooperate with so many different and disparate people, almost like learning to share toys in kindergarten.
Public blockchains, however, represent a paradigm shift of how we organize ourselves, and allow cooperation on a scale unimaginable to our ancestors.
In some sense, blockchains are a very natural progression for humankind. We went from hunting and gathering with only our most trusted tribes, to settling down and toiling among fellow strangers, to, now, potentially being connected with anyone and everyone, without a shred of supervision beyond technological protocols. Our circles have grown ever larger, and our collaboration has proven to be our most important survival skill.
Blockchain and Shared Stories
In Sapiens, Yuval Harari proposes that our success as homosapiens is built on our ability to communicate and cooperate. Specifically, our ability to communicate about things which don’t actually exist – fictive language – is what sets us apart from other animals and our predecessors.
The Cognitive Revolution brought us mythology 70,000 years ago, and we have not looked back since. Law, human rights, and even companies don’t exist in the physical world, but in our minds and shared beliefs. At one point, someone or some group comes up with an idea, and shares it with their peers. If convincing enough, it becomes a shared myth that becomes ‘real’ to its community. Blockchains are the bleeding edge extension of our ability to collectively agree upon fiction, or how things ought to be.
A compelling myth or story, if sufficiently powerful, can bind billions of strangers who are co-believers. If you’re placed in a foreign territory, or even planet, and come across a fellow believer in your spirituality, or your favourite hockey team, a connecting bridge will be easily crossed.
In their most basic and philosophical form, blockchains and cryptocurrencies are simply impressive, potent, and gratifying ‘things’ to believe in. People immediately see the benefits of trustless, verifiable networks and choose to accept and propagate the myth. Or not.
All about shared belief
We take many of the myths around us today for granted, or, rather, as fact. In reality these are what Harari calls ‘imagined orders’. They only exist because we believe they do. For example, if everyone stopped believing that the little green pieces of paper we call money constituted something of great value, they would become worthless overnight.
Whether we believe Bitcoin, Ethereum, or some other chain is the best is not a matter of fact, but a matter of self-reinforcing myth. Sure, different cryptocurrencies have real technical differences, but our inclination to follow one is ultimately the deciding factor.
The important point is not which system is objectively the best, but that the people believe in it, share it, and expand it. By propagating the ‘imagined order’, it stabilizes, and allows large numbers of people to cooperate effectively on the basis of a common thread. Essentially, we believe that if we follow this protocol, it will lead to a working, enjoyable system.
Getting people to cooperate in one town or country is difficult enough; imagining an order that will effectively integrate people across the globe is no small feat.
Of course, a robust technical protocol buffeted by strong cryptoeconomic security and incentives is the starting point that blockchain innovators believe is right. However, you can have the ‘best’ network in the world, but if no one believes in it – if it’s not a shared story – then it doesn’t really exist at all. If we do believe collectively, public blockchains and digital currencies will be a natural progression from where we came.
Our species has survived and thrived due to our imagination and myth-making evolving at a faster rate than we evolve ourselves. There is no better example of our journey from small clans to global citizens than blockchain powered peer-to-peer networks radiating in all directions.
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