Thesis: The advent of the internet, and by extension cryptocurrencies, represent one of the greatest expansion of individual empowerment in history, and by shifting the power dynamics dramatically towards the common man, our progeny stand to inherit a world of unprecedented peace. And as such, prior instruments that sought to redistribute power may be able to be deprecated. One obvious example being the necessity of retaining an armed population.
The author writes this shortly after yet another American school shooting. Even though the US is statistically undergoing a period of significant reduction in violent crime, the general population has become less tolerant of the liberal availability and lethality of guns accessible to most Americans. Historically, this uniquely American freedom was granted in order to empower the populous to serve as a physical check to potential authoritarian oppression. But with this freedom comes a trade-off: increased incidence and intensity of violence, with the ability of loose cannons (pun intended) to be particularly casually destructive.
The era of the founding of the United States was a different time. The population was largely illiterate, ignorant, and messages traveled at the speed of horseback and sail. The average citizen was unaware of happenings the next county over let alone the next country. In contrast, today we have planetary-wide debates and share information and experiences with people we will never see and who may not even be on the same continent. Human activity is more transparent now than ever before. And thus, the common man is empowered like never before, but empowered with words, association, education, and now… money. All effectively uncensorable by state authorities.
What if cruder forms of power redistribution can now be deprecated? Allowed to fade to our past? Eventually to become a historically vestigial footnote.
Please note: This article may ruffle some feathers. That’s not the intention. The intention is to engage in a thought experiment on the ramifications of free, uncensorable expression, commerce, and banking and how that may be the successor to other forms of power distribution. Disclosure: The author owns a number of guns, has a military background, and comes from an academic, but also a hunting and farming, cultural heritage.
Bear with me as I tease this out…
For most of his time on Planet Earth, mankind has been hunting and gathering. Being social animals, humans organized into family units, clans, and tribes. Populations were spread thin, but in some regions more clustered depending on the availability of food. For the most part, humans led relatively peaceful lives where death was most often the result of childbirth, infant mortality, starvation, exposure, or accident. Warfare was not overly common, but it did occur and when it did occur, it was often catastrophic (significant death tolls). Warfare tended to be about an imbalance in resource availability (food, water, mates), safety, and/or honor. Hunter-gatherers were relatively long-lived, peaceful people. Except when they weren’t. Note: How violent or non-violent this period of time was is highly controversial and was likely significantly variable.
With the advent of agriculture (~10,000 BCE to ~5,000 BCE), food availability became more predictable, but populations became fixed in place and therefore more vulnerable to other people wanting that food. From this need to protect food plots and stores arose a soldier class, hierarchical power structures, and governments to manage it all.
Food surpluses led to specialization (not everyone needed to be involved in food production) which spawned significant advances in the arts, sciences, and the written word. Populations exploded, but so did the level of violence.
Family units became tribes became states became nations became empires. War became commonplace. Power became very uneven with ruling classes, peasants, and slaves. Authoritarian rule… became the norm on much of the planet.
That all changed with advances like movable type and the printing press, and the expansion of the arts and intellectualism (the renaissance, enlightenment, etc), the common man of Europe and Asia became more educated. With education, the common man also became more informed and empowered.
With this, governments become more accountable to their citizens and civilized nations, on the whole, became more inwardly peaceful. Colonization and enslavement expanded for some time though which, of course, was incredibly outwardly violent.
The renaissance rolled into the enlightenment. This age of reason inspired democratic ideals leading colonies to break free of their sponsors. These were the catalysts for a global democratization of governments. With this (over many years), power became far more balanced between ruling parties (government) and the people (the governed). Slavery ended. Minorities enjoyed increased participation. Globally, nations became interdependent and became increasingly disinclined to annihilate each other. WWI and WWII may be the last global-scale wars in our histories. The prevalence of violence dropped by orders of magnitudes.
Literacy reached all-time highs.
We have entered the most peaceful time in our global history. Indeed there are still pockets of incredible violence, but viewed from a planetary perspective, the violence has dramatically declined. On the whole, humankind has achieved a state of peace unprecedented since the dawn of civilization.
So, why this reduction of violence? Why has it taken us 10,000 years to return to a relatively peaceful state of existence?
There are a number of reasons cited by researchers, but it all boils down to human empowerment: prevalence of education, civil rights extended to minorities (and even, at some level, non-human animals), female empowerment, democracy, free expression, stratified governance, ability to freely associate and travel, and economic freedom. Included in the discussion is governmental enforcement of consequence. I.e., The rule of law has become, over time, relatively even-handed (due to many of the factors listed above) and individuals no longer have to seek justice themselves.
Throughout history, populations in many nations (if not a slave or poor) have often been fairly well armed. Enough to be imposing to the local governments that oversee them. In recent years this has dramatically changed. Over the last century, there has been a planet-wide disarmament of the population (with the population largely a willing participant), with one exception, the United States. National governments now monopolize lethality and potential violence. And even in the United States, the gap between national military might and the citizenry has dramatically widened. It is no longer possible for independent individuals or groups of individuals to acquire weapons with the same destructive capability of nation states.
And yet the United States stands alone with a well-armed population. The trade-off of this freedom is that, though inwardly relatively peaceful, the United States is without a doubt the most violent nation when compared to her peers.
The modern era though begs the question: Can we achieve the same goals without such widespread gun ownership? If we can’t agree to disarm the population, can we mute its effects by further reducing what kinds of armaments are available to the public over time? Does an armed population truly secure freedom anyway (tyranny of the majority, etc)? Is there a replacement technology that serves the purpose today?
It’s that last question that I am poking at in this long-winded article.
The internet democratizes and normalizes human interaction. Globally. In the last 20 years, humans expanded their consciousness to include people from across the world. Even the most uneducated person living in the 1st or 2nd world is exposed to cultures and ideas well outside of his or her direct experience. Such exposure builds a sense of community well beyond his or her borders.
The Haitian earthquake of 2010 mobilized the world, instantaneously. 9/11 was broadcast on television globally, real-time. The Tsunami of 2004 (Indian Ocean/Indonesia) similarly triggered a global outpouring of support. The tsunami that triggered a Japanese nuclear disaster was broadcast on the internet by individual witnesses as it happened and led to a global discussion of nuclear safety.
Politically, the Arab Spring, and White-Hat Hacking are examples of the impact the internet has had on human resistance. Even as early as 1989, we saw the power of a more global media when the Chinese government squashed student demonstrations at Tiananmen Square (Beijing). Edward Snowden’s revelations would have landed with much less fanfare if not for the internet.
The internet has led to unprecedented transparency and the ability for people to express themselves and connect. Jackbooting authoritarianism loses a lot of its punch if brought into the limelight early and often. Police brutality is under incredible scrutiny in the USA right now because everyone is armed with a camera and an internet feed. Awareness of regional challenges now becomes a global discussion: the United State and gun violence; the suffering of women in the middle east and rural India; corporate abuses in developing countries (the Niger Delta, Asian sweatshops, slave labor, …); etc. etc.
Access to education is now broadly available. While the internet widely distributes news and opinion, it also distributes knowledge. A motivated person with an internet feed and ability to understand one of the prominent languages can educate themselves on any topic freely and at an extremely high level.
None of this is without collateral issues, of course. People are now even more incredibly enabled to overreact, jump to conclusions, and emotionally take action because their information feed is on overload. People become hypersensitive and mired in the narcissism of small differences. And now, scammers, crooks, and political manipulators have a powerful tool that they can use to exploit careless individuals. Normally isolated fringe elements are finding like-minded people to indulge in a myriad of perversions and conspiracies (child porn, hate groups, etc.). Individual privacy, once sacrosanct, is increasingly compromised.
Overall though, the internet has bridged the divide between cultures and broken down barriers that once separated huge populations of people. Even the most isolated groups of people have become familiar with the rest of the world and can empathize with each others’ struggles. Oppressed populations demand similar freedoms as those enjoyed in other regions of the world, and progressive peoples apply pressure on oppressive regimes to change their ways. The Other is no longer so “other”.
Cryptocurrencies are the next logical iteration in the evolution of human freedom.
Like the internet, no one owns the infrastructure or mechanisms underlying the technology that enables a cryptocurrency (at least, most crypocurrencies). Or more importantly, no government, religious institution, or corporation retains ownership. These entities have influence, but they do not have the ability to exert a monopoly of control like they have had in the past with various forms of media, gathering places, print houses, etc. Like they have had with national currencies and monetary instruments. There is a reason advocates tout “the internet of money” in reference to this new technology.
This inability to exert monopolistic control mutes the ability of potential autocrats or oligarchs to manipulate or censor —witness the current US president’s repeated failed attempts to shut down critics. The internet and web ensure that content is not truly censorable and cryptocurrencies ensure that commerce is similarly free from censor. Indeed, there is censorship, but it is largely self-censorship. We self-filter content through services. World governments do continue to pursue egregious abusers of this freedom (spam, child porn, human trafficking, etc) but generally using traditional methods of law enforcement and often with the blessing of the populous.
The web enabled anyone to become a journalist or publisher. Pre-2009 ecommerce enabled everyone to become a merchant. All with global reach. And now, post-2009, cryptocurrencies allow everyone to be their own bank.
Cryptocurrencies replace central banking issuance and manipulation, retail banking accounting and storage, and card company execution and clearance. All in one package.
Governments can attempt to exert control. Some may even outright attempt to ban cryptocurrencies. This would be disruptive, but just like China’s Great Firewall, such regulation will have limited effect. Where once the population was utterly under the economic thumb of their local government, they are now empowered individually. They are no longer completely beholden to the monetary whims of a failed state or abusive regime. They have the ability to circumvent, express, and even “vote” with their money.
At least, that is the potential.
Cryptocurrencies are still in their infancy. They are not yet ubiquitous. Their potential has yet to be realized. They need to scale up, become more robust, and certainly, they need to be far easier to use. They have yet to gain the comfort and trust of the everyday citizen. They have to go through the same growing pains that the early internet, web, and ecommerce went through.
Assuming cryptocurrencies achieve this state of ubiquity, the side-effect will be the significantly increased economic political clout of the public as a check against authoritarian power.
Commerce and monetary exchange will become person-to-person, entity-to-entity, business-to-business. Economic activity, combined with a greater human understanding —more empathy, more comfort— shared between disparate peoples, leads to more peace, less violence, and a vastly reduced ability for authoritarians to gain a foothold. Governed locally; accountable globally.
We are a global community. And we have global challenges. But even local challenges are not beyond the scrutiny of a global audience. The days of sweeping cultural idiosyncrasies under the carpet are gone. Indubitably there will be some things lost in this global melting pot that is forming. But the gains in worldwide individual liberty have been and will continue to be breath-taking. And as I proposed at the outset of this article, maybe these times of expanded individual sovereignty will give us permission to reexamine the value of some of our most cherished, but probably vestigial, institutions. I think the time has come.
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