The Truth Machine: The Blockchain and the Future of Everything
February 26, 2018
Paul Vigna and Michael Casey make a compelling case for the promise of blockchain technology and why we should all get involved.
One could argue that civilization is built upon a ledger. The birth of writing occurred in an accounting book—well, clay tablets—as cities arose in the ancient Near East to keep count of, and account for, goods produced and exchanged. Double-entry bookkeeping, which in the words of Jane Gleeson-White "enabled capitalism to flourish," created the massive wealth that fueled the Renaissance and is still the system that underpins the global economy today. As those two revolutionary examples illustrate, changes in how we keep our books have a tendency to drastically change the world.
Paul Vigna and Michael Casey of The Wall Street Journal, explained the nature of digital currencies, and how the open, decentralized, distributed ledgers (or blockchains) they are kept and traded on can change the world, in their first book, The Age of Cryptocurrency. Casey has since left the Journal to work at the MIT's Digital Currency Initiative, adding some on-the-ground, and ground floor, experience to their excellent reporting in their new book, The Truth Machine: The Blockchain and the Future of Everything.
As the book's subtitle suggests, the implications of the technology aren't confined to currency. Blockchains have the potential to secure our identities, better distribute humanitarian aid, decentralize the energy grid, cut waste and fraud from the current financial system, secure our data, protect our privacy and property rights (including intellectual property rights), and open the global economy to anyone with an internet connection. Vigna and Casey's new book The Truth Machine, tells that larger story, which is just beginning.
Knowledge is power, and that is even more true in an information economy. Unfortunately, the democratic, digital utopia so many believed was the promise of the internet hasn't materialized. Instead, authority, wealth, and power have become even more consolidated and monopolized. As Casey and Vigna write:
In the modern economy, to control information is to control the world. This is seen in the ever-growing influence of tech behemoths like Google and Facebook, constantly accumulating data that's pertinent to who we are and how we interact with each other. In this twenty-first-century economy, power is defined by whoever has the authority to collect, store, and share data. Currently, that authority is centralized. It is concentrated among a narrow number of giant tech companies. If you're wondering why that's problematic, just think of the influence that Facebook's hidden algorithm, which prioritizes the company's business model above all other objectives, has had on our politics. In incentivizing the creation and sharing of often-dubious information to trigger dopamine releases among social networks of like-minded people, its algorithms played an instrumental role in the bombshell U.S. elections of 2016.
In an era of such fake news and "alternative facts," a truth machine for recording facts and data to a publicly verifiable record sounds like a great tool to have. We could use digital tools to enhance trust instead of erode it, without having to turng to a corporate entity to manage—or mismanage—the information. The internet has created massive wealth, but it has also concentrated it. The blockchain, creating the "internet of value," has the potential to help change that. It has to ability to not only cut out the traditional financial middlemen that always take their cut, but the new sharing economy companies that do so, as well. What if, instead of Uber—"which takes 25 percent from each ride and has a reputation for abusing its 'God's view' knowledge of passengers' rides," there was a decentralized, blockchain powered ride-sharing application? It exists, in Tel Aviv, and it's called Commuterz.
If the first phase of the Internet created huge opportunities for wealth creation and new business models by helping people jump the fences and get on the playing field, this next one promises to remove the fences altogether. In theory, it means that everyone with access to a device and the Internet can participate directly in the global economy.
Perhaps, with blockchain, the era of "equal opportunity, wider inclusion, greater shared prosperity and collaboration" that the internet was supposed to usher in will finally arrive. Perhaps not. We are at a critical point in the development of the technology, when this internet of value must be imbued with values. The blockchain technology is a governance system, which makes it as much a political tool as much as a technological one. "How we govern information … will define the boundaries of freedom," assert the authors, "That's why the idea of an unbreakable truth machine that no one person or institution can break is so empowering." But there is no guarantee that its promise will be realized, which is why the authors sound "a clarion call to take interest, to get involved."
If you're ready to do so, we have 20 copies available.