Image: The Huffington Post
Before we had flame-grilled Whoppers and Cadillacs with combustion engines, we first had to control fire. Before there were cat videos on YouTube and massively multiplayer online games, we first had to invent the internet. And before we had a world without banks, we first had to create the blockchains.
When our ancestors created a fire in their cave from flint and dried grass, they couldn’t have possibly imagined what would follow, just as the minds that laboured over the TCP/IP protocol couldn’t have possibly known where their arcane and ill-understood creations would someday take us. This same story was true of the blockchains and cryptocurrency – it was the Manhattan Project of economics. We just didn’t know it at the time.
At first, things like Bitcoin were a novelty – a curious idea that captivated crypto-geeks and technophiles but never breached the mainstream consciousness. Here was a new type of currency – indeed, a new way of thinking about currency. It was deflationary: a finite resource that government mints couldn’t print forever. It was digital: a type of capital that moved around the world at the speed of light. It was decentralised: the publicly-owned mass of interconnected computers were the ones who verified transactions and powered the infrastructure supporting everything. And supporting it, were the ‘blockchains’, public ledgers that recorded all bitcoin transactions.
No more National Mint. No more Federal Reserve. No more banks. Once that idea started to sink into people’s minds, everything began to accelerate.
A few years later, this niche idea about a new type of economics was being discussed in US Senate inquiries and on MSNBC. Bitcoin’s comparative value to the US Dollar had skyrocketed from a few cents to over $1,200. Bitcoin started as a small but powerful idea – a fire in a cave, and now it was a speculative vehicle that Wall Street salivated over – a flame-grilled Whopper. Bitcoin, and the blockchain supporting it, however, weren’t done.
Next, came the combustion engine, the Cadillac-level iteration of the idea. This stage of revolution began in the supermarket aisles. The Fair-Trade Organisation and others like it wanted to use the blockchain to tackle sustainability. Attempting to meet skyrocketing consumer demands for sustainable consumption and production, the corporations of the world wanted a way to verify they were putting their money where their mouth (their marketing) was. The banks, however, made this difficult, and that’s why they died. We killed them because we wanted cups of coffee that didn’t rob farmers of their livelihood, and clothes that weren’t made by children in deplorable sweatshop conditions.
Transparency and open accounting were anathemas to the banks. International supply chains were obscenely difficult to fully account for. Navigating the maze of a dozen different financial institutions involved in a remarkable supply chain was deemed too complicated in a world where blockchains offered elegant simplicity. In the space of a few years, corporations began shifting large chunks of capital to cryptocurrencies and hiring in-house staff to manage these funds directly. They became their own banks. The often-independent developers who became the auditors were those who created apps that simplified the underlying system and allowed consumers to trace the flow of capital from a soy latte to the Ecuadorian coffee bean farmer. Customers using this new technology became, via their interconnected mass and momentum, the institutional investors.
The economy slowly shifted towards equality as the blockchains, like a super virus, spread across the world in an unstoppable outbreak. For the first time in human history the people controlled the capital, and through that, they controlled the means of production. Businesses that capitalised on human misery by operating in the shadows either changed their ways or succumbed to the people’s will. Apple and Goldman Sachs were the first and biggest heads to fall, but hardly the only ones. Banks fell one by one, the global financial crisis was nothing compared to all this. Their very public funerals served as a lesson to the rest of the world: behave yourselves, because we are watching. We, the people, are in control now.
Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonym that referred to the anonymous inventor of Bitcoins and the blockchain, would remain a mystery – but the purpose of their invention would become clearer over time. Recognising that we lived in a world too deeply entrenched in neoliberal capitalism, a world headed irrevocably towards environmental catastrophe, Satoshi had envisaged a way out within that system. Consumerism was converted into a form of protest – a non-violent direct action that took place every day, with every transaction. Capitalism was changed into the platform for that revolution – the National Mall that housed a daily billion-strong march.
And that was Satoshi’s legacy. But that was not where the story would end. Ending poverty and economic inequality was just the end of the beginning. When blockchains spread into other spheres of life, the idea of the singularity, like the idea of the Bitcoin, shifted from science fiction towards an inevitable reality.
But that, I suppose, is a story for another time.