Ethereum and the Bronze Age – quick and dirty post on how archaeology can inform tech

In the Tolkien, not the endocrinological or Snow White sense, Randy is a dwarf. Tolkien’s Dwarves were stout, taciturn, vaguely magical characters who spent a lot of time in the dark hammering out beautiful things, e.g. Rings of Power. Thinking of himself as a Dwarf who had hung up his war-ax for a while to go sojourning in the Shire, where he has surrounded by squabbling Hobbits (i.e., Charlene’s friends), had actually done a lot for Randy’s peace of mind over the years. He knew perfectly well that if he were stuck in academia these people, and the things they said, would seem momentous to him. But where he came from, nobody had been taking these people seriously for years.

Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon, Ch 6.

Are we happy to work with this classification and use “dwarves” as a shorthand for people gifted and knowledgeable in technical matters? Good, then we can begin. Stephenson goes on, by the way, to categorise elves as “brilliant in a more ethereal way” and I am probably something more like an elf, in that I am able to engage with the concepts at hand in the pressing technical matters of the day and relate them to other concepts, but I can’t engage with the detail. It was for this reason that a dwarfish friend asked me to read this post about Ethereum, which has gone somewhat viral in the dwarfosphere, and comment on its legibility to non-dwarfish creatures. So this is what I will now do.

You can read it, or start to. If you’re a dwarf you will understand where it’s going from the start. If you’re more like me you’ll read it with a sense of “Oh why should I be reading this, what are these people doing?” until quite late on. I had absolutely no contextual knowledge hooks to hang this description of how a certain type of blockchain works on, until I came to the bit about the banks. Then I immediately saw the cat – ok, this is about a new system equivalent to what banks have, but with no ownership. Implication, it will be able to kill the banks. Fine! So I think from a non-dwarfish perspective the explanation needs to start with the banks if intelligent non-dwarves are to widely understand it. It is not in compositional terms “the last piece of general magic”, it’s actually the first piece in the puzzle, if you don’t have a pre-existing grasp of what the puzzle is going to look like. To push that analogy as far as it will go, the comparison to banking is the picture on the box.

So having understood this, my first objection to the whole shebang was, “but so mining does not actually create a new form of value, Ether only have value when they are embedded into the existing value system that already exists in the real world”. Ether are exchanged for goods and services, but those goods and services only have assigned values because they are part of our existing monetary system and Ether exchangers relate their exchanges to those assigned values. So how can a system based on our existing system of values also be a system that hopes to replace that current system?

I suspect about nine tenths of the internet is filled with detailed explanations of why this isn’t a valid objection which I’ll probably need to read. But if I was to mount a counter to my own argument it would be along the lines of host-parasite: there currently isn’t any choice but for Ethereum to embed itself in an existing value system, but like a parasite it will feed off its host until it becomes a viable values system in itself which enough people buy into, at which point the host system (the monetary world as we know it) dies. I mean actually no-one is better equipped to understand that values systems are arbitrary and contingent than archaeologists of prehistory, so if we’ve invented one, we can probably invent another and replace the old one.

All fine as an analogy, but how will it actually work? Host-parasite sounds pretty alarming as a way to effect change, one thinks of Alien etc. Is it indeed true, as Vinay suspects, that “full implementation of that vision will be a lot more humane and user-friendly than most of what people are thinking about right now”? So this is where elvish knowledge structures can possibly be of assistance, because the key question to me considering this as a way of effecting social change is, has this displacement of one values system by another en masse happened before, and was it violent, and what were these costs?

And the answer to the first part I guess must be yes, because the Bronze Age was about the creation of value (ultimately the creation of the current system). I immediately thought of the arrival on the material scene of “prestige goods”, things made of gold, polished stone axes, social storage that became possible with the arrival of agriculture, circulating shell necklaces and all the rest of it (the internet, passim, but you’ll get the idea here). Basically, we should be able to take a look at the Bronze Age and see if the host-parasite thing is also applicable here, see if the comparison is valid given the Bronze Age is basically about tooling up and Ethereum seeks to be about tooling down, and then see what happened in terms of war, social change, power structures, displacement and what have you (some spoilers there), and map the consequences onto our own projections about the future as envisaged by disruptive currency/monetary system projects. For this, I’m going to need to read more about the Bronze Age, so in that sense this is not a complete post, more a signpost to myself.

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