A Comprehensive Synthesis of the Technological, Ecological and Political Critique of Blockchainism
I’ve just read one of the most lucid, wide-ranging, cross-disciplinary critiques of cryptocurrency and blockchain I’ve yet to encounter. It comes from David “DSHR” Rosenthal, a distinguished technologist whose past achievements include helping to develop X11 and the core technologies for Nvidia.
Rosenthal’s critique is a transcript of a lecture he gave to Stanford’s EE380 class, adapted from a December 2021 talk for an investor conference. It is a bang-up-to-date synthesis of many of the critical writings on the subject, glued together with Rosenthal’s own deep technical expertise. He calls it “Can We Mitigate Cryptocurrencies’ Externalities?”
The presence of “externalities” in Rosenthal’s title is key. Rosenthal identifies blockchainism’s core ideology as emerging from “the libertarian culture of Silicon Valley and the cypherpunks,” and states that “libertarianism’s attraction is based on ignoring externalities.”
This is an important critique of libertarianism. The idea that “liberty” is the freedom to do as you like, provided it doesn’t harm others is simple enough on its face, but the reality is very few of our actions are free from the potential to harm others. The freedom to drive, or operate a firearm, or to determine your own vaccination preferences all have impacts on others. We can (and should) argue about what consideration you owe to your neighbors and what tolerance they owe to you, but all to often, that argument is settled by ignoring it.
Think of the people who talk about masking as a “personal choice.” Human beings have an undeniably entwined epidemiological destiny. There are few epidemiological choices that are purely personal — they redound to the people around you.
The existence of a shared destiny and the necessity of a society to manage it runs smack into the idea that messy personal conflicts are best resolved by carving out individual zones of autonomy. All too often, the libertarian definition of “liberty” is cover for “I don’t want to pay taxes to support a society.” This is a pretty…