Report — From the January 2015 issue

Come With Us If You Want to Live

Among the apocalyptic libertarians of Silicon Valley

Download Pdf
Read Online
( 7 of 8 )

Michael Vassar had predicted a “fairly total” cultural transition beginning within the next decade. This might sound insane, unless you buy into the near-term futurology emerging from outlets like TechCrunch and Wired, and from venture capitalists like Palihapitiya, Srinivasan, and Marc Andreessen.

In five years, an estimated 5.9 billion people will own smartphones. Anyone who can code, or who has something to sell, can be a free agent on the global marketplace. You can work from anywhere on your laptop and talk to anyone in the world; you can receive goods anywhere via drone and pay for them with bitcoins — that is, if you can’t 3-D print them at home. As software eats everything, prices will plunge. You won’t need much money to live like a king; it won’t be a big deal if your job is made obsolete by code or a robot. The rich will enjoy bespoke luxury goods and be first in line for new experiences, but otherwise there will be no differences among people; inequality will increase but cease to matter. Politics as we know it will lose relevance. Large, gridlocked states will be disrupted like any monopoly. Customer-citizens, armed with information, will demand transparency, accountability, choice. They will want their countries to be run as well as a start-up. There might be some civil wars, there might be many new nations, but the stabilizing force will be corporations, which will become even more like parts of a global government than they are today. Google and Facebook, for instance, will be bigger and better than ever: highly functional, monopolistic technocracies that will build out the world’s infrastructure. Facebook will be the new home of the public sphere; Google will automate everything.

Thiel and Vassar and Yudkowsky, for all their far-out rhetoric, take it on faith that corporate capitalism, unchecked just a little longer, will bring about this era of widespread abundance. Progress, Thiel thinks, is threatened mostly by the political power of what he calls the “unthinking demos.”

I’m interested in a class of technologies that preserve that political power. I went to the Ethereum Meetup because Buterin’s invention seemed to allow for experimentation in consensus-building and cooperation, experiments that would start on a small scale but could efficiently grow in size, with everyone having a say in matters that concern them.

The Internet is built around hubs controlled by corporations; we trust Dropbox to store things for us, Google not to read our email. (In this way, the Internet resembles society generally: power is centralized, and we either trust the governments and the institutions in control or we are coerced into obeying them.) The leap that technologies like Ethereum ask us to make is to imagine a new, decentralized Internet — one in which every user is his, her, or its own node. We will make a constant stream of micropayments to one another to pay for storage and computing power, not through corporate middlemen (Dropbox, Google) but by means of a blockchain, a cryptographic verification system like Bitcoin’s that anyone can inspect.

But what is this good for? Ethereum’s developers are building distributed storage and secure messaging systems — obviously desirable in the age of Snowden — but the primary innovation is in allowing users to execute contracts without the need for a trusted third party. These can be simple: say, a betting pool in which the bookie has been automated away and the stakes are put in escrow until a predetermined event triggers the release of money to the winner. More complicated contracts could allow connected devices to manage their own interactions: your appliances could run when power is cheaper; your self-driving car could negotiate with the smart-road system, which sets tolls dynamically in order to manage traffic. But Ethereum’s true believers, like the people I met at Occupy, are more interested in remaking society itself. As the Internet continues to blend with the real world, decentralized contracts might become the building blocks of many decentralized forms of human governance, along libertarian or perhaps anarchist lines.

A group of friends or strangers, distributed throughout a neighborhood or around the world, could set up a mutual-aid society without involving an insurance company. Each person would pay into a contract that would automatically release money to an injured or unemployed party when certain mutually agreed-upon conditions were met. This group might get more ambitious and create a digital community currency, with units distributed to all members on an egalitarian basis. They might build a digital voting system; the blockchain would guarantee transparency. If these experiments worked, the group could vote to accept new members, which would make the mutual-aid system more robust and the community currency more useful. As real and virtual imbricated further, these modest cooperative entities could and would scale up.

If Thiel and his peers believe too much in the power of an elite, Ethereum offers an answer: an opt-in system of organizing human behavior with rules that can be made radically egalitarian. What if each faction at Occupy had something like Ethereum at its disposal? Would more progress have been made; would something have emerged that couldn’t be shut down by infighting or police?

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Share
is a senior editor of Triple Canopy.

More from Sam Frank:

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2020

Trumpism After Trump

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My Gang Is Jesus”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Cancer Chair

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Birds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Skinning Tree

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Interpretation of Dreams

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dearest Lizzie

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Close

You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.