Bitcoin has not in any sense eliminated human politics
June 16, 2017 10:18 AM   Subscribe

"It can enforce contracts, prevent double spending, and cap the size of the money pool all without participants having to cede power to any particular third party who might abuse the power. No rent-seeking, no abuses of power, no politics — blockchain technologies can be used to create “math-based money” and “unstoppable” contracts that are enforced with the impartiality of a machine instead of the imperfect and capricious human bureaucracy of a state or a bank. ... Unfortunately this turns out to be a naive understanding of blockchain."
posted by clawsoon (95 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
Only a person who has never been involved in a contract dispute could ever think that "smart contracts" could solve the problem with an objective reference standard.
posted by praemunire at 10:24 AM on June 16 [18 favorites]


Man, this is what happens when projects have limited information out and reach a certain level of incomprehensibility. I have been following the blockchain for quite a while, and I see, most commonly, DREAMS and WEIRD INTERNET MAGIC!
posted by Samizdata at 10:29 AM on June 16 [3 favorites]


Seriously, try this ONE WEIRD TRICK discovered by a simple IT student. BANKERS, LAWYERS, AND OPPRESSIVE GOVERMENTS HATE IT!
posted by Samizdata at 10:34 AM on June 16 [12 favorites]


Obviously, the problem with Bitcoin is that the plebes aren't smart enough. Obviously.
posted by tommasz at 10:43 AM on June 16 [2 favorites]


Proponents of blockchain tech argue its revolutionary quality is its ability to act as a decentralized and trustless database. But I don't ever hear them sort through the issue of how to agree on the schema for this trustless database. For a group of people to use a decentralized DB, they have to agree as to what to store in it, and how to store it. They need to form consensus about how the system will work, and how the data will flow.

For example, you often hear about blockchain applications such as a decentralized stock exchange. For such an application, it's necessary to get all the users of the system in a room and agree what is in scope and what is not, and in general what can be done with the system and how. At this point they already have a consensus, they trust each other, they might as well just set up a centralized database run by a 3rd party that manages the system, keeps it up to date and adds upgrades, instead of building it on the blockchain and hoping there are no major bugs in the cloud code and that it will live off gas.

For the stock exchange, that's exactly what we already have. We have institutions that are dedicated to running exchanges, which act as neutral arbiters. They use regular old centralized databases. When they have bugs in their code or the system makes a mistake they can even roll back trades, which they couldn't do on the blockchain.

Or they can,but then they expose, and shatter, the meta-consensus, and trust, underlying the system as we saw in what happened with the DAO fiasco. "Hard forking" as Ethereum did to solve the DAO issue destroyed that underlying trust and meta-consensus and erases all of the claimed superior merits of the system.

These initial meta-decisions on defining/implementing the system are different than using/running the system, and the former can't be done trustlessly.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:46 AM on June 16 [10 favorites]


Also, the way proponents talk about the blockchain remind me exactly of how techno-enthusiasts talked about the Internet in the 90s: a revolutionary new technology that would fundamentally alter human society and usher in a free, open, classless, borderless utopia where all information is free and freely exchanged. But the subsequent decades taught us that while the Internet is certainly an amazing development that has changed many aspects of society, it falls far short of the early revolutionary promises and in some ways has only served not only to strengthen the status quo, it's arguably made the situation worse by enabling even greater exploitation and state surveillance. The free exchange of information has served not to wash away hate and tribalism, but to often enhance it and connect people in their shared hatred to make them stronger and more influential as a group than they otherwise might have been.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:49 AM on June 16 [36 favorites]


I think it's important to separate all the ideological nonsense around bitcoin generated by con artists and true believers from the actual reality-- which is that cryptocurrency is better than traditional currency for a limited set of use cases (evading currency controls, illicit activity, as a temporary store of value during times of economic instability in some countries (Venezuela, for example). They'll always have some value, until something better comes along.

All of the complaints about how bitcoin will never work and how it's going to collapse at any moment and how it's a big pyramid scheme are eventually going to have to come to terms with the fact that they do work for some people right now.

That said, the idea that bitcoin is going to replace fiat currency entirely or even substantially has always been stupid, and cryptocurrencies are in the middle of another speculative bubble right now and I wouldn't recommend buying them unless you're on a very long time frame (years not months). They could go up 300% or down 90% from here. Price instability is one of the reasons it won't ever replace most currencies for most uses.
posted by empath at 11:00 AM on June 16 [2 favorites]


I have been wondering if blockchain type things could be useful for payment systems. I know a number of webcomic artists and such whom have had trouble with Paypal and Google systems, and both take a fairly hefty cut. If all I wanted to do was buy a sketch from someone, I could see a decentralized system that makes that easy to do working. Likewise, Patreon seems to pretty much only exist as this type of monthly tip jar, and I could see an independent network finding a way to replacing that, so that 100% goes to the artist/comedy group/podcast/etc. I don't think bitcoin works for this as I have to a) set up bitcoin b) buy some c) send them some and then d) they have to turn them back into real money.

That said, I have no idea if this is feasible or not, or if this is still a problem. I know in Canada emailing money is now dead easy with any bank, and Amazon has been making huge inroads on Paypal, so the competition may have driven them to suck less.
posted by Canageek at 11:12 AM on June 16


Obviously, the problem with Bitcoin is that the plebes aren't smart enough. Obviously.

No, the problem is that I was over at my buddy's place this weekend--he's a smart guy, with a nice house and a 401k--and he asked me if I had invested in any cryptocurrencies. And then he named one I never heard of, that he had a few thousand USD in.

Like... if your alarm bells didn't go off at the phrase "investing in currency"... you're a gambler, not an investor.

He told me that the first official purchase made with bitcoin was for a domino's pizza, and that pizza would be worth like 20 million dollars today. And again, this was characterized as a positive.
posted by danny the boy at 11:13 AM on June 16 [17 favorites]


Who let the dogecoin out?
posted by Burhanistan at 11:15 AM on June 16 [8 favorites]


The people that bought bitcoin early on were dicking around in between fedora fittings.
The people buying crypto today are either buying drugs or hoping for a lottery ticket.

All of the complaints about how bitcoin will never work and how it's going to collapse at any moment and how it's a big pyramid scheme are eventually going to have to come to terms with the fact that they do work for some people right now.

Sure, but this also exactly true for literally every bubble: housing, tulips, tibetan mastiffs. It works right until it does't.
posted by danny the boy at 11:19 AM on June 16 [19 favorites]


danny the boy: No, the problem is that I was over at my buddy's place this weekend--he's a smart guy, with a nice house and a 401k--and he asked me if I had invested in any cryptocurrencies. And then he named one I never heard of, that he had a few thousand USD in.

There's a guy at work who has been personally hurt and disappointed that I didn't buy the brand new cryptocurrency that he recommended. I wonder if it was the same one.

He has his own personal bitcoin dealer, who he calls on the phone now and again. I don't know how that works, exactly.
posted by clawsoon at 11:40 AM on June 16 [2 favorites]


Ethereum, that's the one, thanks Sangermaine. But that was so Thursday morning.
posted by clawsoon at 11:43 AM on June 16 [2 favorites]


The people buying crypto today are either buying drugs or hoping for a lottery ticket.

Or desperately trying to pay off hackers who are holding their data hostage. It's not a coincidence that BTC's recent spike began at the same time as a wave of ransomware attacks. Turns out extortion is Bitcoin's killer app.
posted by firechicago at 11:48 AM on June 16 [15 favorites]


Or evading Chinese capital controls - I can't find it now but I saw a nice chart plotting BTCUSD against USDCNY that at least passed the eyeball test of fit.
posted by PMdixon at 11:55 AM on June 16 [2 favorites]


I could see an independent network finding a way to replacing that, so that 100% goes to the artist/comedy group/podcast/etc. I don't think bitcoin works for this as I have to a) set up bitcoin b) buy some c) send them some and then d) they have to turn them back into real money.

It's not just that. Even putting aside the costs of currency exchange, an actual blockchain doesn't work for free. How could it? It operates off machines that cost money to run.
posted by praemunire at 12:09 PM on June 16 [2 favorites]


Bitcoin will never be widely used by consumers until you get over the limitation of an absolute maximum 600,000 transactions within a single day. Period.
posted by mark242 at 12:15 PM on June 16 [8 favorites]


All of the complaints about how bitcoin will never work and how it's going to collapse at any moment and how it's a big pyramid scheme are eventually going to have to come to terms with the fact that they do work for some people right now.

Like Meth.
posted by bongo_x at 12:15 PM on June 16 [1 favorite]


In a shocking turn of events, technical solutions don't solve social problems.
posted by bracems at 12:20 PM on June 16 [11 favorites]


BTW, crashing right now.

Bear in mind this plunge merely corrects to the highs of yesterday.

And, in context, it's a fleshwound...

posted by sammyo at 12:20 PM on June 16


I'm surprised the paper didn't mention the entire block size issue. The whole reason that the block size, and thus the number of transactions has been limited is that the Chinese bitcoin miners, who control more than 50% if the mining pool, don't want it to. Partly because it would make it harder to send the data through the great firewall, partly because a limited number of transactions force people to pay bounties for putting a transaction through. Link. A fork stalled, because of those same Chinese miners.

As the link said:

Whether they recognize it or not, they face the same governance issues as conventional third-party enforcers. You can use technologies to potentially enhance the processes of governance (eg. transparency, online deliberation, e-voting), but you can’t engineer away governance as such.
posted by zabuni at 12:24 PM on June 16 [6 favorites]


> Paypal and Google systems, and both take a fairly hefty cut

I can't agree that 2.9% + 30 cents per transaction that Paypal takes as "a fairly hefty cut", but I work in that industry so I'm biased.

Transactions with Bitcoin can take a while to be confirmed, but as an incentive to have a transaction "confirmed" by the bitcoin network faster, the miners will take, guess what? ...a cut of the transaction.

Convenience costs money, and if you're trying to sell something online, sending physical pieces of paper around (be it cash, money order, or cheque) is gonna be a total non-starter.

For transfers between friends, Venmo is free if you go via bank account or debit card (PayPal's also free in some cases). A Venmo competing bank-backed service called Zelle launched a couple days ago, but the UX, name (which is, ugh, pronounced sell), and branding aren't quite there.
posted by fragmede at 12:26 PM on June 16 [2 favorites]


Bitcoin will never be widely used by consumers until you get over the limitation of an absolute maximum 600,000 transactions within a single day. Period.

Wait, what? After reading that gawdawful Crowley Crocodile blockchain dystopia story, I was under the impression that blockchain's goal was to turn every conceivable interaction between any two persons or objects into an endless and bewildering transactional hellworld. Is this a case of techno-libertarians being kind of shitty at numbers, or is this a hard-and-fast mathematical limitation that will save civilization as we know it?
posted by Strange Interlude at 12:28 PM on June 16 [2 favorites]


All the criticisms probably fall short of the reality of the current batch of cryptocurrencies, but that does not mean that solid math + good engineering + quality social policy + thatXfactor will not make for a vastly better system than the flakey hackable chip credit cards and the rest of the financial system. Someone hacked 80 million from a national banking system and only got caught as soon due to sloppy forms.

It's a non-trivial effort and "coin mining" is certainly the wrong approach for control, but the financial system needs an automated trusted system and they're beginning to really work on it. Probably take a few tries, but a lot is being learned from the bitcoin "experiments".
posted by sammyo at 12:35 PM on June 16 [1 favorite]


"I'm surprised the paper didn't mention the entire block size issue. The whole reason that the block size, and thus the number of transactions has been limited is that the Chinese bitcoin miners, who control more than 50% if the mining pool, don't want it to. Partly because it would make it harder to send the data through the great firewall, partly because a limited number of transactions force people to pay bounties for putting a transaction through. Link. A fork stalled, because of those same Chinese miners."

It explicitly does that: "But what has started to make this position untenable and Bitcoin’s politics visible is the so-called “block size debate” — a big disagreement between factions of the Bitcoin community over the future direction of the rules."
posted by klangklangston at 12:37 PM on June 16


Metafilter: an endless and bewildering transactional hellworld
posted by AzraelBrown at 12:40 PM on June 16 [7 favorites]


W/r/t Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, the moment I saw hedge funds were interested in Bitcoin, I noped the fuck out of the entire idea of cryptocurrency. The idea of hedge funds being involved with an unregulated fiat currency scares the fuck out of me, and nobody's been able to change my mind on this.

W/r/t the blockchain, which is separate, like all new technologies, the sales pitch is going to be that it will utterly change the world and usher in a new era of global peace and prosperity. The reality is that it's just going to be more of the same, just delivered faster.
posted by SansPoint at 12:47 PM on June 16 [2 favorites]


Lehdonvirta's argument is wrong. The essay is a straw argument, and the Bitcoin 'governance paradox' uses false equivalence to construct an accusation that Bitcoin rationales beg the question. That's what the article's rhetoric is trying to do.

To do this, to focus on the people who think that Bitcoin is magically politics free is incredibly lazy debating, for someone from Oxford. Those people exist, but their beliefs are not interesting. It doesn't even take game theory to point out what's self-evident, and so the author is just pandering, I guess to R3 bankers who will be waving this around.
posted by polymodus at 12:55 PM on June 16


I'm a certified true believer. There's basically no way it doesn't win. It's like arguing we don't need jets because boats are fine for getting across the Atlantic. It's just better money. It's a better store of value. It's better medium of exchange. Gresham's law will prevail. I probably manage (part) of some of your pensions. My pension is partially in Bitcoin. Also note the inherent ridiculousness of arguing about plausibility of magic internet money on the Internet.

Thought experiment: Describe MeFi to someone in 1970 before the internet existed. "It's virtual forum for where quasi-anonymous people from all around the world can meet to discuss ideas 24/7 using signals sent down the telephone line or via radios, tiny radios they hold in their pockets that have TV's in them, that they control by touching glass." The look of confusion is most people trying to understand the blockchain.
posted by Damienmce at 12:56 PM on June 16 [5 favorites]


"R3 bankers"

R3 is pointless. SWIFT with go-faster stripes.
posted by Damienmce at 12:58 PM on June 16


It's better medium of exchange. How much are the network fees right now again?
posted by cellphone at 1:06 PM on June 16 [2 favorites]


There's certain fields which most people don't know too much about like.. cryptography and economics.. where wingnuts and charlatans can go about their wingnutting and charlatanry freely because most people don't know enough to call them on it.
posted by yonega at 1:08 PM on June 16 [5 favorites]


@DanienMCe I think Gresham's law would be an argument as to why bitcoin will fail - not succeed- if you are right about it superiority as a store of value etc.

It says that bad money drives out good because people will tend to hoard rather than spend it relative to the bad devaluing money.
posted by seejaie at 1:13 PM on June 16 [2 favorites]


It's just better money. It's a better store of value. It's better medium of exchange.

Maybe one day in the future, a currency that owes some of its inception to bitcoin will be this, but wow does this seem like the opposite of true right now.
posted by ODiV at 1:13 PM on June 16 [2 favorites]


Lehdonvirta's argument is wrong.

Should we take your word for it, or would you deign to explain why?
posted by Sangermaine at 1:14 PM on June 16 [2 favorites]


I probably manage (part) of some of your pensions.
Maybe I missed it, but what is your argument in favor of Bitcoin?
posted by Green With You at 1:19 PM on June 16 [4 favorites]


Damienmce: I probably manage (part) of some of your pensions.

If it's partially invested in Bitcoin, lord I hope you don't.
posted by SansPoint at 1:27 PM on June 16 [13 favorites]


If your "thought experiment" both posits a completely different situation (technology that didn't exist vs. that which does) and assumes the participants are some combination of stupid and/or naive and/or completely devoid of imagination, then maybe it's a shitty experiment.

Of course, it's this same mindset from people that evangelize cryptocurrency that ends up in really fucked-up places. For example, the recent ransomware attacks, where some of these same evangelists are under the belief that the victims of the attacks are both somehow to blame and are the real bad guys for not immediately paying the ransom.
posted by zombieflanders at 1:44 PM on June 16 [1 favorite]


Thought experiment: Describe MeFi to someone in 1970 before the internet existed. "It's virtual forum for where quasi-anonymous people from all around the world can meet to discuss ideas 24/7 using signals sent down the telephone line or via radios, tiny radios they hold in their pockets that have TV's in them, that they control by touching glass." The look of confusion is most people trying to understand the blockchain.

Oh, please. All of those concepts were commonplace in popular fiction before 1970. Hell, Dick Tracy had an Apple Watch in 1937. So, no, there would be no such look of confusion as you suggest. Explaining the blockchain, as well as the involved methods one must go through to "earn" bitcoin, though? Yeah...utter confusion and not a little bit of suspicion. And, it'll never, ever get any better.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:47 PM on June 16 [13 favorites]


The look of confusion is most people trying to understand the blockchain.

Enlighten us further, o merciful and patient one, prithee
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 1:50 PM on June 16 [6 favorites]


I invested in cryptos but I believe Bitcoin will fail, eventually. Whether it's the current political debate about the block size, or the transaction fees scaling in fiat value as the currency becomes more valuable ... Yeah. I don't buy it.

I buy Ethereum instead. Yeah, smart contacts don't solve human problems but it does have some more interesting real world use cases ... If they get off the ground. The slock.it DAO debacle is a good example of spending politics within Ethereum. But if you look at where developers are putting time and effort ... It isn't ETC - it's ETH. And there are tons of use cases, from digital identity to supply chain tracking to renting out hard drive and CPU for the cloud, that have the potential to make some very real changes in our world.

Potential. For now I'm investing as a speculation and keep my money on coinbase, where i can withdraw it to my account immediately if the bubble pops.
posted by thebotanyofsouls at 1:51 PM on June 16 [1 favorite]


I probably manage (part) of some of your pensions.

An interesting way to study the financial crisis is to look at the litigation brought afterwards by the pension funds that got snowed and rolled and their lunches eaten by the banks and other finance companies they inexplicably trusted to sell them junk. It seems like half of the crisis lawsuits have "Carpenters, Teachers, and Nurses of Central Texas" or the like as the plaintiffs.

An interesting way to study the deleterious effects of private equity on the economy is to examine the ways the pension funds get snowed and rolled and their lunches eaten by same.

My pension is partially in Bitcoin. Also note the inherent ridiculousness of arguing about plausibility of magic internet money on the Internet.

This is pretty much the dictionary definition of "an argument that proves too much." Note the inherent ridiculousness of talking about telepathic internet networks on the Internet!

I don't think blockchain technology will simply vanish from the landscape, leaving nothing behind, but boy howdy has it been oversold.
posted by praemunire at 1:57 PM on June 16 [4 favorites]


Thought experiment: Describe MeFi to someone in 1970 before the internet existed. "It's virtual forum for where quasi-anonymous people from all around the world can meet to discuss ideas 24/7 using signals sent down the telephone line or via radios, tiny radios they hold in their pockets that have TV's in them, that they control by touching glass."

What would happen if you explained that to people in 1970 is they would say "Hold on, you're saying it's going to be another 30 years before we get that?" "And not that much else changes?" They wouldn't believe you.
posted by bongo_x at 1:58 PM on June 16 [3 favorites]


The look of confusion is most people trying to understand the blockchain

It's fundamentally a decentralized database whose state is whatever a majority of participants certify it to be.

The number of problems that solves are very, very small.
posted by PMdixon at 2:04 PM on June 16 [17 favorites]


I guess I'm a big blockchain dummy because I don't get cryptocurrencies at all. I mean if today one unit of buttcoin buys me a shirt and tomorrow it buys me a car, how the hell could it ever replace wages? If it always has to be translated into real money values, why bother using it assuming I'm not planning a hit, paying a ransom or buying drugs?
posted by Sternmeyer at 2:11 PM on June 16 [5 favorites]


Yeah, if there's no stable pricing when I go to exchange it for goods and services, then it's not money; it's something I can maybe go exchange for money.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 2:18 PM on June 16 [7 favorites]


It's not just that. Even putting aside the costs of currency exchange, an actual blockchain doesn't work for free. How could it? It operates off machines that cost money to run.
posted by praemunire


I thought the point was that the processing was distributed, so people contributed CPU cycles instead of money? I could be misunderstanding a large part of how it works.

I can't agree that 2.9% + 30 cents per transaction that Paypal takes as "a fairly hefty cut", but I work in that industry so I'm biased. You are probably thinking of large scale transactions. Think about the comic artist, mod author, podcaster, who is taking in lots of $1 tips. That is taking ~33% of their earnings.

And that doesn't cover the other problem I've seen people complain about, which is when Paypal was the only thing in town it had a LOT of limits. People who would draw pinups or such of their characters would get suddenly cut off of service from Paypal without warning (As I recall TMI Comic had this problem for a while), and there were various other problems with very strict terms of service.


Convenience costs money, and if you're trying to sell something online, sending physical pieces of paper around (be it cash, money order, or cheque) is gonna be a total non-starter.
Remember: Canadian banks offer this for free with an account, even the free student ones, which you need anyway. Not sure why American and such banks don't offer this.

Also why does convenience have to cost money? It just needs CPU cycles, right? If you got enough people using it, you could siphon off a few from each user to run it, which I thought was the point of a distributed system like bittorrent, blockchains, etc. Sure, that will increase electricity costs for some people, but probably by a lot less then 3% of their transactions. Heck, my entire electricity bill is less then $40/month.
posted by Canageek at 2:24 PM on June 16 [1 favorite]


"It's better medium of exchange. How much are the network fees right now again?"

SegWit, Lightning Network, Sidechains will solve shortly. What are the fees to send 4 billion of physical gold? The payments network part is the most boring part/trivial. The trustless network is amazing. Fees are high because they're denominated in BTC which is at crazy bubble prices.

I think Gresham's law would be an argument as to why bitcoin will fail - not succeed- if you are right about it superiority as a store of value etc.
You misunderstand, everything that's not bitcoin is the bad money that drives the out the value into the good money. Maybe Thiers law is more appropriate.


Maybe I missed it, but what is your argument in favor of Bitcoin?
Mathematics.

I invested in cryptos but I believe Bitcoin -I buy Ethereum instead.
Same. I took a round trip. Once I saw that building bells/whistles is possible on top of BTC makes alt cryptos essentially moot. L1, L2, L3 networks. Not saying one chain to rule them all but some will die.

The number of problems that solves are very, very small.

Financial Intermediation is 9% of US GDP. 1 in 10 dollars is spent on paperwork.

Re the thought experiment, can pick the details (Asimov though of that! etc) but my point is what would sound ridiculous to a regular person on the street then as a possible near future is now the future. When writing cheques 20 years ago would you seriously considered that you would one day be paying for a coffee with a watch. You can now anonymously, securely, perfectly keep $1m in your head by remembering a handful words. If you can remember the lyrics to a song, you can be a walking Swiss bank. Future not evenly distributed etc.

Yeah, if there's no stable pricing when I go to exchange it for goods and services, then it's not money

Yet. You won't swap into fiat in the future because there isn't any or there's an infinite amount of it. By future I mean decades, not Q3 2018 obviously.
posted by Damienmce at 2:30 PM on June 16


When writing cheques 20 years ago would you seriously considered that you would one day be paying for a coffee with a watch.

Dude, of course. Literally every other article or discussion on technology in the 90s was about how in the near future the Internet will be everything and everywhere. What you're describing is a dream from the 1930s.

I don't mean this in a disparaging way, but you must be very young if you think in 1997 none would dare to dream of where technology or the Internet might take us.

You can now anonymously, securely, perfectly keep $1m in your head by remembering a handful words. If you can remember the lyrics to a song, you can be a walking Swiss bank. Future not evenly distributed etc.

You're not keeping the money in the your head, it's stored in various computer systems somewhere. You know what else stores money in a computer system that I can access with a few passcodes I carry around in my head? My bank account.

You're even quoting an author who wrote about plugging your brain directly into the Internet more than 30 years ago yet you ask us if anyone could have ever conceived of digital payment systems before.
posted by Sangermaine at 2:40 PM on June 16 [22 favorites]


> housing, tulips, tibetan mastiffs.

And beanie babies, and yet all of those things are still purchased and used by people.

I literally concluded my post by saying it's in the middle of a speculative bubble and the price could collapse at any time. That doesn't at all negate the fact that they have some value and will continue to be used.
posted by empath at 2:41 PM on June 16


The look of confusion is most people trying to understand the blockchain.

Found this to study over the weekend, at least as a basis for informed critique.

R3 is pointless. SWIFT with go-faster stripes.

What's symptomatic and telling about the author is if you juxtapose with something like this piece by an American economist, SWIFT itself is a neoliberal, imperialist structure, whereas the article paints it as an example of cooperative, democratic politics (only in terms of game theory). So how does a person even begin to navigate these conflicting narratives, etc.
posted by polymodus at 2:49 PM on June 16 [2 favorites]


Financial Intermediation is 9% of US GDP. 1 in 10 dollars is spent on paperwork.

Uh huh. And what of that 9% is in a context where both parties would just exchange currency and walk away with no recourse if they had the option? Central counterparties exist for a reason and the reason is that people want them in most contexts. And yes, there's nothing incompatible with central counterparties and blockchain based assets - but at that point the blockchain isn't doing much work. See Izabella Kaminska's extensive writing on this at FT.
posted by PMdixon at 2:49 PM on June 16 [1 favorite]


All of the problems with bitcoin are easily solvable. They just haven't been yet. For reasons.
posted by ODiV at 2:54 PM on June 16 [9 favorites]


empath:

And beanie babies, and yet all of those things are still purchased and used by people.

Those all have some inherent value while a pure fiat currency like Bitcoin has no value of any sort beyond the consensus appraisal so there's no floor on how far or quickly it can fall – you can't even plant digital tulip bulbs! – and nobody has a requirement to use it, unlike a real currency.
posted by adamsc at 3:08 PM on June 16 [9 favorites]


Look guys, when all other fiat currencies fail and civilization collapses, but we all still have cheap electricity and a whole bunch of internetworked computers, it'll be Bitcoin's time to shine.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 3:54 PM on June 16 [34 favorites]


I remember the first time I met somebody actually participating in a pyramid scheme. It was in the mid 80's and "The Airplane Game" was a biggish thing. It involved buying and selling seats as some kind of metaphor but was the same old same old chain letter "getting people beneath you" bogosity that multilevel marketing still perpetrates. What I remember is this person was seriously contemplating going into the airplane game because if you got in early you could make a killing before it all fell apart, they understood completely that it was based on fraud but greed clouded their judgement and they thought they were special.

The next time I encountered a participant in a pyramid scheme was when my father in law started telling me about Zeekler and told me he had "invested" 10,000 dollars in it. I told him he was out of his mind but he said all his girlfriend's family had done it and they had done so well with Monavi and the Acai Berry bullshit, and knew what they were doing. Well thankfully the receiver AKA THE REPRESENTATIVE OF THE THIRD PARTY WITH THE FORCE OF GOVERNMENTAL AUTHORITY did a good job and he got something like 7000 back.

This is not to say that the block chain etc. isn't an interesting thing nor that the future won't be different from today, (modern currency is not like it was in 1910 after all,) but it is to say that the imprecations of the crypto enthusiasts are completely unpersuasive to me despite the success of them and especially when they basically say my criticism is invalid because I am to stupid to understand. The history of finance is replete with exhortations that "this time it is different" that in the end all turn out to be at best delusions and worst mendacious lies. Further there are so many examples of the weird tendency of people to assign probity and substance to anyone who says that they are an expert that anytime somebody says something like "I probably manage (part) of some of your pensions" It has the exact opposite of the intended effect on me as it should on everyone.

As far as I can tell cryptos are one part techno anarcho fundamentalism and 99 parts greed. It's main selling point is its threat that you will miss out if you don't get in NOW.
posted by Pembquist at 4:00 PM on June 16 [10 favorites]


I have been told many times that Bitcoin is the future. Of course, I have also been told many times that it is anonymous, fast, and efficient, but turns out none of those are true either.
posted by ckape at 4:37 PM on June 16 [3 favorites]


The history of finance is replete with exhortations that "this time it is different" that in the end all turn out to be at best delusions and worst mendacious lies.

My personal corollary to this is: "If they tell you it's not a timeshare, it's a timeshare"
posted by danny the boy at 4:47 PM on June 16 [14 favorites]


I do enjoy libertarians and techbros constantly discovering the past 5000 years of economic and cultural history over and over again.

"Man, if only there was some kind of...central authority...that could enforce agreements and punish lawbreakers"
"You're thinking of a government."
"No, I mean if only you could, like, have someone to investigate financial scammers and punish them somehow."
"You just invented the FBI"
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 5:12 PM on June 16 [33 favorites]


Bitcoin is definitely bubbling. Part of that is due to large investors driving up the price to a level that is choking out people who use it for consumer type transactions who have a choice of payment methods. To reliably get the simplest possible transaction included in the blockchain in under an hour costs $2-3 right now since there is a large backlog of unprocessed transactions with lesser fees paid. For anything less than $100, or for transactions with multiple inputs (which you will have if you regularly buy things with Bitcoin, thanks to change), you might as well use PayPal.

Eventually, off blockchain transactions will allow for growth even if the miners stay stubborn since many transactions will no longer be recorded on the blockchain, but at that point you're back to trusting a centralized entity, or one of several at best.
posted by wierdo at 6:06 PM on June 16 [3 favorites]


Applications built on blockchain have practical uses far beyond payments and currency. Take Ethereum, which is not a currency per se, it's more like a distributed virtual machine running on remote GPUs. Don't think of speculative fairydust hype, rather it is a tangible outcome executed on these distributed systems. Buying Ethereum is therefore like buying shares in this distributed computer. Mining is like running part of the distributed infrastructure of it, getting paid in ether. Think of "smart contracts" like filesystem commands, each command comes at a "cost" (in ether) associated with running it, just like a computer.

What can you build on this distributed virtual machine? Any application which would benefit from being highly available, trustless, resistant to tampering, etc. Sure, that means currency issuance and payments and ledgers and titles, but it also means fair online poker, unhackable trustworthy remote e-voting, diamonds tracked for provenance, unfuckwithable royalty payments to artists or fees to developers, etc. (As if any of **those** systems could currently use improvement! /s) Potential use cases abound.

This big virtual machine is a flexible framework for private parties to build upon, it can be simple or complex, and governed by the parties themselves. Some applications are perfect candidates for being deployed in a cloud. Seems likely there will be still others that are more suited by their requirements to be deployed to a blockchain.

If you weren't aware, there is a marketplace for "dapps" (distributed apps) here: https://dapps.ethercasts.com/ which should give you an idea of the sorts of projects being developed on Ethereum's blockchain. Early days, to be sure. Still a long way to go, Ethereum has only recently entered phase two of four.

But in any case, it's real and tangible and full of promise and risk.
posted by edverb at 11:05 PM on June 16 [1 favorite]


I love MeFi and all who sail in her, I tried :-) 17/6/17 DM!
posted by Damienmce at 11:38 PM on June 16 [1 favorite]


Just please keep 401k funds completely away from blockchains. 401k is already a bad enough deal for the account holders as it is.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:54 PM on June 16 [1 favorite]


Here's a question for all of you blockchain aficionados:

What about the poor?

Or is your magical reality of tax-free free money conjured out of the energy cycles of your computer just another way to fuck over everyone else?

How do you make sure public services are funded? How do disabled people, queer people, people of colour - the kinds of people for whom always-on internet access is not everyday reality - access this computationally-intensive form of currency in a consistent way? The price of a single BTC might fluctuate by tens or hundreds of dollars in a day. How do you budget for food, medicine or medical services?

There is no solution in cryptocurrency or blockchain for people who don't have access to the existing financial system. Cryptocurrencies solve a problem that only rich people have: how do I make sure my stuff makes more stuff for me and me alone?
posted by prismatic7 at 12:08 AM on June 17 [3 favorites]


I think a lot of the appeal of smart contracts is that it turns contract law into something that it feels like you can *win* at.
posted by xiw at 12:09 AM on June 17 [1 favorite]


Also, the way proponents talk about the blockchain remind me exactly of how techno-enthusiasts talked about the Internet in the 90s: a revolutionary new technology that would fundamentally alter human society and usher in a free, open, classless, borderless utopia where all information is free and freely exchanged.

And what was going to do that was Television before that. And before that, radio. Before that web offset printing.

And each of them did in some way. Web offset went hand in hand with newspapers. Radio to the preachers who railed VS the system which lead to regulation. TV has all kinds of interesting effects like brain wave changes just by watching.

But in this new block-chain world of honesty - how exactly would that stop MERS as an example?
posted by rough ashlar at 12:15 AM on June 17


I think a lot of the appeal of smart contracts is that it turns contract law into something that it feels like you can *win* at.

Statutes are like source code. Judges and Lawyers are just really crappy, random and subject to personal bias in the execution of that code. (go and watch motions to reopen default judgements. Lawyer VS Lawyer has a different outcome of Lawyer VS pro-se. Listen to the words used. )

Rather than attack the structure around the judges and lawyers coders are trying a different system to attempt to deal with the problem. Have a better execution engine as it were.
posted by rough ashlar at 12:24 AM on June 17


Smart contracts are an interesting idea, but the DAO fiasco severely damaged Etherium's credibility on both a technical and social level. The technical issues could conceivably be addressed, but the affair demonstrated that "code is law" only applies to little people-- when the powerful lose money, they are perfectly willing to go outside of code, to roll back immutable history to serve their interests.
posted by Pyry at 1:27 AM on June 17 [2 favorites]


Personally I would be more pursuaded by Bitcoin/blockchain evangeists if their arguments were more than breathlessly exclaiming that it needs no argument.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 4:35 AM on June 17 [2 favorites]


Lawyers are just really crappy, random and subject to personal bias in the execution of that code.

No, the code itself doesn't compile. It isn't constructed by logicians and programmers and it isn't epistemologically complete and never could be to be sufficiently powerful to describe the real world. You can't run code that isn't logically rigorous and written to a specific set of agreed upon specs like it's computer code. That's not a defect in how law is constructed, unfortunately, but a necessary condition for any system of law that's sufficiently powerful to cover all the real world problems law needs to be able to address. It's sort of a legal reasoning corollary to incompleteness. Making law that's nimble and flexible enough to deal with real world complexity requires some role for human intuition, agency, and judgment, period, and no amount of wishing to be freed from the burdens and frustrations of that reality will ever amount to more than wish fulfillment or escapist fantasy, but the fantasy is too alluring for some to see the problem clearly, in my next to worthless opinion.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:14 AM on June 17 [12 favorites]


Who says that interest in a blockchain platform = "evangelism"? Or that recognizing there is value in the currency engine that powers it = "magical reality"? That kind of criticism reads like borderline splitting things into black and white, missing the point. Arguing against idealism is fine, but when you extend the same sort of criticism to a pragmatic argument it just sounds silly.

Not everyone who sees value in the platform is a breathless, naive, libertarian trying to fuck the poor or rig an economy. Nor is everyone an idealogue about it, though some may be. Some of us (well, me) see blockchain as a promising, possibly disruptive technology worth exploring and funding. Of course it carries risk. Of course it is influenced by people -- all technology is. There's philosophical ground to stand on which is both encouraged by the potential, and skeptical of breathless claims. A framework (eg: cloud computing, radio, markets, the Internet) can be useful for certain purposes without being the end-all, be-all. This is where I stand. No sense in splitting it into black and white. "Standing athwart history yelling stop" at blockchain...why? What for? Old man yells at cloud?

As for the social justice arguments against: There's a certain amount of democratization and inherent fairness in a technology with the potential to eliminate unearned increments, you know. Think of how this could (emphasis on "could") drive a lot of rentierism out of business.
posted by edverb at 6:34 AM on June 17 [2 favorites]


No, the code itself doesn't compile.

With code as model - how exactly then is the magical blockchain gonna work then? How does bitcoin lead to a re-write of law? So far the pitch seems to be 'we just ignore it [the law] and do our own thing'.

That's not a defect in how law is constructed, unfortunately, but a necessary condition for any system of law that's sufficiently powerful to cover all the real world problems law needs to be able to address.

I'm looking at one State's 'law' that says students or employees of schools are subject to suspension for 6 months if arrested at a protest. If no DA 'executes' that 'set of instructions' to a judicial decision there is seemingly no way for a challenge to that law to come into existence. When the people who write the laws make statements like 'if there is a constitutional problem that is what the courts will decide' then the laws are a spiders web. A spider's web ensnares the weak to be fed on but the powerful and not held by such a web.
posted by rough ashlar at 6:42 AM on June 17 [1 favorite]


Either way, I used to edit municipal legal code for a living, and have had special first-hand access to Florida legislative processes for purposes of software requirements gathering, and if anybody out there thinks human law and legal processes are logical and consistent enough to run as code, they are mistaken about how much rigor human laws and rules are suited for in the first place.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:50 AM on June 17 [4 favorites]


What about the poor?


I'm making less than 20k a year and invest in this. You can do it with a smartphone, and an account on Coinbase - or indirectly, through a bitcoin ATM (which there are a ton of these days), and using ShapeShift to directly exchange your BTC for ETH.

BTC/ETH in particular has facilitated access for tons of people who don't have access to conventional banking services in the real world, see this case study by the UN, or look at the problems that Venezuelans are facing where BTC/cryptos serves as a store of value while their currency tanks.

The price of goods compared to BTC will stabilize when those goods are sold in BTC, not in fiat. The believers are staking their bet on that world coming to pass. Most of the people I talk to are disillusioned with the current state of the financial system, the government's links to that financial system, or simply want to make money because hey, they're in the bottom 20% of society here in the US.

How do you make sure services are funded? https://bitnation.co is a working example of that. Not included on the dapp list, but I suspect that's because their DAO isn't up and running yet.
posted by thebotanyofsouls at 7:51 AM on June 17 [1 favorite]


Maybe I missed it, but what is your argument in favor of Bitcoin?
Mathematics.

And that's why I don't want anything to do with cryptocoins. That abnegation of any sort of ethical reponsibility. "It's a shame that all the money ended up in a few hands, but that's just how the numbers worked out."

It's also really telling that cryptocoin supporters try to paint it in opposition to "fiat" currency, as if cryptocoins somehow aren't fiat.

Currency is a social construct. If you try to cut out society from your currency, you're just going to end up with something horrible.
posted by phooky at 8:14 AM on June 17 [9 favorites]


phooky, the 'mathematics' argument is the same whether you look at USD or BTC. The difference is WHO is doing the math to verify who has what funds - the major banks/federal reserve with little to no oversight, or a publicly accessible open source code base.
posted by thebotanyofsouls at 8:38 AM on June 17


when you were partying I studied the blade server
when you were having premarital sex I mastered The Blockchain
when you spent your days in the gym in pursuit of vanity, I cultivated reddit upvotes
And now that the world is on fire and the barbarians are at the gates you have the audcity to come to me for help?
posted by ShawnStruck at 10:20 AM on June 17 [10 favorites]


phooky, the 'mathematics' argument is the same whether you look at USD or BTC.

And I'd say you are wrong here. Bitcoins are the result of using a whole bunch of math to create a ledger entry. USDs are just a series of ledger entries in a system that used to be tied to physical Silver and Gold due to people of the time reaction to The Continental. See Not worth a Continental.
posted by rough ashlar at 10:44 AM on June 17 [1 favorite]


Some of us (well, me) see blockchain as a promising, possibly disruptive technology worth exploring and funding. Of course it carries risk.

I'm pretty tired of disruption at this point, and I really tired of people who think disruption is a good thing and force it on the rest of us.

As many times as people ask for an explanation as to why cryptocurrency is something we should care about, much less gamble on, the answers are still completely vague and seem very faith based to me.
posted by bongo_x at 11:37 AM on June 17 [3 favorites]


thebotanyofsouls US$20k is still substantially more than the earning power of about 50% of the world's population, for whom a smartphone of any kind, let alone reliable access to internet services, is absolutely unattainable. This is precisely the kind of privilege that cryptocurrencies entrench rather than 'disrupt'.

Currency is not a problem. Poverty is.
posted by prismatic7 at 11:42 AM on June 17 [4 favorites]


Furthermore, bitnation is not currently funding anything because it's a loose coalition of made-up shit. Actual hospitals? No. Roads? Not yet. Fire service? Who has fires on the internet.

Bitcoin is not solving actual things that happen to real people. It's another nerd tax avoidance scam.
posted by prismatic7 at 11:49 AM on June 17 [2 favorites]


"I'm pretty tired of disruption at this point"

The pace of change --good, bad, or indifferent change -- is accelerating, and gets more wearying each year. I hear you on that score. But I disagree that anyone is forcing it on humanity per se -- technological change is like a natural force.
posted by edverb at 11:52 AM on June 17


No, it isn't.
posted by prismatic7 at 12:03 PM on June 17 [6 favorites]


The pace of change --good, bad, or indifferent change -- is accelerating, and gets more wearying each year. I hear you on that score. But I disagree that anyone is forcing it on humanity per se -- technological change is like a natural force.

But we choose the focus. Aiming at "disrupt" instead of "improve" yields a different outcome. I don't really feel the pace of change is the problem, or am even convinced it's accelerating. The focus seems to be a problem.
posted by bongo_x at 12:16 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


Prismatic7 -- That article poses an utterly false choice...as if we must choose between ameliorating poverty or spending on science. (Specifically, going to Mars. Which is a conveniently indulgent stand-in for "technological progress", but anyway.)

The article's premise argues, basically: "Don't spend money on [insert area of investment here] because people are starving."

What person in their right mind would fill that blank in with "scientific progress" or "human exploration"? I respectfully disagree with Rev. Abernathy on this count. I could go on a very long list of reasons why that's a terrible idea and the wrong choice. And I say this as someone who doesn't want anyone to starve.

R&D spending on science (public and private combined) is a rounding error compared to some of the other, far less noble spending done by governments and corporations.

For that matter, it's a rounding error compared to the sums (public and private) already committed to ameliorating poverty (which, by the way, I wholeheartedly support and would increase, given the chance.)

It's intellectually dishonest to pin poverty on science, as if it's a choice between the two. Human society is capable of caring about more than one thing at a time.

But we've strayed pretty far from blockchain as a topic, haven't we?
posted by edverb at 12:27 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


Bongo_x -- I think the focus is proportional to the promise. Human sweat tends to find its level like water does, tends to focus its effort on the highest yield. Often messily, noisily, disruptively, but I believe it bends towards justice.
posted by edverb at 12:36 PM on June 17


edverb, I think we have quite different opinions on the core argument of the article. It's not a reductive "we can't have nice things because poverty", but rather that the problems that the technology (not science) industry sets out to solve are not actual problems. The problem blockchain sets out to solve is not "how do we make the financial system more just, more reliable, and more fair?" but instead "how do we remove impediments like oversight, regulation, and redistribution from my $free $money?"

The laughable 'UN trial' articles linked above (none of which provide any evidence or quotes except SEO links to other articles on the same website) only indicate free-market cryptocurrency 'think-tanks' as drivers of those efforts. If we're genuine about distributed, computational currencies as actual agents of change in crisis points or developing nations, then the problem is not "how do we get refugees to use BTC?"

To use BTC (or ETH, or dogecoins or whatever, it's all fictional currency anyway) a community needs to have things to buy in BTC. Which means that businesses need computer infrastructure to accept BTC and individuals need computer infrastructure to keep and maintain BTC. This means always-on internet access and smartphone coverage which even in rich countries like the USA, Canada, and European nations is not present everywhere. To even approach that, they need technological training, which even in rich countries like the USA, Canada, and European nations is not present everywhere. They need reliable, always-on electrical service, which even in rich countries like the USA, Canada, and European nations is not present everywhere.

You want to change the world? Fine. Give people safe food, fresh water, sanitation, and renewable power. Leave cryptocoins to the gangsters and hackers that benefit from it.
posted by prismatic7 at 1:24 PM on June 17 [6 favorites]


"The problem blockchain sets out to solve is not "how do we make the financial system more just, more reliable, and more fair?" but instead "how do we remove impediments like oversight, regulation, and redistribution from my $free $money?"

You're talking about coins, I'm talking about blockchain. The two terms are being used interchangably in this thread, but that's a mistake and causing people to talk past each other. Blockchain is a technology, not a financial system. One of the applications (the one that caused blockchain to be invented) happens to be currency, but there is promise for secure elections, micropayments, carbon tracking, tracking diamond provenance to ensure they're not blood diamonds...etc. It's a stable backend that can serve many purposes, including some that can make the world a little better and more just.

You might as well say "you want to change the world? Give people fresh water, and leave backup and restore to the people that benefit from it." I don't get that line of reasoning. It seems like a non-sequitur to me.
posted by edverb at 1:49 PM on June 17


I guess maybe I just see it as a novel technology. I never paid much attention to libertarian hype about altcoins, and don't ascribe to blockchain the entire social impact of libertarian philosophies. It's just a technically valuable ledger technology to me, worth investing in (which I can do with a little capital by either buying or mining, which seems egalitarian enough. Dare I say post-capitalistic?)

That such an investment returns in alt-currency is kind of beside the point, to me. I'd just trade any altcoin gains for dollars I could spend, in the end, because I'm not predicting the collapse of the dollar, or hedging against it. I do think we are in the early days of a promising, useful technology that will enable nifty apps though. If that's wrong, I don't want to be right.
posted by edverb at 2:39 PM on June 17


> Dare I say post-capitalistic?

You can say whatever you'd like, but capitalism is an economic system that exists independent of how people choose to reconcile transactions or settle debts. If fiat currency were gone tomorrow and replaced by cryptocurrency, capitalism would continue to exist. Since much of the appeal for so many people is the reduction in power / influence of the governments that issue fiat money, the only way one could consider it "post-capitalist" is if they are talking about a transition to market feudalism.
posted by tonycpsu at 2:49 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


You're talking about coins, I'm talking about blockchain. The two terms are being used interchangably in this thread, but that's a mistake and causing people to talk past each other.
...
It's just a technically valuable ledger technology to me, worth investing in (which I can do with a little capital by either buying or mining...

I think you're not helping the confusion here.
posted by ODiV at 2:56 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


If fiat currency were gone tomorrow and replaced by cryptocurrency, capitalism would continue to exist. but miners would own the means of production, right?
posted by edverb at 3:06 PM on June 17


> but miners would own the means of production, right?

Feudal lords owned the means of production -- the soil and the shovels -- but that didn't make them Marxists. The problem is you're not actually "producing" anything when you mine a bitcoin -- you're just arriving at a mathematical solution to a problem that was programmed to get increasingly more difficult to solve over time. This coin doesn't feed or employ anyone that would not be fed or employed if it were mined by someone else.
posted by tonycpsu at 3:21 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


I am well aware I don't know enough of the nuts and bolts of this, which is part of the inherent problem, who does? But it seems like a lot of the argument becomes "take the controls away from shadowy government aligned financiers operating under processes few understand and who may be involved with crooks, and give it to even more shadowy people operating under processes even fewer understand and who are definitely aligned with crooks".
posted by bongo_x at 10:51 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


http://m.wfp.org/news/news-release/blockchain-against-hunger-harnessing-technology-support-syrian-refugees

Since it was pointed out I used a trade publication earlier for that bit of news.

I don't see the devs of Bitcoin being aligned with the criminal elements of the world. I see the criminal elements of the world using an extremely useful tool for what they do - that doesn't make the tool criminal, just their use of it.

Given the recent fundraising bonanza using ETH I think it's past time the regulators stepped in to help clarify what's a legitimate use of these assets and how to file for them on your taxes. That would help keep it out of criminal enterprises and encourage more legitimate development.
posted by thebotanyofsouls at 7:54 AM on June 18


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