A different perspective on cryptocurrency

2017-01-23T11:05:00Z :: Original source

At base, an altcoin is a value transfer system implemented in the form of a peer-to-peer networked cryptocurrency.

The cryptography securing the implementation imposes some inherent constraints on the participants:

  1. The protocol cannot treat participants as anything other than homogeneous

  2. The protocol requires that participants can only be distinguished via serialized cryptographic hashes.

  1. The protocol-enforced egality of untrusted peering nodes is inherently inimical to the imposition of a hierarchy.

  2. The modelling of nodes as serialized cryptographic hashes inherently prohibits any reference to identity.

  3. Malfeasance by unidentifiable pseudonymous participants is inherently immune to both financial and social sanction.

Altcoins rely on two different types of consensus. The first type is the cryptographic consensus that must be created in order for the currency to function at all; the second type is the social consensus that is created by people choosing to hold the coin and/or run nodes. It is the social consensus that gives the cryptographic consensus its semantics, its meaning. It is the social consensus that provides the fundamental grounding for the semantics of the perceived value of the tokens secured by the blockchain.

The social consensus (formed by and imposed upon the members of this enforced peer egality) is obliged to be self-directing because the inherited cryptography protocols are inimical to the imposition of control by a centralised authority. And that’s a feature, not a bug.

Unlike traditional currencies such as dollars, bitcoins are issued and managed without any central authority whatsoever: there is no government, company, or bank in charge of Bitcoin.  - http://www.reddit.com/r/Bitcoin/

The fact that there is no-one in charge is significant to US financial regulators. A couple of years ago FinCEN made it unambiguously clear ...

A final type of convertible virtual currency activity involves a de-centralized convertible virtual currency (1) that has no central repository and no single administrator, and (2) that persons may obtain by their own computing or manufacturing effort.

So, “official” this and “official” that are meaningless in the context of a cryptocurrency because no-one has the authority to stamp anything “official”. Or rather, anyone and everyone has the opportunity to stamp anything they want as “official” or make a claim to be “the official dev” but it carries no inherent authority, only that which it can engender by it own efforts. When it comes to p2p apps, the bottom line is that as soon as the source code is publicly released, no-one is ”in charge” of anything.

The witticism “herding cats” doesn’t even come in to it; people are completely free to do as they like: run a node, not run a node; hold coins, don’t hold coins; set up a foundation, a faucet, a business, promote the coin, fud the coin, set up webwallets, offer an alternative wallet design, provide off-chain features, pay to spam the blockchain, pay to clean up the blockchain, generously contribute to a faucet, mischevously drain a faucet dry.

An altcoin “community” is an egalitarian group of pseudonymous strangers.

These are the ground conditions to which any altcoin community is obliged to accommodate itself when conducting its affairs:

  • The requirement for egality means that the only viable activity model is self-organisation.

  • The requirement for pseudonymity means that the only sustainable relationship model is self-interested co-operation.

This is a demanding combination with very few candidate organisational models from which to draw inspiration for effective ways of working under these constraints.

But there are a couple of candidates ...

i) Anarcho-collectivism

Collectivist anarchism advocates the abolition of both the state and private ownership of the means of production. It instead envisions the means of production being owned collectively and controlled and managed by the producers themselves. For the collectivization of the means of production, it was originally envisaged that workers will revolt and forcibly collectivize the means of production. Once collectivization takes place, money would be abolished to be replaced with labour notes and workers’ salaries would be determined in democratic organizations based on job difficulty and the amount of time they contributed to production. These salaries would be used to purchase goods in a communal market.

There has been a revolution ... but in personal computing. There’s more than a hint of the means of production being owned collectively and controlled and managed by the producers themselves, especially when it comes to cryptocurrency. There’s also more than a hint from FinCENT (above) ... “(2) that persons may obtain by their own computing or manufacturing effort.”

Irrespective of how we got here, we’ve arrived at something very much like anarcho-collectivism. The ambitions detailed above bear a remarkable resemblance to the notions of “smart contracts” and some altcoins’ plans to cast the blockchain as employer, making payment in altcoin. A form of anarchism is inherent in any peer-to-peer network by definition - given that whilst there are some laws in this anarchy, they are the incorruptible mathematical laws of cryptography and are as pertinent to an anarchy as the law of gravity.

So welcome to anarcho-collectivism, I hope it works for you. No leaders, no bosses and an incorruptibly level playing field for all - what’s not to like about a crypto-anarchic collective?

(Well, for a start: it’s primarily just a label and as such doesn’t really provide much practical advice on how a community of peer-to-peer networked cryptocurrency holders might sensibly conduct itself. So ...)

ii) Teal

A community of altcoin users naturally forms a Teal organisation because it is basically constrained to do so by the inherent characteristics of the protocols of the peer-to-peer networked cryptocurrency from which the social consensus emerges. For an altcoin community to act as a Teal organisation isn’t a matter of informed individual or collective choice, it’s a matter of the “organo-crypto genetic inheritance” creating an inability to behave otherwise.

“Teal” is a modernistic organisational model developed by Frédéric Laloux, based on principles of modern systems thinking and laid out in his book Reinventing Organizations. The aim is to create better organisations that can grow and adapt to work in complex environments and mount an effective response to change.

Drawing from Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory (a model of psychology development that describes human development as following a set course of stages of development) Laloux maps a colour scheme to the historical development of human organizations:

Red > Amber > Orange > Green > Teal > Turquoise.

Teal organisations are represented as the best integration of what’s collectively been learned so far.

It’s worth noting Laloux’ methodology at this point - whilst Teal as a notion was developed from Wilber’s initial sketch, Laloux is also a field worker and his characterisation of the details of the Teal model is very usefully informed by organisational practices observed in the field.

The key breakthroughs, things that distinguish Teal (from Green) are:

  • self-management: operate effectively, even at a large scale, with a system based on peer relationships, without the need for either hierarchy or consensus.

  • wholeness - practices that invite us to reclaim our inner wholeness and bring all of who we are to work, instead of with a narrow “professional” self / “masculine resolve” etc.

  • evolutionary purpose organizations seen as having a life and a sense of direction of their own. Instead of trying to predict and control the future, members of the organization are invited to listen in and understand what the organization wants to become, what purpose it wants to serve.

My observation is that these “key breakthroughs” also accurately characterise an altcoin communityin terms of unavoidable outcomes:

  • no hierarchy === self-management

  • no hierarchically-imposed roles === wholeness

  • no hierarchical control === evolutionary purpose.

A holistic and evolutionary approach follows naturally from genuine self-management, i.e. when authority is devolved to the individual. In the absence of centrally-imposed roles, behaving as a whole person is the default and in the absence of centrally-imposed goals, the organisation is free to evolve itself.

I invite you to take a (relatively) brisk canter through the rest of the listed characteristics of a Teal organisation. There’s a fairly accessible slideset summary (PDF) from Ulrich Gerndt of changefactory Gmbh (it’s Ulrich’s graphic I re-used above). You can pick up the story on slide #21 and take it from there. As far as I can make out, it’s a near-perfect match - if the characteristic appears nonsensical in an altcoin context that’s because it’s irrelevant in a fully decentralised context, e.g. “formal multi-step conflict resolution process” and “self-decorated warm spaces without status markers”.

In passing, I’ll make two observations that I consider pertinent:

  1. The list of Teal characteristics is also a blueprint for any altcoin community that wishes to follow it.

  2. Teal’s “evolutionary purpose” breakthrough offers quite a different explanation of progress in the Bitcoin community. It too is pure Teal (albeit somewhat distorted/dysfunctional), so what’s happening there can be seen as an anticipated natural evolution of purpose.

“Pure” Teal

I found it quite instructive to mentally re-compose the mismatches in a form more appropriate for a fully decentralised context and contemplate whether the practical consequences of being able to pursue a “pure” form of Teal bring any operational advantages to the organisation.

They do and the advantages are significant. I’ll skip the working out but a pure Teal organisation meets the criteria for a true (i.e. self-directed) collective intelligence (wikipedia entry) <- you can skim-read the intro to get an appreciation of the reality of the notion and its currency, the bibliography and external references offer a number of directions in which to explore.

So, joining up the dots: altcoin communities are nascent collective intelligences which can only develop from starting conditions that we are only just beginning to consider. Because if all alts are potential CIs, why are the Shibes the only functioning instance? Received wisdom holds that human society inevitably forms a hierarchy and that just the way the world works. Except that instantaneous person-to-person communication has removed one of the main drivers of a hierarchy - a descending tree of proxies for the projection of power

While contemplating the potential advantages from my re-formulation of the mismatches into a form appropriate to a decentralised context, I also put in some thought about the effects of attempting to impose mismatches, specifically the effects of attempts to impose externalities from the hierarchy, such as exchanges expecting the community to make good their business losses, the centralising effect of foundations, management teams, references to investors, development roadmaps, ICOs of any sort. All of them are profoundly deleterious to any emergent social group trying to operate in a decentralised context. It’s a major source of pluralistic ignorance amongst the participants which in a decentralised context, reduces the pro-social benefits to pretty much zero. Name one altcoin community you’d recommend your Mom join for a socially rewarding experience. Other than Dogecoin, that is ...

Although from a technical perspective Dogecoin is quite unremarkable, its appeal has little to do with the cryptocurrency aspect of a peer-to-peer networked cryptocurrency; the Shibes have a strong pro-social contributive ethic which delivers an immediate and positive social experience for the participants --- which happens to be one of the key qualities exhibited by successful social groups. Jackson was right on the nail when he coined the phrase “1 DOGE will always equal 1 DOGE”, the pro-social aspects of Dogecoin are pretty much independent of the “performance” of the cryptocurrency on some externally-imposed KPIs.

There’s plenty of evidence that points in this direction, existing altcoin communities have weathered changes in block time, rewards, algos, PoW to PoS, PoS to PoW, even changes in basic peer-to-peer protocol. It’s hardly a leap of faith to infer that the cryptocurrency component is not necessarily a defining feature of an altcoin community, ironic though that may be.

There’s a kicker - there’s always a kicker but this one’s a bit different, it comes in two forms - to those with a simplex model, it’s a vicious circle but to those with a complex model, it’s a virtuous spiral.

Key qualities of successful social groups

One question which might reasonably be posed at this juncture is: what other key qualities are characteristic of successful social groups?

Collective Intelligence in Groups

Researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that a single statistical factor–often called ‘‘general intelligence’’ or ‘‘g’’– emerges from the correlations among how well different people do a wide variety of different cognitive tasks (e.g., [18, 19]). This single factor can then be used to differentiate the characteristic performance levels of different individuals and to predict which individuals are likely to perform well on other tasks in the future. In recent studies, Woolley et al [11] used the same statistical techniques used in individual intelligence research to see whether a similar collective intelligence factor exists for groups. In other words, they tried to determine the degree to which some groups are characteristically ‘‘smarter’’ than others across a wide range of tasks. To do this, they first gave different groups a variety of tasks that required qualitatively different collaboration processes [20, 21]. Then they used factor analysis to determine whether there was a single factor for a group–as there is for an individual–that predicts the group’s performance on all the different tasks.

They found that the first factor accounted for 43% of the variance in performance on all the different tasks. This is consistent with the 30–50% of variance typically explained by the first factor in a battery of individual cognitive tasks [18]. In individuals, this factor is called ‘‘intelligence’’ or ‘‘g.’’ For groups, Woolley et al. [11] called it ‘‘collective intelligence’’ or ‘‘c,’’ and it is a measure of the general effectiveness of a group on a wide range of tasks. The c factor was also shown to predict how well the groups performed more complex tasks at a later time, above and beyond the predictive ability of the average individual intelligence of group members.

They also found several factors that were significant predictors of c. First, the average and maximum intelligence of individual group members were correlated with c, but only moderately so. In other words, having a lot of smart people in a group did not necessarily make a smart group. Second, there was a significant correlation between c and the average ToM scores of group members, as measured by the ‘‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’’ test [22]. Third, c was negatively correlated with the variance in the number of speaking turns by group members. In other words, groups where a few people dominated the conversation were less collectively intelligent than those with a more equal distribution of conversational turn taking. Finally, c was significantly correlated with the proportion of females in the group, with groups having more females being more collectively intelligent. In addition, the researchers found that the effects of proportion of females were largely mediated by ToM scores since, consistent with previous research, women in the sample scored better on this measure than men. In a regression analysis including proportion of women, ToM scores, and conversational turn-taking, ToM scores remained the only significant predictor of collective intelligence.

The complex kicker is: “The c factor was also shown to predict how well the groups performed more complex tasks at a later time, above and beyond the predictive ability of the average individual intelligence of group members.” So “c” is empirically demonstrated - note the inference that overall, a group will outperform an individual. The next logical step is to work out what might be involved in providing explicit support for the more effective functioning of a nascent collective intelligence. The role of the cryptocurrency is reduced to that of providing a stable frame of reference for the emergence of the CI (exactly as DOGE does for the Shibes).

The simplex kicker, the vicious circle, is: “groups having more females being more collectively intelligent”. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the overwhelming majority of altcoin groups is an almost total gender imbalance.

Failing to appeal to 50% of the potential user population imposes a stiff penalty on any altcoin aiming for adoption.

Male vs. female ratios of social media users Jan 2016 (thinkdigitalfirst):

% female% male
Google Plus3070

Hence, a different perspective on cryptocurrency.

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