All technologies are extensions of ourselves. What we put into them is what we’ll receive. In this year-end podcast, Derek Beres discusses the necessity of a unified collective for success in blockchain—and life.
Apparently, having a large library is useful even if you don’t read all of the books in it. The Japanese call is tsundoku; more recently, Nassim Nicholas Taleb called it his “anti-library.”
I love making use of my books, however, which includes highlighting passages as I read. Someone once asked Joseph Campbell if he had a yoga practice; he replied that it was underlining sentences. Flipping through old volumes brings me immense pleasures as I stumble into reminders of my former self, offering me a moment to pause and reflect.
The end of any year, let’s say 2018, is also an opportunity for such a practice, and it was flipping through Robert Thurman’s book on Buddhism, Inner Revolution, that I came across this passage:
On the way to love, the true conquest of hate, you must reach the haven of unshakable tolerance. First, you must come to the conclusion that anger and hate serve no useful purposes. Then you must deeply resolve to eliminate anger’s ability to take control of you.
I began practicing yoga over twenty years ago and have been teaching for fifteen, yet nothing like driving around the streets and highways of Los Angeles tests my practice to this very day. I don’t always succeed. Patience is not my strongest quality. But like Tim Ferriss writes in his book, Tools of Titans,
When in doubt, work on the deficiencies you’re most embarrassed by.
Mine is certainly my reaction time, which is too often too short to, as Thurman suggested, conquer hate. But I practice, and in an industry even more unreliable and unforgiving than LA roads: social media. At least when driving you have an opportunity to pull up next to someone and exchange words, which, in my experience, is an important reminder that draws people out of their “device.”
The key is looking them in the eye and speaking to them as a human, and not just shouting at the first opportunity. You’d be amazed at what follows, although it isn’t always pleasant. Still, calling people out is important. The road is a social contract, a fact we seem too often to forget.
At its best, social media should be a social contract as well, given that the word is half of its name. While a car can be a shield, social media is too often a weapon of offense. Sadly, what can be a constructive and critical tool is often nothing more than a minefield of monologues used to cast personal deficiencies at others whom they will never look in the eyes. Forget about nuance, and forget about dialogue.
Stick a pin in that, as I briefly explain what brought me to here. Narratives can often offer those eyes in other formats. My intention is not to rail against technology, as computers have been in my life for as long as I’ve been alive. My father began working in computer operations at Dupont in the nineteen-sixties. My earliest memories include a Commodore Vic 20; we even had an Osborne 1. Released in 1981, this laptop-prototype weighed 25 pounds, far too heavy for my six-year-old self to lug around, and featured two floppy drives and a five-inch screen.
In 1997, I moved to San Francisco a few days after graduating college to pursue my futuristic career in…print journalism. I loved the feel of magazines, having grown up like so many of my generation flipping through the worlds that National Geographic offered. After a few months in San Francisco I became flustered that all the temp jobs I was landing were in tech, all related to this Internet thing. I moved back to New Jersey to became a print journalist, which I did for many years.
Fortunately I was not computer illiterate; I just didn’t have the foresight of the upcoming swell. Even still, my training had prepared me to recognize the foundation of these technologies. Communication systems were something I studied at Rutgers as a religion major. The ways groups organize are an important part of that field; religions help communities cohere around shared identity.
Since all we have of the roots of religion are scriptures, texts are also essential. Studying the history of mythology, my favorite aspect of religion overall, forced me to investigate the origins of language itself. While spoken languages are one field—I’m partial to the idea that music was our first form of oral communication—I looked into the histories of written languages, required when you’re tracing the etymology of Latin and Sanskrit texts.
Incredibly, written language dates back to one rather unpoetic yet socially essential field: accounting. The earliest accounts of writing are ledgers. Think about the Harrapan civilization, the first group of city-states known to mankind. For the first time you have tens and hundreds of thousands of people trying to live together. This is a huge advancement over previous territories. Trade was the main reason these people weren’t warring, which is our biological inheritance. To keep track of what you’re trading, you need accounting. Mythologies and poetry are cooptations of a system designed for bartering sheep and rice.
So when I began looking seriously into blockchain a year ago, and began working for RChain nearly half a year ago, it struck me that the very framework we’re all collectively working on traces back to the origins of written language. We had accounting, then double-entry bookkeeping, and now, many centuries later, a new spin on that same process, that same form of communication we’ve been working on for so many millennia. And like many evolutionary technologies, there have been many failures, and many more will fail along the way. It comes with the territory. As Ray Dalio writes in Principles,
The challenges you face will test and strengthen you. If you’re not failing, you’re not pushing your limits, and if you’re not pushing your limits, you’re not maximizing your potential.
We’ve seen the failures during this “crypto winter,” in RChain and in blockchain generally. There are growing pains with any new technology. Yet I have no doubt that in ten year’s time, maybe sooner, maybe a bit longer, but at some point blockchain will be a fundamental aspect of how we conduct business. We’ve reached that critical junction of necessity and frustration, the latter being at the ways tech companies have failed to protect our security and identity. In Life After Google, George Gilder writes that any company that doesn’t treat security as the most important aspect of its business model is doomed to fail. We’re seeing that happen right now.
We’re also frustrated by the centralization of so much power in the hands of so few men, and even less women. That has never been sustainable historically, nor will it be in the future. But right now, in this grey area called limbo, in which so many well-intentioned people are working so hard at building sustainable platforms, we’re all being challenged. And we need to push our limits—collectively.
Which brings me back to patience, both my own and that I see around me every day on social media. Criticism is a powerful and necessary tool. For over a decade I worked as an entertainment critic. A good critic, I was taught, is able to look at the bigger picture and try to push the art forward. Critics should be mirrors more than pedestals. It’s not about the individual, but the collective thrusting forward to break new ground in hopes of creating something meaningful. Once sight of that goal is lost, it all becomes noise.
Which is why I’ve instituted a new practice for 2019, though I’ve started a week early: Whenever I write something for public consumption, I stop and ask myself, is this helping solve a problem or just creating noise? Does this statement attempt to push the creation forward, or is it just me airing my personal frustrations? I am well aware of my deficiencies; one step in overcoming them is to not project them at others at every opportunity. And that’s the sad state of much social media today. I’m not talking about hearty and robust criticism that drives projects forward. But if you made it this far, I’m sure you understand the difference.
I’m extremely excited that one of today’s great mythologies, Game of Thrones, will soon reach a conclusion. How many narrative endings I’ve already concocted in my mind. Blockchain itself will take more time than one season. We don’t know how long this winter will last, nor who will come out the other side stronger. What I do know is that the more we work together at solving the problems we collectively need to address, the more likely we’ll reach important conclusions. Everything else is just adding to the noise.
As Marshall McLuhan wrote, our technologies are all extensions of ourselves. What we put into them is what we’ll get out of them. If we fight, fight with purpose. If we disagree, aim for the best conclusion, not to prove you’re right. Fail well so that you learn from your mistakes. And be kind. We only have one shot at this thing called life.