Blockchain: The Crisis of Symbols and the Age of Value Transfer

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share in Email Print article
Written by Jacksón Smith

Before we talk about blockchain, we need to talk about value. Particularly, how symbols are capable of expressing value.

The U.S. Dollar is a common symbol: a ‘universal’ store of value used to express economic voice tied to the logic of capital. It’s the reserve currency of the world, the store of value used to measure modern success, and the language used to express material desires. But there are other value symbols, ones we don’t think about in this way.

The vote is a value symbol vested with a particular logic: one-vote-one-person. You can’t give your vote to someone else, and you can’t sell your vote for money. Whether it be a ballot or a raised hand or a click of the ‘enter’ button, this embedded logic gives meaning to and maps the symbol of a vote to the inherent value of political voice.

Next, we have the clock and its forward moving logic symbolized by a ticking minute hand and glowing LEDs mapped to the inherent, cosmic value of time. Despite the popular mantra time is money, money is not time.

All of these are decentralized coordination devices. They are symbols mapped through logic to particular inherent values: economic voice, political voice, and time itself. These symbols create languages tied to particular grammars which allow us to coordinate around their underlying values—and then enable us to create exchanges between them: time and money (think wages and contracts), votes and time (think election cycles and term limits), votes and money (think clientelism and campaign financing)—laying the foundation for complicated macro-phenomena to emerge, grow, and thrive.

From the dollar, we get markets and capitalism; from the vote, we get societies and democracies; from time, we get machines and the industrial revolution. These symbols form the elementary basis of modern life without us even noticing—they connect our everyday routine to the greater routine of our communities, our countries, our world.

But now, think about this—imagine anyone in the world suddenly has the ability to create their own currency symbol, map it through logic onto their own inherent values, and then organize anyone, anywhere in the world around that value. That’s the power of blockchain.

This changes everything.

Even though we take dollars, votes, and seconds for granted, none of these symbols are static. The symbols themselves, like institutions, evolve and adapt to society, not the other way around.

Consider a time when time wasn’t so synchronized.

For most of humanity, we did not measure and express time as the steady tick and march forward of discrete, equal moments we now scientifically call ‘seconds.’ Churches did erect clock towers in city centers, ringing the nearby townsfolk to prayer or work—but they jangled their bells to coordinate their communities around their own logic of shared activities and events, not some fundamental unit of the cosmos. This system worked fairly well for agriculture-based societies—until one day it all began to change.

Enter the Industrial Era—when the scientific clock began its imperial march into our collective psyches. Scientific time is a simple idea: time moves ever, evenly forward like the steady climbing of stairs up a tower toward infinity. This simple idea profoundly reshaped how we viewed ourselves against the background of our universe. Suddenly, we began overlaying seconds, minutes, and hours over our everyday activities, creating at first simple, then more complex calculations. How many hours does it take to weave a basket, harvest the wheat, or travel from Omaha to San Francisco? Prior to the scientific clock these questions were incoherent; after, they were everything.

The scientific clock fertilized the soil for the advent of machines in the Industrial Revolution. It not only created a way for employers to coordinate labor according to time slips, it also induced a powerful desire to create efficiency with respect to time. At first, this meant steam engines, looms, tractors, factories, and cars—anything that allowed us to produce faster, work faster, or move faster—but computers, robots, and drones hummed in the distance—what are machines but time-sequenced instructions?

Before the advent of Coordinated Universal Time, however, the scientific clock was still clunky in realizing its symbolic ideal. There was a period in American history where people would actually jockey to steal time from one another. On lunch breaks, factory managers would push the minute hand backwards on the clock to squeeze out ‘extra’ hours from their workers. And, when the manager wasn’t looking, workers would push it forward. 

Of course, this sort of behavior undermines the integrity of the symbol—it’s akin to a shoddy used car salesman twisting the odometer meter backwards. This brings us to an interesting quality of value symbols—not only can they be corrupted, they will be corrupted if anyone is left in charge of them. If everyone reset their clocks when they needed another hour or turned back their odometer when they needed a new car, then the capacity for second-hands and mile tickers to communicate their underlying value would fundamentally unravel.

This is the Tragedy of Symbols. 

We are living at a time when it is more important than ever to put on our critical thinking hats. Are these symbols—the ones we’ve entrusted to coordinate our values—serving us, the people?

Take voting for example. Democracy isn’t the vote. Democracy is the inherent values beneath it: self-sovereignty marked by autonomy, equality, and reciprocity—not the fact that you get to put a piece of paper in the ballot box. Are votes, as we know them, living up to this ideal?

Ask yourself this question: why is it that, at a time when more people in the United States have the right to vote and the United States has the highest gross spending on elections, voter turnout is so precipitous? If we agree that part of the logic of a vote is that it can’t be bought but people are buying votes—we should see it unravel as a symbol. People are losing confidence in votes the same way people lose confidence in clocks that don’t count time or odometers that don’t count miles.

Looking forward, it’s true, money in politics is not itself particularly new—but new targeting techniques that leverage artificial intelligence are—and they are challenging the underlying assumptions behind voter agency. What happens to the legitimacy of a vote when political ads can be personalized to your particular genetic and hormonal features? When a political force can micro-target you thousands of times a day, slowly but surely edging your biochemical processes to support this or that candidate—all with the cool precision of a scientist? Will the current logic of voting withstand this tidal wave of change?

Now, take the dollar. Its logic is based on the material production of capital. Fueled by our convictions for economic growth—an implicit, common agreement—we create a high-yield financial market, which uses dollars as the invisible hand to orchestrate the allocation of capital towards its most efficient, ‘best’ use. This logic is based on a presumption of market competition. Therefore, if large mutual funds and institutional investors like BlackRock and Vanguard are wedging ever growing profits by implicitly suffocating competition—leveraging the sheer size of their accumulated wealth— then capital is being directed toward monopsonists and monopolists, not its best use.

Further, we often forget that capital is at the core of modern markets, not labor. Labor stewards capital—which explains the current crisis in the future of work. For the past 200 years, human labor has played a pivotal role in stewarding the production of more and more capital—and now, with the rise of automation, that’s all changing. Robots, it turns out, are perfectly capable of production. This isn’t even to mention that we are living in an unprecedented period of global economic inequality. With calls for universal basic income, for trade wars and tariffs, for relief plans for ‘middle America’ and old manufacturing hubs—is the dollar, as we know it, still capable of expressing ‘universal value’ ten, twenty, one hundred years from now?

What we are seeing right now is a crisis of symbols. The symbols of the old world, of the old order are only loosely mapped to these inherent values—we are living in a time where we have dollars that are no longer mapped to labor-based capital and votes that no longer really represent political voice.

The only reason we have these crude, macro coordinating devices is because there has never been a way for people to introduce new value symbols that actually matter to them.

What we need is an explosion of new symbols, which actually represent the inherent values we care about.

Great thinkers have already begun this task. Take, for example, Richard Posner’s Radical Marketswhere he argues in favor of replacing votes as we know them with ‘voice credits’ that accumulate and can be spent or traded. At the core of his idea, he presents a new logic behind the symbol of a vote so that citizens can express the intensityof their beliefs, not just their direction, without undue influence. These new symbols for representing political voice, he believes, can better balance the often opposing and long-standing tension between the democratic values of majority rule and minority rights.

Now, I want you to imagine your own set of symbols. Imagine whole industries where you believe that the entire model is flipped upside-down. Take how we talk about education needing to do a bake sale while we dump one half of our economy into military or how we’ve cured countless diseases which millions of people still die of every year. These are the kinds of inversions that we can imagine because the current symbolic infrastructure doesn’t allow communities to come around, in a decentralized way, the inherent values they believe in.

Let’s be clear. The point of cryptocurrency is not to simply replace the dollar—it’s not just digital cash. Eventually, it’s true, it will make sense for dollars and euros and pesos to be moved onto blockchain because the old is always incorporated into the new. Once the internet became the central infrastructure for information flow, Internet Service Providers moved off telephone lines and telephone lines moved to the internet. The point of cryptocurrencies is to identify where there is a divergence between what we truly value and what our current symbolic infrastructure is capable of articulating. Those two things rarely align—and so, for most of human history, we’ve settled on cracked kettles on which to beat out tunes for bears to dance to.

Let’s think about education—one of the most cherished, perennial values known to humanity. Human capital is the best term current economic thinking has for education—but the reality of it is that it’s poorly incorporated into nearly every economic model out there. Why? Because the logic of education and knowledge doesn’t mesh with the logic embedded in a traditional dollar: the efficient production of material capital.

Don’t get me wrong. Values symbols like the Learn Dollar in the Learning Economy are not there to replace the dollar—they are there to fill a gaping void in its ability to express a value that’s been there all along, in everyone’s mind. Imagine having the dollar but no clock—you’d be in a barter economy, merely trading one item for another, not creating a new symbolic store for understanding the exchange rate between different value systems—such as the labor of learning or data creation.

These new decentralized value symbols are complimentary additions to the existing symbolic infrastructure. Rather than uprooting national economies, they pioneer new frontiers by augmenting them with shared value markets.

In fact, we’ve already experienced the first wave of new value symbols: Facebook likes, Duolingo gems, Twitter retweets, etc. What do all of these have in common? Centralized value-backers—the inherent value of social acceptance is fractured and controlled across a variety of mediums. There are two problems with this: 1) there is an enormousincentive for these companies to cash in on these value systems by selling user data and 2) that value can’t be readily transferred off their platform.

Number one is exceptionally important. Think about this: when Facebook likes were first introduced, people thought it was the most ridiculous idea they’ve ever heard. I remember one of my old mentors who described it at the time as nonsensical: “It makes no sense to make an economy around likes—there is an infinite supply of them, therefore each one is worthless.”

But here lies the problem: it’s not just about supply, demand, ‘utility,’ pick-your-favorite-buzzword—it’s the whole constellation of logic mapping the symbol onto some underlying value. For Facebook, likes became a symbol mapped to the value of attention. Who cares about attention? Advertisers, social butterflies, everyone—who among us hasn’t logged on to see who liked us? And the exchange rate between likes and dollars is seemingly ludicrous—Facebook just raked in $21 Billion in digital advertising revenue.

In the age of the internet, these are the only value symbols that can be created right now. Right now, we rely on Facebook to uphold the logic of ‘likes’ and create the platform where we can express them across a mass network. The inevitable dilemma, however, companies like Facebook face is this: sell data or perish.

It’s not their fault: they have a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders. One that, additionally, gives them an enormous incentive to design their service to be as addictive as possible.

But they didn’t create this dilemma: it’s the natural consequence of the current open-information but closed-value regime.

And this is crucial. Where the internet taught us how to transfer information, blockchain is teaching us how to transfer value.

The Internet is notpackets of data, wires beneath the sea, domain name servers, electricity, phone lines, optical fiber, access points, databases, websites—it’s the idea that any two people can transfer information between each-other, without asking permission.

Likewise, blockchain is notledgers or databases or immutability or cryptography or peer to peer networks or hash functions or Bitcoin or currency or blocks or chains—it’s the idea that any two people can transfer value between each-other, without asking permission.

It means any two people can create a whole language around that value.

If the internet brought the friction of information transfer to zero, blockchain brings the friction of value transfer to zero.

It’s an idea, an elementary idea—that each of us can be in the driver’s seat to decide which value highways we drive on. Keep in mind that the first cars didn’t have highways, or roads, or streets, or, really, anything. The first drivers were laughed at as they drove ten feet before their automobile broke down in a pothole of sludge and mud while ten of their neighbors sped by on horses.

New liberties are always terrifying—and they often feel like standing on the precipice of the abyss. The unknown is petrifying.

But we need not leap blindly. We can learn from the past, we can understand how our society has come to represent value today—and we can reach within ourselves to discover which of our values are currently suffocated and unarticulated. From there, we can make a structured leap into the unknown. One toward a better future, a better world—one where you wake up free from the queasiness of our divided day.

So, will people create ‘worthless’ symbols? Yes. Will people create whole new languages for understanding health, love, life, liberty, equality? Yes. Will people create symbols that get it wrong? Yes.

And we should celebrate them.

Why? Because we are currently living amidst a Crisis of Symbols—and people feel that searing, simmering tension in their guts, in their minds—the same way workers felt something wrong when they came back from lunch break only to find that their clock said they never actually left. At a time when workers are working harder than ever and wages are falling, when students are studying more than ever and the value of degrees are plummeting, when more people are eligible to vote than ever and the value of a voting itself is spiraling—it is no coincidence we face unprecedented and pervasive levels of anxiety, depression, and alienation.

But the point isn’t that these symbols are worthless, evil, awful, outdated—it’s that we have been trapped by them. We have had no way to exit or augment these systems and opt-into our own value communities.

But now we do. And we have a responsibility, a duty, to exit or augment symbolic systems which aren’t serving us, which have diverged from their original goals, have reached their expiration date, or trapped our thinking.

Imagine a world where we can organize our time so students can learn at their own pace rather than drooling and brain dead at 7am, and workers can work on their own schedules rather than making difficult decisions between professional success and childcare. A world where people are rewarded for critical thinking and debunking false claims rather than the existing incentives of clicks, likes, and views that have led to an internet dominated by targeted and laundered information for political gain. A world where people are rewarded for their vital data contributions in the multi-billion-dollar algorithms currently extinguishing those very same people’s jobs.

Dollars, votes, and clocks are only a small sample of the symbols we can use to coordinate around a much richer, higher plane of value. Our shared commitments to ending poverty, disease, hunger, inequality, ignorance, toxic water, and joblessness are all blueprints for common agreements that could underpin this next wave of shared value markets. And this is only the beginning.

It’s time we create whole economies that already existed but had no common language to articulate around their shared values.

Welcome to the Age of Value Transfer.

About the author: Jackson Smith is the Chief Technology Officer and
Co-Founder of the Learning Economy and a Senior Correspondent and Editor with
the Diplomatic Courier.