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S01E07: The Philosophy and Ethics of Cryptocurrency and the Blockchain with Dmitry Buterin

Oct 30

On Halloween Day in 2017, executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter sat in front of a group of US Senators and were grilled for hours about how they allowed disinformation and Russian ads to be shown to some 126 million people.

But while this question about Russian ads might be important, it’s also very limited in its scope.

What’s not being addressed as directly – probably because it’s much harder is this..

The Underlying Philosophy and Ethics of Relying on Protocols and Algorithms

In the case of Facebook, a politically-neutral algorithm shows people what they most likely want to see. But as we know now, that’s creating huge silos and bubbles, where we tend to only hear from people who agree with us. And that’s making far more difference in our lives and elections than any Russian ads.

But Facebook is just one of the most obvious and recent examples.

Early in 2017, an article was written about a significant increase in truck accidents along Highway 43 in Arkansas. As it turns out, truckers have traditionally avoided Highway 43 because it’s very steep and therefore more dangerous. Truckers who know the area tend to use Highway 7, which is safer but a bit slower. However, with the rise in use of Google Maps, truckers have begun flocking to Highway 43.

In other words, the underlying protocol and algorithms of Google Maps have, in this instance, potentially been responsible for more accidents and injuries.

This May Be One of the Biggest Theoretical Issues We Have to Think About

Technology is not necessarily the objective, impartial force that we sometimes imagine it to be.

Algorithms and protocols (at least so far) are always based on the assumptions, inputs, and biases of the humans who design and program them.

In a recent episode of 99 Percent Invisible, Cathy O’Neil discussed exactly this issue. She’s a mathematician and data scientist, who – after working in academia, at a hedge fund, and at various startups – started realizing the impact algorithms have on our lives without us usually even noticing.

O’Neil uses a dinner analogy for algorithms. For instance, when she thinks about making dinner for her family, she needs to both (a) define the inputs – ingredients in this case, and also (b) the rules for success.

For (a) ingredients, she curates and excludes various things such as instant ramen noodles. That’s just not considered a possible dinner input for her.

And she judges the (b) success of a meal at least partially on whether her kids eat vegetables. Her son, on the other hand, would likely judge the success of the meal on the amount of Nutella he ate.

The point is this…

All Protocols and Algorithms (Including Cryptocurrency and Blockchain) Contain the Ethics of Their Creators

The inputs and criteria for success that we choose are ethical decisions. That’s not a bad thing – just something we need to consider.

This is true of blockchain and cryptocurrency.

Many people define the success of cryptocurrency simply by the amount of decentralization, freedom, or democratization it brings about.

But it’s equally possible that someone could define the criteria for success as the amount of security, convenience, and stability generated.

There’s always a tradeoff

With facebook and google for instance, we want people to be able to publish pretty much whatever they’d like, and we usually want facebook or google to give us the content we want to see.

But one of the tradeoffs, of course, is that we end up in content bubbles – we see what we already believe and what those around us believe. It’s why so many people were surprised that Trump became president, because the opinion and people they heard were only people within their bubble, not the very large group of people who thought otherwise.

Structurally, cryptocurrency has many characteristics that potentially make it “better” than other protocols and algorithms. In particular, cryptocurrency and the blockchain are generally public, open, and transparent, so at the very least, anyone can see both the data and the algorithms and how they work.

But this doesn’t mean that there are no possible issues or tradeoffs with cryptocurrency. We tend to think that because these things are mathematical, that they’re automatically objective and without agenda. It’s not true, of course, and we need to at least have the discussion about cryptocurrency – its inputs, what constitutes success, and also the tradeoffs – which are always present.

In particular, one of the conversations that we often avoid is the role of institutions – government, corporations, etc. – in our lives.

We often either criticize them or else live with them as necessary evils. And there’s often a lot of anger around these issues.

And the reason I mention this here is because cryptocurrency is often touted as a way to at least partially remove these institutions from our lives. But what’s often missing is any sort of historical context or conversation around why these institutions were necessary in the first place – the evolutionary tribalism, struggle, and conflict that these institutions arose in response to.

Dmitry Buterin

With all of that in mind, in this conversation, I chatted with Dmitry Buterin – someone with whom I’ve been friends for several years and who has put a ton of thought into these and other issues.

As a quick side note – you might recognize his last name, since he’s the father of Vitalik Buterin – the founder of Ethereum. But in this conversation, we don’t really discuss Vitalik. His name comes up a few times, but I really wanted to talk to Dmitry about his experience, views, and projects in and around cryptocurrency.

Dmitry has had an incredibly successful career in tech, he’s founded and sold several companies.

He’s now working on a few new ventures, directly related to educating and growing the blockchain community as well as incubating and guiding early-stage cryptocurrency companies. And it’s this desire to educate and empower others that really characterizes Dmitry’s philosophy when it comes to Blockchain, and tech in general.

In this episode, we get out of the weeds and get a bit more philosophical, including Dmitry’s perspective on everything from the types of problems he thinks need to be solved with blockchain-based businesses, to the way he leverages content marketing, and , of course – his beliefs on the future of Blockchain development.

And thinking about blockchain through this philosophical lens is interesting because it adds another layer of complexity and ambiguity to an already complex, anarchy-prone topic – one that already lacks stewardship from a central party.

So please, listen, enjoy, and share this wonderful conversation with Dmitry Buterin!

Featured Guest

Dmitry Buterin

Selected Links

Dmitry Buterin: http://www.buterin.com/
Blockgeeks: https://blockgeeks.com/
L4 Ventures: http://l4v.io/
Dmitry on Twitter: https://twitter.com/BlockGeekDima
Cathy O’Neil on 99 Percent Invisible: https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/the-age-of-the-algorithm/
Highway 43 Accidents in Arkansas: https://www.wired.com/2017/04/courts-using-ai-sentence-criminals-must-stop-now/

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About the Author

Jeremy Hendon grew up in Georgia, practiced law for a while, and then built several companies - from food manufacturing to magazines to digital events. Jeremy has also developed apps with 500,000+ downloads, co-authored multiple books, had his products featured on national TV, and has lived in 9 different countries over the last 4 years.