The Church of Bitcoin
Some of my previous posts dealt with society and what holds it together in one way or another. That is because I am fascinated by the concept of trust. Trust is to social sciences what the "uncertainty principle" and the "quantum entanglement" are to physics. Trust between interacting parties is hard to build, it takes time and effort and can be destroyed almost instantly. Human societies depend on their intrinsic level of trust and have developed over time a multitude of trust-building mechanisms.
Yet there's something even more thrilling at play: the further two parties go in building mutual trust, the higher the incentive for both to betray that trust, the higher the reward of exploiting and in the process destroying it. And because trust can only be exploited once usually, both parties have an additional incentive to be the first to exploit the other.
Trust is therefore inherently precious, indispensable, fragile and unstable to the point that I would propose it as measure of one's degree of humanity: the more trustworthy and able to resist the urge to betray the trust of others, the higher one's humanity.
On September 20th, 2017, Ray Dillinger, one of the very few people involved in the Bitcoin story since its beginnings, published an article that got me thinking. In it, he writes “In security contexts – and especially in cryptography – Trusted is an epithet. In fact it’s almost an obscenity. Trusted means something or someone has the power to break your security by acting in bad faith.” He later adds: “And the Trustless nature of Bitcoin was the main thing that convinced me Satoshi wasn’t scamming.”
Ray appears captivated by the whole construct because, among other things, Satoshi (who might have very well died two years ago in a diving accident for all we know) “isn’t using his privileged early-miner position for personal gain” … yet. Possibly because he lost the hard drive on which his keys were stored. Or possibly because he is already rich and with Bitcoin raising inexorably he would rather wait. Or maybe he is a truly great human being, and we all prefer the latter to be the truth.
We only care about this because we assume Satoshi to be a human being and we want to be inspired by someone who shows us it’s possible. In other words, despite all the obsession with network layers and transaction blocks and consensus protocols, all this only matters because we care about other people, how they see us, how we could interact with them. We, human beings, not our computers.
Bitcoin is something of value because people think it has value – and the more people agree, the higher its value. The believers are not putting their trust in a person, but in a virtual construct, the Bitcoin code. This is the same psychological mechanism that humanity has always used to create Gods and Anti-Gods such as the Communist doctrine . The slogan of the followers of the Church of Bitcoin could be “In Code We Trust”.
Bitcoin has an intoxicating power on a par with religious feelings. People start believing and upon joining the other believers they experience a kind of salvation. Some of them might believe that the revelation they’ve partaken in was that, thanks to Bitcoin, you don’t need to rely on untrustworthy humans anymore because the network will make sure that, as Muneeb Ali said, they “can’t be evil” anymore. That could be a dangerous delusion, on a par with that which gripped the true Communist believers: that a “new Man” was possible who would selflessly only take from the society what he needed and would give back to it as much as he could.
Bitcoin as a religion does not have to be a bad or annoying thing unless its followers start a revolution to convert everyone else to their credo, like a modern day Arnaud-Amalric, Juan de Sepulveda or Bolshevik revolutionaries. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with being in-love with the mathematical beauty of the Bitcoin construct as long as this love doesn’t compel you to try to replace existing trust-building mechanisms which human society has painstakingly developed over time with fabulous new “trustless” software.