This post is part of CoinDesk’s 2019 Year in Review, a collection of 100 op-eds, interviews and takes on the state of blockchain and the world. Taylor Monahan is the founder and CEO of MyCrypto, which builds open-source applications that empower you to manage your digital assets safely.
There’s an old story [by James Thurber] about a bear who was, apparently, quite fond of drinking mead. This bear would drink and drink, and then return home to kick things over, knock down lamps, and ram his elbow through the window. Then, he would collapse on the floor, exhausted by the night’s exuberance, and fall fast asleep. Naturally, this caused his family and friends to be quite distressed and frightened.
One day, he decided he needed to change his ways. He cleaned up and boasted to anyone who would listen about how strong and well he was without the drink. To prove his fitness, he would stand on his head and spin cartwheels and, in turn, kick things over, knock down lamps, and ram his elbow through the window. Then, he would collapse on the floor, exhausted by the night’s exuberance, and fall fast asleep. And his family and friends were quite distressed and frightened still.
In a different universe, one void of drinking bears and cartwheels, we near the end of another year. While 2017 was an explosive ride “to the moon” and 2018 was proof that “what goes up must come down,” 2019 is harder to define.
It wasn’t up, nor down, nor flat, nor bumpy. It wasn’t explosive, nor destructive, nor boring. As I grappled with finding a phrase to sum up an entire year, I realized that the tenor of 2019 was, overarchingly, exactly that: a year of grappling.
We grappled with understanding why no one was actually using the things we were building. We grappled with security and business models and improving the user experience. We grappled with the fact that the problems we expected people to have, may not have actually been problems. We grappled with the realization that this revolution may take longer than expected.
Interestingly, we haven’t grappled with our core identity. We bicker about who is more decentralized because we all want a future free of abusive central authorities. We contend that one coin is better than another coin because we want a viable, valuable alternative to government-backed currencies to succeed. While we may disagree on the best path to the future, we share a vision of what that future holds.
However, while our ideologies and values have remained relatively intact, our focus on fighting the existing systems and bickering at each other has left those tenets vulnerable to compromise.
The heart of the bear
Once upon a time, there was an isolated kingdom with few roads. Only those who held the tools, technical prowess, and desire for knowledge were able to visit. While these people came from different places and had unique experiences, they shared similar values and thus created a new, shared experience together. They would congregate to spread ideas and engage in civil discourse. Newcomers would occasionally arrive, primarily in September, a month in which certain youths, arbitrarily deemed ready for further education, left their homes and were given the keys to access this kingdom. As is common, the newcomers were often perceived as rambunctious, but after a short period of adjustment to the existing social norms, things would carry on as they had previously.
Then one day, a newcomer built a superhighway that led directly to the kingdom. Suddenly, the kingdom was far less isolated and people began to pour in. These newcomers, like earlier newcomers, had different attitudes, opinions, and expectations but, most of all, they were of an unimaginable quantity. There was no chance of acculturation. The early visitors watched as their kingdom morphed before their eyes and the original stories and ideologies were forgotten. This has come to be known as “Eternal September” as the space originally created would never return to what it was previously.
We have always held a fear of powerful, external forces destroying what we create. The blockchain was built with this in mind and its distributed, peer-to-peer nature is simultaneously a defensive resistance and an attribute from which it derives its value. Today, it’s unlikely that a single party could launch an attack that would swiftly remove us from existence, even if that party were a powerful government. But continuing to exist does not ensure that our current ethos continues to exist. It is far more likely that we morph into something that is technically the same, but fundamentally different.
In the last year, China and Facebook have both explicitly promised to give billions of people the keys to the blockchain kingdom. This kingdom would still be built using blockchain technologies, but it would not include the value, or values, that we commonly associate with the blockchain today. At its core, a blockchain is only an immutable record controlled by those who participate. It enables us to add to a record and verify this record without a single entity facilitating or authorizing the additions or verifications. In doing so, the technology prevents a single entity from controlling or manipulating the record. But, while it prevents a single entity from accruing power via the asymmetrical creation or dissemination of information, it does not dictate who is a participant, the nature of the information, the value of the record, nor what value can be further extracted on secondary layers.
The technology is only a tool. It is a brain, but not the heart.
We should not conflate the value that we create with the value a technology provides. The technology is only a tool. It is a brain, but not the heart. Just as the internet does not technically demand a certain level of discourse, the blockchain does not demand individuals are empowered or respected. Those who wield the tools determine the nature of what is built.
Even more frightening than an external invasion is that we, ourselves, may morph into something unrecognizable. As we grapple with business models, we could compromise our competitive advantage to create more attractive graphs for our pitch decks. As we grapple with attracting more users, more money, and more traction, we could sacrifice our values to compete with existing products and systems. The loss of our culture and ideologies may be caused by those inside our walls, even those we congregate with today.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how it happens or who forges the road we travel down. As James Thurber’s story of the destructive bear concludes, “You might as well fall flat on your face as lean over too far backward.” The lack of drink does not ensure a lack of destruction, even if it was the original cause. Being successful in realizing one’s vision requires a fight against the degradation of the ideologies and values that shape their vision, regardless of the original source of degradation.
In 2020, I will be doubling down on my vision of success as an individual, as a community member, and as a leader of my team and the products we build at MyCrypto. We aim to empower individuals through the sharing of knowledge and the creation of tools. It is only with knowledge that one has the ability to consent to what is done with their information and assets. It is only with the proper tools that one can take actions in one’s best interest. This consent and choice are what grants an individual sole control and, in turn, power over their actions, and ultimately, their identity.
But being the sole owner does not mean one can be a lonely owner. Relationships are a necessary and large contributor to one’s identity. Relationships and communication ensure that the sharing of knowledge is persistent and the tools wielded are consistently evolving. Power, control, and consent are not boolean nor are their movements unidirectional.
Honest discourse around the value of our creations and its alignment with our shared vision not only provides accountability for ourselves and each other, but also betters our shared experience and strengthens our shared values. We cannot go at it alone.
The future should be one where power naturally accrues to individuals. But, it is only as a group that we will have the wisdom, courage, and strength to realize that vision together.