Ethereum for humans

Note: I do my best to keep interfluidity noncommercial, but this post is kind of an ad. I also hold “Ether” as a speculative asset, so the post could be interpreted as talking my book. I am sorry about all that. I hope you find this interesting anyway.

A bit pathetically, much of what I have been doing for the past two years is working on a software project called sbt-ethereum.

When I began, I thought it’d be a few months’ work, and would enable me to do what I’d hoped to do, which is publish little economic experiments or toys in a way that many interfluidity readers could, if they wished, try out and interact with. Unfortunately, my software philosophy is “go slow and make things, and oh fuck I’m running out of money”, and that’s exactly what I’ve done.

Nevertheless, I am quite devoted to my little project, and hope that perhaps some of you will be interested. It scratches lots of my personal itches.

First off, there is Ethereum itself, which captivated me a few years ago as a potential space for institutional experimentation. Technological change has, thus far, been utterly eviscerative of civil society. In theory, we should all be able to communicate and coordinate so much more easily than before, this should be a wonderful golden age for community, cooperation, and coordinated action. In practice, quite the opposite has occurred. By removing the frictions that protected various localisms, we made a world so flat and seamless that mega-institutions, the kind that like to move fast and break things and make a lot of money, could easily dominate and have done so. Our lives and hopes are attention plankton in the baleen of the whale, and even while we are drawn into the suction, we know in our plankton hearts that it is killing us. What we need now is not an ever more open, ever more endless ocean of connection, but defensible reefs upon which durable human communities can deposit themselves and give themselves form. We need to be able to create barriers, to create stakes that render our attention committed and less susceptible to footloose “engagement”, we need to design structures and rules that regulate and sustain those communities, and mechanisms to enforce them.

Ethereum (along with perhaps its many imitators and successors) is a weird, deeply imperfect technology, but it could be a playground (or petrie dish) for this kind of thing. It lets one define, in software, relationships between events that can be human interactions and flows of economic value. Human community transcends money if it is worthy of the name at all, but relationships embedded in flows of economic value usually form the bones and sinew on which the softer flesh of human intercourse grows. Families, for example, are not “about the money”, but they are among other things arrangements that pool economic resources and arrange flows to individuals who do not directly receive flows from the bigger, wider world. Extended families grow weaker as resource pooling beyond nuclear family boundaries becomes less common, a phenomenon for which (like most social phenomena) causal arrows go both ways. Communities and resources are related and interdependent. A “community” materialized only as a Facebook group will always be a weak and shallow thing. Tools like Ethereum, at least in etheory, could enable people to define economic institutions conducive to durable and effective communities, at scales as small as families or as large as social movements, and to administer them in ways that are transparent if not always fair.

But this project (which I describe as “intentional community” in perhaps ill-augered homage to an earlier movement to carve out local spaces), requires a tremendous amount of experimentation, at small scales. It should be easy and cheap to try things out. So far, understandably but to my disappointment, actually existing Ethereum development has been focused on millions-of-dollar start-up scales rather than hundreds-of-dollar group-arts-budget scale. There were the ICOs that, for a moment, could raise infinite money from a buzzword; the “fat protocols” that venture capitalists use to seduce themselves and their not always lovely worldviews into the space; and now we have the “DeFi” (“decentralized finance”) vision. Flows of economic value do shape, form, and deform human communities. So far the scent of big money fast has largely structured the Ethereum community, not for better but for worse in my view, though I am grateful for my own speculative gains and for the (not unrelated) continuing vitality of the space.

sbt-ethereum, this software I’ve been working on, is designed to encourage very bare-bones Ethereum projects. Someone, by definition a coder, has to write the “smart contracts” — the Ethereum programs that coordinate interaction and value. But once such a smart contract exists, sbt-ethereum “repositories” should be usable, and potentially modifiable and customizable, by a much broader range of technically comfortable users.

sbt-ethereum emphatically is not a GUI, web, or mobile app. It is, on the contrary, text-based software that defines its own, fairly weird but hopefully accessible, command line. One reason, in my view, why institutional experimentation with Ethereum has been both slow and unproductive is a premature fetish for “Web3 dApps“, which often strive to be as close as possible to the current generation of web/mobile applications that both serve and oppress us, except backed by “communities” defined by smart contracts rather than the narrow interests of some ordinary firm. Building a beautiful website is an expensive, high-overhead activity, and for all of that work, the peculiarities of interacting with Ethereum, which is quite different from the database-and-payments-provider back-end of your ordinary Uber, can’t help but poke out uncomfortably. sbt-ethereum encourages users to explore and interact directly with smart contracts from its internal command line. A smart contract alone is sufficient to be a usable application, a workable experiment. Just deploy it and play, no JavaScript, or Swift, or even HTML necessary or desired. sbt-ethereum‘s main usability tool is the <tab> key.

sbt-ethereum is not intended for the mythical mass end-user. It is intended for the people who invented the personal computer, and then invented the modern internet, and then disappeared. It is intended for hobbyists. And also for researchers. If you are an economics professor, or an economics student, it is intended for you. Make game theory less theoretical. Invent some games and play them amongst yourselves with real money. Iterate on them, publish them for others to play with. Describe and theorize what you see.

sbt-ethereum is, to me, also about human agency. I am an old curmudgeon, so perhaps it is just that. But I view the current generation of computing as dystopian. I hate my mobile apps, even as I am dependent and addicted to them. When the web first came to be, a prominent feature was “View Source”. Users were invited to look at a web page and understand how it was made, so that you could make your own. Just prior to the emergence of the web was the desktop publishing revolution, which let anyone with a computer produce publications of a quality that only recently before would have required professional typesetters. I remember during heady quasi-Marxey college conversations gushing about how now we owned the means of production in the form of our spiffy Macintoshes. Computing now feels utterly infantilizing. You can publish anything you want, as interchangeable content, fodder for vast machines built by Jack and Mark, control over which becomes theirs. Beyond “social media”, publishing has re-professionalized, and professionals are in the business of exclusion and difference, of profiting from what others cannot do.

My software, like this blog, is a throwback. I sometimes joke that sbt-ethereum is “Ethereum for the 1970s”. Its UI would be basic on a green-screen terminal. But the software that sits beneath the nostalgic phosphorous is powerful. Professional quality, I hope.

But I do not write it for professionals. I write it for amateurs. It is free software. I hope that you will give it a try. For most readers, I suspect this talk of smart contracts and institutional experiments will sound abstract and vague, hard to make sense of. I hope I’ll publish some little toys, the kind of ideas that got me started on this in the first place, sometime soon.

Update History:

  • 27-Apr-2019, 1:00 p.m. PDT: “Our lives and hopes are attention plankton in the krill baleen of the whale…” (note: i posted this update history entry late, at about 4pm, about 3 hours after the update. i was out and just fixed the embarrassing mistake from my mobile. sorry!)
  • 3-May-2019, 12:30 a.m. PDT: Add missing hyphen to “group-arts-budget scale”; “publish them for other others to play with”; “control over which becomes utterly theirs”

5 Responses to “Ethereum for humans”

  1. Chris Peel writes:

    “Our lives and hopes are attention plankton in the krill of the whale, and even while we are drawn into the suction, we know in our plankton hearts that it is killing us.”

    Thanks for the valuable tool and the motivation for defensible reefs.

  2. Steve roth writes:

    I’ll also be taking “defensible reefs” away from this article.

    Will take a look.

  3. Max Rockbin writes:

    I started to read your docs and it seems like a really interesting project. If you don’t mind a little advice… I think my web dev skills are from the same generation as yours. Coding in raw html. You mentioned in the article that building a slick website for a gui interface is really time consuming and not your main focus.

    These days though, building a slick website is trivial. More importantly, building a website that is Mobile Friendly is trivial. Most of your readers, more than likely – if they’re under about 40, are reading your blog on a mobile phone. There are loads of free or very cheap templates as well as some companies that have online GUI website building tools combined with hosting. Since you’ve got a URL and coded your own site, you probably don’t need that. There are also tools like Foundation and Bootstrap that making building a site that will automatically adapt to mobile views (and look like a modern site) very easy. The cost is a shallow learning curve and a site that will load slightly less quickly. The return is not only a site that many more people can and will access, but also improved Google ranking results (google favors modern sites that follow Googles own “suggested” guidelines and which adapt for mobile viewing). You would have to figure out the back-end (anything you want to run on the server), but it seems like with your skills you could have the whole thing up in a week or two. Also, while I havent’ done it, children can write phone apps now. There are some very intuitive tools out there.
    I wish you luck! It seems like a very worthwhile project. And I agree with the others who highlighted your Whale/krill/reef metaphor. That’s really good – and ought to catch on. Maybe a good visual theme for your website…

  4. A truly magical post. One tiny typo: etheory. Ethereum theory? :)

  5. Gian Balsamo writes:

    Hi, Steve. Your proposal is fascinating and, to me, slightly elusive. The day Satoshi mined the genesis block, I was 20 days away from my 60th birthday. So, I’m not a coder who became a blockchainer, I’m a blockchainer who learned to code because of Satoshi (without Vitalik, though, I doubt I’d have taken the first solid steps). In other words, I’m not enough of a naturally-born coder to play your game. I can only try to grasp it. Paradoxically, your proposal reminds me of my response to September 11. What I’m saying may sound absurd to any reader who didn’t experience the ’68 Movement. But a week after September 11, I expected that the West would respond to that tragedy with a wave of spiritual and cultural regeneration. I even forced many colleagues at Stanford U to cut short their holidays for a strategic meeting on campus. Yet, that meeting left me speechless – in fact, I didn’t utter a word that day. I couldn’t believe my ears: everybody in the room assumed we were meeting to find out how to contain damage, give solace to the distraught souls, and above all, avoid change. I had thought we were meeting to design change. What you write about sounds familiar: many of us had expected that Ethereum (personally, I extend the discussion to BTC and its branches) would bring about a never-seen-before social renewal, but it turns out that the sort of change you seem to have in mind never even crossed the minds of the youngest and best developers among us. Let me close this abortive reflection with one key consideration. To me, Satoshi’s philosophy entailed a vertiginous turn-around. If I had previously known and believed that human trust and mutual respect could be automatized and guaranteed by leveraging self-interest, I wouldn’t be writing these lines now – I’d be too busy with some wealth-related concern. I became a blockchainer because May ’68 taught me that greed and self-interest (inclusive those that inform that most traditional among the nuclear communities you seem to talk about fondly, which in 1968 we used to call the “bourgeois” family) were the lever of corruption and social irresponsibility. Pivoting to the persuasion that there is moral gain to be had from the rule of self-interest, once it is yoked to machine-executed algorithms, required a colossal mental reversal on my part. I managed to take that huge jump. Yet, it seems to me that as long as our basic ethical premise is self-interest (and, may I add, as along as proof of stake claims that unyoking human self-interest from the machine’s rigid control won’t have regressive results), we must acknowledge that our moral and spiritual stakes are huge: we are trying to reinvent the human motivation to exist in a fulfilling way, based on that very principle, self-interest, to which the whole humanistic and religious tradition attached sinister connotations. (There is an important exception to what I just said, and Craig Wright is the lonely voice in its support: the interplay of protestant ethics and spirit of capitalism, so well stressed by Max Weber. I guess one must start from there, but the risk from starting from there, is that one may end up exactly where you claim we already are and shouldn’t be.)