"Emergent System Maximalism"
These are the closely related –– yet significantly different –– terms that I use to understand the impact of crypto. My goal here is to clarify these concepts for myself. Along the way, I’d like to give examples of how this web3 movement can embody best practices. Clearly my personal, uninformed, biased summary won’t do these justice, and I look forward to good discussion around this space.
Cooperative mutualism, monarchies, and representative democracies–– the degree of individual freedom afforded differs greatly along this spectrum. Some seek to monopolize not just power –– deciding which skills get valued, what organization may form –– but also authority, which is say, the source of truth itself. Emergent systems run antithetical to authoritarian systems. If people are free to experiment they could begin to realize the information they’re fed is inaccurate.
Let’s quickly lay out the parallels and contrasts between emergent systems and distributed systems. In theory, representative democracies are emergent. Citizens collectively decide on a set of officials to run their society, and are content with following whatever decisions may arise. Implementations however look closer to indirect centralization. All emergent systems are distributed, but not all distributed systems are emergent. By reducing the source of truth to a single entity, we fall prone to a host of human biases. Again, the scientific method works best when rigorously tested, challenged, and iterated.
Currently our social media companies are closed source, prescriptive algorithms that seek to maximize their bottom line through outrage, and we’re all worse off as a result. They’ve instilled in us a negative-sum mindset where shit flows to the readily available lowest quality content. Much like in plurality voting systems, the incentives have been designed with short-term confrontation in mind. If we flipped this model, selecting for high quality debate where everyone benefits from the efforts of others, we’d kickstart positive-sum feedback loops. Much like how mycelium acts as a communication channel for trees, and can symbiotically merge with algae to form mind-bending lichen, higher degrees of interconnectedness will yield results beyond our wildest imagination.
In our quest for knowledge, we seek to become authorities on various subjects. At the very least, we are authorities on ourselves, and whatever niche our dust-like existence may fill. However, as prescriptive systems take over, some may seek to overrule genuine authority with coercive authority. Whether through enforced violence or financial threats, these entities seek to gain unquestionable power at the expense of everyone else. Again, their claim is that they know better than you, which is curious when all their conclusions confirm their priors and reinforce their status in the world. This is not the way. A rigorous, iterative, challenge-seeking process to discern fact (statistically likely outcome) from falsehood (provably impossible phenomena) has been the greatest savior of our species.
A particular point, perhaps the most important, is reproducibility. Beyond statistical methods (sample size, p-values) and inter/external biases, an aggregate of experiments yields the most faithful answer. In fact, it’s been shown over and over again that taking the average of many different evaluations exceed the assessment of one “expert”. Again, rigorous debate, competition, and cooperation have been our best tools to get us ever so slightly closer to the “truth” –– a model of reality that satisfies our current understanding, from which we can deepen our knowledge ad infinitum. Given our simplistic, tribalistic minds however, this is not a given.
See: “Pinnacle of Collaboration”
Voting systems are a way for individuals to make their preference(s) known. While still flawed, it’s the best system we’ve come up with to organize groups of people. Electing representatives, rejecting ballot measures, and deciding where to get dinner, voting systems are a quick and “democratic” way for groups to make decisions. Is it the best way?
Crypto arose from a distrust of centralized institutions; I don’t need to go into their failings. Single points of failure are an objectively bad way to run anything. Top-down governance is antithetical to human nature.
Why am I writing this? Well I’m bored and I need something to occupy this all-nighter. But also
Moving beyond voting systems would benefit all types of coordination
Huh? Pretty bold stuff for a kid. But as we saw, satisfying those basic conditions we want is akin to a dictatorship. Not a dictatorship in the genocide way, but there exists a mathematical entity, certain unknown voter v whose vote determines the outcome of the vote.
Obviously, we’re all here for the decentralization. Yeah there’s fuckloads of money to be made (i’ve heard), the memes are unparalleled, and new shiny toys are fun. None of which would work without decentralization at its core. I’m not here to argue that.
However, potential controversial take here, but the real achievement is consent, decentralization is just the tool.
The problem isn’t centralization, it’s consent
I would have zero problem listening to a central authority, as long as I can verify their claims, and make my own decisions.
Open source software must be the default in crypto. Many of the best projects out there already follow this ethos. Comparing Santi’s Proof Of Humanity against the dystopia WorldCoin, the evidence couldn’t be clearer. A free, democratic, and egalitarian UBI contrasted against a doxxing Silicon Valley scam couldn’t better illustrate the choices we face. In an open source world our hope and trust is placed in each other; it’s an inherent recognition of the limits of our humanity, that our best work comes from free flowing collaboration. In a prescriptive world a committee of unknown entities, or worse a black-box AI, distribute instructions for us to conform to without question. An emergent one is one with a high degree of trust + competence, where we mix and flow towards others based on our strengths, needs, and weaknesses.
More on this later? Update –– See: “Infinite Human Progress”
Lighting setting a log ablaze, torrential streams ripping up neighborhoods, atoms fusing together inside the sun –– natural energy comes in a variety of forms. Some we’ve mastered while scratching the surface of others. One that clearly lacks a modern catalyst is human excitement. The energy that animates an artist to paint a canvas, or a hacker to breach a protocol; an energy strong enough to produce life-saving technology as easily as it can ruin lives. Our overarching goal as a species should be to harnest our increasing power. So far, we’ve had to strike the right balance between creative freedom and freedom from destruction, “Living and preventing those who disagree from colonizing us” so to say.
Human nature is explorative, inquisitive, and destructive –– there’s little we can do about thousands of years of evolution. Attempts to oppress + conform groups of people has seldom been sustainable (see a couple revolutions and civil wars). I’d even say: the only longterm sustainable systems are those that guarantee maximal freedom. Unfortunately “power corrupts” as we say. I don’t believe this is entirely true, but let’s assume for now it is. If power is inherently evil, we’d want to share it equally, across everybody. This is precisely why bottom-up systems are safer and superior than top-down ones. A better classification, I believe, is Emergent vs Prescriptive; Active vs Reactive. When allowed to self-organize, dynamical systems tends towards the most effective, favorable outcome. It takes no more than digging in the ground to see this is the case.
Mycelial networks are the epitome of distributed systems, and we’d do well to study them vigorously. A fungi network doesn’t contain a central “brain” or decision center, but hundreds to billions in fact: each cell gate between hyphae has the potential to change and adjust given new information. Our human fallacy to believe we’re “divine” hinders our ability to see ourselves as part of a greater network. The very existence of a brain makes us feel special. Because of this, we confuse our existence in a system for the system itself. As the basis for sustaining life on this great green earth, mycelia give us a blueprint, a literal map below our feet, on how to live more harmonious lives.
Authority: Prescriptive Systems, Scientific Method, Distributed TrustConsensus, Preference Choices, Open Source, Forking + Composability
Power: Human creativity, Emergent systems, Positive-Sum