That Old Time Blockchain Religion

When I was younger, I had a serious disdain for anything remotely faddish or suddenly mainstream. Fads have always seemed to me to be useless mind viruses, transmitted from one uncritical host to the next.

I’ve mellowed a bit on that in my old age, bucking the usual “Get off my lawn!” trend, but I still reserve the right to shake my fist at any hype-mongers who deserve it.

Blockchain and cryptocurrency most definitely deserve it.

In the not too distant past, a friend of mine pulled me into a Signal group message thread with some other friends of his. The topic: Bitcoin. The atmosphere: mostly skeptical with occasional bursts of religious fervor. To be more precise, one gentleman in the group became angry anytime he came across an article on the web expressing even the most remote levels of skepticism about Bitcoin.

If you can’t handle pushback on your “precious”, then it’s a religion. Even people who are members of actual religions should be able to handle doubt and questioning without anger if they’re intelligent humans who really believe what they’re preaching.

If something is true, it doesn’t matter what people say about it — it’s true. If it’s not true, it doesn’t matter how much people believe in it — it’s not true.

Technologists have a hard time avoiding techno-religion, primarily because most technologists love technology. Passion is good, but it shouldn’t come with even a voluntary lobotomy. That’s why one of my favorite technologists is cryptography and security expert Bruce Schneier.

Rather than seeking an altar to worship at, Bruce analyzes technology by looking at its most important characteristic: its practical effect on people. This approach allows him to properly rate actual threats versus perceived threats, and conversely to see through hype and determine if there’s actual substance there.

When that approach is applied to the topic of blockchain, his takeaways are quite revealing:

Do you need a public blockchain? The answer is almost certainly no. A blockchain probably doesn’t solve the security problems you think it solves. The security problems it solves are probably not the ones you have.

And:

Honestly, cryptocurrencies are useless. They’re only used by speculators looking for quick riches, people who don’t like government-backed currencies, and criminals who want a black-market way to exchange money.

Obviously I agree with Bruce on this topic because I agree with Bruce on this topic. I already felt blockchain and cryptocurrencies were mostly libertarian pipe dreams long before this, but just because Bruce confirms my own suspicions with his conclusions doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

Blockchain and bitcoin are actually quite clever as technical concepts. I’ve no doubt that whoever is really behind Satoshi Nakamoto, for example, is either fabulously rich or gained some other form of power over people who flocked to get in on the cryptocurrency gold rush.

Still, if you perceive any technology as magically able to solve all your problems and free you from whatever overlords you’re angry at, you’re almost certainly deluding yourself. Also, in the case of blockchain and cryptocurrencies, the environmental price paid by everyone on the planet in energy consumption just to fuel unrealizable dreams for a few antisocial types doesn’t seem worth it.

Lest you now wish to murder me in my sleep for daring to shake my head in disgust at the object of your libertarian fantasies, I’m always open to having my mind changed on pretty much any topic. As stubborn as I can be, I’m also rational. I just have a hard time seeing it in this case given what we currently know and the behavior we’ve witnessed with blockchain applications.

Maybe cryptocurrencies will someday become useful and trustworthy, and blockchain will actually solve some problem other than rounding out a list of techno buzzwords. But I don’t imagine a way around the physics of bitcoin mining, for example, even if those other roadblocks are magically removed.