The tensions that have spilled over into the streets of U.S. cities this week are a heartbreaking expression of a long-standing problem that has the whole world in its grip.
Inequality is not specific to the U.S. Nor is it limited to a handful of relatively well-off geographies. It stratifies societies within borders, trapping the majority within a narrow income band while markets pour wealth into the accounts of the few. It also divides the haves from the have-nots on a spectacularly global scale, relegating some countries to the back of the hand-out queue while others, blessed by nature and exploited luck, centralize their advantage with technology moats and resource supply chains.
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Technology is part of the problem. It has widened the chasm between those that can harness it and those that as yet cannot. It has enthralled populations, who are now captive to its influence. It has sped up flows of capital, while further concentrating its distribution.
So many of us fervently hope it can also be part of the solution. But sending in trained mechanics to fix cars they designed rarely produces a meaningful change in the way cars work. Asking innovators to re-think the shape of a system that is all they’ve ever known is unlikely to result in a totally new approach. If the fix is part of the problem, we shouldn’t be surprised when the problem doesn’t go away – at best, it will just change form.
And then there’s the motivation. Fear can produce results, but generally unplanned, incomplete and undesired ones. For unity and clarity, passion can work, by giving a glimpse of a better world. But although it captures hearts, passion is hard to define and harder to implement. Sometimes it takes a slow, methodical tinkerer to emerge from the back room with a bewildered expression and a unique prototype.
Enter stage left
Just over 11 years ago, bitcoin quietly made its presence known as a defiant workaround to the concentration of financial authority. Clouded in code, it sang as a more muted and less lyrical echo of John Perry Barlow’s “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” unleashed from Davos in 1996 on the widening cracks in the definition of progress. The stirring document opened with this:
“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”
The opening paragraph of the white paper that introduced bitcoin to the world, authored by a pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto, did not carry quite the same…