Design systems to bring about the best in humans

In response to my article “Blockchain is not decentralised”, Garycris wrote:

While the developer's are acting in their own best interest, if you buy into the philosophy of cryptocurrency, then your interests are pretty much aligned with them as well. At the end of the day cryptocurrency will not be successful because it is altruistic, it will be successful because it accepts the reality of human nature, which is that we have unlimited wants and limited resources. This results in greed and lack of trust. Cryptocurrency takes the emotion and judgement out of it.

I’m shocked and terrified by this statement. And, unfortunately, I’m not really surprised by it. Earlier in the comments to my post on HN, Shammah wrote about his learnings developing Bitcoin Cash:

If you look at the core groups shilling any particular cryptocurrency, they are attracted to that cryptocurrency because the economic incentives align with their value system. Ultimately the value of cryptocurrency comes from how people value it, and that comes from a value system (or a belief system).

The human nature is not hardwired at birth

If people were always just "accepting the reality of the human nature", they would not exit the caves and would not stop slaughtering people from the neighbouring tribes for resources.

Human nature is shaped by the society (and the systems that the society operates by, such as the current capitalistic system) at least in a very large part, if not entirely. Take feral children as an example: they grow up having profoundly different psychology and relationship to nature than ordinary children. Krishnamurti also says that we are conditioned to be tribalistic, competitive, and ambitious as we grow, and these are not the hardwired properties of our brains:

The simple fact is that the mind, the brain of the child is like putty or clay and on that putty, impressions are made, like the grooves in a record. Everything is registered. So in a child everything is registered consciously or unconsciously, until gradually he becomes a Hindu, Muslim, Catholic or a non-believer. He then makes divisions - as my belief, your belief, my god, your god, my country, your country. You have been conditioned to make tremendous effort; you have to make an effort to study, to pass an examination, you have to make an effort to be good.

So, the question is how is the mind, which is conditioned, to unravel itself, to get out of conditioning? How do you propose to get out of it? Now exercise your intelligence to find out. [...]

Cynical worldviews are dangerous

I understand that Garycris is probably hinting at the René Girard's mimetic theory, which also Peter Thiel is very fond of. However, as any other psychological and anthropological theory, this "theory" is just a story which tries to come up with a plausible approximate explanation of what have happened in the past, not a fundamental scientific fact (our current level of understanding of the human brain just doesn't allow building fundamental theories), and therefore we must shun away from such cynical theories.

By submitting to the mimetic theory (and similar theories), we are reinforcing our mind and system scripting and thus conjuring these theories as self-fulfilling. As well as the human nature is shaped by the society, the society and the systems are shaped by the human nature, too, so this is a bidirectional, self-sustaining and reinforcing dynamic process.

To me, Garycris's statement is also reminiscent of Scott Alexander's passage about Nick Land in "Meditations on Moloch":

That person will not be Nick Land. He is totally one hundred percent in favor of freeing Cthulhu from his watery prison and extremely annoyed that it is not happening fast enough. I have such mixed feelings about Nick Land. On the grail quest for the True Futurology, he has gone 99.9% of the path and then missed the very last turn, the one marked orthogonality thesis.

But the thing about grail quests is – if you make a wrong turn two blocks away from your house, you end up at the corner store feeling mildly embarrassed. If you do almost everything right and then miss the very last turn, you end up being eaten by the legendary Black Beast of Aaargh whose ichorous stomach acid erodes your very soul into gibbering fragments.

As far as I can tell from reading his blog, Nick Land is the guy in that terrifying border region where he is smart enough to figure out several important arcane principles about summoning demon gods, but not quite smart enough to figure out the most important such principle, which is NEVER DO THAT.

Moral proactivity is the ultimate human quality

Viktor Frankl wrote that the human ability to rise above the desires and the circumstances, to act proactively, not reactively, to independently define our attitude to what happens to us are the things that give meaning to the human life:

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity -even under the most difficult circumstances- to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him.

Therefore, we must rise to the challenge to design social, economic, and technological systems that demonstrate our will to fight against Moloch, not to defiantly submit to it, as Thiel, Land, and Garycris suggest (epitomising the views of many people in cryptocurrency communities).

Design the rules of the system thoughtfully

Donella Meadows identifies that system rules (incentives, punishments, and constraints) have powerful effect on the agent behaviour:

To demonstrate the power of rules, I like to ask my students to imagine different ones for a college. Suppose the students graded the teachers, or each other. Suppose there were no degrees: you come to college when you want to learn something, and you leave when you’ve learned it. Suppose tenure were awarded to professors according to their ability to solve real-world problems, rather than to publish academic papers. Suppose a class got graded as a group, instead of as individuals.

This means that technologists who build more and more important systems in our lives actually have the power to affect the human nature. And with power comes responsibility. Let's apply our best thinking to the questions like "How should systems of cooperation that naturally support sustainability, abundance mentality, and happiness look like?", rather than build technology that "accepts the reality of human nature, which is that we have unlimited wants".


If you liked this article, you may also like: