Tag: Albert Wenger

Blockchain is about trust minimisation

I’ve always laughed when people talk about ‘trust’ and blockchain. Sometimes I honestly question whether blockchain boosters live in the same world as I do; the ‘trust’ they keep on talking about is a feature of life as it currently is, not in a crypto-utopia.

Albert Wenger takes this up in an excellent recent post:

One way to tell that trust was involved in a relationship is when we discover that the person (or company, or technology) acted in a way that harmed us and benefited them. At that point we feel betrayed. This provides a useful distinction between the concepts of trust and reliance. We rely on a clock to tell time. When the clock breaks we will feel disappointed. But when we buy a clock from someone who tells us it is a working clock, we trust them and when it doesn’t work, we feel betrayed (thanks to philosopher Annette Baier for this distinction).

As I keep saying, blockchain is a really boring technology. It’s super-useful for backend systems, but that’s pretty much it. All of the glamour and excitement has come from speculators trying to inflate a bubble, as has happened many times before.

Now some people have been saying that crypto is exciting because it has “trust built in.” I, however, prefer a different formulation, which is that crypto systems are “trust minimized.”

Exactly. What blockchain is useful for is when you have reason to mistrust the person you’re dealing with. Instead of a complex network of trust based on blood ties, friendships, and alliances, we can now perform operations and transactions in a ‘trust minimised’ way.

We live in a world where large corporations (especially ones with scale or network effects) have often abused trust due to a misalignment of incentives driven by short-term oriented capital markets. There are different ways of tackling this problem, including new regulation, innovative forms of ownership and trust minimized crypto systems.

So let’s see blockchain for what it is: a breakthrough for international trading and compliance checking. I’m happy it exists but still, several years later, find it difficult to get too excited about. And I’ll bet you all of your now-worthless Bitcoin that governments around the world will ensure that crypto-utopias turn into crypto-distopias.

Source: Continuations

The Digital Knowledge Loop

I’ve featured the work of Albert Wenger a few times before on Thought Shrapnel. He maintains a blog called Continuations and is writing a book called World After Capital.

In this post, he expands on a point he makes in his book around the ‘Digital Feedback Loop’ which, Wenger says, has three components:

  1. Economic freedom. We must let everyone meet their basic needs without being forced into the Job Loop. With economic freedom, we can embrace automation and enable everyone to participate in and benefit from the Digital Knowledge Loop.
  2. Informational freedom. We must remove barriers from the Digital Knowledge Loop that artificially limit learning from existing knowledge, creating new knowledge based on what we learn and sharing this new knowledge. At the same time must build systems that support the operation of critical inquiry in the Digital Knowledge Loop.
  3. Psychological freedom. We must free ourselves from scarcity thinking and its associated fears and other emotional reactions that impede our participation in the Digital Knowledge Loop. Much of the peril of the Digital Knowledge Loop arises directly from a lack of psychological freedom.

Wenger is a venture capitalist, albeit a seemingly-enlightened one. Interestingly, he’s approaching the post-scarcity world through the lens of knowledge, economics, and society. As educators, I think we need to be thinking about similar things.

In fact, this reminds me of some work Martin Weller at the Open University has done around a pedagogy of abundance. After reviewing the effect of the ‘abundance’ model in the digital marketplace, looks at what that means for education. He concludes:

The issue for educators is twofold I would suggest: firstly how can they best take
advantage of abundance in their own teaching practice, and secondly how do we best equip learners to make use of it? It is this second challenge that is perhaps the most significant. There is often consideration given to  transferable or key skills in
education (eg Dearing 1997), but these have not been revisited to take into account
the significant change that abundant and free content offers to learners… Coping with abundance then is a key issue for higher education, and one which as yet, it has not made explicit steps to meet, but as with many industries, adopting a  response which attempts to reinstate scarcity would seem to be a doomed enterprise.

Yesterday, during a break in our MoodleNet workshop with Outlandish, we were talking about the The Up Series of documentaries that showed just how much of a conveyer belt there is for children born into British society. I think part of the problem around that is we’re locked into outdated models, as Wenger and Weller point out in their respective work.

My children, for example, with a few minor updates, are experiencing the very same state education I received a quarter of a century ago. The world has moved on, yet the mindset of scarcity remains. They’re not going to have a job for life. They don’t need to selfishly hold onto their ‘intellectual property’. And they certainly don’t need to learn how to sit still within a behaviourist classroom.

Source: Continuations

Attention scarcity as an existential threat

This post is from Albert Wenger, a partner a New York-based early stage VC firm focused on investing in disruptive networks. It’s taken from his book World After Capital, currently in draft form.

In this section, Wenger is concerned with attention scarcity, which he believes to be both a threat to humanity, and an opportunity for us.

On the threat side, for example, we are not working nearly hard enough on how to recapture CO2 and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Or on monitoring asteroids that could strike earth, and coming up with ways of deflecting them. Or containing the outbreak of the next avian flu: we should have a lot more collective attention dedicated to early detection and coming up with vaccines and treatments.

The reason the world’s population is so high is almost entirely due to the technological progress we’ve made. We’re simply better at keeping human beings alive.

On the opportunity side, far too little human attention is spent on environmental cleanup, free educational resources, and basic research (including the foundations of science), to name just a few examples. There are so many opportunities we could dedicate attention to that over time have the potential to dramatically improve quality of life here on Earth not just for humans but also for other species.

Interestingly, he comes up with a theory as to why we haven’t heard from any alien species yet:

I am proposing this as a (possibly new) explanation for the Fermi Paradox, which famously asks why we have not yet detected any signs of intelligent life elsewhere in our rather large universe. We now even know that there are plenty of goldilocks planets available that could harbor life forms similar to those on Earth. Maybe what happens is that all civilizations get far enough to where they generate huge amounts of information, but then they get done in by attention scarcity. They collectively take their eye off the ball of progress and are not prepared when something really bad happens such as a global pandemic.

Attention scarcity, then, has the opportunity to become an existential threat to our species. Pay attention to the wrong things and we could either neglect to avoid a disaster, or cause one of our own making.

Source: Continuations

Albert Wenger’s reading list

Albert Wenger, a venture capitalist and author of World After Capital, invited his (sizeable) blog readership to suggest some books he should read over his Christmas and New Year’s break. The results are interesting, as there’s a mix of technical, business, and more discursive writing.

The ones that stood out for me were:

Former Mozilla colleague John O’Duinn has just sent out Update #14 of his Leading Distributed Teams ebook, so I’m looking forward to reading that soon, too!

Source: Continuations