By JP Parker

N. Redfunkovich: The Creation of Adam, A Divine Virtual Reality

Please forgive the length of this; my heart is full today.

A recent Wired headline that reads: Bitcoin Will Burn the Planet Down. The Question: How Fast? was forwarded to me by a friend with a “Whaddya reckon?” preface.

What I reckon — and remember — is that many of us were piping up about this eventuality more than 4 years ago, when digital currency mining was already using as much power as the entire country of Ireland (a paper about which was published and circulated among those of us who care about such things). At the time, the answer to us by the technotopians was, “Oh, no worries, economies of scale will bring energy costs and consumption levels down over time.” And: “It will probably bring about the renewables revolution we all want anyway, so effectively free energy will happen out of sheer necessity.”

Um, so in the meantime… we just boil the oceans to keep on mining?

Bitcoin, as valiant a project as it was and is, may be one of those well-intentioned but misguided unidirectional solutions that only partially addresses one problem whilst simultaneously unleashing several even worse ones. (For instance: the curly CFL [compact fluorescent lightbulb], now outed as a miniature toxic waste dump, was introduced as a solution to reduce energy use in lighting; beyond the near-ludicrously reckless health and environmental dangers it carries, its energy savings have wound up being questionable, especially when considered in the bigger picture.)

Likewise, it appears that Bitcoin’s originators nobly sought to solve the problem of the absence of a permanent, solid, trustable benchmark for currency (which used to be gold, but even that was, sadly, too subject to random dilution, and too game-able to be relied upon). The technological methodology/mechanism applied to solve this challenge, however, which is called Proof of Work, is turning out to have been terribly shortsighted (just as the curly lightbulb was, alas). So the intention was good, but in practical terms? {Ahem!} Not the ‘droids we were looking for. And its direction and destination may even have changed entirely now, given the inclement weather, potholes and highway robbers that have popped up along the way.

So, long story short, following Bitcoin’s introduction a bunch of other cryptocurrencies rapidly arrived and proliferated, with incrementally different and/or better approaches, many of them not so resource-intensive; however the biggest ones, the first movers (Bitcoin and Ethereum) still are. Mining them continues to expand, inexorably, market fluctuations notwithstanding. And so does the attendant power consumption.

There are back-of-napkin calculations that the bitcoin network could wind up using more power than the United States does, and will likely add another 70 million metric tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere. (The latter not over decades, friends. In 2019.)

The idea to create an immutable benchmark for currency, something that, at least hypothetically, people could agree had an unchangeable, dependable value over time, was a decent one, and was quite disruptive to the status quo of gaming every system for maximum profit. This was the altruistic, purist orientation of many who were initially attracted to the Bitcoin proposition and communities.

Bitcoin also sought to solve the “double spend” problem, which is, essentially: how do you end counterfeiting? And the technologists’ answer was, you offload the so-called “trust problem” to an algorithm.

Yeah…right. Danger, Will Robinson.

One of the most interesting things about Bitcoin, for me anyway, was the idea to utilise the blockchain innovation (which, as a tool, had been lying around for decades already). At the simplest level, blockchain is just a particular way of doing databases; pretty boring, really. What this approach does quite successfully, though, is create ways to make heretofore complicated and/or hidden processes transparent; it allows us to audit an entire trail, and hold all the people and processes involved accountable, at every step along the way. This kind of illumination, particularly as it becomes a norm, promises to make corruption far more difficult, if not impossible.

The first popular application of the blockchain idea was in service to “following the money.” Quite naturally for the time, it appeared to many of us that Bitcoin was trying to take on, head-on, the perceived causes of the GFC (global financial crisis). There are many other applications of the blockchain idea, though, which are actually even more powerful and useful than applying it to money, and do not encourage exponential increases in energy usage.

In the wildly complex world we now inhabit, the blockchain innovation has given us a way to track the myriad of our made things from source to end, and to monitor everything that happens on that journey. Supply chains will indeed be revolutionized, because we’ll be able to verify what happened from a seed’s planting to its arrival as the vegetable or fruit on our plate; we’ll be able to know whether a given product was ethically made, where and by whom; we’ll be able to know that our votes actually counted and that the system was not tampered with during an election. And more along these lines. That is the real promise of the blockchain idea.

And… while this is unfolding, convergence among exponential technologies is also already happening, rapidly; in a few years we won’t likely be talking about blockchain much anymore, as it will have disappeared into the proverbial woodwork, just as the various forms of digitised media did into the internet.

When we consider that the cheapness of data storage (aka Big Data) has made it worthwhile to record everything for later analysis, and combine that with the Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning (AI or ML, as you prefer) and distributed ledger technology (blockchain), it’s already clear that networks and software systems will undergo radical change, yet again. Integrating these and other tools, all in the cloud, will have consequences to humanity and our planet that we can barely imagine. And the change is going faster, this time, than ever.

Back to the subject of the Wired piece, though: when we consider it more closely, we can see that the lurchings and flailings about of our monetary systems are the likely crux of what’s causing this coin mining/energy consumption problem.

How so?

Why is all of this happening?

At the core, because we have been acculturated to mistrust our world, and each other.

Consider the possibility that the degree of mistrust is so profound now, that entire societies do not trust their institutions anymore (understandably so, as so many have shown their true colours and do not merit it); even our fellow citizens might potentially steal from or take advantage of us, so we mistrust before we trust.

The human being standing before us — in far too many social situations and absolutely heartbreakingly — is guilty until proven innocent of imagined untrustworthiness. And that, at least in my book, is a symptom of an underlying disease.

The disease is not, from my perspective, capitalism; it’s economics. And it’s endemic to our cultures, which continue to cultivate both economic and social dog-eat-dog survivalism as the overarching mindset and belief system about life. The more we engage with this survivalist idea, the more we increase our collective stress and trauma.

There is also a question of scale, and for me that is where the growing continuum of disruptive technologies that are poised to crash upon our shores all at once, raises such concern. Massive, massive change is upon us, from several sectors, simultaneously.

(The myth of the invisible ships of the conquistadores in South America comes to mind — that there are things so big and so foreign to our mindset that we can’t conceive of them, so we simply don’t see them, even though they are right there. Only the shamans could sense them, because they’re used to “looking” at the world in a different way. But even the shamans couldn’t really see them in the conventional sense, with their eyes; they just perceived the presence of something large and anomalous.)

Can we, will we mature, as a global species, in the face of all these powertools coming into our hands? Can we, will we be the responsible stewards of them that we can be?

To paraphrase Yuval Harari, now we are the powerful gods we aspired to be: but are we also the loving and wise gods we must be? How do we wield such huge increases in power without destroying everything in our wake, whether by intent or accident?

Of late I’ve been wondering, how did we go so quickly from a world that had the heroes that some of us grew up with — Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela — to a world where the heroes are Gates, Buffett, Jobs, Bezos, Zuckerberg, Musk?

Only billionaires are worth talking about? Only billionaires are worth emulating?

How did we wind up there?

Our cultures came down with something. And, as with all illness, if we desire to heal ourselves fully and permanently we must go to the cause, and rectify things there. Otherwise we’re just managing symptoms, rearranging those deck chairs on the Titanic.

Healing is a deeply mysterious process, and… it begins with orienting ourselves away from the iceberg, in the direction of wellbeing.

From my perspective, as long as we continue to perceive “the economy” — at least as defined in the past century or so — as a reality (and not the fiction that it is, a VR [virtual reality] game that we’ve agreed to play), we shall remain ill.

A metaphor:

Imagine some people becoming so absorbed in a VR game that they increasingly forget to eat, to drink water, to relieve themselves when their body calls for it. They barely sleep or shower; they’ve lost awareness of their environment and consideration of the people around them. The game becomes everything to them; it’s a compelling and all-consuming imaginary world, even though it’s not real, never was and never will be.

How could these people not make themselves sick in the process of endlessly playing such a game?

As it turns out, though, there is no pill to take for this one, folks; red, blue or purple. There is only choice. Our choice.

To make our choice, as a species, do we take that VR mask off, or leave it on?

Will we undertake to heal, nourish and care for ourselves, our communities and our environment?

Will we continue to play the virtual game, insisting that it’s real, until we wither away?

What future do we choose to create, together?

This text was originally posted on JP’s personal blog.



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