Thursday, May 29, 2014

Trust the principle

The cryptographic e-cash community was caught off-guard by BitCoin's adoption and success. One group of researchers from PARC and Standford took heed and contemplated what factors contributed to that success. Distribution and decentralization was one of the key features they identified as contributing to BitCoin's adoption and success. From the paper:
No central point of trust. Bitcoin has a completely distributed architecture, without any single trusted entity. Bitcoin assumes that the majority of nodes in its network are honest, and resorts to a majority vote mechanism for double spending avoidance, and dispute resolution. In contrast, most e-cash schemes require a centralized bank who is trusted for purposes of e-cash issuance, and double-spending detection. This greatly appeals to individuals who wish for a freely-traded currency not in control by any governments, banks, or authorities — from libertarians to drug-dealers and other underground economy proponents (note that apart from the aforementioned illegal usages, there are numerous legitimate uses as well, which will be mentioned later). In a spirit similar to the original motivation for a distributed Internet, such a purely decentralized system guarantees that no single entity, no matter how initially benevolent, can succumb to the temptation or be coerced by a government into subverting it for its own benefit.
One way to look at the relationship of trust between individual and network in a distributed and decentralized architecture is that you can trust the network if you trust the underlying, organizing principles of the network. This kind of trust works differently than trust placed on any single or central individual. 

There's a funny twist in this. While, on the one hand, it is possible to be physically present with an individual, to sit together with them, to look at them, hear them, and on the other, principles can seem to be much more abstract, much more removed, principles are often easier to grasp than individuals. As Gandhi's biographer, Louis Fischer, pointed out, the principle of 'an eye for an eye' can have the consequence of leaving everybody blind. Yet, as history shows, the principle of Satyagraha and non-violent, peaceful protest, central to Gandhi's efforts, and a substantial influence on Martin Luther King's plays out differently. We can see into the workings of principles in a way that we often can't with individuals. This is not to say that individuals and even institutions can't embody a quality or principle that we wish to bring into the network. However, we have to see the whole of an individual before we can tell if they do indeed embody that quality or principle. We don't always have that access or that perspective on an individual.

BitCoin's architecture weaves together principles that make the most of individuals more self-centered aspects such desire for personal gain and reticence to trust each other, and puts them in service of a higher aim, a trustworthy network. In short, it lets people be themselves, mostly honest, with some conceit, some deceit, and a need to connect to something greater. This asks for a qualitatively different relationship between the individual and the network: trust the principle that organizes the network by letting people be what they are.


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