Designing the cradle
We stand at a precipice. The next 40 years will decide the fate of the human race — of life on Earth — like no century, or even millennium, before. Our actions now, conscious or otherwise, are piling up like so many twigs to form the foundation on which will rest the institutions that govern an interplanetary species.
Aware of this, I wonder: what is our outlook? What are the risks — and where are the greatest opportunities to shore up critical structures so they form to protect and promote human dignity, and the enduring sustainability of our existence? These questions consume me, serve as the pole orienting the compass by which I guide myself. I understand that for each person, the answer will be different, unique to their perspective and worldview. For me, it rests on a few crucial activities we need to design out of our collective patterns of behavior.
Our role as the Earth’s stewards
The first is, of course, the unsustainable treatment of our planet. We cannot fault those who came before, required to survive in whatever manner they saw fit, bound by the real scarcity of the physical resources required to sustain themselves.
Yet it seems to me that we are inheriting the construct of scarcity, even as its reality fades. On Earth, physical resources are abundant. On Earth, we produce enough to provide every human with the the base layers of their hierarchy of needs — and if we are not, we are certainly capable of it. There is room for everyone to exist, to sleep — water for them to drink (or ways of sustainably producing or transporting potable water) — food for them to eat — air for them to breathe. Granted, silos that have emerged in our complex economic system prevent these resources meeting those in need— our markets are inefficient — but the resources are there. We have achieved the capability for everyone to shift focus on to their belonging needs, and to self actualization. (This is possible because many humans will fulfill their belonging needs by producing the physical resources needed for everyone to meet their scarcity needs.) Now we must exercise that capability, while we grasp that if we do not do so in a way that is compatible with the thriving existence of our grandchildrens’ grandchildren, we fail in our practice.
There are so many complex and wicked problems to achieving a sustainable existence globally, fortunately matched by legions of intelligent, driven (if underresourced) humans (and other agents) working to uncover their solutions, and implement them.
My limited understanding of these systems and my motivation to effect maximum impact, to leverage my actions towards our shared goal of creating a world that can exist in balance interminably, draws me to what I recognize as our collective central nervous system: the global financial system. By thoughtfully exerting pressure on this system, we can create the conditions where the rational course of action — which includes, for some agents in the system, maximizing the delivery of monetary value to shareholders — is to preserve, improve and promote the health of our environment and all within it.
Additionally, I am realizing the limitations of a system in which nation states are the sovereign authority. It is becoming clear that this is not, in fact, reflected in the organizations — and even individuals — that have actual power. Many corporations control more resources, and have more territory, than most countries. (Of course they occupy a different role, with different rights, in our systems of governance, but the comparison is still interesting.) Some people have more money at their disposal than entire countries. Without a global governance system for people, organizations, and software agents, we (as in our tax havens) seem to be in a race to the bottom, a free fall to attract capital through a permissive regulatory environment. Our pace is accelerated by the fact that the power of the frontrunners in this race to further remove legal barriers to antisocial behavior (especially financially) is influenced by the very individuals engaging in that behavior — many of the institutions of governance are captured by special interests.
The time for a global governance system is past due, but it has not been achieved because we are using systems of government designed to administer local territories. When the UN was formed, Alan Turing was still alive and Claude Shannon had not yet published A Mathematical Theory of Communication. The United Nations’ founding documents were crafted by brilliant people who understood the way things worked — but had no idea how they would work, how as the noosphere matured and our ability to exchange sophisticated messages with anyone on or near Earth in an instant emerged, our ability to coordinate would also proportionately expand.
A cocktail of reforms and innovations in our systems of governance are required. My gut tells me that none would be greater impact that the design and adoption of a just, robust, enforceable metaprotocol for central bank digital currencies. This would govern inter-bank swaps, sure, but more importantly provide the terms for what has been termed “embedded supervision” — oversight built into our financial infrastructure designed to ensure that financial criminals are no longer able to act with impunity if they can afford a good accountant and lawyer. This also could serve as impetus to incentivize a more rapid expansion of sustainable finance practices, key to accelerating our transition to an ecologically sustainable state of existence.
Advancing human dignity
The other pole that should serve as a cardinal direction on the compass by which we orient ourselves in these coming decades is to advance measures of human dignity — health, happiness, peace. A full treatment of this topic is beyond our scope at this point, but a few ideas stand out.
Our existing systems of governance — inherited from the ancient Greeks — are very clearly not up to the task of creating a stable, secure and just world in the 21st century. Life moves too fast to be subject to a system that was designed by men who understood that messages moved at the speed of horse or ship, who thought people of color subhuman, who failed to even acknowledge that women could contribute meaningfully to science, art and morality.
Yet, it is the system of governance in which we find ourselves. Rather than belabor this with complaints, we must accept it and move decisively to establish the systems we need, in complement to those that exist. Here I envision a formalization of something we already have: a sophisticated layer of digital governance sitting on top of — separate from, though still compliant with — our existing legal system. When policy can move at the speed of code, we have a chance to innovating, and of designing the adaptive policy structures we need to safely engage in technological discovery and adoption.
Where our existing system of digital governance falls down, however, is that it is incredibly siloed and very often controlled by powerful actors with their own motivations, incentives that often sit in conflict with the best interests of the people that occupy the jurisdictions they administer. A clear example of this is the profound volume of social discourse — public and private — taking place on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. The centralized institutions — corporations with a profit motive — should not be entrusted with the responsibility of governing humanity’s speech and its amplification.
Though they are just seedlings, more just, transparent and resilient systems of digital governance are sprouting, anchored in decentralized substrates, that offer promise of a digital policy infrastructure controlled transparently and democratically, optimized to serve the many. If we have any hope of successfully transitioning to a global species, we must invest heavily in innovation here, adopting a system that will fail gracefully — and creating anchor points in the traditional legal system where these policy infrastructures can compliantly take root.
The opportunities presented by buidling this layer of digital governance on smart contracts are unimaginably broad. If configured properly, it seems that they might promote the ongoing well being, efficiency, and joy of life on Earth. It is a tall order, but one we must rise to meet.
Yesterday, we remembered. Today, we look forward. We imagine a world without hate, without war — one where every person is cared for, supported to pursue their Great Work. To achieve this, we must get one final thing right. Technological advancement has often been driven by those hungry to expand their capacity to destroy, which is one of the most basic and fundamental forms of power. This remains true — entire cities now can be extinguished by the movement of someone’s thumb, pressing a button. As we expand our view into space and delve deeper into the informational domain, our responsibility to safely govern our systems of war grows.
Again, this much have a foundation in law. But we also need technical and economic mechanisms to ensure that rogue actors do not take action that could kill millions and destroy priceless relics of human patrimony. Decentralized computing technologies offer fertile ground to design and test these mechanisms — ground we are actively tilling and experimenting with. From this soil we intend to grow our ability to govern autonomous weapons networks and, potentially, wean ourselves off of the addiction to violence that has characterized life since it began.
In 2020 our complex system seems to have hit a tipping point. We are cascading down, transitioning from one fairly stable state to another. Now we must ask ourselves: how do we minimize the damage caused by this transition? And, what is there to gracefully catch humanity, a cradle that will endure?