Beware "cryptographic truth" and the ledger of record

Originally published on CoinDesk with all my Oxford commas removed 😤

Blockchain promises an immutable history of on-chain data. But the “ledger of record” is merely the newest version of an old trick – the manufacture and distribution of certainty.

This pattern of manufacturing certainty (laying claim to truth) and then distributing it (demanding conformity) I call the “certainty-industrial complex,” and it has always been fundamental to maintaining social order.

For thousands of years, organized religions have laid claim to absolute truth and then demanded conformity from the people. Today, mainstream scientific culture expresses similar confidence and demands similar conformity, shaming heretics. The certainty-industrial complex even shaped most of our childhoods, as public education frames teachers as authorities and requires students to conform.

In all cases, the implication is clear: "You are dependent on an authority for the truth. Your only hope of knowledge is to stop thinking and start obeying."

Given that certainty is the most resolutely nonexistent thing in the universe (see Heisenberg, Godel, Wittgenstein, et cetera.), its manufacture and distribution has traditionally required a lot of lying.

“Bitcoin is dead.” Uh-huh.

“It’s just the flu.” Uh-huh.

In the coming years, decentralized oracles will cryptographically verify a wide variety of data points and save them on-chain, creating “definitive truth” – a ledger of record.

While the intent is noble, the execution is merely the next evolutionary step of the certainty-industrial complex – an innovation in obedience mongering. The ledger of record lays claim to the truth, and you must conform.

Ironically, technologists like Balaji Srinivasan, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong and billionaire investor Mark Cuban fail to grasp what the internet means for public discourse: Access to facts is not the problem anymore – trusting their interpretation is. The bulletproof certainties blockchain provides don’t make it safe to start trusting institutions again. A central authority – like the World Health Organization (WHO) or the New York Times – can still impose an accepted interpretation of the facts, even if the facts themselves are available for everyone to view.

Moral Kombat

The internet revealed that behind every authority is a choice between authorities.

Having a choice between authorities means authoritative certainty is now a mere data point for our own uncertainty, our own judgments.

The internet cemented free choice about whom we trust as the decisive factor in whether we agree with a given narrative.

This new freedom kills the certainty-industrial complex.

It’s dead.

And there’s no going back.

A town called Panic

The certainty-industrial complex knows something is different, but it doesn’t know what. The tactics of manufacturing and distributing certainty have simply stopped working. The old authorities gasp for a breath of their former stature, feebly flashing credentials at the incredulous throng.

Ledger of record advocates believe that by manufacturing certainty at a level of purity unseen in human history, the ledger will make certainty effective again – that soon we’ll live in a world where authorities say, “look, it’s on-chain!” and everyone will agree and live happily ever after.

They’re wrong – and there’s proof.

Fact consensus =/= narrative consensus

Even if we assume for practical purposes that facts exist, consensus on facts does not produce consensus on narratives.

Social media feeds are a perfect example. When Donald Trump tweeted on Nov. 16, 2020 “I WON THE ELECTION,” 80 million people would agree on the literal text content.

But what it means – what story it tells about the world we live in – remains the subject of endless debate. While the Associated Press called the American presidential election for Joe Biden, skeptics, frustrated by court-demonstrated Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) collusion with the Democratic National Convention (DNC) and years of corporate media censorship, remained distrustful.

Public discourse is divided by interpretations of data, not data itself. Cryptographically verified data doesn’t even touch this problem.

Consider The DAO hack of 2016. How did the Ethereum Core team respond? Depending on who you ask, they rolled back the chain, intervened in-state, performed a hard fork, et cetera. Yet, all the relevant data is on-chain – shouldn’t we all agree on what happened if it’s all on-chain?

Advocates trumpet the ledger of record as the savior of public discourse, but we’ve already seen cryptographically verified data fail to produce a cryptographically unified narrative – even after five years, with a technically sophisticated audience.

The DAO hack is proof it doesn’t matter how justified one person’s certainty may be; convincing others of that certainty is an entirely different problem.

Due diligence

Before reconstituting all of humanity’s knowledge on a new technical foundation, it seems reasonable to conduct some due diligence. Here are three key questions which ledger of record advocates rarely answer satisfactorily:

1. What’s the plan for when data consensus fails to produce narrative consensus?

Throughout history, when certainty is manufactured, the next step is always the same: Impose it.

When the historical church failed to persuade, it responded with crusades. When corporate media fails to persuade, it responds with censorship.

What’s the plan for when “cryptographic truth” fails to persuade?

2. What’s the plan for ensuring public trust is well-placed?

The public will never have the technical knowledge to distinguish a secure oracle from a compromised one, relevant data from irrelevant data, or honest interpretations from dishonest ones.

Here’s why this matters: To the precise extent the ledger of record becomes important, power brokers will subvert it technically while praising it politically. They’ll corrupt oracles, migrate to insecure sidechains, and cherry-pick data to manufacture circumstantial evidence.

When they finally say “look, it’s all on-chain,” only a tiny cadre of politically outcast experts will be able to spot the fraud.

How will the public know it’s being defrauded, let alone meaningfully protest?

3. Are you prepared to have your minds blown?

If decentralized oracles indeed produce “definitive truth,” they will quickly elevate a subset of fringe ideas to paradigm-shattering prominence. Why aren’t ledger of record advocates talking about this all the time?

These are the kinds of sentences I’d expect to hear from people who are seriously interested in discovering and mainstreaming suppressed truths:

Getting revenge on the media for lying about COVID-19 is nothing compared to this stuff. So why is that the main symptom of ledger of record fever?

The absence of wonderment in the face of unbounded discovery makes me worry that ledger of record advocates might already expect to cherry-pick on-chain data that fits their preferred narrative and vindicate their personal narrative vendettas.

They expect you to unquestioningly obey on-chain data and to change your mind when confronted by “definitive truth.”

But will they?

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