Mike: Thanks for joining us and coming on the show, it’s really cool to have you.
Vinay: Good to be here. I love doing this kind of stuff because it’s such a good way of actually getting to the bottom of issues in a way that’s so much more, frankly, fun to do than writing.
Mike: [00:01:30] Why don’t you start by just giving us a history of how you started the Hexiyurt and how you got into Ethereum.
Vinay: This is a story in two parts, because there are two very distinct threads in my life – really, three. The first is meditation, which I got into as a teenager. Second, is cryptography, which I got into in the mid-90s when I was a cypherpunk. The third is all the Hexiyurt stuff and the humanitarian side. A lot of what makes my life work is the interaction between things which, in most people’s lives, [00:02:00] are separate systems or disparate. I’ll come to the meditation and detail later, but basically I did a lot of it. At the same time, I was working as a software engineer and I got very interested when I was moved to the states in human rights and civil liberties.
It seemed like cryptography had the potential to deliver a genuinely fair world, if only because it would provide things like verifiable voting. I got very into the cypherpunk movement. I did a bit of work for a charity called Crypto Rights or, at least, they were funding a project which I was volunteering on. [00:02:30] Then late 1990s, 2000, I was a bit part of the e-gold economy. Really, really, really thought this kind of free market currency stuff had the potential to be profoundly transformative.
Euvie: Wow, you’ve been doing this for quite a while?
Vinay: Yeah, I’m 43, it’s amazing how time passes and stuff piles up. Let me back track to ’95, when I just got my first place to go to America – I go to visit [inaudible [0:02:53] farm, which is a huge commune in Tennessee, summer time. I go there because that was [00:03:00] the epicentre of the 1960s, it’s where all of the really, really smart hard-working hippies went when the [inaudible [0:03:05] Ashbury was beginning to crash. 200 school buses, 1,500 people, they bought a couple thousand acres besides some Amish farmers that taught them how to farm. They incorporated as a religious order and lived with fully communal property for about 15 years. When they went bankrupt in the mid-1980s, a whole bunch of them went back to the west coast and were the early hires for a thing called the Whole Earth Electronic Link, [00:03:30] or the WEEL, which becomes the ancestor of most internet culture.
It was an enormously important crucible in which a lot of the stuff that we have was secretly formed. I went there and they asked me a question which basically defined the rest of my life, which is, “Vinay, you do a bunch of triangle mesh math from all your 3D graphic stuff, don’t you?” “Yeah, I do.” “Could you figure out how to make a [inaudible [0:03:54] dome with no waste?” I was like, “Oh, that’s a really interesting question.” I spent about six months off and [00:04:00] on trying to optimize Buckminster Ford’s math. Didn’t get anywhere with it, gave up. “This is too hard, don’t know how to do it.” Six years later, when I was in Colorado, somebody asked me, “Could you make a refugee shelter that could be taken apart, transported, then put back up again?” About 15 minutes later, I had the Hexiyurt on the back of a napkin.
That sort of weaving together of threads from lots of different cultural sources into new things is a big part of how my life operates. I come into the crypto space and [00:04:30] a lot of what I’m carrying with me in the crypto space is the idea that cryptography should be used to solve the governance and accountability problems in the refugee camps, in the entire humanitarian aid process, in fact.
Mike: We found out about you through Ethereum and I’m interested to hear your story and your involvement with Ethereum.
Vinay: Simply, I understood smart contracts and all the rest of this stuff existed. In ’99 and 2000 I was working on… Let me start with a question actually. Do you guys know what e-gold was, or would your listeners know?
Mike: [00:05:00] I don’t think so.
Vinay: Alright, let’s explain e-gold. Douglas Jackson is a doctor in Florida who decides that he’s going to start a gold backed currency. He’s a very simple and pragmatic plan for this, his plan is incredibly simple. He’s going to have a safety deposit box and an Excel spreadsheet. When you mail him gold, he’ll put it in the safety deposit box and add it to the spreadsheet. If you want to transfer value, you’ll call him up, he’ll recognize your voice, he’ll check your password, and if you are who you say you are he’ll then move [00:05:30] the account balance on the spreadsheet from one person to another. Over the course of a few years, this turns into a 12 or 15-person company. Two and a half tons of gold worth about 80 million dollars at the time, and a speed of money that was roughly equal the Tanzania in total transactional volume.
It was an astonishingly healthy ecosystem and large parts of that economy are still running today, even though e-gold itself got whacked by the US government in 2005 I think. E-gold have us sufficient micro-payments down to about a third of a penny [00:06:00] and was blazingly fast because it was a centralized system running on a big database. It was as simple as you can imagine it being while still being audited and you could physically retrieve gold from the system, so when you wanted to turn your account balance back into physical metal, they’d send you the gold because they verified, “We demonstratable had it.”
You can see that that sounds… It’s a very pragmatic system. Pre-cryptographic, pre-decentralization, but as simple and as reliable [00:06:30] and as auditable a system as you can imagine. This was an extremely popular thing. I was doing a ton of business in e-gold. Then I got very interested in this question of stock markets, like, “Okay, we’ve got the ability to pay for things when we can do contracts by basically GPG and email.” What I’d really like is the ability to do equity. How do we do joint-stock companies on e-gold? What I came up with was an append only notary-based system. Five or six party computation [00:07:00] with a central register that all transactions were put through that was append only and shared among all the stakeholders in the system.
You’re basically add something to the ledger, it would be [inaudible [0:07:10] signed by all of the people that were essentially notaries or incorporation agents or anything like that. Once it had enough signatures, you’d say that’s good enough and, at that point, the transaction would be considered live. Does that sound familiar?
Vinay: That’s what I was coding in 2000. I left that project because I began to get [00:07:30] a little uncomfortable about essentially where the collaboration was likely to go in the long-run. “I am not sure that I trust everybody involved with this deal and actually I’ve just realized I am way out of my depth and I am going to leave.” I quit the field completely, walked out of cryptography, tried to stay away from computers, and got into energy policy and whole systems engineering research in Colorado when I joined the Rocky Mountain Institute. I let the entire cryptographic thread just die for about five or six years. [00:08:00] In that time, invented the Hexiyurt, learned about infrastructure theory, whole systems thinking, got saddled with the humanitarian project because after you invent the Hexiyurt you’re kind of responsible for delivering the thing.
My life has this very sharp divide at that point and now I’m beginning to weave these pieces back together again, because it’s getting to the point where we’re a couple years out from doing a Hexiyurt refugee camp and, inside of that, you need secure tracking of value and decision-making, and this brings us right back to blockchains. [00:08:30] When Bitcoin comes along, I completely ignore Bitcoin. When it goes up to – you know this very early peak where it comes up to about $30 then drops to about $4? I think it was about 2012. I look at that early peak and it’s like, “Okay, this is clearly going to go all the way. It’s capable of holding value, it’s having like a new commodity, this is going to be huge. I look at it and think, “I don’t do speculative finance, I don’t gamble, I wouldn’t put money behind some tiny little company that a friend told me was going to be hot. I just don’t do passive acquisition of wealth [00:09:00] in that sense.”
That might be something I change in the future but, for now, that’s just not how I live. If I’m not working on it, I’m not going to take it. I tell my friends, “If you guys feel that this is something you could ethically do, you should buy this stuff.” I tell a bunch of policy people that I’m working with, “This is going to be huge, you should pay attention to this.” Then I go back to ignoring it, because it doesn’t solve any problems that I actually have and I know that currency without the ability to do smart contracts is not fundamentally interesting. You cannot build an economy only on currency. [00:09:30] This is a thing that people really have been learning painfully over the evolution of Bitcoin – if you only have currency, you just can’t get the rest of the system to go. Then you wind up botching and bodging together all the rest of the instruments you need to run an economy, and most of that stuff is basically just string and ceiling [inaudible [0:09:45], it doesn’t work very well, the whole thing is messy and dragging, it doesn’t really go.
Then Ethereum comes along and I go a couple of meet ups last year, “Smart contracts you say, smart contracts? I would like some smart contracts. I can do smart contracts. [00:10:00] What do you have?” I’m basically enough of a pain in the ass that they figure out it’s easier to hire me than to keep answering my questions. Here we are. As for Ethereum itself, you guys understand the project in essence, right? It’s a blockchain, you put little programs on it that do secure multiparticle computation, and at the end of that process you can build financial instruments or verifiable gains or arbitrary contracts or [inaudible [0:10:26], all the rest of this kind of stuff. Conceptually quite exciting, [00:10:30] technologically challenging, culturally I strongly suspect it’s the right thing at the right time. Here we are.
Mike: I think what interests me most about Ethereum is the effect it has on politics and culture. A lot of the guys involved in the project are very technical, but you have this interesting talk where you talked about how to sell ideas. Could you talk a bit about that and how you’re proposing to the team and to people involved in the Ethereum project of how to spread it?
Vinay: Let’s break that down into two parts. [00:11:00] First part, impact on politics and culture, hypothetical, speculative. Second part, how do we wake people up to the fact that this is possible? Tell me a bit about what you think the impact on politics and culture might be, where does that intersect with your listener’s interests?
Euvie: I think decentralized voting that doesn’t rely on representatives is pretty interesting to us.
Mike: Yeah, that’s the most interesting thing when I think about the centralization of power and what Ethereum could do for that.
Euvie: Not just voting but even things that are [00:11:30] somewhat decentralized like Air BnB and Uber, they still take a high fee. Those same ecosystems could exist in Ethereum and not take an obnoxious fee and not take people’s data and profit off of that.
Vinay: Okay. We’re really after the big stuff here. Let’s break this down into layers, because the overall thing could be very overwhelming and when it gets too big too fast it becomes really easy to lose the thread of what’s technically possible or technically credible. [00:12:00] We’ve got to go all the way back to the way that our society currently works, which is essentially SQL databases. Inside of every large organization, including the government, there is a honking great install of usually Oracle and anything which you could represent inside of the current scheme of the database is real and anything that you cannot represent winds up bodged together on a bunch of spreadsheets, tucked away in some office that are not within institutional reality [00:12:30] but have grown up in the corners.
One name that’s used for these is ferrel databases. They’re understood as being this kind of cruft that grows up inside of organizations to represent things that the main data core can’t. That paradigm of a big centralized organization with a huge server factory, that the entire institutional wisdom of the organization is trying to migrate into, is the standard model for basically the entirety of western civilization. Not just western civilization, it’s the structure of the economy. [00:13:00] You see that across all institutions of any size anywhere in the world. It all comes down to if you can represent it in SQL which is real, and if you can’t it’s at best informal. Blockchains is an innovation at roughly the same level of generality as the invention of the SQL database.
It’s a fundamental computing technology that, over the course of dozens of years, will become ubiquitous in some form through pretty much all computer systems. [00:13:30] You have a file, you have a database, you have a blockchain, and you solve the problem at hand using a file, a database, and a blockchain depending on the suitability of the problem for that particular storage or cooperation technology. We’re talking about something that fits right alongside of the core computing architecture that our civilization runs on. It’s a parallel reimagining of how we use and store and cooperate at the data level individually and between organizations. It goes all the way down to the lowest level of the [00:14:00] computing stack.
There’s a political movement called stacktivism that really examines a bunch of these issues in detail, stared by a friend of mine Jay Springet. Definitely have a look at stacktivism. One of the books that they really like is a thing called Seeing like a State. Seeing like a State basically says, “Why is that national forestries plant their trees in straight lines, when it’s completely terrible for the trees and doesn’t produce the same kind of ecological diversities you get when you just let a jungle grow?” The answer is [00:14:30] they need to be able to count the trees, because if they can’t get metrics they don’t know whether they’re succeeding or failing and that means it screws up the budgeting process. In order for a project to get sponsored by a state, the project has to be what they call legible, it has to be visible to the organization in a language it understands internally, otherwise it might as well not exist.
States optimize for legibility over success. A lot of attention that you see between libertarians and statists is around the idea that markets [00:15:00] are illegible but efficient, whereas the state is legible but inefficient. The place where that conversation really goes thermonuclear is, “If the system is illegible, how do you know if it’s fair?” All the way around again, we come back to this blockchain as a fundamental database type technology. Blockchains allow things which are illegible and impossible inside of the SQL database model to exist. Specifically, they allow collaborations which are impossible in the SQL database model to exist. [00:15:30] When you’ve got a single big database at the heart of your organization which stores all truth and all wisdom, you are very reluctant to let other people touch that database. You emit truth from the database and it goes through a whole bunch of hands and then you give it to another organization and then it goes through a whole bunch of hands and they put it in their database, and the collaboration is very, very indirect and very long and very complicated, because nobody will let anybody else near their database.
When you file a form with the IRS, it goes through six or seven processes before it winds up [00:16:00] in their databases. That makes the whole collaboration indirect, bureaucratic, difficult, it’s a right pain in the ass. We work in a society that is formed of huge database backed institutions that communicate with each other through very inefficient and very indirect means, and it produces this balkanization of power into these big monoliths that, generally speaking, don’t cooperate well and are really hostile to use because they’re just paranoid about their data. This is [00:16:30] the world we’re in right now. Does that make sense as a description of reality?
Vinay: All of that is being driven by the technical limitations of the SQL database. If the SQL database had been a technology that was designed around cooperation between organizations and constant rapid change, we would have a completely different macro-social structure because it would be efficient to cooperate, it would be efficient to share, it would be efficient to change things. Instead, the SQL database technology, which is at the heart of our civilization, [00:17:00] is bad at cooperation, bad at sharing, and bad at change. We’re locked into a social structure by the underlying nature of the technology that our society lives in in exactly the same way that the early Americans were constrained by the technology of rail. If there was no rail line, you couldn’t go there. If there’s no API, you’re not having that cooperation.
Mike: In my mind, it’s often a social issue of people wanting power and wanting to gain gravity and centralize this power. It’s interesting [00:17:30] that you’re saying it’s more of a technological issue.
Vinay: These are techno-social systems. Pre-SQL you already had big centralized bureaucracies, they then picked a database technology that worked well for big centralized bureaucracies. Then after everybody’s adopted the database which works well for big centralized bureaucracies, when you come up with the network – because, remember, there’s a 30 or 40-year gap between easy access to database technologies and easy access to network technologies. [00:18:00] There’s actually two generations between those two phenomena becoming widespread. The big centralized database driven organizations are a continuation of pre-existing power structures but then you get technical lock in onto a database technology which is good for big centralized organizations. Then when the networking technology comes along and enables this migration of power to the edges, we get stuck because the institutions are working the technology that doesn’t allow that migration to exist.
Euvie: Right. Now, we have this cycle of the system perpetuating itself [00:18:30] and a lot of people are seeing now that this is not the most efficient way of doing things and probably not the most fair way of doing things. A lot of people are wanting a better system. How can we get out of this cycle? For an average person.
Vinay: This is really fundamental. It’s about techno-social systems. The technology enables the society and the society selects the technology. What we’re in right now can be seen as a tension between two generations of technology; [00:19:00] an old generation of technology which is the SQL database, and new generation of technology which is the network. The network has a set of properties that support decentralized improvised rapidly changing fluid kinds of societies in the same way that databases are hugely supportive of a kind of bureaucracy along the lines of David Graber’s new book This Utopia of Rules. As you get this different culture with a different technology attempting to form, you get a point of grind between the [00:19:30] network culture and the database culture.
Database culture, one big centralized database. “All your data goes into the database, we control and protect the database on your behalf and nothing will ever change.” Curse of grey face. Network culture, “We’ve got a whole bunch of tools, we’re constantly changing the tools that we use.” The data lives outside of an individual tool, because you want to be able to migrate. Things are constantly changing, you hate being locked in. You think of, for example, Facebook. Facebook is database culture dressed as network culture.
Euvie: [00:20:00] Yeah.
Vinay: You see what I’m saying. Once you begin to identify this, then we come back to our good old friend Ethereum. Ethereum is essentially a network database. It solves many of the same problems you solve with a SQL database, but it solves them in a way that is entirely about the network rather than this kind of bureaucratic centralized data form.
Vinay: Ta-da, right? Once the network people have a database that works [00:20:30] the way that they work, you could potentially begin to move a whole bunch of functions away from database culture to network culture, because now network culture has a database that works in a network culture way.
Vinay: Yeah, it’s taken me only about four months of hard thinking to be able to explain that in a way that made sense. This is the first time I’ve ever gotten that to hang together. Thank you so much for the opportunity.
Euvie: That’s great. We’ve been trying to, for the last week or so, we’ve been trying to ask different people [00:21:00] to explain how Ethereum works and why it’s better and to put it into layman’s terms, because so far, the way that it’s explained is very technical. For most people, it just makes their head hurt. It’s really great to have that explanation, because it paints a good picture I think.
Vinay: I think it’s fairly accurate at a technical level. I’m talking about the cultural factors because it’s easier to understand in those ways. When you get down to the brutal bedrock technology, the Ethereum [00:21:30] code is largely about maintaining an interconnected network and coordinating functions across the network, so that everybody agrees what’s going on.
Mike: What does Ethereum actually need to become widely used?
Vinay: Ethereum breaks into a couple of pieces, right. The description that I’ve given you so far is the description of Ethereum as a database and as a database which is a networked database. Most people don’t use databases in their day to day life directly. It’s not very many people that will sit down in front of an SQL console and [00:22:00] actually punch queries into a database. Even if you know how to do that, usually you would prefer to have some kind of tool sitting between you and the database that will give you the answers to your questions without you having to talk in database syntax, right? Ethereum as a database is fundamentally not going to be something that you see an awful lot of people using directly. Instead, people will build tools around that database. They’ll build on apps, they’ll build on ecosystems, they’ll built services and functions. People will then use those [00:22:30] services and functions and apps as a way of getting things done in the world.
Euvie: That makes a lot of sense actually, yeah.
Vinay: Bitcoin was something that people expected to be used pretty much directly, because it gave you an interface that looked a little bit like the banking system that your bank will give you. There was a bunch of accounts, there was a bunch of transactions transaction balances, you moved stuff in and out of the balances, off you go. Bitcoin itself could be broken down into two things: a database and an application. Because the two things were so deeply intertwingled [00:23:00] with each other, you can’t really see them as separate, so everybody just thinks Bitcoin is Bitcoin. But no, there’s a database layer and there’s an application layer.
Euvie: That makes sense, yeah. I guess once they applications are launched that are based on Ethereum, most people won’t even know that they’re using Ethereum, they’ll just use the application.
Vinay: I would expect that you’ll see a, ‘Powered by Ethereum,’ thing stuck somewhere on the page, so people know what the underlying technology is. Other than that, I strongly suspect it’s just going to be like, “[00:23:30] Here is Trust Chest. It’s a Chest client that’s completely immune to cheating.” “Okay, great. I like that, great, Trust Chest,” or whatever it happens to be. Ethereum gives you the ability to create a whole bunch of different applications running on top of a single database. We all share the labour of running this big, secure database on a single blockchain, and then the applications are written on top of that blockchain and all the technical infrastructure that they share is free software [00:24:00] and the labour of maintaining that is shared across all the users.
You get a shared network database backbone that anybody can then write a little application to run on top of that gets the entire power of the network behind it. This is really beginning to sound fun, isn’t it?
Mike: Yeah, this is interesting.
Vinay: Yeah. What does that actually look like? Do either of you do website stuff? Do you know a little bit about the web technologies?
Mike: A little bit, yeah.
Vinay: Little bit. You’ve got a database and then you’ve got some middleware written in something like Python or PHP, then [00:24:30] you’ve got a front end written in Java script, HTML. Ethereum, instead of SQL, we’ve got Ethereum wearing its database face. In the middle, instead of using Python or PHP, we’ve got a language called Solidity. Solidity is a scripting language which is a bit simpler in some ways than PHP or Python and a little more fiddly to use in other ways, because it’s running on top of this very different database technology, so it’s a bit new and strange. It’s at a level of complexity [00:25:00] that’s akin to PHP or Python. Instead of writing to a database or writing to a file system, it writes to a blockchain. It’s a scripting language for blockchains.
You write the part of your application that you normally write in Python, you write it in Solidity. Then on the front end, you emit Java script or HTML or one of these standard web technologies into a front-end browser like thing that we call Mist. What you have here is a parallel to the web stack, but instead of it being [00:25:30] a web stack that runs on [inaudible [0:25:33] bunch of centralized servers with SQL databases, it’s a web stack that runs on decentralized servers on network databases. You get something that looks like the web, that feels like the web, that’s not a lot harder to program or use than the web, but it’s decentralized end to end. We think that this is going to produce an enormous amount of new stuff.
Mike: What excites you most about this technology? I know you’re involved in some humanitarian efforts, the Hexiyurt [00:26:00] obviously. What’s your vision of how Ethereum could potentially change the world?
Vinay: The potential, right. The potential. What could happen if it all works? Let’s go back, again, in time. ’94, ’95. I, being a geezer, actually installed [inaudible [0:26:19] on a machine at Edenborough University when it came out. This is before we had DNS, so people were emailing each other lists of IP [00:26:30] addresses and what was at the other end of the IP address because there was no DNS system. This is proper, proper pre-history. Spreadsheets of IP addresses, because they were only a couple hundred websites up that had any content on them. DNS was hacked together because the web was going through this [inaudible [0:26:46] and explosion and we needed to know what to call things. It was getting hard to find stuff.
There’s a story called ‘The Man I Almost Was,’ which is a really good historical document of what that period was like. Patrick Farley, The Man I Almost Was. [00:27:00] It’s about his experience of having a boring desk job in ’93 and his idea is that he’s basically going to quit western society and live 20 years in the past, because all of the clothes and all of the music and all of the technology are basically free now, and he could live with artistic freedom on minimum wage and live at the height of culture 20 years ago.
Where I’m looking at Ethereum is through the lens of having seen the first one of these explosions up close. [00:27:30] I remember downloading the software that turned my pre-internet computer or my pre-web computer into a post-web computer. “Right, click, click. There’s this whole new document thing and everything’s connected to everything else.” People are throwing up sites, services, tools, games, content, amazingly quickly. “Wow, there must be 300 websites in the world today, that’s amazing. I wonder if it’ll be 400 by the end of the month.” I actually saw that happening. If we’ve gotten this right, [00:28:00] something similar is about to happen in the Ethereum space.
Vinay: We’re going to see first one, then two, then the multitude as people learn the technologies and start building stuff. You could go to your web developers and say, “Right, we want this new thing built,” and they’ll say, “Do you want a web version?” “Yeah.” “Do you want a phone version?” “Yeah.” “Do you want an Ethereum version?” “Yeah, yeah, we’ll have an Ethereum version, too.” The whole thing will go. It’ll fit right into the web tool chain in the same way that we had to learn a whole bunch of stuff to be able to do mobile, [00:28:30] people will go from doing mobile to doing Ethereum and a lot of sites will exist in multiple forms and there’ll be some stuff which is Ethereum only and, over the course of a couple of years, you’ll turn around and it’ll be like there are a hundred billion services running on Ethereum – I hope.
There’ll be a couple of big hits. There might be a whole bunch of smaller things, but my suspicion is that it’s just going to slide right into the web ecology at first then only over time, 5 to 10 years, will you begin to see a deep understanding that something fundamental changed.
Euvie: [00:29:00] Right. For the end user, they’re not really going to notice a huge difference you don’t think? It’s mainly for developers.
Vinay: There are end users and end users. There’s what you would think of as being the crypto community, who will be running services for the crypto community using the new tool chain and it will be big and fancy and exciting. They’re going to approach the world in the same way that crypto people always have, assuming that security and privacy are absolutely paramount and [00:29:30] with a world view that, although technically accurate, still emotionally registers to most people as paranoia. I think that as you begin to see the spread of Ethereum as a technology, it’s by definition going to spread into the hands of people that are a lot less concerned about security and privacy and a lot more concerned about cool stuff that works in new and interesting ways.
Mike: Going back, I’m interested in how meditation has played a role.
Vinay: The bedrock of this is most of the people that are meditating are meditating to, in some fundamental way, [00:30:00] escape the reality that they are currently in. This is a harsh truth and I’ve been a career meditator, I’m heading for 30 years of practice. I started when I was 14, I’m now 43. This has been the vast majority of my lived experience. I was extremely hardcore from really 14 or 16 to 28. That was what I was doing with my life. My purpose was to get enlightened or die trying and it was [00:30:30] an absolutely front burner priority. Everything else was second to that at all times. What I see in the culture is there’s a huge confusion about whether meditation is for making your life better or whether it’s for understanding the truth of things. There’s a huge tension between improvement in apparent quality of life and knowledge of fundamental truth.
There’s a deep tension between these things and if you pick the wrong path, you wind up in this new age swamp, which is where, for example, the mindfulness movement [00:31:00] is right now. This kind of attempt to integrate meditation practices into American new age business culture is just a disaster and these people are going to reap the whirlwind in the worst possible way in 5 or 10 years when their meditation practices finally mature enough to reveal to them the truth about their lifestyles. Do you see how there’s this polarization? Nicer reality where everything is kinder and gentle or more wonderful but we don’t talk about the hard stuff, or the other path which is that you’ve got this [00:31:30] enormously powerful lens, you point it directly at the hardest, nastiest, thing you can cope with and you keep it there until you understand it completely and lose your fear of it.
Both of these are present within meditation as a culture. One of them is technically correct and the other one of them is a terrible new age co-option of a tool kit that is going to literally tear these people to pieces if they keep doing it. You can just see the beginnings of the rumble about this, like, “Wow, you know, we’ve noticed that some people are doing these meditation practices have a really hard time psychologically. They go into these [00:32:00] crisis states. How do we stop this happening to us?” Turns out, that’s exactly what meditation does if you do it properly. It will eventually result in a total breakdown, a massive crisis state, and on the other side of that you have realistic world models in the way that you didn’t before and you become profoundly more functional as a human being.
In my case, I’ve worked on every nasty scenario that the world has to offer that I’m currently aware of. I worked on evacuating cities after nuclear bombs, [00:32:30] I worked on a high rate of fatality pandemic flu, I worked on biological warfare, I worked on genocide, I worked on economic genocide, refugee issues, a whole bunch of stuff about climate, long-term management of nanotech and biotech risks, long-term management of the use of robots to directly enforce law on civilian populations. All of these absolutely horrific scenarios. I’ve got really substantive technical understanding and public domain planning work [00:33:00] on all of them. The reason that nobody else has done the majority of that work is that we’re psychologically incapable of doing any of it, never mind all of it.
I simply waded through all of that because I have a meditation practice. I’ve done a lot of meditation, I’m not afraid of my death, I’m not afraid of your death, I’m not afraid of anybody’s death. I am concerned that people have good quality of life before they die, because they ought to be able to enjoy the ride while they’re on it. It’s not going to last that long, we ought to be having a good time and if the price of us doing that [00:33:30] is that you need people to actually deal with the problems, we ought to be producing people to actually deal with the problems. The tool kit that you need for that to build the fortress of mind to be able to face the world is meditation. Not the meditation which is escapist meditation, but the meditation which is about dealing with the hard stuff until there’s no hard stuff left that you can’t deal with.
Euvie: That’s a really good way to put it, yeah.
Vinay: That process is really not fun. You get the truth but it will cost you everything else.
Euvie: [00:34:00] I guess it’s like going through Dante’s hell, you have to go to the centre and then climb down from there.
Vinay: Yeah, yeah, you have to keep going. What’s at the bottom of it is not some kind of horrendous metaphysical evil of the kind that you would get out of Dante or Milton or, God forbid, the Bible, right? That is really just mythology. It’s not there. Where did people come from? They didn’t come from the Garden of Eden, they weren’t made by some alien genetic engineers. We’ve got a billion-year fossil record [00:34:30] that shows us single cells turning into multiple cells turning into lots of animals turning into more and more variegated forms until eventually you get apes, then you get humans and that’s where we are. There’s no ambiguity at any fundamental level between the single-celled organism and the modern human about where we came from. To me, that’s enough truth for anybody to understand their metaphysical position in the cosmos.
Euvie: Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
Vinay: Yeah, certainly. The meditation practices that we have [00:35:00] are all embedded in medieval ideas about how the world works. They came from Hinduism, they came from Buddhism, they came from Christianity, wherever you get them. They’re almost always embedded in ideas which are fundamentally mythological. They’re pre-scientific and, as a result, you always have to basically look at these meditation practices as being things that have been passed down from ancient cultures that had no fundamental understanding of the human condition. They didn’t understand evolution and if you don’t understand evolution biological evolution, you don’t understand what a human being is. [00:35:30] It’s an absolutely clear demonstrable fact that human beings evolved and the vast majority of the questions about human existence are actually the remnants of the evolutionary process.
Even our mortality is intimately linked with the nature of evolution. What we want and what we like in life that makes us happy are the things that apes like. They like shelter, they like friendly apes, they like a secure food supply, and they like these things because these things are good for making more little apes.
Mike: [00:36:00] What is it about meditation that has helped you overcome the fear of death? I think that’s the thing that struck me the most. That seems to be what is really perpetuated in western civilization is that avoidance of even the thought of death. How has that helped you?
Vinay: The avoidance of the thought of death is a proxy. Death in itself is not a particularly scary thing and it has an inevitability about it. Humans are pretty good at accepting inevitability. What really punishes us in western civilization is the fear that God is a bastard and that hell is real and [00:36:30] that you’re going there. The fear of death in western culture is simply a layer over the fear of an angry God who’s going to torture you for existing. If you think about that – this is kind of a controversial thing to say but we seem to be in the territory – what kind of parent would have children and then torture them for disobeying? Not punish, torture.
The answer is a completely psychotic and evil parent that should be removed from their children, locked in a deep dark dungeon and never allowed outside again. If the treatment will help them, [00:37:00] that’s great, but it probably won’t. That’s the God of western civilization. It’s the God of Islam, too. This is a being that if that was an actual human being, we would consider to be the worst kind of psychopath and we would lock up and never let out again. That is, I think, a very reasonable way of approaching western religion. I think it should be locked up and never allowed outside again, because it’s completely psychologically destructive for people to believe that they are trapped in the universe with that kind of a deity.[00:37:30] It’s an unbelievable psychological trauma, it’s a huge scar on the culture, and, frankly, western culture is in a process of recovery from having gotten a really bad wrap in the medieval mythology game. You got a really bad medieval mythology. It’s twisted your culture in some really bizarre and frightening ways that are threatening the existence of the entire planet. At the end of the day, you can recover. We know where human beings came from, they evolved, they weren’t made by some angry God and that angry being is not waiting for you, [00:38:00] as soon as you die, to beat you with a stick. It’s fine. God is dead, there’s nothing to worry about, have a nice day, go out and enjoy yourselves.
Then we have to take the meditation practices and we have to husk off all of this medieval nonsense, right? Even the good medieval nonsense. My guru used to joke with me. She was a little old Jewish lady that went to India in the 1970s and came back enlightened. She was one of the role models for the oracle in the Matrix. She was quite well known in Chicago where the [00:38:30] Wachowski brothers were. One of their wives knew her. This kind of enormously overbearing, manipulatively guiding interfering older lady that you can never get a straight answer out of? The oracle in the Matrix? My guru. When the film came out, her students got together, got hold of a bootleg copy of the film and sat her down to show it to her.
The oracle comes on and she’s like, “Darlings, it’s me.” We all knew it. There was no doubt at all that the Wachowskis had been [00:39:00] inspired by her story, one of their wives knew her, here we are. She used to joke, “Vinay, you have the body of a God.” I’m like, “What?” I’ve always been a fat man. “What do you mean?” She’s like, “Unfortunately, it is Lord Ganesha,” the Indian elephant headed God, the little fat guy? Then this escalates to, “I think you might be a fourth-rate avatar of Lord Ganesha.” I know her, right, I know an interfering Jewish grandmother makes a joke like that, if you take it seriously, you’re in big trouble.
I’m like, “[00:39:30] What is a fifth-rate avatar like?” She says, “usually made of plastic and hangs from rear view mirrors.” What I realized over a period of time is that what she was attempting to get me to do was basically take the mythology out of my understanding of my experiences. She wasn’t saying that the religion had no value, she wasn’t mocking the religion, but she was just gently poking this question of, “How much of that stuff is actually there?” Eventually, [00:40:00] it took me a good five or six years to really get this through my head, actually, the answer could be none at all and the meditation practices would still be completely and entirely valid and complete.
Because you do the meditation practices, you do them long enough, you do them correctly, and at the end of that process you finally get to the point where you’ve got enough psychological strength and integrity, a deep enough foundation of trust in yourself, a deep enough integration, that you can look at what’s at the bottom of the psychological [00:40:30] pile – which is the fear of your own death and, if you were raised Christian, the fear or hell – and you could look at these things and say, “Well, death is inevitable and I’m going to meet it in the best way that I can. Hell is no more real than any other medieval religion is, and I’m not afraid of that either because there is no God.” Once you get to that point – there is no hell because there is no God and I’m gonna die like every single one of my ancestors died, there’s nothing I can do about that except maybe transhumanism – [00:41:00] you can finally reach a position where you have accepted the position you’ve always been in.
Accepting what you’ve always lived with and what’s always been true around you is simply the process of knowing the way that things are and they always have been. That doesn’t required any faith in any kind of metaphysical framework, it doesn’t require any of those things, it just requires an acceptance of what’s already true. I think that the knowledge that we are evolved from single-cellular organisms, billion years of fossil evidence, excellent mechanisms, [00:41:30] if you want to verify evolution you can do it at home with a bunch of bacteria on a petri dishes that you breed for, say, resistance to an anti-biotic or salt or something like that. You could do it over the course of a summer, you can actually perform evolution in your kitchen.
We just have to go through these practices and we have to through out the mythology, then what you keep from the practices is the psychological journey to human wholeness and deep integrity. We need this to survive as a species because we’ve got to deal with global warming, nanotechnology, [00:42:00] biotechnology, 10 billion human beings sharing a little planet and the politics of interplanetary and then interstellar colonization. All that’s happening within your lifetime and mine.
Euvie: This is actually something that I’ve heard you talk about in your other talks is preparing ourselves and having a vision of the future that includes all the 7 plus billion people on the planet, within a couple decades probably 10 billion. Right now, as you have said, western culture is [00:42:30] very post-colonialist. We still rely on the same systems and the same frameworks that we had in colonialism where we exploit the planet, exploit our ecosystems and other people in other parts of the world for our own gain. Like when electronics are made, they’re made in a very unsustainable way by people who are very underpaid. Then we ship our garbage back to them, too. Even the ideas and futurology are very western-centric, they’re all based on super high-tech stuff, [00:43:00] super expensive fancy technology but, in reality, we can’t sustainably have a world where everybody’s using these technologies. We simply don’t have enough on our planet to sustain that. How can we change those mental frameworks in a way that it works for everyone on this planet?
Vinay: The easy stuff, good, good, good. Okay. Let’s start from fundamentals. Seven billion people now. [00:43:30] When we developed industrial capitalism in the current form, the population was well under a billion. It was a much, much smaller world. At that time, we had huge amounts of natural resources, very little human labour. America was forested, it was covered in Buffalo. You could go out and take an ax and build yourself a house in a piece of land that nobody wanted and you could live there for as long as you liked and you could leave it to your kids with all the land around it. Nature was enormous and humanity was scarce within it, genocides aside. We’ll come to that in a minute[00:44:00] The position is that we developed a system that was incredibly material inefficient and human labour efficient. Really, really good automating away labour to process natural materials into things that we wanted as fast as possible. That produced this enormous boom in material abundance, which then produced an enormous boom in population. Now we’re in a position where the situation has reversed. We’ve got super abundant human labour, we’ve got more human labour than we have any idea what to do with, [00:44:30] which is why unemployment is a vast and pervasive problem. On the other side of it, the natural resource base is getting scarce, firstly, because there are less natural resources per person, and secondly, because we’ve already consumed most of the stuff that was easy to get at.
We’ve both multiplied the supply of human labour by, say, a factor of 10, we’ve improved the manufacturing systems by at least a factor of 50 or 100 in terms of efficiency. The power of human labour [00:45:00] has gone up by something like a factor of 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 at the same time that the natural resources base has shrunk by at least a factor of 10. There’s this increasingly enormous imbalance between the gearing of our economy and our manufacturing systems, which are designed to minimize labour and maximize natural resource use when, in fact, we’ve got super abundant labour and almost no natural resources. Does that make sense as a macro-frame?
Vinay: Okay. Within that, we then [00:45:30] have the political problem, which is how do we then provide enough natural resources processed in a correct way to every human being so that nobody dies of poverty. It seems improper to me at a very basic level that any body should die for lack of material stuff within the parameters of the material stuff that every human being could have, without depriving anybody else of their basic stuff. Let me break that out a little. If you take something like very expensive and complicated chemotherapy, [00:46:00] there probably isn’t enough of the necessary stuff for every human being in the world to get that treatment.
Fortunately, not every human in the world needs that treatment, only a few need it. In theory, every human being that needs it could get it. I think a good example of that might be, say, the titanium hip. I haven’t run the numbers on this so take this with a pinch of salt, but I strongly suspect that if every human being in the world that needed the titanium hip got one, we’d run out1 of titanium. There are some things [00:46:30] where every human being that needs it could get it, there are other things where not every human being that needs it can get it. My concern is with the things where every human being that needs it could get it. Everybody can have clean water, everybody can have a stove to cook on, everybody can have enough food to eat, everybody I think can have a bicycle.
Not everybody can have a [inaudible [0:46:49] jet, not everybody can have a car. There’s just no way at current levels of technology to do that for the entire human race. There are things that everybody could have which I would call universals, [00:47:00] and then there are other things which are like prizes. Not discussing the world of prizes, how societies want to reward their prize is I think a question for politicians and philosophers, I’m not going to worry about that for the moment. Let’s just deal with universals. I don’t think anybody in the world should die because there was a universal thing that they could have had access to and didn’t get. We clearly have the ability to stop that, because these things are universals, we have enough of them.
We can vaccinate the entire world, we can provide water [00:47:30] filters for the entire world, we can provide, I don’t know, sunblock for the entire world. We can do this stuff because it’s cheap, it’s easy, it will save an enormous number of lives, there’s no reason not to do it. We just reorganize our world, our civilization, our culture to ensure that every human being has the universals they need to survive. Then when we get into the business of prizes, I don’t really have a strong opinion about how we allocate prizes. If we can just get the universals sorted out, I don’t care whether it’s a beauty contest or a lottery. [00:48:00] Let people do that in any way they choose.
This is not the same as capitalism and it’s definitely not the same as communism. What I’m talking about is a human rights-based approach to the allocation of shared material resources at a planetary level. A human right to possess the material things that you require to live to the length of your natural life. I think that we could agree that that is a pretty plausible human right, in the same way that human free speech was a human [00:48:30] right that we had to first acknowledge was a right and then fight for and create for ourselves. In the same way that the right to privacy is a right that we have to acknowledge and then create for ourselves. We can acknowledge that there is a human right to this stuff, we can acknowledge that we are violating that human right right, left, and centre in the current systems of government, and then we can force our systems of government to conform to our actual human rights. That’s the story of democracy, making the government give us the rights which are ours and acknowledge [00:49:00] them is the core function of the democratic state.
The people state that it is a right, the government conforms to the right. The people state that it’s a right, the government conforms to the right. Over time, our rights expand as we learn what human rights are and we create societies which give us more freedom and more welfare.
Euvie: At the same time, the current governmental systems are very slow and bulky in comparison to how fast the world is changing. We need different political systems that are more agile [00:49:30] and more able to adapt to our actual world, because our current governmental systems are over 100 years old. I’m not even sure if they ever anticipated, when they created the constitution, that the internet would be a thing, that we would be able to Skype with each other right now across the world. What do you think about that?
Vinay: Let’s think of this in terms of framer’s intent. In American political dialogue, you often go back and say, “What is it that the framers of the constitution actually intended to achieve by this measure?” It’s one of the schools of understanding constitution, [00:50:00] right, [inaudible [0:50:00]. I think that it is very clear to me that if Benjamin Franklin was alive today and was talking to Thomas Jefferson about exactly how it was they were going to do this whole thing, it’s very clear to me that they would not decide that the correct way of doing it would be to pick a representative by an election once every four years and have that representative then make all of the decisions.
I think it’s very unlikely that that is the approach they would take to managing the modern world if they had these technologies available to them at the time [00:50:30] of the American revolution and the sorting out of affairs that followed afterwards. I think it is very clear that they would have used them. In that case, every place where the government refuses to use new technology and enable better decision-making for the population is a place where it’s going against the intention of the framers of the constitution and the founders of the American state and the American nation. It’s really that simple, right? If four-year electoral democracy is a 200-year-old fossil that we continue [00:51:00] to dance around because it’s basically become medieval mythology, democracy equals four-year electoral democracy.
Actually, no, democracy is about people making decisions together and then implementing those decisions using shared resources. If I don’t need other people to approve of my decision and I have the resources to do it myself, I don’t need democracy. That’s free choice and free will. I’m going to move my couch to the other side of my room, because I’m the only person that lives here and it’s my couch. Free, right? In the areas [00:51:30] where we have shared resources, we need shared decision-making. The predominant one of those, the primary shared resource that we all have is the atmosphere. You need it to breathe, we’re currently poisoning the hell out of it, it’s wrecking agriculture for people that are still living and forming in the same way that their ancestors did hundreds of years ago, only now they have cell phones. They certainly aren’t responsible for the carbon emissions that are wrecking the climate that they need to do agriculture, that they need to eat.
We’re taking the shared stuff of humanity and we’re mangling it in ways which are absolutely [00:52:00] undemocratic, because the people effected by the mangling of the climate are not actually getting a vote on what happens. If we allow everybody that’s being affected by the climate crisis to vote on what should happen, I think that you will find that the three and a half billion people that are peasant farmers that require the climate to stay pretty much where it was or they’re going to starve to death, will probably vote for fairly strict controls on carbon emissions.
The reason that we can’t seem to get sensible policy out of the world is because we’ve got 200 or [00:52:30] 300 or 500-year-old institutions running on archaic technology. Can you imagine if the transportation system was locked at a 200-year-old level of technology in the same way that the political system is locked at 200 years old.
Mike: It’s just completely absurd.
Vinay: It’s completely absurd. It’s just laughable. We’re going to have a law that says that the only way that you’re allowed to go to Washington DC is in a horse and cart. Anywhere else, you can fly, you can take a train, you can drive a car, you can take a self-driving car. In 30 years you’ll be able to take whatever it is, [00:53:00] a robo car or a teleporter, but if you’re going to Washington DC, you have to go in a horse and cart even if you start in Pennsylvania. That is our electoral systems right now. It’s the one area of society that we have decided is immune to technological change, thank you very much, and it’s going to get more and more and more backwards as time passes.
Mike: This discussion here is exactly why I was attracted to Ethereum, what I see the potential for Ethereum.
Vinay: Okay. Boy, we’re in big trouble. [00:53:30] If that turns out to be typical of what Ethereum users are looking for for this system, we are going to have a much more interesting decade than I had anticipated. Let me make a middle of the road proposal, which is it would be good if we prove that new forms of democracy are highly functional before we attempt to apply them to the managing of global affairs or the nation state. Let’s have a suggestion. Let’s think about infrastructure for a second. Before we want the government [00:54:00] to invest in deploying some things as standard all over a country, we want that something to be proven to work. You want an evidence-based policy approach to everything.
If there is evidence, the decision should be made on the basis of the evidence. If there isn’t evidence, then you might have to use human judgement. Where there is evidence, let’s try and reply on it. Modular that the evidence has to be high-quality, it has to be not politically manipulated and so on. Water purification technology. We use chlorine, we use oxygen, we use filtered, we use this [00:54:30] and that and the next thing. We test in the following methods. Once we are sure that a technology works, it can be scaled out through municipal water plants, everybody can agree this is what good water looks like. It should be the same for decision-making. We ought to be able to prove that these decision-making processes work before we put the weight of running a nation state onto them.
We need experiments. We need 10, 20 years of actual day to day use of these systems for making important decisions before we are confident enough that you can try it for [00:55:00] a country the size of Sweden and, if you try it in a country the size of Sweden and it performs well, then you think about scaling up to even bigger countries and then super powers. If we’re going to overhaul a 200-year-old piece of technology that is in use by all of the democracies, we really ought to make sure that what we’re going to replace it with is actually better.
Euvie: How do we actually test it in real life? Do we have to create a digital virtual state?
Vinay: Let 1,000 flowers bloom. [00:55:30] I think that we should do many, many things in parallel. We should try lots and lots and lots of experiments. I would like to see us decide that virtual reality will simply be democracies. We’re going to be building VR infrastructure on unbelievable scale in the next 5 or 10 years. We’ve finally got the hardware that we need to be able to make VR work properly. It’s only taken 25 years. First time I had a VR system on my face was in 1991. Here we are, 25 years later. [00:56:00] It’s almost ready for show time. Imagine that we simply decide that we’re going to approach virtual reality as an experimental ground for consensus, political decision-making, new democracy, liquid democracy and all these other systems.
Every VR system that gets created, all of these virtual environments, the default assumption that people will want to make is that you’ve a bunch of [inaudible [0:56:22] at the centre of the system that create a world for other people to pay to enjoy. That political assumption will automatically assert itself [00:56:30] because people will treat virtual reality like the web. There is no reason that Facebook couldn’t have been a user owned cooperative and that Facebook users vote for their representatives and those representatives govern Facebook on their behalf. Facebook could have been built as an electoral democracy, instead, it was built as a corporate feudalism.
Virtual reality could be built as electoral democracies, it could be built as liquid democracies. It could be built as corporate feudalisms. You could implement almost any political system for governing the environments that we’re [00:57:00] almost certainly going to be using a huge chunk of our working lives for the next 20 years. In five years, when we have this conversation, I would strongly expect us to be wearing stereo goggles on both ends. As common as Skype is now, VR is going to be in 5 or 10 years. I think we’ve got an opportunity to say that these systems will be user governed and community owned, because otherwise you’re going to have corporations literally building your realities for you to a degree that we can currently only dream of.
Euvie: As they are already [00:57:30] building realities in the west with billboards and advertisement blasting and trying to cajole you to do different things.
Vinay: They’re already doing it. If we give virtual reality to them, they’re going to do it even more. Oculus is owned by Facebook.
Mike: Yeah, a little scary.
Vinay: Welcome to Facebook land, if that becomes the ubiquitous technology that everybody who’s using virtual reality is using Facebook’s Oculus and that’s the only offer in town. If that becomes the standard hardware platform [00:58:00] I really think that we are putting the future of the human race’s cognitive liberty in jeopardy. I don’t want us to be rats in a virtual maze that observes everything that we do and manipulates our behaviour to make us buy more. We’re evolved creatures, right. We’ve only had language for, I don’t know, a few million years. We’ve only had tools for half a million years. We’ve only had fire for half a million years. Actually, tools longer. Fire is a half a million years. Agriculture is 10,000 or 20,000.[00:58:30] We’re still filled with exploitable reflexes that are artefacts of our primate evolution. If you push those pathological behaviours out of us, we’ve created a system where we’re evolving our own predators in the form of corporations which watch our behaviour and throw it through statistical analysis, identify the weak points evolution has used us, and then stabbed them to make us buy things. Virtual reality is going to be an astonishingly powerful tool kit for that kind of work. If we don’t take control of the governance of those systems, they’re going to be [00:59:00] used as weapons against us by marketers and worse.
Euvie: In combination with the fact that companies like Facebook and Google currently have some of the largest databases in the world, in terms of people’s private data… There is evidence to say that governments have full access to that data.
Vinay: Absolutely. The blackmail potential. The next generation of radical political candidates could very easily get quiet phone calls in the night that simply say, “Look, we have your porn history, you really [00:59:30] shouldn’t run.”
Euvie: “All your dick pics belong to us.”
Vinay: Right. “We are going to tell people exactly what you did last summer, so we really don’t want you to running for this job.” That notion that you could blackmail state, where spook agencies get to decide who will or will not run for public office on the basis that everybody does something stupid and they know it. I really think that some of this stuff is pretty unacceptable and we’re not going to be able to get fundamental change in our societies if we allow the [01:00:00] spook agencies to simply edit who gets to run for democratic office, or who gets other kinds of positions of political power. The databases to enable that kind of shame-based theocracy are really, really, really piling up. That’s an entirely plausible outcome.
Mike: It’s hard to see the solution here. Do you see Ethereum as being pointed at that direction? The whole idea is take out the middle man and that seems to be the basis of a lot of these problems.
Vinay: Ask me in five years. People have a real tendency, particularly futurists, of looking at [01:00:30] the very, very first evolution of something, talking about what it could become in the future, and then five years later it gets beaten with a hammer for not delivering. Virtual reality went through that. It was going to be this huge frontier of human consciousness and then we discovered just how hard it was to make the technology work, then virtual reality went into this 20 year [inaudible [1:00:50] where everybody basically just laughed at it. Finally, you get good enough screens, you get good enough accelerometers, you get good enough rendering hardware, and we come back around again [01:01:00] and virtual reality is going to be a thing.
Artificial intelligence. Lots of promise in the 1960s, 1970s. Then there’s long… I can’t remember what they used to call it, the AI graveyard or the AI winter. AI winter, where nothing happened for decades and now we’ve got computers that are better at recognizing what’s in a picture than a human being is. We’ve got computers that are capable of doing efficient translation. It doesn’t look like human intelligence but it works. I don’t want to get into a position [01:01:30] where we repeat that cycle of blockchains. We’re going to get some degree of it because we have to, because that’s how human nature is. The Bitcoin maximalists are a really good example of the kind of Kurt Willian approach of, “It’s going to change everything.” My take is a bit more nuanced – carefully picked word, maybe I mean jaded – which is this, I think that we’re going to see technologies like Ethereum run [01:02:00] alongside of everything else that we currently have.
There are still horses, people still ride them. In some environments, they even ride them for transport because they work better in rough terrain than everything else available. They’re alongside bicycles, they’re alongside motorbikes, they’re alongside cars, they’re alongside electric cars, they’re alongside trains, planes, boats, self-driving cars, gyrocopters, jetpacks, you name it. It all exists next to all of the other options. I think that blockchain technology, [01:02:30] including but not limited to Ethereum, is going to be alongside of everything else for the foreseeable future. Whether it’s a dominant thing or whether it’s a niche thing I think is going to depend almost entirely on the quality of the apps that people deliver based on the technology.
Euvie: I guess that just means that the long-tail is much longer than people originally anticipate, right?
Euvie: People think that everybody is going to adopt this new technology. In the 50s they imagined that we’d all be in flying cars [01:03:00] wearing clothing that’s entirely made out of metal but, in reality, we wear pretty much the same stuff we wore in the 50s. We still drive cars that are maybe a little more efficient but otherwise not really different.
Vinay: Exactly. Long-view. Then you get to the areas where it really has changed like, say, birth control. A lot of the super structure of life has gone completely unchanged and then you get this family of technologies which took everything we thought we knew about relationships in the family and completely transformed them in a way that it might take us hundreds of years [01:03:30] to adapt to. It’s both the same and very different. My suspicion is that blockchains are going to be closer in impact to birth control than they would be in impact to, say, flying cars. I think they’re going to become a ubiquitous part of life that really changes our social relationships with each other in really profound ways, are relatively invisible if you look at the society form far back, but in our personal lives turn out to be really significant.
Can you imagine what our lives would be like if there was no birth control? [01:04:00] It really would change everything about how we approach life. It would be an unbelievable shift. I think most of us would experience it as a total disaster. There have been societies that went through that, by the way. There was I think a Roman or a Greek herb, a plant called something like Cilium which was extremely effective birth control. There was a long period when they had hundreds of years of effective birth control and then they ate the stuff into extinction.
Vinay: Yeah. I don’t know very much about that history, [01:04:30] it’s really worth digging into if you can find a historian that actually has that story in detail. Yeah, if you have a dig around, ancient Greek birth control, whatever it was, there was a herb, it worked, it was pretty much side effect free as far as the documentation we have goes, eaten into extinction. Maybe we just forgot what it was and it’s still out there somewhere. Anyway, in this sort of context let me give you an absolutely clear instance where I have a real problem that this would solve.
I’m wildly politically radical. Vastly, vastly, vastly [01:05:00] outside the western discourse because I’m not only politically radical but I’m an Indian political radical from an unbelievable radical lineage at the far end of a radical tradition. I got my religious education in something that looks a lot like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, albeit my teachers were Americans rather than Indians but it was the stuff they’d taken straight from the Himalayas only 20 years before. My vision of this world is that everybody gets to live the full length of their natural life [01:05:30] and everybody else is responsible for providing the things they need to do that. That notion of a world in which everybody gets to live the full span of their natural life, nobody dies from poverty, and everybody else is responsible for making sure that that is true in the same way that you’re responsible for your children or your parents? That is political radicalism of a kind that is unheard of western culture.
It’s the Gandhi envision and the Gandhi envision is the most politically radical thing you’ve ever heard, [01:06:00] because it makes everybody responsible for everybody else and it says, “Start on your own doorstep and trust that other people will start on their doorsteps.” First, I’m going to eradicate poverty on my own doorstep, then I’m going to eradicate poverty as far as I can reach. If all of us did that simultaneously, poverty would be gone in half a generation.
Euvie: Right. That’s actually quite similar to my own point of view. Take full responsibility for your own life first, stop blaming governments, stop blaming your parents, stop blaming your teachers, stop blaming [01:06:30] your boss for not paying you enough or whatever. Take full responsibility for your life first and then help others do the same.
Vinay: There’s clear compatibility that you start with yourself and you work out from there. I need an environment where I can really talk about that kind of political radicalism and I can teach people how to see the world in those ways, without it wrecking my ability to do less radical work. Right now, I used to use Twitter for doing the heavily politically radical stuff because there was a common understanding [01:07:00] that social media was a bit of a wild west and people were not necessarily going to take something you said on Twitter at four in the morning and haul it back out as a piece of evidence.
Now, everything is on Twitter, everybody has gone corporate, everything is on Facebook, and everybody expects these to be fully accountable daylight media. I need a new wild west. I need a place where I can have frank and open conversations in an environment where people will not bring that stuff back up and throw it at me in a different context. Because, [01:07:30] although my beliefs are extremely radical, my actions are fairly conservative. I’m not a bomb throwing anarchist, I am somebody that is working on appropriate technology and trying to build some software. This is not the kind of anarchy that causes people problems. This is slow methodical diligent work towards long-term freeing of humanity from fear. Okay, reasonable.
Where am I going to get my playground where I can actually have the conversations about the big picture stuff in a way that lights fires in people’s hearts and minds and souls [01:08:00] if we don’t have some kind of environment which is nicely safely bounded. That in a modern world requires cryptography and I need a cryptographic application that lets me talk to my close friends about the big picture ideas in a way which is not part of anybody’s assessment of whether I’m fit for a job or whether I’m the right person to get to help on an aid project. I need privacy in order to be able to function. I think the killer app for all of these technologies might be as simple as giving us back privacy so we can talk [01:08:30] to each other without unconsciously feeling like it’s all being logged by the NSA for our later scrutinization.
Mike: It’s amazing how much that knowledge has influenced what I search on Google, what I talk about. It’s scary to know that anything you say or do or search can be used against you in the future.
Vinay: 1984 with wireless telescreens.
Euvie: Yeah. I think a lot of people feel similar to what you said. They might have very radical views or ideas but their actions are quite conservative [01:09:00] because they’re bound by their world. What can people actually do?
Vinay: Put a picture of a Chinese factory worker on the back of your Macintosh, on the case. Do it for your iPhone, do it for your think pad. Any device you use that was manufactured in China, put a picture of a Chinese factory worker on it.
Mike: I love that, I’m going to do it.
Vinay: I’m going to do it, too. Now that I thought of it, I’m going to find a picture, I’m going to put it on there. Maybe in the long run we could even have a pen pal system, where we actually talk to Chinese factory workers and we get [01:09:30] their pictures and they send them to us and we put them on the things that they made. We’re never going to know whether Bob actually made this particular iPad but we know that he works making iPads and we want to know about his life. I think if I’m in a position now where I see somebody who has a picture of a Chinese factory worker where normally the sticker goes on the back of a computer – everybody’s got these project stickers on the back of their Macintosh… If one of those happens to be a picture of a Chinese factory worker, I’d know this person is my friend.
All of this stuff, it really does come from just slowing down and [01:10:00] really looking at how things are now. You look at your environment, you know where your computer came from, you know they don’t have the right organized unions, they can’t negotiate better salaries without the risk of political oppression. They’re still basically in the same kind of mess that industrial workers were at in America maybe a hundred years ago. We know that all this climate stuff is based on cars. You look outside your front door, people don’t need to be driving that much. We could close the centre of most cities to everything [01:10:30] except bicycles and walking and maybe electric scooters for people that need power transport because they’re old or they’re injured.
We know these problems, they’re right on our front doors. If the democratic electorate were honest with each other about these problems and paid attention to what was in front of them rather than the media, we could get this stuff cleared up inside of maybe two generations. It’s actually not that big and complicated. The whole left/right political dialogue has completely distorted our ability to understand it. You just fix the stuff that we can fix [01:11:00] and move out from there. Taking the cars back out of cities would be easy. Electrical tricycles for people that are unable to do biking. Other than that, the city’s run on bicycles. They’re pretty much doing that in some parts of Europe already. What’s it going to take? 10 or 15 percent off our carbon consumption.
The quality of life would go hugely up, the cities would come back to life because you get so much more street life. Everything becomes better, people become healthier, it cuts your healthcare bills, they’re pleasant to breathe in, you can let your kids outside, [01:11:30] they’re not going to get hit by a car and killed. Whole systems transformation, everything gets better simultaneously. These options are all over the landscape. We just need people to actually talk to each other and expect better. We can do it. We can do it in a generation. We’ve got huge technological help to do it. I haven’t even talked about how the rising tide of technology is going to pull people out of poverty in 20 years, but it is. It could all work out pretty well. This whole Mars thing is running along excellently. By the time [01:12:00] Ethereum is at full size, I fully expect Elon Musk to have a Mars base that’s running on the thing. Why not?
Vinay Gupta is an old-school cypherpunk who has been involved with cryptography and crypto-currency since the 1990s – he was as active member of the E-gold community before it got shut down. In recent years, he has been working on humanitarian projects to do with disaster prevention and relief with United States Department of Defense and other organizations. He is also the inventor of the Hexayurt, a cheap, open-source, zero-waste disaster relief shelter which is being used in refugee camps and in festivals like BurningMan.
This is first part of our 2-hour conversation with Vinay Gupta, we talk about cryptography and how decentralized technologies and platforms like Ethereum can change our society. We discuss techno-social systems, and how disruptive technologies can break the cycle of those systems. We talk about having everyone’s basic survival needs met as a human right, and creating a future that includes all 7+ billion people – not just the Western world. We also touch on different approaches to meditation, and its place in our lives.
Check out Part 2 for our conversation with Vinay, where we talk about artificial intelligence, the brain as a quantum computer, and all sorts of other out-there stuff.
In this episode of The Future Thinkers Podcast:
- [05:03] – What is eGold?
- [09:24] – How Ethereum is fundamentally different from current web systems
- [18:44] – Database vs. Network, and how networked databases can change the world
- [21:41] – What is Ethereum besides a database?
- [29:36] – Escapist Meditation vs. Meditation for understanding the Truth
- [34:42] – Medieval Bullshit Meditation
- [41:55] – How do we adjust our systems to accommodate 10+ billion people?
- [49:00] – Understanding the constitution from the perspective of intent
- [1:04:40] – How is Vinay Gupta radical?
Mentions & Resources:
- Vinay Gupta
- Hexayurt – cheap, zero-waste disaster relief shelter
- Ethereum – a platform for decentralized apps
- Gaskin’s Farm
- How to sell ideas – a talk by Vinay Gupta
- “The Guy I Almost Was” by Patrick Farley
- Ancient Roman birth control herb that went extinct
- Future Thinkers Podcast on Youtube
- “Seeing Like a State” by James Scott
- The Zero Marginal Cost Society by Jeremy Rifkin
- The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross
More From Future Thinkers:
- Blockchains: Building Blocks for a New Society with Vince Meens (FTP032)
- Global Phase Shift with Daniel Schmachtenberger (FTP036)
- FTP011 – Bitcoin and Decentralized Platforms
- FTP016 – Vitalik Buterin on Ethereum and the Decentralized Future