Each of these nodes — who number in the thousands and are largely unknown to each other — hold the entire transaction history of bitcoin, and decide independently which blocks to approve, and which coding upgrades to allow. A coup cannot be orchestrated by one person or branch. Power is decentralized. But decentralization is only a means to an end.
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In politics, decentralization in the form of liberal democracy gives us a superior society than centralized tyranny. There are of course exceptions but generally speaking — Estonia or Belarus? Costa Rica or Cuba? South Korea or North Korea? Tunisia or Egypt? Ghana or Equatorial Guinea? In bitcoin, decentralization gives us censorship-resistance.
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Because of the distributed architecture of the network, it is impossible to censor individual transactions. For the first time, people can transact in a global, borderless way, within minutes, with a very low fee, in a way that cannot be stopped. So whether you are up against hyperinflation in Venezuela or capital controls in China, bitcoin is a really important, disruptive technology that demands to be understood. Can it be used for bad?
Of course. What problems do you think still need to be solved with Bitcoin for to fulfill its potential, and who is working on them? There are social and educational problems with bitcoin, and then there are technical challenges. First of all, very few people on this planet have ever used bitcoin, and far fewer understand how it works or why it would be important for someone living under a dictatorship. We need a world-class effort to explain the technological power and potential of bitcoin to the average person.
This information needs to be clear, fun, engaging, and in many different languages.
And we must address the conflation problem. The conflation problem is the circumstance we find ourselves in today when everyone starts talking about cryptocurrency and blockchain and bitcoin as if they are the same things. Bitcoin is a decentralized money network that runs on proof of work. Ethereum aims to be a decentralized world computer that wants to use proof of stake. Enterprise blockchains i.
Regardless of how bullish or bearish we are on these different projects, we need to stop conflating them with one another. And it has a particular set of characteristics that give it the unique quality of censorship-resistance.
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This is why it is important for people who live under dictatorships. So I believe that in human rights-centric educational materials, we need to separate out bitcoin from other projects in the blockchain space, and give it its own chapter, or own brochure, or own book. In order to achieve censorship-resistance, you necessarily are going to have to sacrifice speed and cost. So I believe that on-chain bitcoin transactions are always ultimately going to be more expensive and slower than the competition. Also, due to the public nature of its blockchain, bitcoin is not strictly a privacy technology.
Luckily, brilliant people are working on improvements in all of these areas. On the user side, there are wallets being developed that help increase the privacy of bitcoin transactions. There are a handful of companies and lots of individual developers working on Lightning, which is a decentralized payment network that essentially sits on top of bitcoin. The network just launched earlier this year, and is in the early stages of its architecture, but it should eventually allow you to transact bitcoin very fast, with a very low fee, in a very private way it in fact uses similar encryption technology to the Tor browser , and thus should be very interesting to people living under closed societies.
You might ask why, despite all of these interesting developments, bitcoin is tanking in price. Well, ask yourself, were there major breakthroughs in bitcoin technology between October and December ? No, but the price quadrupled. Remember that the fluctuating price of bitcoin is not reflecting technological advancement. I remember I was in Cairo during Tahrir Square in and Twitter was an incredibly useful tool for staying safe and staying in contact. I tend to agree with Yuval Noah Harari that technology today is, generally speaking, authoritarian by nature.
Big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence — these are all being used by governments and companies to control us. There, more than a billion people are part of a grand social engineering experiment where the Communist Party is vacuuming up all kinds of communication, location, behavior, health, and financial data from citizens via apps like WeChat and Alipay and beginning to sort through all of that data to understand who are good citizens and who are bad. And this is beginning in some areas to dictate what kind of basic goods and services you can have — fast internet, a good rate on a mortgage, the ability to buy a plane ticket, leave the country, or send your kids to a good school.
These will not be easy tasks. But achieving them may be the best safeguard of democracy. What would be your take, builds, challenges to this? Neville, I really appreciate your take on this. I also believe we are at a crossroads, where we could head down one of these two paths, either a very centralized world where all of our communications and transactions are surveilled, censored, and policed; or a more decentralized one, where we preserve some freedoms and privacy.
There are hundreds of millions of people in China who are living through this experiment right now. I am happy to see a lot of people making noise about why our current data infrastructure is bad — and not just in China, but here in the United States and elsewhere, too.
Obviously, centralized data storage exposes us to many kinds of vulnerabilities, ranging from Equifax-style hacking to Facebook-style manipulation. There are a lot of sharp minds speaking loudly about the problems of our current system, including Tristan Harris, Jaron Lanier, and Renee DiResta. And I do agree with you that ownership of data will be key to providing an alternative to the WeChat model.
Where I might challenge you is to consider that bitcoin may play a key role in all of this. What is it? How did it come about? What impact has it had? People who had risked their lives to escape hell on earth in North Korea and traveled thousands of miles through China without speaking the language and with all the trappings of modernity being completely alien to them to make it to freedom at a South Korean embassy in a country like Thailand or Mongolia.
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People who had resettled in South Korea, found freedom, and then decided to help those they left behind. After several years of working with many different defector-led organizations, we decided that arguably the most important thing we could do was help get more outside information into North Korea. The information monopoly must be broken. They were taking USB sticks, loading them up with films, interviews, books, and articles, and sending them into North Korea via the black markets on the Chinese border. In many ways, it was a similar project to the work we once did in Cuba.
But NKSC and the other organizations had shockingly little support. So we decided to see if we could help. The solution? A flash drive drive. You can watch a video about the impact and learn how to send us your flash drives here. They are really powerful and important words. Jamal was on the one hand inspired by the Oslo Freedom Forum, and on the other hand, depressed. He told friends that he loved hearing the stories of so many activists and learning about so many similar struggles around the world.
From Oslo, he even called an editor friend of his to pitch an idea to put together a new publication that would assemble investigative journalism from across the Arab World. At the same time, he was frustrated by the fact that so little was being done to help these people. He focused particularly on Leyla Yunus, an incredibly brave human rights activist from Azerbaijan, who had been jailed, tortured, and even had her home destroyed by the dictatorship for her peaceful activism.
You can watch her Oslo testimony here. In fact, in the past few months, one of the individuals attending the conference decided to financial support her organization, which is wonderful news.
We aim to spark a lot more of that kind of generosity and partnership through our work. It was initially shocking that the Saudi regime would do something so brazen. Politically, the response from the White House has been disappointing, to say the least. Unfortunately, it has been long-standing, bi-partisan US policy to uncritically support the Saudi dictatorship in exchange for resource and security guarantees. But maybe the private sector can help make a difference.
The business community initially made a lot of noise about not attending a large financial conference held in Riyadh a few weeks ago, and the CEOs of Uber, Siemens, and JP Morgan pulled out. What would be great is if Western companies stopped helping the Saudi regime build blockchain technology. Will IBM stop its collaboration with the regime to build a blockchain smart city in Riyadh?
Will R3 allow the Saudis to remain in its blockchain consortium? Now is time to make a stand. We can start to see the potential of zero knowledge cryptography to give people the power to own their data and disclose it selectively to governments and companies. Necessarily, if we believe that an alternative to the WeChat future which the Venezuelans and Saudis and North Koreans and maybe even the Americans will all gobble up exists, then it must be built on this kind of infrastructure.
And what really makes me hopeful is the persistence of humans. Take the example of Ji Seong-ho, for instance. He dragged himself 6, miles on crutches to escape from North Korea.
You read that correctly. Here is his Oslo testimony. If he could do what he did, then we can all find fuel to achieve our goals. Finally, what can Epsilon Theory readers do to promote and preserve open societies?