🔮 Sunday Commentary: Shadow blocking

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David Rosenthal, a world-renowned computer researcher, wrote a many-hued critique of crypto. It’s a great piece that raises several interesting questions. I commend it, and if you haven’t read it, you should. As a caveat, I don’t agree with a lot of his argument, including ancillary points around energy trends, but there are specific points he makes that I do think are worth giving some consideration to.

As you might expect, it spurred a cavalcade of responses around the Internet. For example, EV member Sutha Kamal writes a long rebuttal of the central claims. And Brian Behlendorf, the man behind the Apache webserver and involved in Hyperledger, the permissioned blockchain, adds nuance to the arguments.

Both Sutha and Brian make comments that are hard to summarise, so I won’t do that.

Instead, I want to draw on a couple of threads that are rather entwined. One is the notion of “socially valuable” resource utilisation: that crypto uses resources that are not put to good use. The other is that crypto has baked in it an inexorable logic of greater resource use.

Socially valuable

Rosenthal suggests that cryptocurrencies “compete with more socially valuable [uses of power]”, that is there are more worthwhile things to do with resources than the computations needed to secure blockchains.

This argument strikes me as having three problems. The first is judging what “socially valuable” really is. “Socially valuable” encompasses a broad range of often conflicting activities. Dictating what “socially valuable” means, in extremis, is inimical to ideas of freedom.

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