When someone asks: “Why is blockchain so fascinating?”, you might think that the natural next question is: “What is blockchain?”
On another level of understanding, from the perspective of a philosophical story-teller, a different question might follow: “What is so appealing about the story of blockchain?”
Storytelling is a fundamentally powerful way for humans to share ideas and emotions. Human beings are hard-wired to create and to respond to stories. The most persuasive stories, stories that have impact, don’t need a lot of detail and don’t need to be complete. When we label stories as fiction, or when we read the disclaimers on movies and TV programs that none of the characters in the films are based on real people and that the stories are not based on factual histories, we give ourselves permission to enjoy them without probing into their reality. When the media offers “hard news”, genuine journalism, the facts are supposed to be thoroughly researched and validated from several different angles, so that we can believe what we see or read. In a commercial world, where media are vendors, and not merely providers of news, how do they make those facts appeal to people’s emotions? They must achieve that, in order to get us to watch whatever distribution channel we prefer.
Effective storytelling makes the point of a story easy to grasp, feel naturally “right”. This ability is an art form, where a delicate balance of intellect and emotion is delivered. In this sense, every story is unique and every storytelling event or context requires customization, depending on the subject and the audience. Too much emotion, and a listener can get exhausted. Too much intellect, and a listener will become bored – very quickly.
As a story-teller, how do we balance illusion vs truth for ourselves and in our stories?
Truth = reality – is a description limited to known facts. What is known is not always clear, and often incomplete, because our knowledge is limited. This is the Achilles Heel of truth-seekers. At some point, they must draw a line and say “We believe we have enough facts to declare a truth”. For some of us, there is always room for uncertainty since we never have absolute knowledge. That can torture us.
Illusion = dreams – these can be deliciously rich as our imagination is unbounded by any constraints. Nothing is off-limits, nothing can be too outrageous or impossible, if our emotions are hooked. As my high school English teacher taught us, successful fiction suspends reality. Aha! When we engage in a powerful dream, our own, or someone else’s, we consciously (or unconsciously) suspend our fact-checking intellect. We don’t try to match the dream to reality. We embrace the dream because the appeal to our emotions and our spirits is overwhelming. We want to feel that way, we are driven to feel that way. Quintessentially human response.
Many of us are fascinated with new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, augmented reality, virtual reality, and robotics, because science fiction story-tellers have been feeding us for decades with glorious and terrifying visions of Utopian or Apocalyptic outcomes. Our emotions are prepared for either or both directions, so we are in a conflicted state. We have experienced tremendous pleasure and joy as well as our darkest fears. How can reality compare with that, especially when the reality isn’t even well-understood yet?
Blockchain is another example of a technological dream. The debate over Blockchain highlights this contrast. The technical term refers to a particular type of software programming, one that is challenging to learn, even for people with computer science skills. From a story-teller’s perspective, this characteristic makes it even more suitable to present as a topic. You don’t have to be bothered with reality, with technical facts that the vast majority of people wouldn’t understand, anyway. The facts only get in the way of understanding.
What is so appealing about blockchain at this moment is the story – the promise of the technology. The promise is idealistic, incredibly tempting because it resonates with intellectual dreams. In a story, we don’t have to deal with the execution (reality), which is very hard and eventually will run into human weaknesses. That’s a totally different story, for a different audience.
Some people believe Blockchain can deliver true democracy, a social structure where control is decentralized, and there is no overbearing central authority, no matter how benign. The technology does provide transparency, and immutable record-keeping, like the Akashic Records, so everyone’s actions should be evident in the transcript.
This is often referred to as accountability, but how can a software program hold anyone accountable? The ideal of a true democracy is based on individual accountability and participation. What happens when we don’t participate, when we don’t vote in elections, when we don’t make our voices heard? Whose voices are heard? Whose votes are counted? When many different voices, with contrasting opinions, are vigorously shouting, as is their right, how do we decide what to believe?
How will society deal with bad actors in the blockchain world? The current state of the software simply pushes them to the back of the queue and labels them as non-participants. Will that really punish bad behavior, or render bad people powerless or harmless?
When we are confused, what is our natural fallback position? We tend and prefer to choose illusion over truth. Is this a hard choice to make? Not really. We all want a simple way to understand what we see. We look for patterns that feel comfortable, recognizably familiar. Our brains are hardwired to find and enjoy stories that appeal to us. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. We get what we believe.