On Bitcoin, Part 1:
What if history wasn’t (re-)written by the dominant player? For the entirety of human history, survivors have re-written history to fit their narrative. This was possible because they controlled the reference points for what is considered true. When we entered the digital age, not much changed. Governments and a small number of very large — mostly US — technology companies share the oligopoly on what defines reality for the largest part of humankind.
Most of these technology companies are largely built on “Open Source”, which is not without irony. Software freedom is a concept that dates back to the 70s. Its guiding value was to give control back to the people, and start a digital age that would be built on an empowered population to enjoy privacy, security and freedom. Among other things, this concept was seminal to the emergence of the internet because it made sure there would be no single company to “own” the internet.
The convergence of internet and software freedom triggered a virtuous cycle of unprecedented innovation. This was the moment of inception for much of today’s world. Most well-known as Open Source, with Linux as its poster child, it is the foundation upon which Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and many other companies built their empires. Microsoft initially declared the internet a fad and Linux a cancer. It has meanwhile become a champion of Open Source and Linux. Apples operating system switched to BSD, another Open Source operating system, a long time ago. IBM has become a Linux first company — and recently acquired Red Hat, the world’s leading Enterprise Linux distribution. The list goes on.
So, did software freedom win? Do the majority of people around the world enjoy control, security, privacy and freedom to determine their own reality? Do they have good information so they can always make the best and most informed decisions for themselves and others?
Software freedom built our entire digital world. By all accounts, it has won. But its original goals seem more elusive than perhaps ever.
This result is not for lack of trying. There are many companies working hard, sometimes for decades, to make good on the goals of software freedom. They hustle and grind. They pour their blood, sweat and tears into delivering value to their users. Often, people in these companies exploit themselves at the expense of their health and families. I should know, because I was one of them.
For every 10,000 users gained we were doubling down on working extra hard. While Google adds another million users in the same time. When even companies like Red Hat quietly switch to Google Cloud for their own productivity that tells you everything you need to know.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
It’s not that people working on Open Source are lesser engineers. Quite often, the opposite is true. But it is far easier to build large, centralised systems that ignore privacy and — to some extent — security. Likewise it is simpler to cater to a more technical user base, instead of billions of consumers. Both have a lot to do with maturity and painstaking work on the product itself.
But that’s not enough. Any kind of software or service has dependencies. Many of these will be commodities, such as internet service providers, data centres, hard- and software vendors, operating systems, call centres, publicly available software libraries. All of these are largely the same for everyone.
And then there is the regulated intermediaries. These were often put in place by governments for good reasons and intentions, but as private enterprises have evolved into gatekeepers that are mostly about profit, not public service. Because most developers and projects do not interact directly with these intermediaries their influence is often not felt or understood.
After having given this a good amount of thought I’ve become convinced that unless we disrupt and disintermediate them both, software freedom and all its values of privacy, security, control of our own information environment will remain an elusive ideal.
In the past I was sceptical and sometimes openly critical of Bitcoin. Today, I believe it is our best and perhaps only shot at achieving the underlying goals of software freedom.
That’s a big claim, and it might be useful to shed some light on the bigger picture that brought me to this point. So I’ll try to highlight pieces of the puzzle in my following articles, and I will do my best to keep this at a level that’s hopefully understandable also for people who are not deeply technical, but may share the goals and values of software freedom.
This article kicks off a series of six articles exploring my personal take on Bitcoin, including its relevance, technical properties, environmental impact, social relevance and significance for software freedom. Articles will be published every couple of days. Here is a list of what has been published so far:
- On Bitcoin, Part 1: Can Software Freedom succeed without Bitcoin? (this article)
- On Bitcoin, Part 2: Centralised Trust drives Centralisation
- On Bitcoin, Part 3: Money, banks, and other financial intermediaries
Links to follow-on articles will be added here as the series progresses.
Follow me to be notified when the next one comes out.