Yearning for Proof
The real incentive for blockchains

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 10 April 2022

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I’ve made no secret of my skepticism about the blockchain as a solution for our economic woes. Yes, the economy is tilted, corrupt, and easily gamed — but the solution is likely social, not technological. While national, debt-based central currencies create terrible incentives, abstractions, and growth mandates, moving our transactions to a decentralized ledger maintained by wealthy hackers may not truly be any better. And most people know this, deep down.

That’s why I don’t believe the tremendous emotional draw of tokens, NFTs, and DAOs has anything to do with economic equality. Not really. And while many cynical investors and collectors are excited about the possibility of betting on the right token or crypto-art images and getting rich quickly off the hype, there is a smaller but more earnest contingent of people who see something bigger at play.

When I talk with people who have higher hopes for the blockchain, what I hear from them — or even myself — has a lot to do with countering the nebulous feeling of disempowerment associated with our digital age. We’re all unhinged, these days. Impermanent. Floating in fake news, gig jobs, no health insurance, predictive algorithms, climate change, voter suppression, and other disorienting phenomena that seem to be untethering us from solid ground. How do we know what we know, much less prove what we own or register our intentions?

To the rescue — seemingly anyway — comes the blockchain.

In a world without any anchors or hard rules arises a technology that can confirm our identities, register our possessions, and confer us with a permanent address. When a GIF is assigned an NFT, it’s not just a picture anymore. It’s a number, indelibly stamped in the chain. It is real — as much as any number can be real. So is any transaction or smart contract nested in this digital ether.

And unlike anything really real, it is forever. Its fidelity is absolute. Unlike any of us, or anything we know from lived experience, it is meant to be unchangeable and verifiable — something we can point to as really really there. Proof.

And I get why that is particularly important in a world filled with people to whom we feel the need to prove our worth, our work, or our honesty. I suppose if I were working on a project with people who thought I may be cheating, it would be good to have proof of my efforts. A digital enforcer. So many of us have worked so hard for so little in return and no way of proving what our contributions were worth. It’s all just so unfair. I get that, but it feels like the impulse is coming from somewhere deeper than dreams of a hypothetical DAO.

It feels like a blockchain can undo all those times someone cheated off my paper in middle school and we were both punished for cheating. Or that the blockchain ledger will finally prove to everyone how many times we gave up our seat on the subway, or sacrificed our own best interests for someone else. As if now there’s some sort of God or Greek Chorus or Instant Replay actually witnessing and recording what’s going on — even though the ref’s back was turned. Can you see me?

In that sense, the dream of blockchain is really just a stand-in for the proof we have lacked all along. Not just proof of work or proof of stake, but proof of the unprovable contention that we deserve what we have, or deserve to be here and nourished and cared for and respected at all.

Of course we do.