Political Revolution and the Blockchain: A Tale of Two Paradigm Shifts
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It is the best of times, it is the worst of times, it is the age of Wikipedia, it is the age of memes, it is the epoch of free speech, it is the epoch of murdered journalists, it is the season of grassroots campaigns, it is the season of dark money politics, it is the spring of artificial intelligence, it is the winter of climate change, we have everything before us, we have nothing before us — in short, the present period in its collision of technology, global society, and communication is beyond a superlative degree of comparison to any other.
The past ten years has seen internet access grow by nearly three billion people, from around 20% of the global population to over 50%, improving literacy, access to information, and introducing the ability to instantaneously communicate on a global scale.
Meanwhile, computing power is following Moore’s Law and roughly doubling in cost-to-output every 18 months. Some even predict a technological singularity between human and artificial intelligence when the linear chart ‘goes vertical’.
Combined with the realities of climate change, regressive political policies, and coordinated disinformation campaigns, this watershed moment brings the possibility of either catastrophic consequences or vast improvement to global conditions in a relatively minuscule amount of time.
In this piece, I will give a brief overview of current conditions in politics, society, and technology, their effects on each other, and how the advancement of blockchain systems can address some of the challenges faced today.
Bernie Sanders and the Political Revolution
In the summer of 2015, when Senator Bernie Sanders announced he would be running for President of the United States, I dropped everything to return to the U.S. and help. What began as volunteering to knock on doors grew into opening campaign offices, organizing events, recruiting volunteers, and more face-to-face political conversations than I could count. Collectively, a small grassroots campaign for awareness began to snowball into the largest ground-swell of political involvement in modern US History.
Advocating for Bernie was easy, you just need to empathize with others and share Bernie’s own words. For nearly every reactionary mistake that the US federal government has made in the last 30 years, Bernie has been speaking in favor of progress. Supporting civil and gay rights, opposing military interventionism, and advocating for education and social welfare, Bernie has been tireless in his advocacy for sensible government that works for everyone.
However, there was one campaign slogan that many found hard to support — Political Revolution. For many, the word revolution conjures imagery of violent coups, anarchy, and the guillotine. While this interpretation is not without historical justification, it is not inherent in the broader definition of the word:
The paradigms of politics and technology are being challenged, with major adjustments in the very way that we organize and interpret the world around us. Wealthy interests and corrupt politicians continue to manipulate economic markets and governments, often eroding democratic institutions, but the shifting power of technology, communication, and information has presented us with great opportunities.
Social Media and ‘Fake News’
In a democracy, the ability to have open, honest, and fair elections is the foundation upon which all other problems can be addressed. With social media allowing information to be spread faster than can be credibly fact-checked, it is not surprising that falsehoods and outright propaganda have become a major problem.
In Brazil, conservative anti-minority and pro-torture Jair Bolsonaro coordinated with international firms to spread lies and propaganda against his opponents through WhatsApp, the popular Facebook owned messenger. In Russia, the “Internet Research Agency” employed thousands of people to create and disseminate propaganda to US voters, visible to over 126 million users on Facebook alone, and the Mueller-led investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia so far has issued 36 indictments and 5 Trump.
We must also be careful, however, we do not react with censorship on the internet itself as a utility. While individual companies like Facebook and Twitter are obviously free to operate freely, banning users, language, and images as they wish, the internet itself as a utility must remain open and transparent, letting the good outweigh the bad.
In Syria, the volunteer White Helmets rescue group uses social media, combined with aircraft sensors and machine learning algorithms, to quickly warn of incoming bombs and missiles and coordinate rescue efforts. It is estimated these decentralized early warning systems have reduced casualties by 27% in heavily bombarded areas.
The pro-democracy “Arab Spring” movement began with a rapidly shared video of a street vendor setting himself on fire in front of a local government office, protesting the government harassment of his fruit stand. Online communication and coordination spread through numerous countries faster than efforts to censor it.
Dark Money and Shadow Politics
While the spread of falsehoods and propaganda is disruptive, it can be combated with truth. The more existential threat to elections in the USA is dark money and Super PACs.
A Super PAC is a Political Action Committee that is technically separate from, and has no communication with, a political candidate. Thanks to the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission, a Super PAC can raise and spend unlimited sums of money on advertising, not disclose who their donors are, and advocate for or against specific candidates as long as there is no evidence of direct coordination.
This is a perversion of electoral democracy that allows secret funding of political organizations to bombard all forms of media with advertising that is often misleading or inaccurate. In the 2016 elections, over $1.4 billion of dark money was spent by Super PACs. Wealthy individuals and corporations give massive amounts of money to both the official election campaigns and Super PACs, and in turn elected officials make decisions at to their benefit.
That is, unless you believe it is purely coincidence that Internet Service Providers gave over $100 million to congressional campaigns before Net Neutrality was destroyed, or that Halliburton won massive no-bid government contracts in Iraq while Dick Cheney, their former CEO, was Vice President, or that oil, gas, and coal companies spent $354 million in campaign contributions in 2016 while receiving $29.4 billion in federal subsidies?
Or perhaps when President Trump’s Justice Department settled a $230 million Russian money laundering case involving New York real estate for just $6 million dollars, it was a coincidence that the lawyer representing Russia had previously organized the now-famous Trump Tower meeting between herself, Donald Trump Jr., and Trump campaign officials.
Speaking of shadowy money, it has been estimated that the Department of Defense and Department of Housing and Urban Development have misappropriated $21 trillion in unsupported adjustments from 1998–2015. The complete lack of voter oversight of how tax dollars are spent is astounding.
We also recently witnessed the largest document leak in history known as the Panama Papers, detailing information on more than 200,000 offshore entities and exposing how world leaders, businessmen, and celebrities from over 200 countries used shell corporations for fraud, tax evasion, and skirting international sanctions. Yet despite 1,260 companies named in Nevada alone, almost no prosecution has happened in the USA because companies and wealthy individuals have perfectly legal ways to hide their money offshore.
Election Fraud and Voter Disenfranchisement
Compounding onto the problem of voter disinformation and dark money influences, the USA faces very real problems of electoral fraud and voter disenfranchisement. While some issues have seen progressive advances in recent decades, such as returning voting rights to felons, the ability for eligible voters to be registered and able to vote should be a non-starter.
The 2018 elections were rampant with election fraud and voter disenfranchisement. In Ohio, heavily African-American neighborhoods saw ten percent of registered voters purged from lists, compared to four percent in surrounding areas. In North Carolina, evidence is mounting that absentee ballots were collected by political operatives and only turned in for Republican voters.
In Georgia, 53,000 voter registrants were placed in a “pending” status due to minor misspellings or missing hyphens prior to the election, and a predominantly African-American county had to reject a plan to close seven polling locations. The Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp had removed an estimated 1.5 million people from voter rolls during his tenure, and oversaw the very election in which he was running for Governor.
Dodge City Kansas, with a population of 27,000, had its single polling location moved outside the city. All across the country, fewer polling locations have resulted in longer lines, with many voters unable to take enough time from work to participate. These conditions happen despite the USA having a very low turnout of around 50%.
Studies show that automatic voter registration increases participation, with twelve states having passed legislation since 2015. Moving election day to a weekend or having a national holiday may also increase turnout.
Striking the Roots
The key to addressing major regressive policies is to first confront electoral fraud, voter rights, and the influence of money in politics. From there, voters will have the electoral tools to fight numerous injustices still prevalent in modern society.
We could begin with the $5 billion for-profit prison industry that is unaccountable to the public, the growing number of civilians killed by drone strikes, whistle-blowers being punished for legally and ethically telling the truth, or the $100 billion in taxpayer funds awarded to war profiteers like Lockheed Martin and Boeing every year.
With better civilian oversight of taxpayer funds, we could implement a universal healthcare system that is not only ethically and morally just, but a Koch brothers funded study found will save money in the long run.
Empowering the electorate with transparent, free, and honest elections is the foundation upon which progress is made. Let’s look at how technology will help us in the process.
A Change in Paradigm: Code is Law
To explain the basic structure of a blockchain, think literally of the words ‘block’ and ‘chain’. In computer terminology, a block is a ‘piece of text processed as a unit’. A blockchain is literally a long string of computer code, with piece after piece ‘chained’ together.
In isolation, this is nothing more than a growing ledger of information. The advantage blockchains offer is operating peer-to-peer with no central database. This means every network user reads and writes to the exact same blockchain, also called a distributed ledger.
Imagine a giant typewriter, with everybody able to access the keyboard and add their text one at a time. There is just one piece of paper, constantly getting longer. Anything typed onto the paper is permanent and unalterable. This is known as immutability, and is one of the most important facets of blockchain technology.
Another key function is that blockchains incorporate cryptography through hashing, most often SHA256. This is the act of applying mathematical functions to text, ensuring that only the correct cryptographic key can decipher it. In this way, there are different ‘private keys’ that unlock the ability to access specific parts of a blockchain, known as a ‘public address’, but there is no ‘master key’ that can access everything.
This use of decentralized cryptographic networks shifts us from earlier paradigms of law and order. In more chaotic times, the sword was law and disputes were settled by force. As civilization advanced, word became law, and through democratic elections the populace began to shape legal frameworks. However, words are still open to interpretation by lawyers, and unjust legal practices often apply the law unequally. Distributed ledgers offer many advantages of a trustless system where code is law.