Thursday, April 28, 2022

Some Cryptic Thoughts on Cryptocurrency

Along with over 150 others and a studio audience of unknown size, I just finished listening to a panel of three experts including its convener Adam Tooze, whose charge was to discuss cryptocurrency. I confess to feeling gratified by the panel's trashing of the validity of the various bitcoinages, though I was also glad for Adam Tooze himself taking on some devil's advocacy.

Meanwhile, not being quick enough to post my questions while struggling to follow the arguments presented, I would like to articulate a concern of mine which wasn't addressed. 

The matter of digital currency was discussed in terms of its equivalency to "actual" currency (in stark distinction to cryptocurrency) without, stunningly, discussing how it differs regarding privacy. I don't know how true my suspicions are about China's digital currency, but it seems unlikely that they won't take advantage of its usefulness to ensure or even guarantee tax compliance, along with the policing of financial fraud.

At least a part of crypto's attraction is based on its imitation of cash in the face of the discoverable digital ledgers which are a part of credit card usage. No one else need know where you choose to spend your crypto money.

I think it is true that China is building in privacy protections to its digital Yuan (e-CNY) along with limits to government surveillance of currency uses, perhaps below certain yuan limits. I haven't taken the time to research this deeply, but I know that it is not true that the Chinese government is or ever has been indifferent to the privacy and civil liberties concerns of its citizens. Digital currency is likely to be far more useful in the surveillance of corporate behavior.

I would still like to suggest that the blockchain technology which is the basis for digital currency should first be deployed in a widespread fashion, especially before any sort of central bank digital currency is legitimized and promulgated over here. Meaning that we first need to have the technology to allow complete privacy for medical transactions, electoral transactions, Internet search history, and that we should deploy such technology to prevent someone else internalizing the externalities of our public (private?) behaviors. 

The medical, political, social networking and search ore only among the biggest within the myriad entities which make up the sector which profiteers from public ignorance about what's at stake.

Crypto currency just simply jumps the shark, racing past any possible objections because nobody can think fast enough. Especially Joe Biden, for whom it apparently seems obvious that crypto is yet another arena where the US must prevail.

At the very top of my concern is the surveillance and related behavioral modification of political activity. My life is gravely taxed by the actions of uninformed idiots in the public arena, and these are assembled and prompted based on surveillance-based manipulations of very public behaviors which technology then allows to be used, as it were, against their very own interests. Especially by the processes which convince them that their interests are what the manipulators want them to be. 

Technology of the sort which bitcoin has enabled fundamentally redefines the distinction between public and private behaviors in a way to put the ironic lie to what libertarianism supposes that libertarians espouse. 

Put another way, when I invest in the securities market I pay an exorbitant tax to the finance expert insiders who control those markets. A properly deployed digital currency could actually prevent insider trading to any degree of refinement that society requests. That would or could be accomplished according to the precise methods now used by Facebook et al to monetize my seemingly private clicks. Traders are registered, and trades are recorded, and money couldn't be proxied out. 

Shoshanna Zuboff worries - with cause - that technology corporations privatize - they steal - my behavior for their own profit. I have no way to do that for myself. And if I did have, it would be worth a dollar two eighty. Billions for them, pennies for me, and so I don't really care. 

But I should care. Social networks should be deployed the way the postal service is deployed. And news organizations should be highly regulated, not for content but for service of the public interest. The test is simple; regulation is inadequate for so long as Fox News gets to exist. Opinion-shaping should never be interchangeable with reporting.

So how do bitcoin and their ilk redefine distinctions between public and private? For one thing price is meaningless without public promulgation. That would include actual price paid in a public market. And the price would have to be stable across some reasonable timeframe in order to be meaningful. If all transactions are fully private, there is then no way to determine price. That evident fact is only made worse by the instability of crypto's value, which is indeed the basis for its attraction at the moment. 

Crypto can become instantly worthless once truth is out about what it is. Right now its still rides on top of techno mystification which harnesses the enthusiasms of get rich quick startup types whose "purchases" of the new coinages serves only the interests of the crypto initiates. That's in approximately the same way that Twitter might become instantly worthless once Elon shows his actual hand. 

Getting beyond these mystifications is my job. And I'm sorry to say that I'm aging out. Oh well, as it ever was.

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