Yorke Rhodes III, a CoinDesk columnist, co-founded Blockchain at Microsoft and is principal program manager, Azure Blockchain engineering and board member of Blockchain for Social Impact Coalition and Enterprise Ethereum Alliance, and founding team member of baseline protocol.
Congratulations, we’ve arrived in 1984.
Books, television and movies have foreshadowed our eerie relationship with technology since long before 1984. The idea of a reality so perfectly created you can’t tell it is manufactured has long been the stuff of science fiction. You need look no farther than films like “The Matrix,” “Total Recall” or “Inception.” While real life attempts at pervasive virtual reality have largely failed outside of gaming, things are going swimmingly well in the world of data manipulation. Our perception of reality is now shaped by the data we willingly consume from unquestioned sources across social media, news and video.
Congratulations, he says to himself, this new reality has arrived in your lifetime. We now live in a world where people speak their truth. I applaud people speaking their truth, especially people speaking truth to power, but what is the objective truth? What does the phrase objective truth mean now and how do we arrive at it?
Some philosophers will disagree there can be an objective truth: It is all about perception. For simplicity, let us say it is an attribute of reality that all people can agree on, whether they have met or had a shared experience. Know that your truth may not be the same as their truth. This is about lived experiences.
Regardless, we must share our truth and speak truth to power even though it may disrupt the status quo. Cue Greta Thunberg. Her fortitude in bringing light to the science of climate change amidst trolls, skeptics and science deniers provides a stunning example of speaking truth to power.
In the United States, our court systems mete out justice circumstantially based on the many variables at play in courtrooms. The biggest variable is information presented and withheld, and what jurors can be convinced to believe. My legal colleagues would agree this is simply a legal proceeding designed to determine the truth of whether a defendant committed the crimes charged. This isn’t about truth but about the presentation of a set of information to jurors and their perception based on data. This is the system we have, but it is clearly about creating a reality and perception of the circumstances based on a select set of data.
In contract law, truth means sticking to the terms of the contract. Agreement about a common state of things defined by a contract is, in this case, the truth. Arriving at that common understanding of the truth often involves a great deal of effort by both parties to a contract. In many cases, the data don’t support a single view of the truth, so the parties agree to split the difference or disputed values and continue on contracting the next month. This is a pretty sad state of affairs caused simply by not having a common set of data to determine the truth of what happened.
The problem is information overload
It’s an old meme that on the internet no one knows you are a dog. Since search became prevalent on the internet, the question of who you are has been answered through available data. Creating a positive perception about yourself or your business on the internet is possible, even if the reality is different. Even fixing reputation can be solved by creating many positive references and getting them to rank high or show up on the first few pages of searches. Do this with enough good references and the negative references become invisible to most casual searchers. This isn’t an information asymmetry problem, it is a stack overload problem for our brains. There is too much information overloading our circuits. This overload pervades everything we do daily and creates our reality.
This is the problem with social media. It presents a few short data points without much substance. If the source, posting organization or individual is credible or supposedly believable, and the sound bite is good, it can become viral. This unverified sound bite then pervades more and more information feeds to more and more people. If this sound bite is repeated enough, it becomes people’s reality. Even worse, if historically trusted sources are taken over by people with different interests, what was once a credible news outlet can use that credibility to advance questionable sound-bites into our collective psyche. We have seen plentiful examples of the impact of this. Fox News now looks more like RT, the @potus Twitter account bears little semblance to an official presidential account. Sinclair Media requires “talking points” of a particular political group to be injected into local radio broadcasts.
Al Gore’s plan for the Information Superhighway was legislated to solve a commercial problem with political will. It was meant to bridge the digital divide to advantage those without access to the internet. The goal was to remove a blind spot to the digital world of information. But the superhighway we envisioned has become a landfill of soap boxes and used car salesmen hawking their next “promotion” or scam.
The road isn’t clogged, our brains are saturated. Information is so dense that most people cannot consume enough to ferret out what is real, let alone validate the actual source crafting that reality. And this is only getting worse in the form of fake news, questionable information sources across our media, credible sources taken over, promotions disguised as good causes, charity washing, and more recently the risk of deep fakes.
We haven’t escaped this problem in our little blockchain-cryptocurrency bubble of the world. The exact same symptoms exist here. All one has to do is look at Crypto Twitter. How can anyone not well versed in the history, personalities, names, and background material possibly make an informed decision based on the data presented?
No amount of digital uniqueness, truth machine, and magical internet money will save us from ourselves, and from being bought by others. It’s not like we don’t see this happening every day in our politics, passions and, yes, in our blockchain bubble. If we can’t find a way to create inherent trust into the data we feed our brains, our worst instincts will overwhelm our ability to change the world.
I have some ideas. Join me on a journey to find out how trust-bearing technologies can help transform our digital and physical world and maybe just, just maybe, help save our planet.