Ethereum's New Radical: Glen Weyl Isn't Vitalik But He's Its Next Best Hope
CoinDesk profiles author Glen Weyl, whose radical ideas are reviving development on the world's third-largest blockchian, ethereum.
Dr. Glen Weyl speaks with the calm of a man who has history on the mind.
With an unbroken gaze and an unambiguous delivery, the author, economist and Microsoft researcher calmly espouses a clear and revolutionary vision: that the world's hierarchies can be challenged and reconceived with the power of markets.
But if his theories were trapped before in the pages of academia, in 2018, Weyl has captured the imagination and devotion of the leading minds in ethereum, and, by extension, what is likely the world’s largest cryptocurrency community. It has so far been the perfect match for the co-author of "Radical Markets," whose collaborations with developers may soon enable his ideas to escape the page in ways he never conceived.
It was no surprise then to see Weyl at Devcon4, the annual ethereum conference in Prague in October, where he was running on three hours sleep.
At the time, Weyl reported to having given 73 talks in the previous six months alone. Just in from the UK, his trip had brought him to Belgium, Denmark, Norway and France – a series of dates he jokingly compares to a Rolling Stones tour.
Still, they don't all get the fanfare of his Devcon talk – which he defined as a "rally cry" against individualism; here it's met with blustering applause from the audience. As a speaker, Weyl has no shortage of charisma – a trait he brushes off as "an unfair advantage" among developers.
This charisma is no doubt helpful given Weyl's sometimes obscure ideological inspirations. He sees himself as seeking to resurrect a liberal tradition from the 19th century; combining it with modern mechanism designed to displace entrenched power structures. According to Weyl, this enables his preferred school of thought – sometimes referred to as liberal radicalism – to break the left- and right-wing dichotomy he sees as having stagnated change in the world’s most essential systems.
In the place of traditional hierarchies, then, Weyl promotes new, democratic structures – markets that are diverse, inclusive and decentralized.
Some of his ideas go even further. In an email to ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin, one he republished on Medium, Weyl went so far as to suggest a tax to penalize "using standard white English." Elsewhere, he's tweeted about "tax[ing] masculinity to subsidize femininity." And following his talk at Devcon, he explicitly asked for questions from female or minority groups first.
"Sorry for not being a woman," said a male audience member who took the microphone.
Within ethereum, however, the enthusiasm for Weyl's ideas is at times evangelical. Even in communities that espouse the benefits of decentralization, there's a tendency to elect icons – and Weyl has undoubtedly become one of them.
His work has inspired blockchains, artworks, science fiction, game designs and political agendas. When he spoke to CoinDesk in September, he claimed “billions” of dollars worth of capital has been pumped into exploring the ideas worldwide. He‘s even been asked to design the social rules for a potential Mars colony.
"It’s getting hard to keep track of what is going on," Weyl said in Prague, "I’m getting like five requests every day."
To cope with the growing hype, Weyl and others have spun up a non-profit foundation as a convening point for their ideas.
Named RadicalXChange, the foundation will culminate in a conference in March that seeks to bring together the various thinkers that are broadcasting Weyl’s methods. According to Weyl, the conference is the locus of an entire social movement that's bent on saving the world from an imminent political crisis.
"If you ask for a single goal that I have, I think that we were on a trajectory where we were headed for 1930s style global conflict and totalitarianism, and I think that RadicalXChange as a movement can stop that,” Weyl said.
But if Weyl is venerated for his focus on macroeconomic issues, he’s a product of conditions in the smaller world of cryptocurrency as well.
In a way, the enthusiasm for Weyl’s ideas can be said to stem from an absence of purpose that had been palpable since ethereum was trading at all-time highs and spawning viral applications at the tail end of 2017.
At the time, single CryptoKitties were trading for hundreds of thousands of dollars – yet the blockchain itself was burdened with the husks of failed or abandoned projects. With ethereum facing new technical and social challenges, the market mania was coupled with a queasy tension.
"The public clearly has very very high expectations of us, and this makes me feel worried and uneasy inside. We need to try harder to make this actually work," Buterin tweeted in December 2017.
Amidst this atmosphere, the ideas expressed by "Radical Markets" seemed to introduce a renewed faith that positive social change could be achieved with a system like ethereum, whether that took months or years. Armed with this emphasis on a bright and far-off future, Weyl's ideas lent the project a regenerated sense of direction.
Weyl sees it similarly, although he argues his ideas may have also helped free the project from the belief that money was an indicator of its success.
Ethereum’s nouveau riche are Weyl’s case and point. He gave Blockchains L.L.C., a startup operated by an early ethereum investor Jeffrey Berns that is seeking to build a blockchain utopia in Nevada, as an example of this.
"I don’t think the Blockchains L.L.C. people are badly intentioned, but I do think they don’t really know what they are doing, and if you just drop a lot of resources in a completely arbitrary way, on someone who doesn’t know, it’s just really not a good social experiment," he said.
Because decentralization is, in Weyl’s words, "the fundamental principle that animates what is going on in the blockchain space," enthusiasm for his message stems from the framework he provides to protect it.
"There’s all people like Blockchains L.L.C. where there’s all this power that has landed on someone in a completely arbitrary way and people are like, 'This is bizarre.' And so they ask, 'Is that really going to lead to a liberal society? A decentralized society?'" Weyl said, adding:
Matters of the present, however, aren’t always on Weyl’s mind; he has a tendency to flit between different time periods when talking.
In our conversation, he traveled from 600 BC up to the Age of Enlightenment, and circles consistently back to 1930s, believing that its proto-fascist political climate isn’t dissimilar to our own.
Hitler, Weyl said, "had no power."
"All power is a bubble," he explained. "All Hitler had was the beliefs of other people about the beliefs of other people about the beliefs of other people."
Yet power and its mechanisms, Weyl said, are usually hidden from view. Distinct from this, ethereum and other blockchains stand out for their transparency, which shows the verifiable legitimacy of the system in real time.
"It’s like you can feel the legitimacy or illegitimacy, you can almost measure it, of a system. There’s no historical period where that was so palpable," he said.
According to Weyl, then, ethereum can be seen as having encountered the pitfalls of centralization. The sell-off, through this lens, is an opportunity, a chance to get it right next time, a chance that maybe systems like the Web never had.
With this second chance, Weyl believes the project needs to overcome its attitude to private property. In particular, he believes that because ethereum combines a formal notion of private property – immutable, cryptographic ownership – with informal governance, it risks leading to nefarious consequences.
"The problem is they formalized private property in an incredibly rich way, and yet they didn’t formalize democracy. And private property without democracy is an incredibly dark and scary thing," Weyl said.
He pointed to Mencius Moldbug, the infamous neoreactionary author, to illustrate the extreme view of what occurs when private property exists without democratic protections in place.
In Moldbug's vision, democratic structures are replaced by all-powerful corporations, elected by property holders. And Weyl has a word for governance of this type when coupled with ethereum: Skynet, referring to the villainous artificial intelligence from the Terminator film series.
"The existing system formalizes private property and it doesn’t formalize human beings, and if property exists but humans don’t exist, you will get Skynet," Weyl said, going on to add:
Hope for ethereum
Weyl’s ideas address what he has defined as the crisis of the liberal order – the abandonment of democratic liberalism globally in favor of new forms of nationalism, conflict and economic secession. To protect against this, Weyl argues that ethereum – and the ideology of its leading figures – can play a crucial role.
In his words, ethereum enables new forms of "social technology" that can enforce previously unimaginable democratic structures. Coupled with the powerful ideology of its community, Weyl says, ethereum can help society sidestep emergent totalitarianism.
"What is a good application of ethereum? Avoiding nuclear winter," he posited.
And with a new problem to address – one that wasn’t purely due to its trading price or immediate technical aims – word about Weyl began to spread.
Vitalik Buterin, the creator of ethereum himself, first publicly discussed Weyl’s work in April.
Writing in a blog post, Buterin broke down the scope of "Radical Markets" and cited the "multifaceted and plentiful" crossovers between the book and the ethereum community. Buterin predicted that "blockchains may well be used as a technical backbone" for the ideas.
Later in May, Buterin and Weyl made their first written appearance together, in a blog post titled "Liberation through Radical Decentralization," written in the style of a manifesto.
With a heavy emphasis on quadratic voting, the post urged that combining ideas from the "Radical Markets" canon with blockchain tech could help challenge oppressive power and generate a "free, open and cooperative world in the 21st century."
Effectively, quadratic voting is Weyl's answer to ethereum's informal governance system. What it does is re-engineer the "one person one vote" democracy envisioned by bitcoin so that minorities have a higher say, achieved through using a clever math technique called quadratic scaling.
Collaborations between the two have since culminated in a research paper authored alongside Ph.D. of economics Zoë Hitzig, titled "Liberal Radicalism: Formal Rules for a Society Neutral among Communities," which provides a distilled description of the quadratic voting mechanism.
Titled "Liberal Radicalism" (LR) after the duo’s emerging social philosophy of the same name, the paper expanded the notion of quadratic voting outward, such that it could apply to funding.
Speaking to CoinDesk, Buterin said that what Weyl had achieved was a reactivation of some of the more politically aligned blockchain applications that were being touted back in 2014 – ideas such as universal basic income based on the blockchain.
As Buterin put it:
"So, naturally there’s a lot of interest," he added.
Indeed, it was a common theme in interviews conducted by CoinDesk, with "Radical Markets" supporters regularly citing Weyl's work as the best hope in a world they see as faced with growing inequality and atomization.
For example, Mark Housley from the quadratic voting-powered political signaling platform WeAreThePeople told CoinDesk that "no one has come up with a better way," to address widening income gaps and the rise of populism and democratic participation more broadly.
Still, beyond a tight clique of starry-eyed enthusiasts, there's evidence that for some, Weyl's ideas remain too high-risk, and perhaps too esoteric, for implementation in the immediate future.
To discover why, it helps to look to Buterin’s April blog post, which for a large part was structured as a critique.
"I love this vision. So, let me be a good intellectual citizen and do my best to try to make a case against it," Buterin wrote at the time.
Buterin argued that some of Weyl’s ideas, perhaps, demanded too high a complexity to become livable market structures. He cited the "mental transaction costs" involved with moving people to such models, maintaining that while well-engineered, the complexity of the ideas may render them less feasible to implement.
Giving an example from inside the blockchain space, Buterin warned that some of the Weyl's economic models might not be able to sustain the hostile, scam-fueled landscape of the cryptocurrency industry. Beyond these critiques voiced by Buterin, there have been other, more philosophically rooted reactions to Weyl's thought as well – in particular, his belief that economics can cure all social ills.
And that's because, in Weyl’s view, the rise of movements like right-wing populism is fundamentally an economic question – rooted in wealth inequality – and not, as others might argue, a result of more slippery, irrational inclinations, such as romanticism.
Confronted with this observation, Weyl defended his position, stating that at its heart, economics is no different to disciplines such as sociology, philosophy or politics.
"We all worship the same god," he said. "They are just ways of allocating resources."
Still, Weyl differentiates this view from the mainstream economics community, which is rife with he calls "weenie supremacy" – in his words, "the view that any form of intelligence that is not perfectly correlated with a SAT score contains no value."
To correct the ills of his community, then, Weyl incorporates the views of other disciplines, regularly working alongside philosophers, artists and post-colonial theorists that complement – and at times contradict – his economics-centric worldview.
Artists and writers are heralded by Weyl as a way to provide critical feedback prior to implementation. For example, blockchain researcher Primavera De Filippi is amassing a sci-fi anthology of Radical Markets ideas intended to speculate on the outcome of the models if applied.
"It’s harder to do it in the real world right now, so instead of trying something in practice and then having to wait and see what happens, science fiction gives you the opportunity to discuss the different ways that it could be implemented," she told CoinDesk.
Another project that critically extrapolates on Weyl's ideas is "Radical Bodies," a concept conceived by ethereum developers Lane Rettig and Dean Eigenmann at a hackathon in Prague, in which rolling auctions are applied to advertising space on people’s clothing.
Based on an idea from "Radical Markets," the advertising space – such as t-shirts – would be under permanent auction. At any stage, an owner can be outbid by someone else – an action which would force a sale.
Rettig described the idea as a political statement, telling CoinDesk that "Radical Bodies" exposes the market dynamics that are already active within much of the data-driven economy.
"We're selling ourselves to Google, Facebook and the others all the time, so why not be explicit about it and receive some compensation?" he said.
Still, the idea provoked some criticism at Devcon4. Weyl himself described the idea as "dystopic." One attendee, who wished to remain anonymous, speculated on what would happen if the same market logic was applied, not to clothing, but to body parts.
Implying that there were areas of life in which such markets structures can be dangerous, the attendee asked: “How much do you value your eyes? And what would happen if I value them more than you?”
Changing the world
Still, in spite of philosophical differences, Weyl claims his ideas are attracting serious dialogue among governments and politics internationally.
For example, he's optimistic some of his ideas will be tested in Europe during the next couple of years. Within this, Weyl says ethereum – and blockchain more broadly – have the opportunity to gain a level of legitimacy that the technology has yet to achieve.
"This could a way of explaining to the broader community and forming links with artists and real politicians and policy makers and so forth," he said in the interview.
But there are other ways that the two disciplines can enforce each other as well. Blockchain, for example, is frequently being touted as a way to test Weyl’s ideas in small environments that won't cause any damage if the experiments don't go according to plan.
And that’s notable because, perhaps predictably, ideas like rolling auctions as an alternative to private property have been met with some backlash, with many arguing that the model fails to offer the stability required by some members of society, such as families.
And there are other ideas that have been met with suspicion as well.
For example, each idea proposed by Weyl requires digital identity, possibly one of the most coveted and contested ideas within the cryptocurrency industry due to the potentially totalitarian consequences that such information could have if concentrated.
"It is absolutely dangerous to try to build political and technical systems which demand a single identity," Harry Halpin, the scientific advisor to Panoramix, warned.
Still, Weyl is aware of the problems of building identity solutions and is taking steps to address the idea hands-on. Today he's in the process of designing a solution that he thinks can sidestep some of these concerns. Within it, Weyl swaps out the idea of a self-sovereign identity for a new kinds of community-based identity systems.
"We are fundamentally social beings," Weyl remarked.
According to Weyl, a distributed identity system with a strong concept of collectivity could minimize the risks inherent to the technology. The specifics of this solution are still being teased out, and are expected to be published in a white paper alongside Stanford professor Matt Jackson and Microsoft researcher Nicole Immorlica in the coming months.
Arguably, the heavy reliance on identity that is demonstrated by "Radical Markets" is emblematic of Weyl's unique coupling of humans with market structures.
And while the combination is distasteful for some, it’s worth noting that it is precisely this blend, and its ability to link tech to social justice, that appeals to the ethereum community.
"We're building what we're building in order to make the world a better place, to right a lot of the wrongs we perceive, but most of us are engineers, not economists or social scientists, so sometimes it can be hard to understand how tech can actually change the world," ethereum developer Lane Rettig told CoinDesk.
Art by Chibi Fighters (@chibifighters)
Photos by Pete Rizzo for CoinDesk
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