Whenever humanity creates a truly world-changing technological innovation, something unexpected happens: legions of the technology’s early adopters pollute the public sphere with misplaced confidence in their ability to use the technology to effect change. The problem is, in doing so, they unknowingly endanger the new technology’s world-changing potential.
These polluters are called the Bullshit Brigade.
The Bullshit Brigade has been around for a long time — they’re a shifting and chameleonic bunch. They first emerged in response to the invention of the laser 60 years ago, and they did so again after the internet gained prominence in the 90’s. Most recently, they’ve been emboldened by their status as early adopters of the blockchain.
It’s tempting to label the Bullshit Brigade of 2018 as ludicrous — as “Bitcoin Bros,” unworthy of our collective attention. But that doesn’t lend their potential negative impact enough credence.
Unlike other recent technological advancements, the blockchain really does have the potential to rewrite our digital infrastructure.
Throughout history, technological advancements have typically been actualized incrementally — hardly ever as the result of individual genius — and more often than not, they don’t change the world.
Consider the iPhone. The elemental components that comprise the iPhone did not constitute any sort of paradigm shift in the world of smartphones. We already had the Blackberry, email, and radio transition technology — they just didn’t work very well. In this way, the iPhone was ultimately little more than an improved amalgamation of pre-existing parts.
But the blockchain is different.
The blockchain has the potential to replace the entire digital fabric because it portends to fundamentally alter the foundation underlying our digital universe — more meaningfully than the iPhone, even more so than the internet.
Think about it. The internet, until now, has been little more than a door — a new means of entry that lends users more convenient access to pre-existing services. Take online banking, for example. Yes, the internet allowed for the creation of online banking, but the internet never fundamentally changed banking technology. It just allowed us an easier way to bank.
If you think of your bank as a car, the internet is a bit like a new remote controlled key — something that allows you to unlock it from the outside. The blockchain, on the other hand, has the potential to replace the whole engine. It’s a more powerful alternative — like upgrading from a busted Yugo to a glimmering Lamborghini.
But that’s just the thing: the blockchain’s legitimate potential has emboldened the Bullshit Brigade with a worrying amount of power.
Why, exactly, is the Bullshit Brigade feeling emboldened such a bad thing? Because when we talk about the altering potential of the blockchain, we’re not talking about upgrading cars. We’re talking about upending entire systems of business and living. And as it turns out, upending well-entrenched and purposefully isolated systems is a serious undertaking.
Take the financial system, for instance — the world the blockchain is most readily positioned to disrupt. When we talk about financial services, we’re talking about a system and culture that for decades has been ideologically segregated and logistically centralized, a self-governing vehicle designed specifically to elude the reach of outside influences. It’s a culture built on wealth and ego that is fueled by a very unique, specific, and varied set of languages — the language of the financier, the language of the banker, and the language of the hedge fund manager, to name a few.
It’s a sophisticated system. But the Bullshit Brigade of today doesn’t appreciate that sophistication. They believe they don’t need to learn any of the system’s unique languages, familiarize themselves with the history of its culture, or educate themselves about its internal mechanisms because they’ve deluded themselves into thinking the blockchain will magically upend all of that for them.
And that’s the problem: it won’t. In fact, upending a long-standing financial system like ours will take real time, effort, knowledge, grit, and skill — traits the Bullshit Brigade lacks by design. They think they can wage this war from their basements, without patience or prudence, simply because they were the first to invest in blockchain technology. That’s a mindset that’s remarkably short-sighted and will likely only result in disappointment, failure, and squandered potential.
Why is the Bullshit Brigade so short-sighted? Because the Bullshit Brigade can’t see what it really is.
This is a well-known phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. In the field of psychology, the Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people of unremarkable intelligence mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is.
The Bullshit Brigade appears to be afflicted with this bias. They think that just because they have access to new technology — to a better, cheaper, faster way of transferring value, in this case — they’re inherently better than the people who made up the previous system.
What they don’t understand is their positioning doesn’t devalue the skill and experience of the players who came before them — the people who’ve been managing money in the old system for the better part of a century.
Skill and experience count, always. So does trust.
At the end of the day, ours is and will remain a trust-based economy — even when the blockchain garners more prominence. The blockchain might make the process of garnering trust more efficient, but earning trust is still required.
The old financial system used things like custom suits and Park Avenue offices to evidence the deservance of trust. And although those mechanisms of building trust might seem pompous to us now, they were still effective, since the public knew that those things are typically only achieved by way of education, hard work, and the cultivation of a trust network.
Possessing an understanding of the blockchain doesn’t magically grant you the level of trust required of managing other people’s money — just as having access to WebMD or to a word processor doesn’t equip you with what it takes to be a doctor or a writer. You need both skill and experience to do those things. And part of earning that skill and experience is familiarizing yourself with the terminology, language, and historical significance of those crafts.
Understanding the infrastructure of banks today is important even to those interested only in upending that infrastructure — just like an understanding of the Yugo’s engine is a prerequisite for those who want to turn that Yugo into a Lamborghini. Yet the members of the Bullshit Brigade are actively precluding themselves from gaining that understanding because they’re dismissing the historical layers of technology and insight that might otherwise help them.
The Bullshit Brigade needs to take a step back and appreciate this moment for what it is: unknowable.
There are not many moments in time comparable to the one we’re in now. From our vantage on the perch of this imperfect present, we don’t really know what the blockchain is going to become. We can’t say with any degree of certainty what it’s going to look like tomorrow or even five years from now. All we know is that it has a lot of potential.
All of us, then, need to appreciate that potential — the power of it, as well as the inherent fragility of it — because that’s the only way it can ever be actualized. If we don’t — if we enable groups like the Bullshit Brigade to pollute our minds with their false confidence — we will inhibit the blockchain’s potential before it has the chance to become something real.