How An Antiquated System Paved The Way To Corporate Capture And How New Technology Can Fix It
“Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools” — Marshall McLuhan
We live in an exciting time in human history. As the velocity of change in our world approaches light speed, our tools of investigation and exploration have reached a level of unprecedented precision. The technology of information and connectivity is literally in the palms of our hands. We’ve pushed the envelope of knowledge into uncharted territory, beyond even our own galaxy, yet we are still governed by centuries-old institutions that were created to solve the problems of yesterday.
The United States of America was born during the Age of Enlightenment. It was a period of philosophical reflection onto ourselves when we re-evaluated our notions of liberty, freedom and tolerance. That intellectual inquiry gave birth to reason, which led to the quest for humanity. People were newly empowered to challenge the centralized authority of the monarchy, and social upheaval paved the way for revolution and ultimately democracy for the modern era.
When the foundations of the U.S. were being laid, many questions arose as how to do it. Treatises were written. Lectures were given. Debates were had. The framers of the Constitution tackled the issues they knew about. They devised a system of government that was revolutionary for their time in response to the revolution of their time. Though it was far from perfect and it encountered many growing pains along the way, it proved to be an effective and efficient system that managed to serve a wider spectrum of the population than the old ways of feudalism. That spectrum gradually expanded to include more people, and it eventually broke the chains of slavery as the ideas of the Enlightenment finally reached a critical mass a century later (and yet a larger one a century after that, i.e., the Civil Rights Movement, and so on).
Fast forward to today. As our notions of liberty, freedom and tolerance continue to broaden and develop, our system of governance has remained stagnant. What was once a catalyst for progress has become a barrier to it. Our technology has changed. Countless discoveries have been made. We have gone through numerous sociocultural and technological revolutions, yet the institutions that govern us have not changed to meet the new demands of today. What’s worse is that somewhere along the way the dynamic began to shift. As our antiquated system began cracking at the seams, it allowed a new kind of player to creep inside—unchecked capitalism. The institutions that once stood tall as guardians of democracy gradually became an indomitable adversary to the citizens it was supposed to serve. Real power was no longer in the hands of the many who democratically elected representatives, but by those few who controlled the economy.
When the Supreme Court voted 5–4 in favor of Citizens United in 2010, it dealt a fatal blow to a democracy already on lifesupport. The ruling removed all restrictions on the extent of corporate financial involvement in the politicalprocess, and in a system where money equals ultimate control, it had only one outcome: concentrating power into the tip of the capitalistic triangle. The national interest of the people has no room in this model, and it’s a truth that becomes clear when the vast majority of people running for politicaloffice are either representatives of the top 1% of wealth distribution, massively funded by corporations with agendas of self-interest, or both.
As a result, we have come full circle back to a sort of contemporary feudalism where power and authority are ultra-centralized. The kings and queens of today are CEOs, bankers, and elites at the highest tier of the economy. Ordinary people no longer have a seat at the table. Democracy, if you may call it that, has become a one-way street where citizens stand on the sidewalks as passive spectators. The act of voting has become an illusion of choice where candidates are puppets dancing for their corporate puppeteers. Any attempt to run on a ticket outside of that arena is derailed or simply cannot get enough momentum where it matters.
Anyone reflecting on the state of democracy today understands this binary predicament that has unfolded over the course of modern history. We have reached the point of failure: an outdated system of governance that gave way to corporate plutocracy. In 2016 we saw this crisis climax in America with all of the obvious indicators. The neoliberal forces behind the favored plutocratic candidate strangled the life out of the people’s movement, and it leveled the ground for new stones to be laid over democracy’s grave—neofascism.
The digital revolution of the last few decades has made tremendous advances in global connectivity and accessibility to the entire breadth of human knowledge. While it is true that much of our technology has outpaced our ethics as evidenced by the nuclear arms race and a myriad of other dire issues, I do believe that the technology presently exists to solve many challenges we face in today’s rapidly changing world. It’s not a matter of means but one of willingness. The question lies therein not if technology is a solution, but howtechnology can be successfully deployed and integrated into the current paradigm.
The Internet has given us glimpses into how technology can be used to empower people and mobilize movements. Smart phones and social media displayed the enormous power to support collective intelligence and collective action to prompt political and socialchange, and we have witnessed these dynamics in activist movements, protests and campaigns such as the Arab Spring, #BlackLivesMatter, #NODAPL #MeToo, and countless others.
The 2008 election of Barack Obama forever changed the course of politics in that the Internet was used as a new medium to organize supporters, advertise to voters and raisefunds. In 2016 the campaign of Bernie Sanders took it even further and forged an unprecedented grassroots momentum. In both instances the candidates could not have gone as far as they did without fully implementing available web technology to their advantage. We have also seen how the technology of instant connectivity can be used by people in high positions of power as a conduit for hate speech and as a tool for mobilization and recruitment by hate groups, e.g., Neo-Nazis, ISIS, etc. With social media the dissemination of deceptive, unverified and unreliable information to influence public opinion has never been easier. Therefore, the concern is not the limitations of technology but the intentions of it.
And herein we encounter a dilemma in the human story. New technology has been used for political advantages and as a catalyst for socialchange, for better or worse, but we have yet to witness how new technology can be fully utilized to update or replace failing institutions and the crumbling system itself. We have the insight and the ability to overcome many sociopolitical issues and even the gravest of existential threats, and perhaps we do have the collective will to do so, but there is a barrier between the means and the intention — centralized governance.
“The struggle between centralization and decentralization is at the core of American history.” — Anthony Gregory
In 2008 just weeks before Obama won in a landslide victory, the snowballing financial crisis developed into a full-blown meltdown of the global economy. Certain corporations and banks had become so powerful that massive bailouts had to be generated by the federalgovernment to circumvent a complete collapse of the worldfinancialsystem. FDR’s worst fears had come true, and the writing was on the wall. Financial institutions had become stronger than the democraticstate itself, and they were too big to fail.
As this historic crisis was unfolding, an anonymous author with the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto published a pivotal paper titled Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, where he or she outlinedthat the digital currency could eliminate the need to rely on central banks. In January 2009, the bitcoinnetwork was created, and Nakamoto mined the first ever block on the bitcoinblockchain. This act established a decisive moment in the history of human innovation, and it set in motion a revolutionary potential that has yet to be fully realized.
A blockchainis a continuously growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using cryptography.You can think of it as a distributed public ledgermanaged by a peer-to-peer network that records and verifies transactions permanently. Once data in a block is recorded, it cannot be altered retroactively. With blockchain technology it is possible to create a system that is decentralized, transparent, accurate, trusted and secure without the need for centralized authority. The potential advantages in blockchain-based applications such as the recording of events, datamanagement, identity protection, financialtransactions and voting are limitless. Virtually every sector of society would benefit.
As Nakamoto’s experiment continues to roll out onto the world, countless new blockchain projects are springing up. We have seenhardforks in the bitcoinblockchain with attempts to solve the problem of scalability as well as the emergence of second and third generations of blockchain technology, such as Etherium and Cardano, respectively. It is in the genius of these cutting-edge protocols that we are pioneering new models for governance.
When Vitalik Buterin introduced Ethereum to the world in 2013 at the impressive young age of nineteen, he suggested that a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) could operate without human managerial activity with the support of smart contracts, a concept first proposed by Nick Szabo in 1994. In 2016 a project called The DAO was launched on the Etherium blockchain, and it was the first truly self-governing, decentralized model for both commercial and non-profit enterprises. Unfortunately, after a record-breaking crowdfunding campaign, an attack exploited vulnerabilities in the code and funds were stolen. Despite the developers of Etherium having nothing to do with this project, the hack sent the community into a frenzy, which eventually led to a hardfork on the Etherium blockchain.
Perhaps the most successful example of a DAO to date is the open source peer-to-peer cryptocurrencyDash, which operates entirely on a decentralized treasury system as a means to coming to a consensus for proposals regardingnetworkchanges and funding developments. This model and several others on the blockchain challenge the way we currently think about governance, and it may disrupt structures of traditional centralized government and its inherent flaws that have allowed for corporate capture in the modern age.
Although it is in its infancy, blockchain technology holds the promise to shake the foundations of our current politics, and as it evolves, it could even shape our views on the concept of nation-states. This new technology could initiate support for liquid democracy and governance necessary for the 21st century. It could help us inch toward citizenship that transcends physical borders in a world where wealth and power are more decentralized and distributed more equally. For the first time in our history we have the means to radically transform the institutions that have failed us. As our outdated systems of governance no longer serve our best interests, human innovation has given us hope for the future. And it’s at this crossroad that we must decide our fate.
Governance For A New Technological Paradigm was originally published in HeliosDecentral on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.