Paper Wallets and the Real World(s)
Hello again, brothers and sisters. It's time for a reality check 🤩
It is a counterintuitive truth of the cryptocurrency world that it is possible, and in fact sometimes preferable, to store your tokens on a physical piece of matter rather than in a digital format. Well, that's not exactly true. Your piece of paper or engraved steel is actually storing the key that will allow you access to the address on the public ledger where the tokens are recorded. Technology pedants are free to send me objections to my metaphors at firstname.lastname@example.org. The point is, when I realized this was possible it captured my imagination. We are used to a world in which the digital creates the obsolescence of the physical, so much so that we expect the relentless march of progress to move away from the analog at all times. What if paper wallets aren't the only place where the world of technology begins to bleed back into our physical world? Or to put a finer point on the question, what if our technology doesn't really matter until it returns into the analog realm?
This essay is transparently a collection of bear-market musings, but that's not a bad thing. When your fondest hopes meet the test of a brutal macro environment, it's time to see whether any of them weather the storm. Round-tripping some paper gains hasn't changed my belief that web3 will become the printing press of our generation in terms of revolutionary potential. But it has seasoned and tempered my expectations, teaching me to sort through the possibilities for the future to seek the best possible outcomes. And I'm more convinced than ever that the future we should pursue is one where web3 technologies become the enabler of our analog selves. I want to build a world of vibrant lives, not (only) vibrant protocols. If the protocols supplement our flourishing, then they can flourish all they want. In fact, I would predict that only those systems and projects that actually make a real-world difference will survive the bear market. It's easy to sell glorified lottery tickets when everyone has a winning number. When everyone seems to have angered Lady Fortune simultaneously, we all take a look through our wallets and see what is really left after the paper gains are no more. And make no mistake, some real things remain. The communities that are still active, the genuine changes that occurred in the real world, those can't be destroyed by the ticker or the floor price. Like the paper wallet, they would hold value if the networks disappeared and the Internet went offline. (As long as there was still a single functioning fullnode of the blockchain in question saved somewhere. You know what, why am I still trying to save this metaphor? You understand.)
Asserted: The world of technology is not a true parallel world.
It's not popular right now to speak of the analog world as the "real" world, but I chose the words carefully. I believe that comparison is a wise tool when we confront innovations and enter unknown territory. How is This like and unlike That, which I know and understand? Let's try it with the web3 world, and explore the implications. We'll compare the wonderful and scary world of Bitcoin and the Metaverse to a much more pedestrian technology: books. Both store information, and both have been used to unleash massive change and revolution on the world. What world can we really call real when even the generations before us had entire realms of information to escape into?
At their most basic level, books and other physical written media are technologies to store human thought and creativity so that those ideas can later be scanned and interacted with by another human brain. The book acts as a storage and transfer mechanism, sometimes holding it's cargo for hundreds or thousands of years before faithfully returning the contents when it is again opened. In a sense, you can describe books as creating alternate worlds or small bubbles of new reality, where the author can experiment and bring the reader's mind along into the pocket dimension. But crucially, those pocket dimensions exist only during the time when the book is open and a human being is reading it. Books don’t exist to make more books or recursively store other books or optimize themselves into slimmer books or faster books. They exist to teach living, breathing human people information and change their lives. There is a very real and important discussion to be had concerning the potentially alienating force of a technology that can only be really experienced alone and that offers the user a sedentary and non-real experience. We all know (or have been) someone who possesses much knowledge from reading but little wisdom or ability to apply that knowledge to life's problems and challenges. But we've run the experiment on writing and books for thousands of years. So far, the net effect for human life has been overwhelmingly positive. Books allow us to transmit the greatest minds in human history across time and space, with extreme fidelity and tiny costs. In fact, the written word is the only technology credibly asserted to be used by God Himself to relay His message to human minds.
Asserted: We must exercise our wills and imaginations for technology to become useful.
But none of these incredible results are possible without the interaction of a human mind. Even Holy Scripture sitting idly on a shelf for millennia would be unable to impact the real world, until it was read. And it would be still relatively far short of its potential until it the reader acted upon what they read. We instinctively know this, and we can all think of a short list of books that made the most personal impact on our lives. I would argue that those books would be the ones that either changed your mind profoundly or introduced concepts so shattering that they molded the way you behaved in your daily life. The book became real, as its words crept into our world and began to change things. Or perhaps more accurately, it's power was realized. Like the paper wallet sitting in a drawer, the book's potential power is still a real thing, but the realization of that power is the entire purpose of the technology. Books exist to be read, money exists to be spent, art exists to be experienced. These things don't create freestanding universes into which we seek to emigrate, but they act as ephemeral levers to manipulate our universe.
I am of course not trying to compare web3 technologies to the Holy Bible in any serious sense. I am doing the opposite, in a way. I am trying to use the highest form and use of information technology to explain and inform our lesser uses. And when we compare the best case possible to our current web3 landscape, we see that the potential for good definitely exists, right alongside innumerable wastes of that potential and actively damaging instantiations of it. Like any technology, web3 is going through a protracted and muddled discovery period in which humans iterate on it as a means of finding out what it's good for. But unlike many other technologies I'm aware of, some of it's most influential proponents seem fixated on the concept that this technology has created a new paradigm in which the proliferation and service of the protocol itself can now become a fulfilling human endeavor. Imagine a society so enraptured by the technology of the written word that they enshrined reading as the new central human experience, creating vast holy libraries in which their faithful would sit in tiny carrels experiencing as much of the libraverse as possible. The problems of this world critique the popular vision of the Metaverse as well; who, exactly, is repairing the library? Maintaining its volumes, cleaning its toilets? The perversity of inverting all human experience to serve a single type of experience is apparent. So of course, why should we accept a vision of the future in which all humans are yield farmers or Solidity devs or NFT artists? While each of these occupations may be reasonable and fulfilling in the individual, to foresee a mass human exodus into the Metaverse is really the voice of deep privilege, a vision of two massive human castes who exist Within and Without the new Real World. After all, who is going to be keeping the power on?
Resolved: To tend the endless bounty of technological abundance and produce lasting yield.
We need to discipline ourselves to examine each technology we use and insist that it produce true value in our lives. We are perfectly right to demand that notional wealth produce real world joy, that notional social networks create real world friendships. The weakness and wrongness of totally unrealized and unembodied things disturbs our spirits, even if our minds do not understand. Without diving too deeply into Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, at the risk of committing heresy through failure to correctly express my meaning, human beings are not strong enough creatures to exist fully in the immaterial plane. Our attempts to do so by fashioning crude spaceships, bubbles of polygons and graphical processing meant to trick our physical and spiritual selves, should not be regarded in my opinion as progress. We are rooted to our physical world by the mercy and wisdom of our Creator, and we had best be about the uses of our tools to till the garden in which we've been placed, not to strap them together and attempt an escape from our reality.
Now that we've inexpertly examined the philosophical issues, we'll partially tackle the practical. Begin to judge the technological layers and applications of your digital world in terms of their true utility. Beneath the vast world of vaporware and meaningless air castles, "closer to the metal" (or the flesh), are protocols and projects that produce real-world intrusions, physical results that cross the atomic frontier. These, I would argue, are the true and best uses of technology. Does this social network or that community produce such an effect in your life? If not, it might be worth examining the true value they claim to provide. You may find that much of the perceived value you attributed to a certain application was in the way it made you feel, the shield it provided from real life concerns, the sensation of importance you garnered from watching the busy numbers busily go up and down. Sift these things, ruthlessly if you must. What if the most powerful possibilities of technology are not imprisoned in the silicon itself but occur through unleashing ideas so that people could instantiate them, alive and real? Should we allow ourselves endless diversions and distractions that presume upon our own ability to transcend our nature and become disembodied creatures? Can our minds and souls support the weight? Perhaps we are being taught a life of simpler goals, as we prune our gardens in the physical world and carefully train our digital tools to ensure that they truly provide us the value and utility that we were promised.
The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. ~ Ecclesiastes 12:11-12
Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? ~ T.S. Eliot in The Rock
Some seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge: that is curiosity; others seek knowledge so that they themselves may be known: that is vanity; but there are still others who seek knowledge in order to serve and edify others: and that is charity. ~ Bernard of Clairvaux
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. ~ James 1:22-25