New technological paradigms have an unintended side effect that is sometimes just as influential as the new technology itself: new metaphors.
Computers have been an impactful technology, but the idea of computing as a metaphor has also been impactful. In neuroscience, to take one example, the idea of looking at the brain as a type of computer has probably made a pretty big difference to the advances in the field.
Metaphors are always imperfect, the brain is not just a computer, but it certainly has some computer-like characteristics. Viewing it in that way is more productive than viewing it as a mechanical machine.
A recent technological innovation has been public blockchains such as Bitcoin and Ethereum. What is unique about these technologies is that they allow many participants that don’t trust each other to agree to a single version of a ledger. This sounds really boring, but is actually really important.
As the Wutang Clan said: Ledgers Rule Everything Around Me. From ledgers of property records to financial records, the ledger is a deeply important part of what makes the world tick.
The innovation of Satoshi Nakomoto, the anonymous creator(s) of Bitcoin, was to create a lottery system for deciding who got to add a page to the ledger, which Satoshi called proof of work.
Proof of work is, in my opinion, the most interesting aspect of bitcoin by a large margin. It’s also really hard to explain and I think most people’s feelings on bitcoin have to do with whether or not they get proof of work. I will try to explain though I suspect I will come up short.
The problem proof of work solves is you don’t want to depend on a specific person or third party to maintain a ledger, particularly a valuable ledger like money. Lots of people suck and you don’t want one person that sucks to destroy the value of money.
Public blockchains like Bitcoin allow anyone to add a block to the blockchain, but with one big caveat to prevent cheating: In order to add a new block onto the existing chain, you have to solve a really, really hard math problem. Solving this problem requires “proof of work” and is called Bitcoin mining.
I wrote an explanation of exactly how it works here, but for the purposes of this piece, it’s enough to know that proof of work is effective because, if a miner just participates in maintaining the ledger honestly, they will make more money than if they try to cheat. This makes it possible to have a ledger on which everyone agrees, but no one individual has control over.
Proof of work is a new and pretty amazing idea in the form of securing a digital ledger. However, it’s actually not that new of a concept in some ways. Our lives, and particularly our relationships, are the result of “proof of work.”
We establish relationships by “wasting” resources. Our closest friends are typically the ones with which we have “wasted” the most time and energy.
When you fly across the country to attend a wedding or a funeral, part of what makes that act meaningful is that you are effectively “wasting” that time. There is no reason someone can’t get married without a bunch of people around, but it’s meaningful to say that “We care about your enough to waste the time/money/energy it takes to come to the wedding.”
Consider the entire diamond industry. Diamonds are, in a sense useless. No one buys a diamond for their partner just in case their partner ever needs to cut something extremely hard or needs a hyper-conductive material. They buy it because it looks pretty and is otherwise useless.
However, it is their economic uselessness that leads to their social utility. When someone gives someone else a diamond, they are in effect, saying, “I care about you enough to buy this useless thing.”
Diamonds are just one example that have certain historical significance, but it could be anything. If you take a sick friend some soup, that is a type of proof of work. They could have heated some soup or ordered it themselves, but it is given special significance because you effectively “wasted” the time it took to make and deliver the soup. There is value there.
This forms a bond that has great social utility, even if it is not an economically useful thing. In fact, the social utility exists precisely because it is uneconomical.
It is more economically efficient to outsource the soup making to a specialized provider (e.g. a restaurant), but it is precisely the economic inefficiency of making someone soup that creates its social and emotional value.
The popular relationship book, The 5 Love Languages, is an extension of this idea that just says people like to receive “waste” in different ways. Some people like it when others spend time with them (waste time), other when people give them things (waste money), and others when people give them support (waste words).
I suspect there are many other forms of “proof of work” that I have not thought of (lmk if you think of others!). However, in my relationships alone, I feel the metaphor of proof of work has been very valuable.
If I want to establish a relationship with someone, I think about how I can show them proof of work, how can I “waste” in a meaningful way to them. This could be buying a gift, delivering soup, or organizing a trip, it’s all just proof of work.
Last Updated on November 2, 2020 by Taylor Pearson