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The great software renaissance

The first wave: tools

Software initially emerged as a utility. A tool. Whether a simple tool like a word processor or a spreadsheet or a complex one like on-demand video or a voice controlled IoT device, it was nevertheless a tool. Let’s call this first wave software.

The second wave: social networks

In addition to being a tool, software became — through the advancement of social networks, which are simple communication tools at their core as well — an instrument of control and manipulation. Some like to point fingers at certain companies or governments for being “evil” — for spying on people, for selling personal information to “evil” advertisers, or for manipulating elections and argue that the software, in this case, is also just a tool — which like any tool can be used for either “good” or “evil”. I believe that in this case however the enabler of “evil” is the tool itself and that this is a design flaw.

Of course one’s definition of “good” and “evil” varies, which is why I place these two words between quotes, because I’d rather not use them in absolute terms. I will however assume that for the greater good of society the following two conditions must be met simultaneously:

  1. The tools that individuals use are built in such a way that they place responsibility for their use in the hands of the individual.
  2. The individuals are educated in a way that makes them use the tools for “good”.

Yes, these tools will always be used for “evil” as well: for money laundering, for human or drug trafficking and whatnot. But the only way to achieve greater good in society is to empower and educate individuals. Disempowering and dumbing people down will never do any good in the long term.

So the second wave software are the social networks, which from tools evolved into instruments of control and manipulation due to their centralized nature and due to the fact that the “buttons” used to tweak the algorithms are in the hands of a few “chosen ones”. It’s cool to say “don’t be evil” but how easy is it to not be evil when you have the keys to the empire?

The third wave: social tools

What we need now — and I think it is slowly happening — is a third wave of software — the “social tools”. Social networks that stay out of the way and let users take control.

But while “decentralized social networks” like Mastodon may sound like the future to some, most people see no reason to move away from Facebook or Twitter to something whose only selling point is “being decentralized” but is harder to use and has a very small userbase.

Let’s break down the components of a social network:

  1. Publishing/consuming content. Whether text, images or video, we already have the perfect decentralized technology for this: blogs. People have been publishing content on their own platforms rather than in walled gardens since the dawn of the internet. While blogs have certainly lost a lot of market share to social networks, virtually everybody using the internet understands the concept and the appeal of blogs, more than that of networks like Mastodon.
  2. Private chat. Every social network allows users to send private messages. But then there are also separate chat apps. They have always been around. Everybody understands them and they get the job done.
  3. Value transfer. Whether content producers use advertising or subscriptions as a source of income or whether you simply want to transfer cash to your friends via private chat, Bitcoin is a technology which is placing one of the biggest responsibilities of a human being in the individual’s hands: the responsibility of managing one’s own finances and their flow.

Bitcoin is the final piece of the puzzle on top of which some sort of social network of the future will emerge. And I’m not talking about some smart-contract-mumbo-jumbo-dApp sort of social network, but rather something more akin to the Unix philosophy, where you take simple tools and use them as building blocks for a complete operating system.

In the coming years we will see many central banks and centralized social networks launching their own digital currencies and these will be used to further control and spy on people. On the other hand, the more people understand the value proposition of Bitcoin as a decentralized, uncensorable, unstoppable way of storing and transferring value, the more they will want to move away from these centralized digital currencies and from their respective social networks or banks and use tools that natively support Bitcoin.

What I am calling the great software renaissance is a possible future in which a plethora of small tools is used to build a fully decentralized social network, available to anyone anywhere for publishing content, communicating privately and transferring value. It will not look like Facebook or Twitter (centralized) nor like Mastodon (decentralized but monolithic). It will be both decentralized and fragmented — more Unix-like. Some chat apps supporting Bitcoin natively (think Signal+Bitcoin as an alternative to WeChat). Some (blog like) publishing platforms where you can monetize your content using Bitcoin micropayments. All separate from each other and yet operating as a whole using open protocols similar to RSS/Atom or Git and having Bitcoin as the blood that flows between these organs and powers the ecosystem.

The next “social network” can be internet itself! Fully open and decentralized and with a superior user experience: the way for content creators to monetize could be less reliant on ads and more on micropayments. Would you pay $0.01 to read this post or to watch that funny video ad-free if all it took was one click to make your reader app send a micropayment? It’s definitely a superior experience to both ads and to paywalls where you have to enter your credit card number, receive an SMS confirmation and pay $12 for a one year subscription to a newspaper just to read that one article you are interested in. Or you could be receiving micropayments from advertisers if you chose to view the ads!

Ethereum sort-of tried to do this, but it started with the assumption that a “world computer” had to be built on top of a currency. Which is an unnecessary and very limiting assumption! The “world computer” already exists — it is the internet. All that it was missing was a value storage and transfer mechanism, which we now finally have.