In January, Blockstack wrapped its “Decentralizing the World” tour with one final stop in Hong Kong (see the full event recap here). Top tech experts from around the globe gathered to discuss topics ranging from digital rights to venture capital in crypto, models of governance, the Stacks Blockchain, and more.
Internet pioneer, Chairman of VeriFi (Hong Kong) Ltd, and Commissioner on the Global Commission on Internet Governance, Pindar Wong, shared his perspectives with a talk entitled “Ensuring Internet Symmetry: Topology Over Geography.”
“We’re all naked on the Internet, and we actually have been for quite a while,” said Wong. He argued that for many, talking about centralized and decentralized is a concept that still doesn’t quite hit home, and wondered what will really motivate individuals and businesses to move to a decentralized internet. “‘Your data, your rules’ is the reason why I’m very interested in Blockstack and Blockstack technology. Also because they built a very set of interesting set of tools…and I would say tools are the solutions, right?”
When it comes to privacy, Wong says you’re either naked and vulnerable, or you’re clothed and protected. “I think Blockstack is inventing tools to make clothes so that we are no longer naked on the Internet.”
We talk about Internet symmetry…but how do we define it? Wong likened the concept to the Yin and Yang, the Daoist symbol of balance and harmony created by two opposing – but complementary – forces. In this case, the nearly universal guiding life principle “no one is above the law” (AKA the rule of words) represents the Yin, and “No nation below mathematics” (AKA the rule of numbers) is the Yang. Wong believes that Blockchain technologies are challenging – and helping create a new balance – between the two opposing forces.
Topology Over Geography
For much of human history, geography dictated destiny, and your success was also tied to the success of your neighbors. But according to Wong, topology (the relationship between things connected in a network) is more important, and data **is now destiny.
Through the Internet, everyone is your neighbor, and in fact everywhere has the potential to be a “bad neighborhood.” Distance no longer equals cost, centralized doesn’t mean more secure, and time is no longer money…Bitcoin has shown us that data can equal money. In a post-internet, post-Bitcoin, post-GDPR world, Wong says: “We can blend what is the rule of topology and geography in order to build a very different world.”
For more, watch Pindar Wong ‘s full presentation above or read through the transcript below. If you’re looking to attend a Blockstack event in the near future, please visit our community calendar*. You can also view the other talks and presentations from Hong Kong* here.
00:04 I want to basically follow off of Daniel’s, I think, inspirational talk in the sense that the more things change, the more things stay the same. You’ll have an image later on that we’ll try and typify that. One of the things that I think Katherine mentioned was, again, these strange people who only sort of use feature phones. I, unfortunately, am one of them, so that gives you some fair warning that basically since 19 or mid-’90s since we introduced … This before the web. My view is that the internet, everyone’s naked, right? In fact, talking about centralized and decentralized doesn’t quite hit home, and that kind of talks to William’s quite about what really is it about that really will strongly motivate you as individuals or your businesses to move to a decentralized internet?
00:55 I think just this one concept that, in fact, we’re actually all naked on the internet, and we actually have been for quite a while. It’s one of the main reasons why the cryptography and the privacy, which you control, right, your data, your rules, is the reason why I’m very interested in blockchain and Blockstack technology, also because they built a very interesting set of tools, and where we are in terms of the technical development is, I would say tools are the solutions, right? Solutions depend on context, but if we can build some really interesting tools in this category, which is very difficult to kill as Daniel mentioned.
01:33 Now, my relationship with Muneeb … Actually, I didn’t realize this, but he mentioned that he grew up in Pakistan, and in fact, Pakistan was one of the very early places that in the mid-’90s, I tried to help connect to the internet. Sort of the more things change, the more things stay the same, these pendulums, in fact, these circles, in fact, the circle is that he was one of the early people using Mosaic, Netscape, the Mosaic browser to connect to the internet. Strangely, I think that’s where this strange and hidden relationships, so we come a bit of a full circle here.
02:07 Today, the talk here is on internet symmetry. I want to define what that is, and I want to talk about topology over geography. The more things change, the more things stay the same. Now, Daniel mentioned the pendulum. We’re in Asia, and so [inaudible 00:02:23]. Welcome to Hong Kong. We have not only these great swings that when you reach an extreme, it may be time to swing back. In fact, we have a whole way of thinking about this. I think the Daoists have this symbol, Yin and Yang right? Yin-yang, which I think is famous. That’s the one slide I want you to basically remember from today’s talk, which is, again, I think this is not the cycle swinging from to and fro from centralized to what I call acentralized, right, that’s not centralized. I don’t personally like the term decentralized because then you get into a ton of the discussions at decentralized or distributed, and then people switch off, right?
03:02 Another way of looking at it is that you’re naked or you’re clothed. I think Blockstack is inventing tools to make clothes, alright, so that we are no longer naked on the internet. Being naked, well, it’s everyone on their own. Some people like to do that, but I personally prefer, and for your convenience, not to be naked, right? Your world view, this is the world tour, Blockstack’s world tour, so what does the world sort of look like? Well, I would say that this principle, which I think I’ve tried to observe over the last 25 years or more is that no one’s above the law, right? That’s almost an assumption. Muneeb began with this huge disclaimer, right? Why? Because if he gets it wrong, he’s going to go to jail, so there’s a violence behind that, but then, no one’s above the law. It seems to be an organizing principle of society. We have something very different with blockchain and cryptographic technologies, right?
03:57 I would argue that no nation is below mathematics. Many of the policy questions that have come up, is Bitcoin a currency, and how do you regulate it, all has the sovereign national view based on nations, so the principle of internet symmetry, which I quote, is basically, “No one is above the law. No nation below mathematics.” Now, the use case that I have is my passion project as well. In Hong Kong, we have many expatriates, right, people who come here who work. We’re one of the most open and free societies, also one of the most expensive. In that openness, we have a lot of expats.
04:35 My question is, who are the next expatriates? These new digital natives, right? Many of us travel the world with a little trolley bag with our credit card and our passport. What is the difference between these people or basically people who basically come on a boat and end up on your shore? Well, I will argue that the only difference between them and me is really not much. It’s a legal identity. I have a passport. It gives me some sort of legal status, and the fact that I’m sort of … I have access to, not a smartphone, a dumb phone, but I have access to an international bank account, right?
05:08 Now, the bank account issues kind of solved with Bitcoin, but they still have this issue of identity. This whole tension that I would say is actually between legal systems with a sovereign view, the rule of law, and these mathematical systems that were brought in, which actually don’t really … They’re a-legal. They don’t need the force of the law in order to have some kind of legitimacy. Now, the reason why I actually wanted to give this talk in Berlin in March last year was, of course, there was a wall in Berlin, and today’s presentation would have been very, very apt last year. I’m sorry I couldn’t give that presentation because now, there are more people who are basically displaced, 70 million plus after World War II.
05:50 Now, if you think about that for a moment, with climate change, with technical unemployment, the current figures are getting kind of scary that within a generation, there will be one billion people on the move, right? If they’re all going to have to have legal identity, not a Blockstack ID but a legal identity, then what is interesting or what will be the challenges be? This is the kind of the one use case that I would want to focus on because I think Blockstack could really change that kind of discussion because I think Blockstack is ultimately, again, building these tools for cooperation. In that sense, it’s a corporation technology.
06:24 Now what’s the right I’m actually trying to establish by saying this principle of internet symmetry? I think it’s the right to work online, right? Now, you can basically receive payment. What happens if you provide services online and someone says, “No. That’s against the law. You don’t have the right to work online because you don’t have a legal tax ID or what have you”? I would say that those of us who live our lives online or netizens are also its expatriates. Our right to work online now that 10 years ago Bitcoin was invented and now, we have these other cryptocurrencies, it’s this right to basically offer our services online and get paid for it.
06:59 Now, this, Katherine talked about, strange enough, normal international law. I’ve been dealing with this, you’ve heard my background, this tension of the internet and it doesn’t see borders. I’m actually only interested in one class of problems, right? There’s a class of problems that don’t see borders. They’re wicked problems. They’re global in scale, and it’s quite clear that as cooperation, we need now need to cooperate globally at scale, at a scale that we’ve never seen before for climate change, et cetera. I think we have the opportunity through using tools like what Blockstack’s producing to build new international institutions, not necessarily in an individual body but in software. That’s why I want to focus today on topology over geography.
07:43 This tension here is, how can we best illustrate that? I would say … I think Lessig alluded to earlier. We’ve got this rule of law, which if you don’t abide to, you can go to jail. This is violence behind that. We have like Professor Lawrence Lessig’s rule of code. More simply, it’s like a rule of words or rule of numbers, right? It’s actually, again, this balance or the symmetry between … Where is the balance point between this rule of words and this rule of numbers, and how do we find that, that I think blockchain technologies are challenging.
08:19 Let’s focus on two different areas. Next, I’ll go to geography first, and then I’ll focus on topology. Geography. Well, we’re in Asia. We’re in this sort of this place Hong Kong, and there are more people living inside this circle than outside it. This is why Asia matters, is because if we don’t deploy what Blockstack is producing, then I would argue that we’re missing at least half of the planet. A lot of these countries are also in development mode, so places like Cambodia, et cetera.
08:46 Now, I’m also going to talk a little bit about the Belts and Road blockchain. That’s what I’ve been working on for the last few years. Again, this new way of envisioning trade, not just physical trade of physical goods but trading of digital goods, but given the current trade war between China and U.S., I think I’ll skip some of it other than the fact there’s a lot of deep thought here about what is the future of trade when we’re shipping bits, not atoms. We’re shipping designs, and we manufacture [inaudible 00:09:10] kinds. What’s common though is that this Belt and Road crosses over 68 different economies with 68 different jurisdictions and at least three kinds of law, common law, civil law, and Sharia law. With this rule of law, again, there’s not just one.
09:24 With geography, those historians will argue that, in fact, your nation’s destiny is defined by geography, right? Well, the problem is that China is always going to be next to, for example North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and you can’t divorce your neighbors. Now, this view of sovereigns was after 30 years war in 1648, this whole notion that you have this thing called a country, a nation, a state … Here, a state, I mean a country, not as in a cryptographic state or a computing state. These states have standing armies and policemen. They have, in some sense, a monopoly on active violence, right? They can put you in jail. They’ve got guns, and they’ve got batons and big boots.
10:06 Laws also have borders, right? You get 16 hours on the plane. You fly over. You don’t actually see the countries like you have on the global map. There are no borders physically, but these mental borders have, for the law, has its own borders. Now, there’s an assumption here in the old atomic world that distance equals costs, and the internet destroyed that assumption. In fact, this today’s video is being live streamed across the world. Now, if this is equals cost, if that was an assumption and with some challenge which the internet successfully challenged, it would have a very different model.
10:40 The reason why I raise this is that these assumptions are very, very hidden and very deep, and unless we surface them early on the architecture, we make architecturally incorrect decisions. I’m very excited about Jude’s presentation too from now because of his new designs here. There was also an illusion that I think William mentioned of centralized equals secure, right? If we build the wall … We seem to be back into building walls. China tried that in the Ming Dynasty, and it didn’t quite work out over the long run. Now, it’s a tourist attraction. Is the real solution here to build higher walls and wider boats? With crypto, I would argue we can do much better, and we must do much better because we’re going to have to cooperate at scale.
11:25 There’s also another assumption, right? We’re in Hong Kong, global financial center where it’s assumed that time equals money, right? Again, these are one of the assumptions. Shall we actually challenge that? The operating strategy in the atomic world, the world of atoms, okay, is divide and conquer, right? Use your resources to divide and conquer. It worked pretty well for several hundred years, but then things changed topology, right? The relationship … You might hate math, so … I actually quite like it, but the relationship of how things are connected together in a network has been, in fact, the dominant paradigm for the last 25 years.
12:07 We’re in a post-internet post-Bitcoin, and as Katherine mentioned, post GDPR world, digital world, with the analog world of atoms, with the digital world of bits. In this world, data, not geography is destiny where everyone’s your neighbor, and everywhere potentially is a bad neighborhood. Oops, why? Because security wasn’t built in. Well, distance doesn’t equal cost. In fact, distance is kind of irrelevant. You don’t really care how physically far away. You kind of how many hops it is on the network. Centralized, I think by clearing with the Equifax example doesn’t mean it’s secure, and the fact that time is no longer money, Bitcoin is the first great example of a data structure where data equals money, and in fact, you can price it. That’s new.
12:49 The dominant strategy wasn’t divide and conquer. It was actually connect and liberate. If you knew that, if you could connect the different data streams and liberate the value, okay, fine. We have these intimate monopolies who manage to figure that out quick earlier on, but now, we know that we don’t need to connect via an intermediary. We can connect directly as we’re doing here in Hong Kong. Regulation on the hand is the ultimate intermediary for its power to stop, so how we resolve this tension between regulation, the ultimate intermediary and this disintermediating technology is the reason why I’m talking today about why topology matters more than geography.
13:32 The internet physics, I’m not going to go through … There’s sort of laws here, but what are we talking about in terms of scale? Well, the internet was a stupid network. It pushed the intelligence out to the edge, and instead of 195 countries, there are, in fact, 63,000 autonomous systems which make up the internet. 63,000 different groups that administer their own networks, so we have several orders of magnitude in terms of size. We also have a permissionless innovation model because we didn’t need to upgrade the smart network, which had all the intelligence in the center of the network. We put it to the edge of the network. As these edge change from mainframe to mini to desktop to smartphone to tablet to whatever, we didn’t need to change that.
14:18 All we needed to change was to change the application at the edge of it, and so that’s why we had a different view of permissionless innovation, which we heard, which allowed things like Bitcoin to emerge. This world though is kind of clockwork whereas Bitcoin, what I would say the rise of slow networks like blockchain networks are inherently slow, they’re broadcast across the whole width and depth of the internet, and it requires synchronization. They’re kind of slow networks, and I think since we now can choose our economy, we’re not born into an economy, I can now choose whatever digital economy with whatever token, and not only do we have permissionless innovation, we now have permissionless monetization. Different ways of doing it. consensus protocols, in fact, we’ll hear a new one with Jude later on this afternoon.
15:06 I think we’re moving up to a Newtonian world where, yes, everything is exact to a kind of fuzzy quantum world where things are statistically unique. That’s a different world, but I would argue that the perimeter is dead, right? Castles worked for great many years until the invention of gunpowder, and then being inside the castle was probably rather unpleasant. We have a new technology here where it doesn’t assume a perimeter. There’s a very different security model and a different way of thinking about things. Revolutionists no longer write manifestos. They write makefiles, and I think within Blockstack, there are a few revolutionaries who are actually coding this up.
15:43 They force us to imagine to decentralize the world. However, we’ve got borders. Do we really have … Are we going to reintroduce borders into a borderless world? I would argue no. What we have done is we’ve learned global communication costs, so that we can now stream this video on the internet. I think Clay Shirky has indicated now, we can coordinate our activities without actually communicating, and I think GitHub is a great example of that, right? We can have a short hash, and we don’t need to coordinate in order to cooperate, but the last one is the one that I think blockchain is really very interesting, is that we can lower our cooperation costs, and I think we have to cooperate at scale.
16:23 Where is the legitimacy in blockchain technologies if in the rule of geography with states who have the monopoly of violence … What’s the equivalent of violence within blockchain? I would argue, is the violence of passive violence, which are leads, rights, these locks, these cryptographic locks. If I can know the combination … This is probably a bad image of what is actually violence. You’re probably more used to this. Passive violence where you’re sort of … an infinite force meets immovable object. This is kind of the violence that I think blockchain now enables. It’s a different kind of legitimacy. Your keys, your asset, right? Unless you have the key, you can’t move the asset, and that’s different, which is why I think my data, my rules with new close that I think we can now make with Blockstack technology is interesting.
17:22 Why do I say topology over geography or geography over topology? I think topology matters more. Why? Because under the rule of law, with the force of violence, the monopoly of violence, you have, in some sense, the traditional or one way of organizing it is the separation of powers, right? I think William talked about governance, right? Simplistically, you have those who make the laws, the legislative branch. You’ve got the judges who interpret the law, and you’ve got the government or executive who executes the law. Well, what’s the equivalent within the blockchain world? Well, I would say it kind of may look like this. I think code developers, developers who make the code, I think each and every one of us is the government ironically. We are the executive because we choose what to execute, i.e. the community is the government. I think the judicial branch is actually the blockchain itself. It determines what happens, right? Not humans, but a machine or an algorithm.
18:19 What’s different is there’s a fourth one, and this is where I agree with William, is that the fact that we have now incentive schemes. We can incentivize engineers and design people to collaborate and cooperate, and that’s new. I call this rough justice. The question is, where’s the running code? I think Blockstack will develop that. I see a world where we are moving from a Westphalian world state, a nation of nation-states, only of several hundred of them, 195, to a world of Eastphalia. For Hong Kong, I think that’s primarily important. Why? Because a rule of law has a use by dates. After 1997, we are 50 years, so I call this Eastphalia, this way in which we can blend what is the rule of topology and geography in order to build a very different world. Thank you very much.