💡 "Put your money where your mouth is!"
A tamperproof, borderless, ownerless, global record is not just money and it's not just language. It's a new way of simultaneously ordering both which makes possible valuable, meaningful communication with anyone, anywhere, in any way we care to program it.Magic internet meaning¶
Although they share a common language arising from the twin practices of faith and finance, our narratives and our financial records were clearly distinct before 2009. Consequently, there is confusion around the concept of "free" speech, because its definition shifts depending on the context: story or money.
Q: Is a tamperproof, borderless, ownerless, global record a new kind of money or a new language?
Money as a programmable protocol that relies on a shared record no-one owns is a development of the order of language, which collapses the distinction between narratives around which we organize and our record of societal debt. So, what happens to "free" speech?
Meaningful communication is a balance between the fact that your ability to speak ought to be free, with the fact that you don't get to say whatever you please. Hence we enshrine freedom of speech as a constitutional good and implement error-handling for exceptions like hate speech and defamation.
Protocols capable of processing valuable narratives, like Bitcoin and Ethereum, render such interpretive balancing acts unnecessary. Your ability to access the network - much like TCP/IP - is free in all senses, requiring only a connection that can support you speaking in the same language as your peers. Saying anything meaningful (i.e. state-changing) has a specific, well-defined economic cost, captured in transaction fees which accrue to the benefit of those who "listen" to what you have to say.
In some sense, it is the primary benefit of this new order of econo-linguistic network we now communicate with: everyone is simultaneously free to speak and the cost of any kind of meaningful speech is well-defined everywhere. We are also provided with a clear definition of meaning: any speech act which changes the state of our shared record.Regulation vs expense¶
In blockchains, speech and execution are one and the same thing and interpretation is deterministic. The protocol has the bare minimum of rules required for consensus, basically: you cannot double spend a token. Every peer processes every transaction which passes these rules without fear or favour.
The context is determined not by legal interpretation, but by economics. Rather than enshrining an ideal like "free speech" which we agree is good, certain behaviours we agree to be malicious are made prohibitively expensive. They are not disallowed, just economically unsustainable, in much the same way that prevention is better than any cure. Vitalik touches on this in his Devcon 1 talk and we'll return to it again and again.
Q: On a blockchain, what you say is deterministically linked to what you pay. We can therefore regulate expression economically by defining meaning as any speech which does what?
A: Changes the state of our (shared) record.
You can validate any kind of state transition you like in Eth2, but if it's provably malicious, your stake will get slashed. Programming penalties rather than rewards ensures that the only state transitions worth validating are those that maintain a meaningful consensus. It is a profound change in how we regulate expression.
Again, it points at complementary opposites:
💡 The most effective way to free meaning is to price it correctly.
Pricing different kinds of speech appropriately, rather than trying to "protect" a culturally-conditioned ideal, has the second-order cybernetic effect of better securing public goods. For instance, SSTOREs are a relatively expensive operation/expression because storing data on public networks is costly, and it is a cost borne by all of us. Therefore, we agree upon a gas price that incentivizes developers to write contracts which store the minimum possible information required for state-changing, meaningful transactions.
We could even say that, on freely accessible public blockchains, there is no such thing as free speech. There is only increasingly costly expression for increasingly complex kinds of meaning, with the incentives programmed such that the costs borne by the speaker are always provably more than those imposed on the community of listeners.The expanded view¶
When we stop "protecting" free speech, but instead price any speech act according to a set of explicit consensus rules we all agree to follow, the space of meaningful communications is greatly expanded.
You may think this unfairly favours the rich, but you'd be wrong. We can program our shared ledger in any way we care to! If your program favours those already in power, it's because you lack creativity, not because of some limitation in the underlying protocol. Look at Gitcoin Grants and Quadratic Funding: a speech act which donates $1 to a cause can have nearly as great an effect as a donation two orders of magnitude larger, because we've modelled clearly the most optimal way to fund public goods.
💡 When there is nothing to protect, we no longer need guards. Without guards, the digital world is not about captive audiences, but creative participation.
Q: Does the convoluted legal concept of free speech even apply to blockchains?
A: Not really. There is only increasingly costly expression for increasingly complex kinds of meaning.
Money-as-a-programmable-protocol is "spoken" as hex-encoded data strings, which are run on and interpreted by a monolithic virtual machine which is everywhere and nowhere, so our metaphor can only go so far. Despite the descriptive limitations of natural language faced with such a construction, we can still be precise about the exceptions to free speech mentioned above and how they might be handled in a world which does not "protect" speech, but rather agrees communally on its cost.
Hate speech (analogous to malicious behaviour or outright attacks on the network) can be more elegantly handled when you are required to have value-at-a-loss to speak meaningfully. If you then violate rules which are not just social norms, but executable software, that value is slashed simultaneously with your speech and you suffer provably more damage.
Defamation comes in two flavours: per se (a statement that is obviously defamatory) and per quod (the defamatory implication must be proven).
- Per se defamation can be more elegantly handled by mechanisms like that which runs dap.ps. Anyone can vote in a way which "defames" a product or service, but that vote is also an economic signal denoted in tokens, which are sent straight back to the product or service. So, your downvote causes reputational damage while simultaneously repaying the people you're damaging (programmed according to a curve which makes votes cheaper the richer/higher the rank of whomever you're voting on is).
- Per quod defamation can be more elegantly handled either by some version of negative votes Gitcoin Grants is currently iterating over, or by reputational systems - hopefully using profiles and actions - yet to launch.
More fundamentally, this new order of communication, akin to the appearance of language itself, is best demonstrated by the simple fact that you need only memorize 12 magical words, incant them into an internet-connected machine and you gain immediate access to monetary value, anywhere in the world. One can even encode a reference to a newspaper headline in the genesis block of a network of timestamp servers (Satoshi's wording) which run money-as-a-protocol to make a permanent political statement. It is unprecedented.