"When the truncheon may be used
in lieu of conversation,
words retain their power.
Words offer the means to meaning and,
for those who will listen,
the enunciation of truth. - V for Vendetta
There's an internet-famous movie called Good Copy, Bad Copy, made in 2007, about intellectual property, piracy, and the fight against copyright law. The central thesis is that the document which most protects our liberty is no longer the Declaration of Independence, or the Bill of Rights: it is the 50x50 matrix which is the decryption key for blu-ray disks.
This is already outdated, but the premise is fascinating. The fight for liberty is not conducted with natural language in the form of political rhetoric: it is hashed out in technical protocols. What matters most is not what you say, but what function(s) you can get your language to execute.
This has been true since Phil Zimmerman published the source code for PGP as a book in 1995 in order to use the First Amendment to get around something called the Arms Export Control Act. Cryptography is so powerful, it is considered to be a munition by many governments. This is because it executes speech freely, without the need for legal or political protection, and therefore outside the realm of legal or political control.
Now we have widely-deployed cryptography used to secure our ability to speak freely about what we find to be valuable, without the need to trust corruptible institutions. It is a profound shift in the evolution of our ability to make meaning, in the most general sense.
The means by which we make such meaning are not owned by anyone, and the medium - which is both a network and a scripting language - can be read in an essentially perfect way. That is, the functions our language executes produce deterministic outputs which are globally agreed upon. It gets even weirder, though. As Vitalik says in Understanding Ethereum; contracts (code) and externally owned accounts (people) are both first class citizens on Ethereum. Simon de la Rouviere describes it thus:
“It’s doubtful that programs will develop the desire to connect for the sake of it (like we do), unless we program them to do it. However, the benefits of knowing that a computation was verifiably done is like inventing religion for programs [...] with verifiable computing protocols, a program will know the minds of other programs. Except, unlike biology, where it is imperfect, it will know exactly the state and processing capability. There’s no longer this idea of servers of data and logic connected disparately through the network.”
The Heart of It¶
So, what does Ethereum really mean? Happily, the most accurate answers to this are to be found on block explorers, not in short essays. However, we can make an attempt in natural language here by considering our communal imagery - the eight-sided logo.
The octahedron is the third of the five solids postulated by Plato to make up all the elements - earth, water, fire, air and aether. While discussing air in the Timaeus - the element with which the octahedron is associated - Plato writes: "there is the most translucent kind which is called by the name of aether (αἰθήρ)". The word αἰθήρ in Homeric Greek means "pure, fresh air" or "clear sky". It is also often translated as "quintessence": the material that fills the region of the universe above the terrestrial sphere. The aether is the air of another realm, which nevertheless interacts with our own by virtue of the meaning we enact in our use of the four terrestrial elements.
The octahedron is the middle solid, and therefore associated in more modern metaphysics with the heart; love; compassion; forgiveness; and healing. It has 8 faces, similar in a sense to the Noble Eightfold Path. As is the case with all Platonic solids, it is symmetric and so its reflection remains the same. Such shapes remind us that we are all just mirrors for each other.
More practically, space frames are a commonly used architectural design, extended into octagonal trusses by Buckminster Fuller in his work on geodesic domes. Fuller is often quoted in crypto circles, with this being the go-to choice for many of his intellectual descendants:
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
"To know is to possess, and any fact is possessed by everyone who knows it, whereas those who feel truth are possessed, not possessors." - E. E. Cummings