Libra, a Cyberpunk Nightmare in the Midst of Crypto Spring
With crypto winter finally over, I’ve turned my heart to the green shoots of spring. But my thoughts are not warm in this first article in the Dreams of Crypto Spring series. I break down the most talked about digital currency in history, Facebook’s Libra, and the dark shadow it casts over the future.
Facebook finally took the wraps off their long-awaited digital currency platform, called Libra.
They released a whitepaper, a testnet and the breakdown of their digital wallet Calibra. The announcement generated big buzz in the crypto community and in the mainstream press, with reporters rushing to cover the details. Nearly every luminary in the crypto community chimed in right after the announcement. The initial reactions were cautiously optimistic. Most folks, including me, felt it was bullish for crypto even if Libra has absolutely nothing to do with open, permissionless cryptocurrencies like Ethereum, Radix, Monero, Zcash and Bitcoin. Almost across the board people felt Libra would raise crypto awareness, get regular people (aka normies) socialized to using stateless money and upgrade the awful user experience.
Lawmakers reacted as they usually do to new technologies they don’t understand, with fear. Rep Maxine Waters, Chairperson of the House Financial Services Committee, called on Facebook to halt development. Governments want to make damn sure that no tech startup dares threaten their power to debase currency at will. Even crypto focused lawyers rang in, questioning its legality. But now that the knee-jerk reactions are in, more detailed and nuanced analysis is starting to appear. At first, I thought I might stay above the fray. With everyone commenting, what else was there to say? There was plenty of press out there. I was too late. But the more I dug into the write-ups and hot-takes, the more I realized how many folks were missing the real threats and possibilities of this big announcement. People had the tech details down but they missed the grand picture.
And make no mistake, love it or hate it, Libra is a big announcement. A few years ago the idea that a major corporation would release a cryptocurrency was laughable, much less a consortium of gigantic multinationals releasing one, including stalwarts of the old world financial system like Visa and MasterCard. But it’s bigger than that. It’s a turning point in monetary history. It’s an ELE, an Extinction Level Event for the old financial world order. When historians look back they may just point to this moment as the catalyst. But what does the future look like? How does it all play out?
Are we racing towards a financial renaissance or a cyberpunk nightmare of oligarchical mega-corporations ripped from the pages of William Gibson? To find out, I do what I do always do, dive in head first and start reading and listening. I connected with people all over the community, asked my patrons to send me the best articles they could find, and I read Facebook’s whitepaper and the corporate propaganda (aka marketing). What did I find? Come with me as I show you a brave new world of digital currencies and an all-out war between the titans of industry and the massive nation-states of the modern world.
Eyes Wide Shut and Empire of Tomorrow
To start with, while I’m not afraid to eviscerate what I despise about Libra, I absolutely refuse to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because I hate many aspects of this platform, doesn’t mean there’s not a lot to love. And there’s a lot the crypto community can learn by paying close attention to what Facebook did here even if this all plays out like a bad episode of Mr. Robot and E-Corp brought to life.
They delivered on three of the five keys to crypto evolution, namely scale, distribution and the killer app. That alone might be enough to conquer the known world. They also added a few more innovations pulled from the best of the best projects out there.We’ll start with the user experience. Let’s face it, the user experience in crypto is utterly hideous. Crypto apps are almost universally ugly and impossible to use for the average person. They’re even hard to use for engineers. Early versions of Netscape were better looking.
Crypto apps will never work like this in the future:
You go to an exchange, sign up, get logged in, verify your account, get KYCed, set up two factor authentication, wire in fiat money, buy some crypto, download a wallet, and then load up a wallet just so you can download and use a decentralized version of Instagram to look at cat pictures.
It just cannot work that way for regular people. Try getting your mom into crypto. If you can do it in less than two weeks you’re a genius. This was never the path to global user adoption. Without a better UX, crypto won’t even get out of the gate. In 2017, I pointed to WeChat and its ubiquitous mobile messaging platform as the interface of the future. A lot of big crypto project builders came to the same conclusion. We saw Status raise $100 million. Telegram raised a whopping $1.7 billion privately to build their next generation blockchain, messaging and mobile currency platform. Kik saw the same vision of a mobile peer to peer money and chat app.
But Facebook beat them to the punch with tremendous global reach, deep pockets and a consortium of corporate heavyweights who signed on as founding members of the Association, including Visa, MasterCard, Stripe, Paypal, Lyft, Ebay, Uber, Vodaphone, not to mention VC titans like Andreessen Horowitz. Just as Amazon had the power to make their Kindle ebook reader a platform with their combination of money, tech savvy and connection to book sellers big and small, Facebook and the masters of the financial and tech world have the power to create a platform and push it into the hands of billions.
And Facebook has interfaces down cold. They know how to build a compulsively clickable social media platform and their WhatsApp chat client is one of the most widely used in the world, as is Instagram, the standard social media app for the me generation. Facebook’s Calibra wallet will easily integrate into WhatsApp, Messenger and Facebook itself. It already looks super simple and easy to use, with the wallet sporting a clean and beautiful UI. Every single project in crypto should go out right now and spend some of their millions of dollars in ICO money on hiring a team of brilliant UI/UX developers. Otherwise it’s an extinction level event for your platform. If it’s not easy to use, it’s DOA.
Killer app solved.
Let’s move on to scale, business model and the power games of multinational corporations. A number of writers have pointed out that Libra’s consensus system looks a lot like Proof of Stake, but it’s more accurate to say it functions like Delegated Proof of Stake, popularized by EOS and other platforms. It’s a Byzantine Fault Tolerant system based on HotStuff, a consensus system created by researchers at VMware, Cornell and UNC Chapel Hill. Basically they have a bunch of giant validator nodes that process transactions on the network, while risking their own money if they try to cheat the system.
Delegated Proof of Stake is one of the fastest consensus systems in action today, scaling to thousands of transactions per second, versus the paltry 7 of Bitcoin and 15 of Ethereum. Of course, those big company Association members, like Visa and Mastercard, all paid $10 million dollars for the privilege of functioning as validators on the network.
Why would they do that?
Because they’re going to make a lot of money. And that is where the business plan comes into clear focus. Facebook built a killer business model for their validators. Before any of them develop a single app for the ecosystem they will rake in money hand over fist. Unlike other cryptocurrencies with a fixed money supply that’s slowly released over time, Libra’s currency gets created or destroyed as money comes into the system. If you exchange $50 for Libra, the equivalent amount of Libra coins are minted. If you take money out of the system, the money gets destroyed.
A number of writers pointed out the similarity to the IMF’s SDR (Special Drawing Rights) system but it’s better than SDR and goes a lot further. In fact, it’s borderline genius. Here’s how it works. Libra is backed by a reserve of fiat money. That will work out to a beautiful ROI for the validators. Fiat money will flow in from all over the world as people change it out for Zuckbucks. The validators could hold that money, invest it, swap it and trade it. If they hold it in the traditional banking system the interest alone is enough to make their original $10 million dollars look like chump change.
In other words, the validators keep the interest and you get nothing.
Your Internet funny money won’t increase in value like many other cryptos, so you won’t get interest and you won’t get new value. That’s because the Libra coin is designed to stay stable. It won’t swing wildly like Bitcoin and the other deflationary coins because it’s pegged to a basket of currencies, like the Yen, Dollar, Euro and Pound, which means it inherits the inflationary monetary policy of central banks. And that’s just the beginning. This isn’t just a blockchain with some stable money. In fact, it’s not even a blockchain at all despite them using the term over and over in the whitepaper. It’s a post-blockchain, federated database.
According to the paper:
“The Libra Blockchain is a cryptographically authenticated database maintained using the Libra protocol. The database stores a ledger of programmable resources, such as Libra coins. A resource adheres to custom rules specified by its declaring module, which is also stored in the database.”
It also has its own smart contract language, called Move, that looks strong and is designed to avoid the security issues of earlier smart contract systems. Even the first implementation is a good choice, written in Rust because Rust doesn’t face as many security problems as other languages due to its
emphasis on safe code.
“With “safe code,” objects are managed by the programming language from the beginning to end. The developer doesn’t do any pointer arithmetic or manage memory, as can be necessary in C or C++ programs.”
But blockchain or no blockchain and new smart contract language or none, what Facebook built is a complete platform and that is what matters most and what the crypto community is missing as they build the future piecemeal. Platform is the key word here. It all functions in perfect harmony together like a well rehearsed orchestra. Beyond pulling in huge swaths of fiat money to earn interest, the validators will develop apps and programs to run on the system, as well as goods and services. In other words, it’s a place to buy and sell things. That makes it a post-blockchain stablecoin, safe smart contract programmable resource manager, messaging system, and ecommerce platform in one.
Ecommerce is the essential component in the mix. Without that, all you have is monopoly money but nowhere to spend it, which is why most coins remain the darling of speculators but almost nobody buys coffee or Playstations with crypto. If crypto projects want to gain real traction and compete with this mega-platform they need to wise up and build a real business model like what Facebook has done here. It’s not enough to make money out of thin air if you have nowhere to spend it. You need an interface, governance, money and things to buy and sell all rolled into one epic ecosystem.
The Return of the Dutch East Indies Company
And that brings us to one of the most interesting side effects of the Libra coin. With a complete ecosystem and ability to drive rapid adoption across Facebook’s billions of users, it will be the first platform to really challenge the sovereignty of state sponsored money, the traditional banking system and the power of the state to print and distribute money. Who’s not in the coalition is just as interesting as who’s in it. No banks. Not one. It’ll be interesting to know if any banks have back end deals with the Association. Its members will be storing a lot of money and banks will want to know the origin of that cash flow.
The choice to peg Libra to a basket of currencies is fascinating as well. By pegging it to a flurry of other currencies they’ve started the planet down the path of ditching the dollar as the default world currency. The flip side to this argument is that it may actually cement the dollar as the world currency once and for all. As the Association mops up all the fiat in the world they’ll likely turn it into dollars on the back end anyway, so Euros and Yen become Dollars and cents.Maybe that’s why so many regulators are looking so closely at it. Money is the ultimate in frozen concentrated power and states will not give that power up without a fight, even to the massive corporations backingthis rave new coin.
It’s a war the crypto community always knew was coming but never really had the power to win. All the crypto projects to date are a rag-tag insurgency, using guerrilla tactics, staying anonymous and spreading out, but they’ve never had much of a chance standing up against the true might of the state if the state turned the eye of Sauron upon them. In a way, Facebook just did the community a massive favor. They’ll draw the fight away from smaller projects and Bitcoin to a more conventional enemy, a top down, hierarchical enemy. This is an enemy the state understands well. There’s nothing states love more than cutting off the “head of the snake.”
But this is no easy fight.
This is a well funded and powerful opponent. The governments of the world aren’t facing eGold, they’re facing the Association, the modern equivalent of the Dutch and British East India companies. All that’s missing is their own company armies. This isn’t some small band of brothers project, working in secret, trying to keep their Github online and their exchanges from getting shut down by hostile governments. It’s an alliance. An alliance with a war chest. Buy n Large?—?everything you need to be happy! (courtesy of the amazing Pixar and Wall-E)
The Association behind Libra has the money and clout to write and change laws. And when their Buy n Large platform boots up, that power will grow with each passing second as more and more fiat money flows into their coffers. Any country that stands in their way will face a flurry of lobbyists and NGOs that will punish regulators and rewrite laws in their favor or starve that government of brand new wealth while other countries flourish. It’s cyberpunk come to life. Massive multinational corporations against the power of state. And if cyberpunk tells us anything, it’s that corporations eventually win.
The Sky Above the Port was the Color of TV Tuned to a Dead Channel
For years I’ve warned that if the crypto community didn’t move fast the big boys and governments would take their ideas and warp them to fit the status quo. That time is now. If you want to corrupt the free-the-money movement, the formula is simple: Take a dash of power-to-the-people corporate marketing, like
banking the unbanked:
“Reinvent money. Transform the global economy. So people everywhere can live better lives.”
Just like Pepsi selling a fight the man message so you drink more sugary sweet cola, they’ve tugged at our heart strings with all those poor 3rd world people who just can’t get a bank account and buy things. Next you rope in the old world financial titans who’ve been patenting up the most basic and obvious ideas in the blockchain space to sue the hell out of any competitors to their global hegemony.
After that, make it simple and easy to use so that people who don’t care about trivial things like their privacy because they have “nothing to hide” will lap it up like good little lemmings. Lastly, trim it all down with key escrow and you’ve safely shut down the crypto revolution. Don’t worry Citizen, Facebook helpfully keeps your private keys for you so you don’t have any control over your money, just like the regular banking system! And of course, they won’t tie your money to an
ID according to the whitepaper:
“The Libra Blockchain is pseudonymous and allows users to hold one or more addresses that are not linked to their real-world identity.”
But we know that’s not true because “Calibra will require users to go through an intensive Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Know Your Customer (KYC)” on-boarding for every user. That’s just one of dozens of contradictions if you look close and read between the lines. We have a blockchain, non-blockchain. We have a permissioned system that will “transition to a permissionless system” with no explanation whatsoever of how they will pull off that little feat. We have a currency not tied to an ID but an intensive AML process.
Just like the Indian Aadhaar “voluntary” ID system where the system wasn’t supposed to keep people’s history and link it all together, all it took was the Indian government passing a law and now they have to keep the data. Then the government followed that by making an Aadhaar ID essential to open a bank account or keep your bank account open and suddenly voluntary is mandatory and we’ve slid as far down the slippery slope as possible.
Pretty soon a centralized digital ID will be absolutely required just to use the system, all for your protection. And then companies and governments will know everything you do and everywhere you go and everything you spend your money on as they track you with advanced AI/ML algorithms. If the dream of crypto enthusiasts was to restore self-sovereign money, they failed. Either that or this is a major setback and the rebel alliance needs to fall back and regroup fast.
Vader is and always was your daddy. These companies took the best ideas of the crypto community and channeled them safely back through known choke points. Maybe you thought you were working on the hope of the future when you got into crypto? All it would take was some patience and time and you could tunnel your way out of captivity. You didn’t realize your prison escape club was sponsored by the prison association all along. You were just tunneling into another part of the prison.
But there’s still hope.
Proprietary platforms often take an early lead because they can do just what Facebook did, design a fabulous interface, scale fast and hurl tons of money at the problem. Eventually though, open platforms catch up. Open source software ate proprietary software in the enterprise and the cloud over the last decade. Every major innovation starts in open source now, whether that is big data, or cloud, or AI. Open projects are slow moving, made by rebels and misfits standing against the galactic empire. They start off ugly but eventually find their way through a slow evolution that wins out over the directed evolution of proprietary systems.
At least that’s what I keep telling myself.
It doesn’t always work out that way. Apple builds walled gardens that work surprisingly well and it made them the biggest company in the world. Sometimes the rebel alliance pulls it out at the last minute, just like in the movies, but sometimes the empire wins.
It’s hard not to get depressed the more I look at Libra.
It’s everything I wanted for the crypto community, scalability, usability and a robust ecosystem of merchants and businesses supporting it with their hard earned money. They even built in a secondary investment coin for their corporate titans, basically a deflationary coin that rewards their oligarchy, and gamified money, because validators can give away Libra as rewards, just like I’ve been pushing for years.
And yet it’s everything that we should hate and fear.
Panopticon money. Lack of control. Identities linked to everything we do so that companies know where we live, where we shop, who we’re sleeping with, who we’re friends with and more. They can track our digital and real life right down to the nanosecond. And they can see through your wallet like Superman seeing through walls and into your past, present and even into your future with predictive analytics. They will control the flow of money and make or break businesses, communities and geographies.
And that is a disaster for the world.
We still have a chance to make a true break from the old world financial systems, to set money free, to separate money from state, to give control back to the people.
Facebook gave you an opening.
Let their lawyers deal with the might of terrified old world money titans. Let their lobbyists hammer out new laws and make and break nations that stand with them or against them.
Now is your chance.
If you haven’t hired every single developer and UX designer you can find, and reached out to every architect and business mastermind to help you craft a comprehensive platform and business plan then you need to move fast.
We’re running out of time.
Soon there won’t be any market left and Facebook will have stolen your dream right out from under your nose and turned it into a black mirror. If Libra is the ultimate winner in the space and speeds to world market dominance then crypto was the biggest waste of potential freedom ever invented.
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I am an author, futurist, systems architect, and thinker.