Vitalik Buterin can't solve societal problems with blockchain

A couple of days ago (March 2022), Time magazine featured the 28-year-old creator of the popular blockchain Ethereum on their cover and published a profile about him, including quotes from an interview they did a couple of weeks earlier.

If you’ve been following my blog, you know my views on blockchain and cryptos. In short, I think that blockchain sounds interesting in theory, but it’s clear that the theory doesn’t translate to reality: it doesn’t solve the trust problem, and it has a disproportionate amount of negative externalities that we can no longer ignore.

After reading Time’s article about Buterin, I believe him. I believe that he did start Ethereum thinking that it might make the world a fairer place. I even believe him that he still thinks that he can turn around this massive avalanche he has started.

In the Time profile, it becomes clear that he doesn’t approve of the get-rich-quick-schemes and scams:

“The peril is you have these $3 million monkeys and it becomes a different kind of gambling,” he says, referring to the Bored Ape Yacht Club, an überpopular NFT collection of garish primate cartoons that has become a digital-age status symbol for millionaires.

He even acknowledges that this might only be the tip of the iceberg:

“Crypto itself has a lot of dystopian potential if implemented wrong,” the Russian-born Canadian explains the morning after the party in an 80-minute interview in his hotel room.

Needless to say, many consider Buterin a genius. As described in his Time profile:

Instead, Vitalik gravitated to the clarity of numbers. At 4, he inherited his parents’ old IBM computer and started playing around with Excel spreadsheets. At 7, he could recite more than a hundred digits of pi, and would shout out math equations to pass the time. By 12, he was coding inside Microsoft Office Suite.

I think that Buterin, and others, like Elon Musk, while geniuses in the truest meaning of the word, lack something important when they try to solve problems that are not in the realm of science or technology. They lack a basic understanding of humans and human interactions. They lack empathy. They think that they can apply their tech genius to solve all kinds of problems. This is simply not the case. There are problems that cannot be solved by technology. They need to be solved by politics, activism, community organization, leadership and diplomacy.

The Time article paraphrases Buterin:

Buterin hopes Ethereum will become the launchpad for all sorts of sociopolitical experimentation: fairer voting systems, urban planning, universal basic income, public-works projects. Above all, he wants the platform to be a counterweight to authoritarian governments and to upend Silicon Valley’s stranglehold over our digital lives.

This hits the nail exactly on the head. It’s noble to want to have a fairer voting system, better urban planning and public-works projects. And, of course, authoritarian governments are not good for the world. But this is not a technology problem. Bad technology is not the reason some countries have unfair voting systems or autocrats. Bad technology is not even the reason why some cross-country money transfers are expensive, or why many people in the US still write checks. That’s precisely why a new technology cannot solve these problems.

I acknowledge that technology might help with some situations. For example, using a VPN can help citizens access content that their government censors. Sure, you can use Ethereum to send Ether to somebody who lives in an authoritarian country. But what then? They won’t be able to use Ether to pay for anything meaningful (because, and this is true, cryptocurrencies are actually not currencies), and it will be very hard for them to exchange it for their local currency. For example, Turkey banned the use of cryptos last year for exactly that reason.

While Buterin still believes that he can turn this ship around (or maybe he doesn’t believe it anymore, but needs to keep up the facade?), it’s clear to me that the means do not justify whatever utopian end blockchain could achieve.

We’re humans, not computers. We live in a chaotic world, and kindness and trust are essential pillars that uphold it and make it go round. We cannot swap human kindness and trust for a paradigm that’s reigned by code. I love technology, and it’s clear that technological tools help humans around the world every day to fight for a more equal society. But blockchain is not a tool in this tool belt. It has proven itself as a dead-end that enables all sorts of negative consequences, from destroying the environment to scams.

I don’t envy Vitalik Buterin. He must be suffering a severe case of cognitive dissonance. I believe that he believed, back then. He’s in too deep now to turn around. The right thing to do is to throw in the towel. Take some time to regroup, and then put his genius to work on something that actually will lead to a better world.