Why I write this blog
|Tony Sheng||May 7, 2019|
I’ve written a lot over the past year–over 80 posts covering a broad range of topics around crypto. This blog is my lightly edited stream of conscious. I spend little time thinking about what pieces will “do well,” I just sit down with a blank page and write until there’s a thread I want to pull. Then I pull it until there’s a post.
My writing relies on my natural curiosity about the space. When that curiosity runs out, I’ll stop writing. On that day, I’ll sit down with a blank page and realize there’s nothing else I want to explore about crypto.
But I have been and remain very curious. Why?
Exploration vs exploitation
There’s an algorithm in machine learning called the “exploration-exploitation trade-off.” Given finite resources and a goal of maximizing rewards, should one spend resources on trying new things with unknown rewards or doing something familiar with a known reward.
For example, if you want to maximize your dining pleasure, should you try new restaurants every date night or just visit your favorite spot every time? Or should you try new jobs and new roles or stay in the same one?
It’s a useful concept that you start to see everywhere. I’m naturally inclined to explore. Maybe it comes from an epistemic humility (I can’t possible know enough to exploit) or maybe I’m just easily distracted and novelty-seeking.
To successfully run exploration-exploitation, you need a goal. This is easy for something like revenue generation and harder for life satisfaction. (Explore-exploit for jobs is hard. Most people don’t have clear language to describe what they really want from work. This is in part why I started Click Here To Apply)
When it comes to this blog, there are a few goals that I optimize for. Some are small goals like improving my writing skills. Others are big like understanding what technologies will increase freedoms for humanity.
It has taken me some time to find the language to articulate the big goals, but I think I have it now. Which leads us to the saying “the medium is the message.”
McLuhan Mediums and Messages
Marshall McLuhan with BTCs
Marshall McLuhan is famous for coining the saying “the medium is the message.” An influential figure in media theory, McLuhan believed that from a societal point of view, the contents delivered through a technology (e.g. a tweet via twitter or a news broadcast via television) were less important than the impacts the technology had on its environment. As he said, “we shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”
“The medium is the message” describes the interactions between three things:
McLuhan Medium: “any extension of ourselves or our senses.”
McLuhan Content: the literal contents delivered by the medium (e.g. the 240 characters on your twitter feed).
McLuhan Message: “the change of scale or pace or pattern.”
McLuhan thought of mediums as technologies that extend human capabilities. Like a wheel extends your legs, language extends our thoughts to other humans and reading extends the thoughts of others to ourselves. Smart phones extend our social connectivity and access to information.
These mediums afford the transmission of content: words come from language, apps come from smart phones, tweets come from twitter, films come from film. The content is where we spend our attention. But McLuhan argues we are missing the bigger picture: the message.
The McLuhan Message is how things are changed as a result of a McLuhan Medium. This is where people get confused. The McLuhan Message is not content (like “message” in “text message”), it is environmental impact. So the McLuhan Medium of a TV might deliver McLuhan Content reporting a crime, leading to a McLuhan Message of increasing fear in our societies.
As McLuhan would say in an interview with Playboy1 from 1969, “societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media with which people communicate than by the content of the communication.”
Today, we are coming to terms with the McLuhan Message of modern technologies like social media, mobile phones, and machine learning. While these technologies have had numerous positive effects, they have also lead to distrust, intolerance, marginalization, censorship, and further concentration of power.
McLuhan’s work implores us to focus less on the contents (e.g. the 240 characters in Trump’s tweet) and more on the medium itself. The medium, not the contents, reveal how society will change.
Exploring mediums for freedom
I wasn’t familiar with McLuhan’s work when I first started studying bitcoin in 2012/ 2013, but I instantly felt a sense of wonder and possibility. Today, I describe that sensation through “bitcoin as a possible medium with a message of freedom.” I felt similarly when I encountered Ethereum in 2016.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about McLuhan’s work, 50 years later, is his views on how the internet would shape society. He thought the internet would dramatically improve personal freedoms and unity. He envisioned one global tribe, connected by the internet, and somehow programmed by mass media to reach a harmonious equilibrium. And though the internet has done so much good, it spawned other mediums like social media that have had a negative impact on society (e.g. polarization, privacy loss)2.
While he got the nature of the internet’s message wrong, he got the scale of change right (massive), and understood the very high stakes:
Today, in the electronic age of instantaneous communication, I believe that our survival, and at the very least our comfort and happiness, is predicated on understanding the nature of our new environment, because unlike previous environmental changes, the electric media constitute a total and near-instantaneous transformation of culture, values and attitudes. This upheaval generates great pain and identity loss, which can be ameliorated only through a conscious awareness of its dynamics.
Today’s new technologies can reach virtually every human on the planet instantaneously. The velocity and scale of environmental change is unprecedented; unprecedented opportunity to do good and unprecedented opportunity to do damage. If McLuhan were alive today, he’d be ringing the bell telling us that history shows we don’t invest enough of our resources in cultivating conscious awareness of our technologies.
Bitcoin, “blockchain,” whatever you want to call it, has the potential to be the medium McLuhan wanted for society (e.g. more personal freedom, less violence). But it also has the potential to make things worse (e.g. greater concentrations of wealth, inability to punish evil people). I have many interests that I explore and will continue to explore here on my blog, but exploring trust-minimized technologies as media–extensions of human capabilities–to understand their messages is my priority.
I guess the content in Playboy actually was good back in the day ↩
Big thanks to Sonya Mann for her feedback here. Previously, this section read: “While we know massive good has come from the internet, most would agree that the net effect on society has been polarization and a loss of personal freedoms.” I did not mean what I said there and Sonya was kind enough to point out my error. The internet it not net negative. ↩