Like any self-respecting libertarian, Edward Snowden is a fan of cryptocurrency. The transparency naturally appeals to the former NSA contractor who leaked classified information from the agency to the journalists in 2013, and the lack of government control appeals to the Ron Paul campaign contributor (Snowden donated $500 in 2012).
This and his tech-savvy make Snowden a fitting blockchain explainer. From Russia, where he’s been granted asylum from the U.S. government, Snowden fills this role well in a new McSweeney’s collection called The End of Trust, which is currently available to read online thanks to a Creative Commons license. In an interview with his lawyer, Ben Wizner, Snowden elaborates on a technology that the former doesn’t quite understand in spite of the deluge of existing blockchain explainers.
But first, a bit more on Snowden. Depending on your thoughts on government interference, the 35-year-old programmer is either a hero or a villain. His NSA leaks revealed the true, disturbing extent to which the U.S. government spies on us—how it has its hands in private citizens’ emails, cell phones, and pornography viewing habits—and put government workers in danger by exposing some of the country’s best kept secrets. Years before he leaked classified information from the NSA, Snowden criticized The New York Times for exposing Bush administration secrets provided by anonymous sources. He compared the Times to “Wikileaks” and said sources who leaked “classified shit” should be “shot in the balls.” Commenters responding to his interview, republished by the ACLU, called Snowden both a “Russian stooge” and a “patriot.”
Believe what you will about Snowden, he does a good job explaining blockchain technology. Blockchain applications “are all variations on a single theme,” according to Snowden—“verifiable accounting. Hot.” In a single sarcasm he cuts through the hype to succinctly describe the potential of a technology that’s been hypothetically applied to everything from voting to our sex lives.
Here are the major takeaways from (yet another) blockchain explainer. It elucidates just as much about the person explaining the technology as the technology itself.
Snowden believes blockchain is, at its core, about “trust”—but trust is corruptible.
“In a world full of shifty bullshit, being able to prove something is true is a radical development,” says Snowden. Trust is the one real thing blockchains have to offer—but verification and transparency alone don’t create trust. “The hype is a world where everything can be tracked and verified,” says Snowden. “The question is whether it’s going to be voluntary.”
How would it be involuntary? Snowden doesn’t explain, but the implication may be that governments could require citizens to record all kinds of information in a public blockchain, like their medical records and monetary transactions. It would be a new kind of surveillance, but at least people would know that it’s happening. Snowden reveals here his mistrust of even a supposedly “trustless” system in the hands of our government.
Blockchain won’t save us from Amazon.
When Wizner asks if blockchain could “weaken” the likes of Amazon and Google, Snowden calls that “wishful thinking.” He thinks blockchain is more likely to disrupt trade than the dissemination of information and who rules the web. Blockchain is not going to decentralize the internet by removing power from the current tech behemoths, at least not anytime soon.
Cryptocurrency isn’t going to die.
Sure, bitcoin is only worth anything because enough people believe in its worth, and as the price slips, that number is likely decreasing. But other stores of value, like fiat currencies and gold, don’t have inherent worth, either. Paper money has value because of “men with guns,” says Snowden, implying crypto’s comparatively noble qualities. “One day capital-B Bitcoin will be gone, but as long as there are people out there who want to be able to move money without banks, cryptocurrencies are likely to be valued,” he says.
Government is the only obstacle between us and a future of private transactions.
Bringing up both Monero and Zcash, Snowden says, “If we don’t have private transactions by default within five years, it’ll be because of law, not technology.”
Governments shouldn’t be worried about a bitcoin coup.
“People will generally have to convert their magic internet money into another currency in order to spend it on high-ticket items,” says Snowden, “so the government’s days of real worry are far away.” In other words, the cryptocurrency payments ecosystem isn’t nearly robust enough to make government-backed currency obsolete.
In fact, cryptocurrency could come in handy for governments seeking to track down bad actors, if those bad actors are using crypto. “The French would work hand in hand with the Chinese to track the activity of bin Laden’s Bitcoin wallet, but the same is hopefully not true of Ai Weiwei,” he says, sounding almost suspiciously idealistic.
In the end, nothing deserves blockchain’s trust.
Ultimately, Snowden isn’t definitive on what trust problems might merit a blockchain solution. “We live in a world where everyone is lying about everything, with even ordinary teens on Instagram agonizing over how best to project a lifestyle they don’t actually have,” he says. “People get different search results for the same query. Everything requires trust; at the same time nothing deserves it.”