I’m a blockchain critic (in the company of countless others, as noted in the evergreen postscript on Blockchain Bunk), but I hope that this year’s Progressive CIO Technology of the Year doesn’t surprise you.
The Ethereum Merge was, in my eyes, the most important technology achievement of 2022.
Proof of Work was a reasonable way to kick off the cyber currency revolution, but it is not sustainable in its scalability, and the decentralization ideals behind the model have proven dubious. If the evolution of blockchain structures has taught us anything, it’s that decentralization continues to be alien to us.
My professional lifespan has been bookended with philosophical engineering movements whose aim was to prove that decentralization makes more sense than centralization. Over 30 years ago, Microsoft introduced Object Linking and Embedding (OLE), followed by IBM and Apple’s collaboration on OpenDoc. During those years, I served as an IT Director for a small publishing company, whose leadership was intrigued by these ideas, which were more academically interesting than practical. It was certainly neat-o for Joe’s PowerPoint to point to an Excel range in a document resident on Jill’s hard drive as well as a paragraph from a Word document on Mark’s drive. But who would want to keep track of the existence of these documents to ensure that Joe’s PowerPoint would function properly? What if Jill wanted to trash her ideas? What if her computer was off? What if Mark was fired, and his work proved to be a toxic force? Who was responsible for ensuring good enough computer hygiene to guarantee this would all work?
In those days, I remember asking my boss: if IBM thought peer-to-peer document links were the right architecture for enterprise work, wouldn’t they have designed the IBM System/360 in accordance with these ideals? So why didn’t they? Because anxiety:
- Would you want your home to have its contents scattered between you and your place of work?
- Are your cooking implements found in several rooms around your house?
- Are your toiletries in your kitchen and living room?
- Do you use a different keychain for each key? Do you keep each key in a different place?
- Do you have a different bank for each dollar in your savings?
- When shopping for groceries, do you enjoy visiting more than one store to gather everything you need?
We all want related things to stay together, as much as possible. Decentralization, in the vein of OLE and OpenDoc, makes us anxious. “What if Jill’s computer dies?” “Where is this information coming from again?” “Explain this to me again? How do I know it won’t move or disappear?”
In the wake of the thought experiments of OLE and OpenDoc, the Internet happened — boom, like that — bringing renewed and awesome focus to centralized information sources. OLE went on to become ActiveX (with a very different focus), and OpenDoc died. The client-server resonated with the human spirit, and it still does. With the Internet, every information resource had a canonical location, and it Just. Made. Sense.
Here we are, nearly a third of a century later, and the cryptocurrency movement asserts that we’ve been doing currency all wrong for 5,000+ years, calling centralization into question once again. No matter what the blockchain diehards assert, however, decentralization remains more theater than reality.
The Ethereum Merge was a risk not just in its technical execution, but in its philosophical positioning. It was the boldest of bold moves in a year overflowing with crypto failures that boggled human comprehension in more ways than one.. It has advanced the public dialog about transparency and decentralization theater, eschewing decentralization religion in favor of human comprehension.
While OpenAI, ChatGPT and the like might be popular candidates for this year’s award (and, despite widespread coverage, are very much works-in-progress that demo well for a few minutes but whose limits are quickly reached—better candidates for a future award), Ethereum’s move to Proof of Stake was a bolder statement. It is an honest and transparent step toward something more controversially centralized. The model, while lacking the abstract and religious purity of the Proof of Work blockchain, is easier for people to comprehend. The Merge didn’t just reduce Ethereum’s power consumption; it made it more possible for people of average intelligence to comprehend WTF is going on with the underpinning value proposition of ETH. Beyond that, more importantly, it increases the chances that cybercurrency will either have to significantly transform itself in order to meet a real need, or disappear altogether. Either of those things will be better for humanity than what we have today.
All this said, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t remind you: there’s a lot more work to be done. The Ethereum Merge didn’t solve many things:
- The misapplication of blockchain to physical goods;
- The unfounded assertions that blockchains are hack-proof;
- The fact that today’s cryptocurrencies are actually investments with significant risks associated with them, and that they need to be regulated by bodies like the SEC;
- The entire idea of Web3, which needs a decentralization reality check of epic proportions.
If a technology move is significant enough to drive public discourse about the state of the human universe, it deserves our attention. This is why the Ethereum Merge is the Progressive CIO Technology of the Year for 2022.
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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPGFj-swZA0.