Silicon Valley’s Deep Debt Weighs Heavily On My Future

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to do next with my life. Visiting home for the holidays and thinking about a “new year, new me” can do that, the way a long shower can sometimes lead to an existential crisis. Almost two years ago, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area with plans to start or join a company that serves the bitcoin economy, and have spent most my time since pursuing that dream. I started a consulting website so people could contact me to learn about bitcoin, and I started a blog and podcast to share my ideas about how bitcoin and all things p2p can change the world for the better.

The latter two endeavors have been more hobby than business, not netting me any notable financial gains. Instead, I consider them speculative philanthropy in pursuit of educating the public as to the best ways to acquire and use bitcoin and other p2p technologies. My more entrepreneurial endeavors have so far netted me no notable financial gains either, instead serving as learning opportunities that no accredited university could have ever offered me. I’ve learned a lot about cryptocurrency technology, startup entrepreneurship, and the Bay Area entrepreneurial ecosystem. I’ve also learned something which may forever change how I look at my role as an entrepreneur: Silicon Valley is in deep environmental and social debt.

My journey as an independent thinker started when I was a child, reading encyclopedias and history books in my free time, but reached a peak around the time that I graduated high school. I graduated early, leaving me with a lot of free time on my hands while my friends were still at school. This time was mostly spent playing video games, surfing Wikipedia, or watching documentaries online. It was these documentaries, and everything I learned from the Internet when I was following up on claims or references made in them, that led me to think deeply about my lifestyle and my own impact on the planet.

What I learned about the state of society and our planet’s environment made me more conscious about where the products I purchased came from. I chose to use a credit union instead of a bank, I began to buy organic products almost exclusively, I bought local produce more often to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support the local economy, I bought an electric bike to reduce my dependency on oil companies, and I purchased clothing made from a hemp blend instead of cotton or polyester; in general, I started to “vote with my wallet” for a better world. This trend continued when I found bitcoin, which I saw as an alternative to a financial system that is rigged top-to-bottom to benefit the largest banks, corporations, and governments at the expense of everyone else.

Bitcoin was like a strong magnet, on the one side attracting me, and on the other, repelling. I have written before about how its total transparency was both reassuring and frightening to me, and about how unsustainable its mining process seems from an environmental standpoint. Addressing the sustainability concern is of deep interest to me, and is why I’ve been supportive of efforts such as Ripple and Ethereum, both projects that are trying to address some of the challenges that Bitcoin faces today. The reason Bitcoin’s sustainability is of such interest to me is that, as my personal story here describes, I am conscious of the impact that my existence has on the world and try to do my best to make my impact net positive. If I am going to put my money into something, and go so far as to encourage other people to also put money into something, I want it to be something that is holistically sustainable – something that is a win-win-win all around to the greatest degree possible.

Right now, bitcoin is kind of disappointing from a sustainability perspective. Bitcoin mining equipment itself has issues stemming from “dirty” component sources to questionable labor practices in certain manufacturing centers. Mining machines also require a lot of electricity to run, and while some of that electricity is thankfully coming from solar, hydroelectric, or geothermal power, I’d reckon a lot more of it comes from coal, oil, nuclear fission, or natural gas (it’s hard to say for sure since the mining network is decentralized and lacks meaningful statistics aside from its current and historical hashrate). I consider coal, oil, nuclear fission, and natural gas unsustainable due to the fact that they are non-renewable and environmentally destructive to produce and consume. Even solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal have their issues; the components used to create solar panels can be toxic, hydroelectric projects have been known to disrupt local ecosystems, and geothermal has only been deployed at a meaningful scale in areas near tectonic plate boundaries. On the whole, bitcoin mining is dirty business which will only get worse as the bitcoin price goes up and the network hashrate increases.

Thinking about bitcoin mining in this light has brought me to think about the broader environmental and social impact of electronics in general. Such technology has brought about rapid advances in productivity and connectedness, and yet average working wages in the US are stagnant and increased connectivity has brought with it mass surveillance and a new generation of narcissists. At the same time, landfills are overflowing with toxic e-waste, and recycling simply can’t keep up with the demand for new electronics, fueling a destructive mining industry and increasing demand for toxic chemicals and cheap labor (which only remains cheap because governments prevent competition in the labor market to protect incumbent businesses).

It is in this context that I find myself as a budding entrepreneur who is conscious of the impact my existence has on the world, and who seeks to always leave things better than I found them. I can’t even consider buying a laptop without feeling a twinge of guilt as I think of the workers exploited and air, land, and water polluted to create the device and deliver it to my doorstep; instead, I have chosen to use the same laptop since 2011 and I am not yet looking forward to the day that I must replace it. I have heard people justify such purchases as being a means to an end. I used to hear this argument in response to criticisms of environmentalists who fly on planes for work or play, and never found it very satisfying.

As I wrote in the first post on this blog, I have been thinking of shifting my focus from cryptocurrency to identity, and accompanying this shift is a desire to build and sell servers for personal use so that people can gain control of their digital identity and personal data. My concern is that, if I am to do this the way I perceive to be the right way, I face a lot of difficulty in doing so. I will have to source all of the components from both environmentally and socially ethical and sustainable sources, and manufacture the devices in facilities that offer people healthy working conditions and not just a living wage, but a thriving wage. Doing all that would be very expensive, even prohibitively expensive given that I am not a rich founder who can bootstrap a venture to success. Such a venture is something I’ve been discussing at length with my colleagues at the okTurtles Foundation as a means of making our work financially sustainable, and they share my concerns.

There is some precedent for success in ethical electronics: Fairphone is a really fantastic initiative to “open up supply chains, solve problems and use transparency to start debate about what’s truly fair.” That social enterprise has been alive since 2010, and has been independently funded without donations or VC investments. Ind.ie successfully completed a crowdfunding campaign and raised over $100,000 to finance the development of a distributed social network, which will culminate in the development of an “indiephone” and personal cloud platform which gives people control of their data. Combining these projects with networks like Maidsafe and Ethereum could create the ultimate p2p platform and fulfill my dreams of sustainable, ethical technology without the need for a new venture to catalyze change.

And where does that leave me?

I don’t know, but I do know that Silicon Valley and the electronics industry in general has a deep environmental and social debt to pay, and I wish to add no more debt to that burden.


Email is probably the most popular decentralized messaging protocol. Add yourself to my email contacts if you would like to stay in touch!

The First Post Is Always The Hardest

It is September 28, 2014. A year and a half after purchasing the domain name “lightco.in,” a website has found it’s home here. Welcome! A special thank you to INRegistry and NIXI for letting me be here. One day I’ll get an uncensorable domain name a la Namecoin, but that day is not today. Namecoin is a really interesting concept, but I think it is likely to be overtaken in adoption by superior technology. The problems that prevent me from using Namecoin right now are problems I would like to work on and am actively interested in. In terms of technology, I’m mainly interested in two distinct yet related areas: Identity and value transfer. Identity is a tool used to socially interact with others, and value transfer tools are used to economically interact with others. Conceptually these are both deeply powerful and inherent to human nature, yet in practice the tools used for Identity and value transfer end up being deeply disempowering.

Identity in the modern world consists of two primary experiences: one in which our Identity is chosen for us, is attached to us foreveri, and we have to tell our secrets to everyoneii, and another in which we choose what Identities we want to assume but we’re told we have to remember different secrets for every context and these secrets must be hard (for a computer) to guess but easy (for a human) to remember. I am referring here to Legal Identity and Self Identity. Legal Identity can be the Identity people are given by their parents, and registered with the State, often in exchange for a unique number for purposes of identifying oneself as a unique Person in the State system; it can also be the Identity given to people by an organization they opt-in to later in life, like a school, business, NGO, etc, which is often linked to the State Identity. The Self Identity is an Identity people choose for themselves, often in online communities where a reputation can be built around a self-chosen name. Both Identity experiences are useful in theory, but in practice can often seem like more work than they’re worth. This is a serious, critical pain point in complex technological societies, and there is an urgent sense that there must be a better way.

Value transfer technology has been historically flawed as well, ranging from pieces of metal and paper whose value are easy to dilute, to slow and expensive electronic systems run by centralized, monolithic institutions. Then in 2009, the Bitcoin software was released and everything changed. Suddenly value of any amount could be transferred anywhere there was an internet connection as fast as email and for less than the cost of a postage stamp. The underlying technology which made this possible, the block chain, is a public ledger that is synchronized worldwide by a network of computers that run high-energy computations to secure and store each entry in the ledger. These computers compete to add new transactions to the block chain and are rewarded with tokens called “bitcoins” that are needed to make additional entries to the block chain. Only a limited amount of these tokens exist: 25 are awarded approximately every ten minutes (this amount halves approximately every 4 years), with a hard cap of approximately 21 million total bitcoins that will ever exist. Once that total is reached, the only incentive for the computers to participate in the security of the Bitcoin block chain will be transaction fees, which a computer earns each time it adds new transactions to the block chain. The invention of this system made the secure transfer of value across an open network possible for the first time, and has spawned a wave of innovation and a new class of technology that is broadly referred to as “cryptocurrency” (though the ledger is as much a star of the show as the token or “currency”).

The problem with Identity today is that it is centrally controlled and too easy to copy, like the currency of old. Now, cryptocurrency technology has decentralized control over currency and made it much more difficult to copy, and this technology can do the same for Identity. Combining these two concepts, cryptocurrency and Identity, could give us a system where Identity is controlled by the individual and easily verifiable using a public ledger system without revealing private information. The problem I see holding back that vision is the insecurity of hardware and software that most people are using right now. While cryptocurrency is really hard to compromise in theory, in practice it can be relatively trivial due to the insecurity of everything. Any attempts to make the technology more secure will inevitably make it less convenient to use. However, I believe that technologists are making the gap between security and convenience smaller all the time, and there will come a time when the security of hardware, firmware, and software are improved to the point that physical security will be the only concern. When this is achieved, then it will be possible to trust our devices with our Identity.

Efforts are being made to secure cryptocurrency at the hardware level. Trezor was the first commercially produced, dedicated hardware device for the purposes of storing Bitcoin private keys and signing messages with them. Just as Bitcoin private keys authorize the transfer of value from one person to another, so too could private keys authorize access to remote and local systems the way Identity does today. Identity can give you access to a driver’s license, financial services, vices, firearms, entertainment venues, online accounts, and more. It’s a challenge/response system: is this person eligible for access to this good or service? Identity answers that question. Usually the challenge is very specific: what is the person’s birth date? What is the person’s username and password? What is the person’s name and social security number? Instead, the questions could be much less invasive, reducible to: can the person produce a valid signature for this public key? To trust the answer to that question, people must be able to trust the source of the answer: the hardware, firmware, and software. This gets us back to trust in the security of technology.

For us to make the leap from analogue to digital, from centralized to decentralized, we must trust the security of our technology. Trezor is an excellent first step for technology designed for protecting cryptocurrency private keys, and I think similar devices will be produced for digital Identity. In fact, since both kinds of devices would simply be used for storing private keys and signing messages, one device could serve both purposes. With such a device, the number of accounts one could create would be limited only by computer memory. One account could be for a State Identity, another a Professional Identity, another a Hobby Identity, and on and on. These accounts could be stored on separate devices for better security (since risk is decentralized). With such a device, Identity and value transfer can be managed easily by everyone, with full control in the hands of the individual.

Right now my main focus is increasing awareness and adoption of cryptocurrency and other p2p technology, but my next focus will definitely be in the production and distribution of hardware designed to protect private keys and enable convenient cryptographic message signing. Such devices would have a multitude of uses, but value transfer and Identity are easy market entry points. Probably Identity first, since many people are already comfortable with digital Identity in one form or another, then cryptocurrency once that technology gains broader adoption. Perhaps such devices will be the catalyst for widespread cryptocurrency adoption, since it will make the technology more secure and user-friendly. Either way, if you’re interested in working on the problems discussed in this post, do get in touch.

State of Mind is a blog series about various topics that are on my mind. Current events, discoveries, questions, stories, and insights will be shared here.

iThere are often processes for getting a new government-issued Identity, but they are not exactly convenient.

 

iiConsider how many times you’ve been asked for your name, address, and social security number, and then consider that every time you complied, you gave the other person (and anyone else who could access that information) everything they would need to steal your Legal Identity.


Email is probably the most popular decentralized messaging protocol. Add yourself to my email contacts if you would like to stay in touch!