A year ago, I set out to build the Ultranet, a blockchain marketplace that I released yesterday. A marketplace whose listings can’t be taken down and whose transactions can’t be tied to any of its users’ real-world identities. A marketplace where as long as a single user somewhere in the world is running the software, all listings, orders, and all reputation data is preserved. In this post, I explain why I decided to create the Ultranet, and the implications for the future of cryptocurrency platforms.
Today, the world’s major technology platforms (Amazon, Alibaba, Google, Baidu, Facebook, WeChat, etc) are controlled by a relatively small group of people with relatively limited oversight. As a result, virtually all of our information is owned by people who may not have our best interests at heart, and the basic rules that govern virtually everything we do online get decided through opaque processes that we have very little transparency on and input into. Moreover, it’s important to note that the owners of these platforms can exhibit an unprecedented amount of sway over our political process not only through traditional lobbying but also through their control over us as their users (the social media malfeasance in the 2016 US election being a powerful example of the scope of this influence). Thus we are left with a situation in which what we say, what we see, what we hear, what we buy, and, if the trend continues, what we can and can’t do with our lives, is ultimately out of our control, with little indication that things will change anytime soon. Is a world where a handful of platform oligarchs rule over us the kind of world we want to live in? Or could there perhaps be a better way to organize society’s technical infrastructure?
Perhaps surprisingly, I believe there is a lot to be optimistic about. For starters, I think that the open-source movement is a great example of people unifying their efforts behind single platforms in a way that does not result in a threat to individual sovereignty. For example, with the Linux operating system, engineers from all over the world from many different companies (including many who were working at the platform monopolies themselves) collaboratively improved on the software until it could rival anything produced by the private market. Today, Linux has become so dominant for server architectures that even Microsoft’s cloud operation supports it as a first-class citizen. A similar case can be made for Postgres, Elastic Search, and many other projects. However, while the open-source movement has come to dominate engineering infrastructure, it has yet to make a real dent on the consumer side of the equation (with Bitcoin being, in my view, the first notable exception for reasons I will discuss). For example, even when it comes to something like email, which is an open standard, the dominant players that users interact with are private companies like Google (GMail). But why is that?
I believe that one major reason is that, before Bitcoin and before the Ultranet, we, as a society, had yet to figure out a way to collaboratively maintain a database without major access control issues. For example, suppose we wanted to build an open-source marketplace– how do we store the listing database (i.e. the database of who’s selling what) in a way that it can’t be manipulated by malicious parties? For example, how do we allow global access to the database for collaboration purposes but without opening ourselves up to the risk of one merchant sabotaging a competitor’s listings or changing their rating? As I see it, the answer before the cryptocurrency era and before the Ultranet was something along the lines of, “we can’t solve this problem, we need a centralized entity like Amazon to run the database, and it only works if they’re the only ones with the keys.” And I believe similar logic, which was justified in the past, has been at the heart of why we haven’t been able to apply the principles of open-source (namely global collaboration on a unified product) to user-facing applications.
The above being said, I believe that Bitcoin showed us for the first time that we could use cryptographic techniques to maintain a global collaboratively-upgradable database without access control issues. Fundamentally what we got with Bitcoin, in my view, was a collaborative way to build an app, without needing to give a centralized party the keys. The benefit in Bitcoin’s case, of course, was that we could use these primitives to create a digital store of value that is not controlled by the banks or the government (a “money oligarchy” of sorts). But the question, for me, was could we extend these primitives to build not just a store of value, but an entire marketplace platform. As the modern tech platforms come to replace the banks as the most powerful oligarchs of our time, and the biggest threats to individual sovereignty, could we create a check on their power the way Bitcoin checks that of the banks?
The Ultranet is my affirmative answer to this question, and thus the natural evolution of Bitcoin, from a collaboratively-upgradable database of solely financial transactions, to one that can store all the media needed to run a fully-functioning marketplace platform. Moreover, I believe that the technological breakthroughs I discovered while developing the Ultranet, which I discuss in the Ultranet paper, will allow us to bring the decentralization of Bitcoin to other application domains while maintaining feature parity with existing centralized alternatives, something that I think has been holding the space back until now.
Thus, in the same way the traditional platform monopolist naturally tends to vertically integrate her operation, I believe strongly that open-source software has the potential to do the same, with the Ultranet being the natural next step in this process of consolidation. A process governed, in contrast, not by a small group of individuals behind closed doors, but by a society of people working collaboratively in broad daylight.