The premier of the third season of Westworld, which aired yesterday, featured an “Uber for Crime” app called “RICO” (short for “Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations”). Used by a character who’s down on his luck to find black market jobs, the app was described by the creators of the show in a post-credits scene as the natural “end-game” for blockchain technology. A “trustless” underbelly economy that includes dark tasks like “personals,” which involve kidnapping and murder, and which functions outside the purview of a seemingly-benevolent surveillance state. But is this an accurate depiction of what the end-game for blockchain technology will really look like? That is what I explore in this post.
In a previous post, I argued that blockchains can be thought of as a database that’s uniquely good at one thing: not being shut down. A natural question then becomes: If good actors in a well-functioning society are able to do business just fine, then what’s the point of having a database that can’t be shut down? Won’t it be used exclusively by criminals to circumvent law and order, as illustrated by the Westworld premiere?
I think the answer is subtle, but that the nuance is worth considering. When times are good and trust in government is high, things that were originally put in place as a “check” against oppression start to get questioned. For example, what’s the point of end-to-end encryption or information privacy more broadly when all it seems to do is make it harder for government officials, who people generally trust when times are good, to catch criminals? The problem with this argument is that removing the check on government has the side-effect of making society dangerously sensitive to oppression down the road, specifically when times are not so good.
To use Westworld as an example, what happens when Rehoboam, the seemingly-benevolent seemingly-omniscient AI coordinating the actions of all of humanity, decides that “the right path” involves a massive genocide of the human race? In such a situation, it seems the RICO app would be left as the only way to coordinate a human resistance. But we don’t need to presume a fantasy AI takeover in order for technologies like end-to-end encryption and blockchain to be useful. Rather, even today, oppression is carried on by ordinary humans, and the same technologies that enable a small minority of criminals are enabling a vastly larger group of freedom-fighters all over the world. A good example of this is the Tor browser, which is simultaneously infamous for enabling illegal “darknet” transactions and famous, in a positive way, for giving people in totalitarian regimes access to information (the latter being important enough that the US government is actually one of the biggest financial backers of the Tor project).
And with blockchain technology, we can do more than just communicate simple messages in the face of oppression. Bitcoin, as the most famous example, made it possible to carry out uncensorable financial transactions. And the Ultranet, which is probably as close as it gets to the RICO app in real life, extends the blockchain concept beyond simple financial transactions to provide a fully-decentralized cryptocurrency marketplace, where all orders are end-to-end encrypted and all data is preserved as long as a single person somewhere in the world is running the software (using a new technology it introduces called a “block pool”).
Thus we come back to the original original question: is crime the only thing blockchain technology is good for, as one might think from watching Westworld? My answer is that, when times are good blockchain can seem like a nuisance but when things go bad, as they inevitably do, it’ll be the only thing standing between us and a totalitarian surveillance state (whether it’s presided over by humans or an all-powerful AI).