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The Importance Of Social Norms For Content-Neutral Platforms




Does the virtue of a decentralized platform created by an alt-right bigot vary from a decentralized platform created by a leftist Libertarian?

I recently read an article on BREAKER wherein I learned that the creator of Urbit, a virtual computer that allows individuals to control and store their own data and run apps, is Curtis Yarvin. Yarvin is perhaps best known as the man dubbed "the supreme Sith Lord of neo-reactionaries" by Nick Land in "The Dark Enlightenment," the formative text of the neo-reactionary movement.

In case you're unfamiliar, the Dark Enlightenment (AKA neoreaction or NRx) is a relatively new school of philosophy that posits that "democracy is not merely doomed, it is doom itself," that people are not created equal, and that the world has not become freer and more enlightened over time.

Some of the core Dark Enlightenment tenets alone aren't necessarily bad or even that controversial, and are in fact often well-defended on factual and philosophical grounds by people of all political ilks: Democracy often spells tyranny of the majority; cultural, physical, and intellectual differences exist, and some people are better at certain things than others; new technologies have enabled more efficient murder, and as human civilization advances we have had increasingly violent and destructive impacts on planet earth.

But the Dark Enlightenment is dark, and followers of the credo, including Yarvin, use these defensible arguments to defend some indefensible beliefs, like white nationalism and corporate feudalism.

I should clarify that Yarvin denies being a white nationalist, but he does defend the legitimacy of white nationalist belief: that white Americans are oppressed by nonwhite Americans, that it's legitimate to argue that nonwhite people are fundamentally cognitively different than white people on an evolutionary level, and that the threat imposed by white nationalists is only marginally greater than being smothered by a bunny in your sleep.

I would venture to guess that he and I share differing opinions regarding the impact of the Trump Administration's border policy, among other things.

That Yarvin created Urbit is not news, but it was news to me, and disturbing. And it raises fundamental questions about the ethics of content-neutral platforms, and social norms.

When Bad People Make Cool Things and Cool People Give Them Money

I learned about Urbit a few months back from a friend (who I choose to keep anonymous) whose investment company has provided funding to Urbit. Because I trust this friend's judgement as a software engineer, investor, social scientist, and ethically minded (if sometimes contrarian) human, I was surprised and disappointed to learn that they'd given this troll money. 

Enabled by social media and in true knee-jerk fashion, I immediately DMed them, "WHY ARE YOU GIVING THESE ASSHOLES MONEY?"

Despite my uncouth Twitter callout, the investor-friend provided a level-headed response:

"The Urbit project is the most transparent, most compliant, most clearheaded, most novel project in the space. The tech does not contain a political imperative, it's just stellar computer science, stellar engineering, stellar architecture, and stellar social thinking as far as what technology best enables individual freedom."

The answer didn't satisfy me, but it did prompt me to consider the ethics of the situation more closely, starting with the question: Is it bad to give bad people money to create content-neutral platforms?

My instinct here is obviously yes, it is bad. Rather than reward Yarvin with money and power, I would prefer that he walk around feeling like he just stubbed all of his toes and no one likes him.

But that's hardly a nuanced argument. And as my investor-friend pointed out, Urbit might be created by someone whose beliefs I find to be indefensible and repugnant, but the company is creating a product that could promote individual freedom, allow individual ownership and control of personal data, and disrupt surveillance capitalism on its content-neutral platform.

What the Urbit funding question really boils down to, for me, is this: When the two stand in contradiction, is it more important to promote positive social norms, or to promote the creation of content-neutral, "stellar" technology that might "best enable individual freedom?"

And on this issue, I say firmly and with confidence, the creation of neutral platforms must also be paired with the promotion of positive social norms. This is not to say that I value political correctness over freedom of expression, but that one without the other in either direction is nightmarish.

Freedom without ethical social norms is hardly freedom at all, but instead some kind of Dark Enlightenment-cum-Social Darwinist cesspool of extremist ideologies and hateful vitriol (which Yarvin might be okay with).

Political correctness without freedom of expression, on the other hand, would be a kind of 1984 communist dystopia where what is "politically correct" is determined by some centralized and oppressive authority, and deviants are subjected to torture-by-rat until they, too, love Big Brother.

And the key thing here is that we don't have to choose. There are plenty of software engineers (okay, maybe not plenty) without racist or otherwise deplorable social stances. Curtis Yarvin is not the one person who can create a content-neutral platform. And even if he was, we still shouldn't give him money, because freedom of expression without cultural norms promoting inclusivity, social cohesion, basic decency, and egalitarianism is not desirable and does not promote a more just, more livable world.

Ethereum Proves My Point

Ethereum is a great example of a content-neutral, censorship-resistant platform that does have positive social norms and is actively working to promote them. I see evidence of this daily on crypto Twitter, reddit, Github repositories, Gitter, Discord, Telegram groups, the scheduled speakers and topics at conferences and hackathons, scholarship opportunities for underrepresented people, et cetera, et cetera.

That doesn't mean there aren't any bad actors, racists, or misogynists, but it means that when they speak up, the community tends to delegitimize their voices through public callouts, and there are continual efforts to include disenfranchised and underrepresented voices in Ethereum community spaces – even if they're not always completely successful.

This is because the Ethereum community understands the world-changing significance of borderless, censorship-resistant, open and neutral platforms. Many in the community see Ethereum as potentially offering not only a technological platform for free speech, or the disruption of surveillance capitalism, and the promotion of individual freedom, but as a tool for social scalability possibly more powerful than the nation state.

Coined by Nick Szabo, who is credited with inventing smart contracts and laying the conceptual foundations for Bitcoin, social scalability is the ability of an institution to facilitate collaboration between participants to overcome limitations in individual human minds, and to allow for the participation of as many interested parties as possible.

Free speech is of absolute importance to creating the system of social scalability I think most of us want to see, and to creating the world we ultimately want to live in. Most of us agree that forums for debate and discussion are necessary to creating decentralized systems that best serve the interests of people.

Censorship-resistant, content-neutral platforms must exist for the perpetuation of social good and individual freedom. This is my uncompromising belief, and a key component to what compels me about public blockchain technology, and other content-neutral platforms, like Urbit. But it's the Ethereum community's awareness of what responsibilities accompany the right to free speech that push me toward this platform specifically. (Even if our tech isn't quite as stellar and we're still figuring out the whole governance thing.)

Alison Berreman

Alison has a master’s in English from the University of Wyoming. She lives with her pooch in Reno. Her favorite things to do include binge listening to podcasts, getting her chuckles via dog memes, and spending as much time outside as possible.

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