While driving around on some errands I was yammering about something crypto related with the family. This is when they patiently listen a bit, and then change the subject back to something else when I leave a break in the conversation.
This time though my break was met with a question from my daughter. “Dad, describe crypto in three words or less.” I’m going to ignore the presumed verbosity in limiting me to three words. I decided to embrace the challenge.
I thought for a bit and hit on the three words:
Common Digital Ownership
I suspect that these are not the three words that everyone would come up with. So, let me give some context.
Let’s start in the middle. It is very clear that the digital world is continuing to grow in significance for our lives. Certainly the amount of time we spend online has increased significantly over the last decade. But that is just the beginning. Nearly every part of our life now involves some form of digital interaction. We do our banking digitally. We watch nearly all of our entertainment and news digitally. We keep track of our favorite sports digitally. We book our restaurant reservations, haircuts, Doctor visits, and everything else digitally.
With every passing day the digital world becomes increasingly important to everything we do. In fact, many of us now have a digital identity that is part of our overall identity.
In short, we need to care and pay attention to our digital experiences.
As digital becomes an ever increasing part of our life there are concepts that are obvious in the real world but are very complicated in the digital world. Ownership is one of those.
Since the beginning of computing, technology has made it increasingly cheaper to make perfect copies of anything. In fact, so cheap that we could consider it free. If I have a song or a photo, I can make copies forever for nearly no cost.
In the real world we like to say that “possession is 9/10ths of the law”. Mostly, if I physically have an object, more than likely I own it as well. This is patently not true in the digital world.
I could have an application, an image, a song, or any number of different things that I have gotten digitally but not own any of them. However, ownership is still important, particularly as more of our life happens online.
There have been workarounds. When we buy software now we get a long string of random characters that is a license key for us to use that software. That is a form of asserting ownership. I could embed into the IPTC and EXIF metadata for a photo a copyright statement to assert ownership. But none of these have the same qualities of actually possessing something, like if I have a hammer in my house. It is almost certainly my hammer. Or my neighbor is missing a hammer.
Crypto gives us a means of asserting, verifying, and proving ownership. In fact, enables the first digital asset that cannot be copied at any cost.
This ownership could be of anything. It could prove that you own some Bitcoin or Ethereum. It could prove that you own an NFT that represents the right to use a piece of software. It could be a certificate that proves you have a degree from a certain college. It could be the literal digital file for a song that you have ownership of. It could be a POAP that proves you were at my cabin one summer.
I believe that being able to own things, and transfer that ownership, is an important feature of our digital world.
The first word is last because I want to first establish that the digital world is critically important, and then second that ownership is an important feature of the world that should be represented in that digital world.
It could be argued that we have this feature already. In fact, if I login to the iTunes Store and buy a DRM-free song, I have ownership of that song. Or at least I do as long as iTunes agrees with me. If I buy an eBook on Amazon I think I sort of own that book, although I really don’t since they have recalled books that people have purchased.
I believe it is vitally important that we have a way of owning digital assets that is independent of corporations and governments, relying on something akin to “the commons” as much as possible.
Common wasn’t the first world that came to mind here. First was “decentralized” which I think is a fine word, but it is a how more than a why. Plus it’s a $5 technical word that most people will scratch their heads about. Yes decentralized is important, but more important is that it is decentralized in “the commons”, meaning average people running average infrastructure to make this service work.
The other word I liked was “public”. I think that works well too, but I worry about potential interpretation as a government service. Ownership must be done without corporations, non-profits, the government, or any other finite “entity”.
Important to “common” is the legitimacy that comes along with it. There is a common argument that critics of crypto make, that blockchains are just a database, and a bad one at that. Blockchain isn’t a database, because it has legitimacy as a feature. A database only gets legitimacy from the organization that runs it, companies or governments. For us to have ownership that is more akin to the hammer being in my house, it needs to be legitimate and owned as a common capability.
Common Digital Ownership
This is the foundational argument that I would make for crypto. There are a near infinite number of things that can be built on Common Digital Ownership, but the core is simple. We shouldn’t rely on corporations or governments granting us the right to own digital things. We need to be able to create, own, share, transfer, and sell things completely on our own in the digital space. Just like we can in real life right now.