A recent attempt at “social censorship” (ie. using personal power dynamics to change how one communicates) got me thinking about this all-important distinction. Status claims to be “Apolitical”: https://our.status.im/on-apoliticism-social-movements-and-coercion/ but is such a stance really possible?
Here’s why distinguishing more clearly than the post above between law and politics is interesting. The question really is, are either fundamental to human relationship (and therefore organisation)? Certainly, law is just a useful fiction, constructed in careful and laborious language, which we use to scale our ability to relate to others (i.e. the law allows us to transact with those we do not trust). This means, given a certain set of technologies which allow relationship without trust by some other mechanism (in our case, even more exacting and now executable language), we can and should organise using means other than those deemed acceptable by outdated understandings of all the ways in which it is possible to relate. Gavin Wood has a great talk on alegality and I certainly think that building tools which operate outside the rulesets of other humans (no better or worse than ourselves) is a worthwhile and interesting thing to do.
However, is politics equally just a useful social fiction? I don’t think so. I think politics is fundamental to human relationship. It’s one of the major reasons scaling organisations is hard: at larger numbers, politics always becomes more important. If politics is the result of personal power dynamics between people, then it is inevitable in any group of human beings, and the attempt to deny it’s existence (or say it doesn’t apply to us) is foolhardy.
Let’s break down that Status post linked above. First, it might be better to go further back than just Ethereum for some Background. Is Bitcoin apolitical? Claiming so would be to ignore the FT article titled “Chancellor on Brink of Second Bailout for Banks” included by Satoshi in its Genesis Block. What exactly this implies about Satoshi and Bitcoin’s politics is less relevant here than the fact that it signals clearly that Bitcoin was not born into some impossible political vacuum. Any sufficiently powerful technology is inherently political (and even more so if using that technology does not depend on agreeing with the creator’s personal political beliefs or position of power).
So, clearly the issue here is definitional. Using our tools, which have “already been [largely] defined and expressed by the technologies we build upon” should not mean that you need to agree with our views, and the tools themselves should allow you to express as diverse a range of political and other opinions as possible without the possibility of censorship. We need to be a clear window and not let personal opinions influence how we implement Status. This much we all seem to agree on. However, this is itself a political stance! It is a political stance that values liberty and freedom of speech (and association) over “acceptable” political dogma and thought. It aims to achieve such political goals by being alegal: that is, operating outside the frame in which the social construct of law can be used to control others by people in positions of asymmetric power.
Let’s get even more background. “Politics” comes originally from the Greek politēs meaning ‘citizen’ and from polis, meaning ‘city’. It is a word which indicates how individuals navigate their relationships with the larger social organisms of which they are a part. It is part and parcel of what it means to be human (if you accept that umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu).
Jarrad’s article, much of which (esp. the latter half) I agree with, builds itself on one, simple premise:
Ethereum is a virtual machine the state of which is distributed over a p2p network that enables verifiable computing. Nothing more, nothing less.
Like Ethereum, the position of Status as a technology should be neutral.
Rather than pull this apart with a different reading list, I’m genuinely interested to hear what others think. Personally, I think the article is really suggesting that we be neutral in terms of how we implement what we build, which translates directly to a neutrality in terms of what people use it to achieve. However, this is - at least semantically - still a political stance, so we should not confuse ourselves with vague language that collapses politics, law and morality. Also, can tech ever really be neutral? And is Ethereum really just that, nothing more, nothing less? Tell me your views!
Am I saying that anyone representing Status should be able to tout any political idea they like?
No, not at all. Politics has to do with relationships between people; a large part of human relationship is transactional; and there is a good business case to be made that Status’ messaging as an organisation remain as neutral as possible in order to reflect (or protect, or establish the lasting integrity of) the alegal nature of the tools we aim to build. I just don’t think we should confuse this practical, business consideration with somehow having an “apolitical” stance in general. Encryption, anonymity and free trade between sovereign individuals are inescapably political ideas!
What, then would you - in your personal capacity - say is the “politics” of Status?
Well, simply what I outlined above. Though we understand that such things are not binaries and always involve tradeoffs (which we actively seek to expose/educate about and implement neutral options that allow you to control the tradeoffs you, personally, are comfortable with), we value
- liberty and self-determination over both socially acceptable dogma and identity politics and
- individual sovereignty and privacy - in tandem with transactional transparency - over censorship (individual) or surveillance (individual or institutional; i.e. existing legal regulation).