The rapid and relentless progress of technology has lifted many people out of poverty but at the same time it feels as though it has left many of us behind. Smartphones and the internet have brought unprecedented access to information, entertainment, connection and payment; as Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreessen put it nearly ten years ago “Software is eating the world.” Since then its appetite has only grown.
Recent advances in artificial intelligence have shown that no problem or industry is out of reach of the teeth of software, and advances in language intelligence (most notably GPT-3) show that the software may soon be writing itself. As this mighty behemoth begins to grasp the full weight of human (or not-so-human) industry, it seems an appropriate time to ask ourselves — as a species — what do we value and what do we want from our future?
If we don’t consider and answer this question ourselves we may find that someone (or something) has already answered for us.
There are few things that hold universal value but perhaps the most obvious one is time; whether it’s the precious moments we spend with friends and family or the time we spend ($) mindlessly scrolling through the latest trends on TikTok or Twitter, time is clearly our most valuable resource. As the growth of the attention economy has shown, our time and attention is incredibly valuable to companies that would use it against us, commodifying every brief glance to sell us the latest new thing with targeted advertising.
The connection between time and money runs deep and perhaps the best example of this can be found in the power of compound interest. Compound interest is the engine that drives our modern economy, filling up the retirement accounts of aging pensioners, providing dividends to savvy investors, and fueling the development of innovative new companies as profits netted from the growth of a previous investment form the seed of a new one.
Compound interest is closely connected to the deepest secrets of the universe — Euler’s number (the mathematical constant e — whose many functions undergird much of modern physics and mathematics) was discovered by Jacob Bernoulli when studying compound interest.
The immense power of compound growth is at the bedrock of our beliefs and understanding of how the modern economy functions; our belief that the economy should continue to grow year over year by a certain percentage is perhaps one of the only truths that most Americans could agree on. Gross domestic product (GDP) has become the metric by which many people judge the success and value of whole nations, swaying political decisions and leading many to prioritize growth above all else.
But the infinite is hidden in the equations of compound growth (Georg Cantor, creator of set theory and source of much of our modern understanding of mathematical infinity, equated absolute infinity with God) and while this may explain the godlike reverence bestowed upon compound growth, we must realize that much like Achilles we will never truly reach infinity.
Cracks in the certainty of infinite growth are starting to show and it’s seeming like we may see divine retribution in the form of environmental collapse for daring to challenge God over mastery of the infinite. Or maybe we’ll ride off into the sunset and become masters of the universe. Either way, the coming decades are likely to decide the fate of humanity and quite possibly the fate of all sentient life in the universe.
Now that we know the immense value of time, let’s think about how we spend it. Throughout most of human history, people spent most if not all of their time with a small group of familiar faces, mostly family members and groups of families, what we would call their “tribe.”
The anthropological definition of the tribe is contested but everyone reading this likely has a fairly clear picture that comes to mind when we discuss a tribe. Perhaps what you imagine is a band of hunter-gatherers scouring the plains or tundra in search of large game to sate their appetites before returning home to a roaring fire. The campfire is probably close at hand when you think of a tribe and anyone who has spent any amount of time sitting around one knows that there is something ingrained deep within us that makes this activity, however simple, approach the peak of human experience.
When you sit around the fire with a few close friends millennia of human experience seem to be reflected in its flickering light and, as the fire warms your bones, it almost seems like countless hands reach out through the flames to beckon you toward our shared home, to tell tales of the unity of all mankind. If there is any guiding light to lead us through the coming abyss, surely it is this.
As humanity stepped out of the fog of prehistory the tribe evolved into the social unit that formed the basis for sprawling cities. As we started to multiply, we invented new tools to organize our nascent societies and direct our shared energy for the first time towards goals beyond immediate survival.
Status and social hierarchies were invented and reshaped through trial and error to form the institutions that continue to drive society today. Religions wove stories of our primordial origin whose not-so-distant past had been driven back to the horizon of our collective memory by the deluge of new beliefs and behaviors incumbent upon a citizen of a newly built city.
National myths of great heroes and kings who alone had the power to shape the destiny of the recently united tribes drove men whose families, just a few generations ago, may have spoken different languages to sacrifice everything, including their lives for the banner that told the story of their shared destiny. Stories are the only tool we have at our disposal to unite us, to paint a picture of our shared future and to drive us inexorably toward its realization, whatever the cost; this has not changed since those long-forgotten days when we all sat around the fire.
Perhaps the best story ever told is that of money and for a rather counterintuitive reason. Money was the first story that crossed the language barrier. For the first time people didn’t need to convince each other with long speeches about what needed to be done to align their goals they merely had to exchange a sack of shells for a sack of grains and both parties left satisfied.
As money evolved from shells to coins to fiat currency, it gained power at each step along the way. Coins emblazoned with the visage of the emperor made it painfully clear that all commerce in the empire occurred on the emperor’s good will. Modern fiat currencies issued by governments attain their value out of thin air by royal decree (fiat is translated from Latin as “so be it”), liberating money from the tyranny of physical reality to attain its highest and most terrifying form.
The introduction of fiat currency let governments and their chosen disciples summon value from the heavens as though they were Moses on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments. High priests of these governments wielded their divine power through the knobs of inflation and interest rates, twisting them back and forth as their god whispered unto them to control the ebb and flow of value into the great pool.
The invention of cryptocurrency heralded a new era in human history and looking back provides us with some insight as to where we might be going. Just as the invention of currency let us collaborate between tribes to share value, cryptocurrency foretells the further dissolution of today’s borders.
Now that we can transact without the divine authority of the emperor we are each of us free to become our own emperors. The tribes we create will serve as the foundation for world-cities each with their own value system reflected in their own coins emblazoned not with the face of a man, but with the shared dreams of scattered millions longing to return home, to sit around the eternal campfire, share stories, and spend our time together.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent official policy or position of Sapien Network, Inc. The information in this article was compiled from sources believed to be reliable and is for informational purposes only. Sapien Network, Inc. does not guarantee the accuracy of this information or any results and further assumes no liability in connection with this article.