Ethereum, Crisis, and Code as Law

The crisis that is currently facing the Etherum community with the upcoming hardfork to recover The DAO funds brings up the fascinating question of what is the role of those who write the code which acts as functional law in the land of cryptocurrencies? The Code may very well be The Law within these systems, but what happens when the rules of such a society starts to break down, and the very core of those laws seems to be threatened? Must the law be maintained no matter what, including the destruction of the society? I think not.

Salus Publica Suprema Lex

This latin phrase came to be one of the highest laws in the Roman Republic. It loosely translates to, “public safety is the highest law,” which includes the guiding principal that necessity does not acknowledge any law. What we uncovered here is the very real political praxis that operates within the Ethereum community, and the cryptocurrency community at large. The political action behind the code can always find itself in the most extreme scenarios, in which it must operation outside and beyond the principals of the code as it was written. We find that at the extremes of the breakdown of the code, there is always the meatspace where the intentions of those who make the code can reactivate it to what it was intended to be.

For the Ethereum community, the DAO hack was not just a challenge to the code that has been written, but to the very foundation of what is to be done. If the NSA or GCHQ had hacked The DAO, or compromised the Ethereum protocol itself, would we sit aside and proclaim, “The code is law, and there is nothing we can do,” or would we choose to fight back?

Direct Action has no code

There was no code, no digital currencies, and no method of digital economic action to resist the corrupt banking and economic machine in 2007. This did not stop Satoshi from his radical dream of create a new digital compact through code, in which we could create a new economic system which the state was banished from entering.

Flash forward 7 years and see what we have now. There is not just one, but hundreds of digital currencies all which pose some degree of threat to the contemporary economic system. Each and every one of these new forms of money is not just code–it is a protocol of direct digital political action.

There is no code for direct action. There is only the principals that guide us in the same way that there are principals that guide the functions of cryptography. Does it serve the function of public safety for what we need it (in this case, is the crypto secure) or has it been compromised? This is the same function that the direct action of a hardfork serves when it is to help preserve the integrity of the system as a whole. There is no code to ensure the system functions as it should–only the will of those who code it.

Crisis as Consensus Building

If the DAO hacker gets to take control of the amount of Ether that is on the line, there is a very real possibility of the whole system of Ethereum being compromised. The DAO hacker can control a significant % of Ether and use that to stake for much more Ether once Caspar has been implemented. More importantly, however, would be the display of callowness from the Ethereum core devs, and their willingness to let their vision be compromised, all because they see the code as the highest law, and not their ability to affect it.

At this point we can choose to move forward with the code as it has acted, or we can usurp the unintended action of the code in the name of the safety of the system. The Law of the code is not what is written, but what is intended by those who operate it and give it real power.

The Ethereum hardfork that will happen tomorrow is simply the reactivation of the code as it was suppose to be. I support these actions because they show the strength, courage, and tenacity that the Ethereum core devs have. They will see their vision of an open financial system birthed into the world, and it is because of their own willingness to demand that. They are allies in our quest to free the world of statist fiat money, and this is just the first of many test of what shall be done when we are face-to-face with what can either destroy us, or make us stronger.

Facing such crises together and choosing to lead us through these times of crisis is what shall allow for us to change the world! The code is not law, but what we choose to support and manifest is!

Here is my salute to the Ethereum core devs! Keep pushing forward the code that will help us change the world, and know that you are supported in your efforts!

4 thoughts on “Ethereum, Crisis, and Code as Law

  1. I disagree. You are using the term “hack” in two different meanings: an unintended use (technical issue), and theft (moral issue), and there is a disagreement about which one of those the DAO exploit was. Unless there is an a consensus about that, the fork presents a dangerous precedent, because it means that forks can be used to conduct arbitrary redistribution of wealth.
    You ask what if NSA or GCHQ “hack” ethereum? I’m asking, what of the feds that stole money from Ross Ulbricht, should Bitcoin have been forked then?

    • Thanks for commenting Peter. I do see where you are coming from. I suppose the real issue is where exactly is the line between unintended use (technical issue), and theft (moral issue)? I see this as the very real challenge that as the users and leaders of these system must ask for themselves and create consensus around. Consensus itself is not just a technical task, but a political one as well. Personally, I wish bitcoin had forked in response to the Feds stealing Ross Ulbricht’s bitcoin, but I understand why that did not happen as there was no real systemic threat to bitcoin from that. I see the DAO hack as a systemic threat to Ethereum due to the DAO hacker holding such a large percentage of ether being able to use that when casper POS comes online to accumulate huge amounts of wealth. While this has opened up moral hazard within Ethereum (and which will be interesting to see how that plays out), I also see how that same threat was not posed with the theft of Ross’ bitcoin. Arbitrary redistribution of wealth should never happen, however intentional political ones that circle back to the original intentions of the system should. Thanks again for commenting and for all your hard work on Bitmessage.

      • I am in the process of writing an article that explains the politics of the fork. I think that the split is not about the line between technical and moral issue, but about values: conservative (ETC) vs. progressive (ETH) and individualsist (people should freely choose which fork they prefer) vs. collectivist (there should only be one and the other is evil/scam). I fully agree though that consensus is not just a technical but a political issue (because it depends on values rather than science). The difference is not even about whether the DAO attacker should keep his tokens or not; even without the fork, there is still the option to use alternative methods to get the tokens from him, for example using investigative skills of companies like Elliptic or Chainalysis, and the court system. It’s about HOW problems are addressed, rather than WHETHER.

        If the DAO attack puts Ethereum at risk due to Casper, then it can also be interpreted that it’s a deficiency of a PoS system and Ethereum should stick with PoW?

        If you have a particular goal to solve with a cryptoledger like Bitcoin or Ethereum, then again you have two conflicting issues: when a problem appears, you can address it by changing the rules instead of trying to solve it on a higher layer. But this exposes you to the risk that another change of rules will be used against you. If people affecting the rule change do not share your values, then you’re going to suffer. The fork and subsequent emergence of Ethereum Classic shows that the Ethereum community does not share the same values and there are two different sub-communities.

        As I was thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that the individualist vs collectivist axis is a more important one then the progressive vs. conservative, because individualists can at least peacefully coexist and allow their subgroups to follow their own values, wheras the collectivists leads to centralisation and makes it vulnerable to hijacking (such as the successors to COINTELPRO).

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