“But some are more equal than others” — George Orwell

Why Technological Literacy Matters

I recently read Animal Farm for the first time, and I immediately understood why this little story of revolutionary pigs and illiterate horses can so easily by typecast as a narrow critique of the Socialist Revolution; however, the lessons in this book are as applicable to us today as they were almost a century ago.

Among its most universally applicable themes is the power of literacy. In the highly allegorical story, pigs had the highest literacy skills, therefore, they became the authoritarian leaders of the animal farm. Those who couldn’t read fell into the bottom of the social pyramid. All the animals, literate or not, “agreed” on a set of commandments to govern their collective way of life, but as a result of the collective illiteracy of the “lower class” farm animals, no one noticed the pigs slowly rewriting the laws in their favor. Our society functions in very similarly manner.

Technological illiteracy allows governments and private actors to change the rules of engagement such as laws, policies, and social norms, without us even noticing. Breakthroughs in the tech world occur at ever increasing rates while our social and legal systems struggle to keep up.

Among these new developments is a recent breakthrough in cryptography that created a new digital asset class commonly referred to as “crypto-currencies.” This emerging tech-field has the capacity to fundamentally change the way we live our lives, but because most of us don’t speak or read tech-lingo, we fail to appreciate the potential ramifications of this crypto-revolution.

It is imperative on those who engage in social and political activism to learn about these emerging technological developments, or else they face the risk of being swept up in the same currents our predecessors were once caught in: a new status-quo regarding the expanding governmental use of technology developing without our democratic consent.

It was not too long ago, at some point in the early stages of the internet, that government agencies began to co-opt our communication devices to gather and collect a seemingly unlimited amount of warrantless data. By the time it became common knowledge, 1984 no longer seemed like a fantasy. Think of the uproar Edward Snowden’s leaks had on our society, and just a few years later, Congress is extending surveillance laws rejecting new privacy safeguards and hardly anyone is protesting; we’ve adapted to the absurd. Now thanks to Bitcoin, both the internet you’re using and the bank you store your money in might be unrecognizable in the coming decades.

But before I continue, I must address the fact that basic literacy is still an issue that plagues our world. Although overall literacy rates are higher than they have ever been (current estimates put it around 86% of the world), some countries are currently sitting at lower than 50%. According to a study conducted in late April by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the U.S. can’t read at a high school level. For almost 15% percent of the population, the rate hasn’t improved in a decade.

So, while I urge everyone to become more technologically literate, I understand that it is still a privilege to be able to read, and I recognize that not everyone has access to the educational opportunities necessary to engage in the conversations I want us to have. With that being said, I hope we can come to terms with the fact that there are currently many different forms of literacy, and we are not fully assessing the scope of the challenge before us.

We can start by learning about the revolutionary technology of Bitcoin, and the ways in which it can change our lives.

This is where I am likely to lose all my tech-averse friends, but I ask you to please bear with me:

For the past few decades, computer scientists have faced a seemingly intractable problem: How to make a digital asset (think “computer coin”) uniquely identifiable for the purpose of preventing illicit unwanted duplication. This would allow developers to create a limited digital commodity — something more commonly referred to as digital scarcity. Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, recognized that the “ability to create something that is not duplicable in the digital world has enormous value.” This underlies his belief that “Bitcoin is a remarkable cryptographic achievement.” The follow”ing few paragraphs will try to explain why.

In the real world, you can have a pen in your hand, and no matter who sees or buys the same exact pen at a store, your pen remains yours until you relinquish ownership of it. We can apply this to money. If you have a dollar bill in your hand, no matter how inflation affects the value of that dollar, that single dollar bill remains yours until you buy something with it, or give it to someone else. Even though other people can have dollar bills as well, they can’t simultaneously have your dollar bill, and because there’s a limited number of dollar bills, we call that dollar bill a scarce resource, and give it value accordingly.

But since the onset of the digital age, we have not been able to duplicate this type of relationship digitally. Data stored in a computer is essentially a string of ones and zeros. No matter how intricate or prized our digital possession may be, anyone who has access to our possessions can lay claim to it by duplicating the string of identifying numbers.

The solution to this precarious nature of digital information has traditionally been to set up a series of defenses and fire walls to prevent access to our data. However, this limits the type of relationships we can have online. If we wanted to digitally store, exchange, and trade our money without a third party online-agent to mediate, people would just copy the digital money over and over and spend it wherever they want, making it an entirely useless endeavor. Online banking has traditionally served the needs of those trying to store, send, and receive money to one another, but what if we didn’t rely on the U.S. dollar or any other fiat currency at all? What if we:

  1. Created a limited digital finite resource, in which we can
  2. Instantly identify proper ownership, and
  3. Send and receive that resource in a secure and reliable fashion, by
  4. Verifying every transaction on a public ledger (a ledger is an accounting term).

Enter stage left: Bitcoin — what some have called digital gold.

The developer of Bitcoin devised a protocol (a series of algorithms) called the blockchain, and among its most innovate features is the ability to verify ownership of a digital asset. You can now prove you own part of a finite digital resource.

This solved the issue of “double spending” I eluded to before. Previously, if someone created 10 digital dollars, or whatever you want to call it, and they spent it on a movie ticket, we couldn't verify they didn’t copy the 10 digital dollars to use it to purchase another movie ticket. The protocol powering Bitcoin verifies each and every transaction to ensure no one is double spending, bypassing the need for a bank or a centralized federal reserve.

And thanks to the innovation of the tech world, this technology can be applied to more than just creating digital money. I’ve heard a good analogy once: If the blockchain technology that I am describing was a car, Bitcoin would be riding in the passenger seat (meaning Bitcoin is just one function of blockchain). The same protocol powering Bitcoin can be used to create a system of self-executing contracts allowing parties to bypass a middleman. This is done by placing the money directly into an algorithm that only transfers the funds once a set of conditions, created by the parties themselves, are met. Developers have also created a digital wallet to hold their assets, and have pioneered the creation of a service that allows for ultra-fast money transfers to rival that of banks. In the future, this technology can potentially replace Uber, AirBnb, or any other escrow relationship.

Truth be told, it’s not this simple, and there are layers to this that I won’t go into right now (the ledger, mining, proof of work, etc), but by the time you are done reading this article, I do hope you feel it’s worth it to at least monitor these new technological developments. I think it’s imperative that we do, because the implications of the blockchain protocol can be equal parts benign and hostile.

Take IOTA for example, one of the many new platforms in the market. IOTA “enables companies to explore new business-2-business models by making every technological resource a potential service to be traded on an open market in real time, with no fees.” The idea is that Google and other data miners collect so much data, they hardly know what to do with it. Therefore, any excess data can and should be put in an open decentralized market place. While this helps maximize utility and efficiency, it also introduces tremendous opportunity for government or private overreach at a time when most people still haven’t figured out how to secure their emails.

But there are also ways this technology can be used to help society at large. When the economy crashed in Venezuela, people took their money out of banks and invested it into Bitcoin, because it was more stable than their national currency. People who don’t have access to reliable banking systems will soon be able to store, send and exchange money directly. A trustworthy peer-to-peer smart contracting system can also give people the peace of mind necessary to engage in business transactions in countries where citizens have very little trust in legal enforcement measures.

We are still in the very early stages of this technology, and it’s still unclear which projects and ideas will have a lasting impact on the way we live our lives. As new technology develops, so too does our dependency on it and those who understand the developments will likely try to take advantage of the information asymmetry. Many projects are forming that can truly and genuinely help people, but the vultures are already beginning to circle. 2017 brought with it a rush of investors hoping to cash in on the incredible investment opportunities in this space. Hedge funds, venture capitalists, and the economic elite were followed by regulators and politicians all battling for market control.

You could be an environmentalist, or an anti-war activist, or maybe you run an ethically inspired clothing brand trying to utilize the powers of community cooperation — whatever your particular interests might be, our efforts in any field must be interdisciplinary. Rather than focus on traditional forms of illiteracy alone, we must realize the dialogue has changed: literacy is no longer limited to paper and ink. In our efforts, we must reimagine the impact new and future technology can have. In order to include more people in the conversation, I encourage all educators, advocates, and socially conscious people everywhere to become students again, and to be willing to redefine and value the skills we all need for the future.

Law Student at the University of Chicago. Intern at Palestine Legal.