How Crypto Is Shaping the Digital Revolution

  1. Providing a brief theoretical outline of the two main stages of technological revolutions;
  2. Comparing the organizational and institutional shifts of the previous revolution (centered around oil, automobiles, and mass production) with those of the current one (centered around digital information and communications technology) as imagined during the dot-com era (late 1990s, early 2000s); and
  3. Discussing how ’crypto’ as a techno-populist reform movement and innovation cluster is shaping global institutions and governance as the Digital Revolution matures.

From Installation to Deployment

Figure 1: Life cycle of a technological revolution (adapted from [1], p. 30)
Figure 2: Three spheres of reciprocal change in technological revolutions (from [1], p. 156)

Deployment of Mass Production vs. ICT Revolution

Table 1: Differences between the mass production and ICT paradigm [7]

Crypto and the ICT Revolution

Crypto as techno-populism

Crypto as financial innovation

  • Traditional regulatory action, which may both encourage and hamper crypto’s growth, and will likely continue to be targeted at centralized service providers such as fiat on-ramps, custodians, and exchanges, but also at companies closely involved in the core software development or marketing of specific crypto-financial protocols and services.
  • Crypto as a forcing function that drives traditional financial and regulatory institutions to explore new technologies and organizational models, the best examples of which are the growing interest in central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) [25] and attempts to integrate crypto with traditional finance and real-economic processes.
  • Crypto as an expression of ‘code is law’ — the idea that software can replace traditional legal codes, not only by providing the basis for law as legal text, but increasingly also in terms of administration and enforcement by determining the types of actions possible in a world saturated by digital technologies. Behind the apparently anti-regulatory stance of crypto, there is also a vision of a world highly regulated by software protocols — the digital equivalents of bureaucratic rules of procedure. [26]

Crypto as process and institutional innovation

  • The open and permissionless nature of public blockchains makes them comparable to public infrastructure or utilities. However, whereas most public infrastructure is fixed in a specific location and is often either directly or indirectly controlled by democratically accountable institutions (i.e. government), crypto as digital infrastructure is inherently global (the closest existing analogue being the Internet) and controlled — decentrally — by the private sector. That does not mean that individual networks or services can’t or won’t have a relatively larger footprint in specific geographies, or that democratic checks and balances or accountability are fundamentally incompatible with crypto. But, in principle, crypto has a global reach from the outset (contingent only on access to the Internet) and is explicitly designed to be resistant to centralized control, either by government or any other group or organization. [30]
  • Similar to the impact of crypto on finance, its entrance into other institutional fields presents a direct competitive challenge to, and is likely to trigger reactive changes within, incumbent institutions. From the point of view of the incumbents, this is best encapsulated in asking the question: “What is our crypto strategy?“
  • Crypto creates a very open and dynamic environment for running digital governance experiments, not only in terms of governing blockchain-based networks and protocols (which can be thought of as digital institutions), but also in terms of using these networks and protocols as tools of governance in other contexts (i.e. as contributing to the digital transformation of traditional institutions). [31]
  • Crypto enables new forms of online coordination and community-building, including decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), that were not possible prior to the invention of public blockchain networks. These communities and organizations are unique to the economic system that is forming around assets, contracts, and relationships tracked via blockchains. [32] Over time, this emerging crypto-economy may increasingly challenge — or become integrated with — more traditionally organized parts of the digital economy.

Crypto as automation

Conclusion

  • Crypto is not a technological revolution. It is yet another cluster of innovative activity enabled by ICT (cryptography, computers, software, distributed networks, etc.) and, as such, can only be categorized as part of the ICT Revolution.
  • Crypto is partly a reactive, techno-populist reform movement. In terms of its critical stance towards incumbent institutions and the economic power relations inherited from the first half of the ICT Revolution, crypto is typical of the early deployment stage.
  • By enabling more ICT-native forms of finance (digital, global, programmable), crypto presents a competitive challenge to incumbent financial institutions, accelerates their digital transformation, and drives financial and regulatory reform tailored specifically for the Information Age.
  • Crypto is primarily a process and institutional innovation. By combining the existing capabilities of ICT with innovations in decentralized consensus and coordination mechanisms, crypto enables ICT-native forms of organization that extend beyond just money and finance.
  • Crypto represents the continuation of administrative digitization and automation triggered by the ICT Revolution. By enabling more decentralized and censorship-resistant forms of automation, crypto opens up new prospects for global governance and, as such, can be viewed as a central theme in the emerging (geo)political economy of automation.

Footnotes

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Mario Laul

Mario Laul

twitter.com/mlphresearch

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