During the long course of human evolution, society’s rules around reproduction became increasingly complex. As humans developed the capacity to think abstractly, they also developed rules around reproduction more complex than those found in any other species. These rules about how people can mate have varied widely from group to group, but they all reflect the structure of a powerful distributed trust technology: kinship.
Kinship is a foundational trust technology that lays the groundwork for social cohesion.”
Societal trust is a technology because it enables practical outcomes that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. It is a way to align action by multiple actors toward mutually-beneficial goals. Kinship is a foundational trust technology that lays the groundwork for social cohesion, a process by which people teach their children how to be adults and give them a sense for the nature and boundaries of their community. Kinship has been the framework by which groups with different rules surrounding reproduction are able to literally incorporate each other into social networks through the material exchange of bodies, artifacts, and ideas. It helps everyone understand their responsibilities and rights are and provides a program for regulating society.
Kinship has allowed people to travel far beyond their communities of origin with the knowledge that strangers might welcome them as intimates. The introduction of kinship dovetailed seamlessly with other technologies — cooking, language, animal husbandry, and the building of houses, boats, weapons, and clothing — to enable humanity’s spread to every continent and climate on Earth over the past 100,000 years.
II. THE AXIAL AGE: CURRENCY
As technologies of travel, trade, and warfare improved, kinship alone wasn’t able to meet the world’s growing demand for trust. The requirements of trust is proportional to the size of the community — the larger the group that needs to work together, the more “scalable” a trust technology must be.
During the first millennium BCE — a period that some historians call “The Axial Age” — a new trust technology developed and began to spread, similarly based in the human capacity for abstract thought: universal religion. The religions we today call Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, and Christianity, along with the Greek philosophical tradition, all arose during this period and operated on a much larger scale than the hyperlocal religions of clan or tribe. People who had never met before now had theological reasons to help one another and hold each other to shared standards of conduct.
While currencies had been in use for hundreds of thousands of years, it was during the Axial Age that they became inextricably linked with the power of the state.”
The Axial Age was also a time of unprecedented violence. Political networks expanded beyond what they had ever been before, bringing people of different faiths into contact and conflict. As communities grew both materially and ideologically, the proselytizing of religion and efforts to empire-build went hand-in-hand.
Warfare needed to scale as well — suddenly there were large, professional armies to pay. This led military leaders to mint their own currencies at a rapid pace. While currencies had been in use for hundreds of thousands of years, it was during the Axial Age that they became inextricably linked with the power of the state. Currency had stepped in to extend the trust technologies of kinship and religion even further.
Warfare sponsored by currency-rich states became a spectacularly successful way to create market economies. Coin-carrying soldiers and mercenaries became sought-after customers. The money they spent in the regions through which they passed quickly began circulating beyond the confines of the armies and would often remain in use well after the armed conflicts had ended.
III. ISLAM, PIRACY & JOINT STOCK VENTURES IN THE EARLY MODERN PERIOD
The rise of Islam is one example of how kinship, the spread of organized religion, empire-building, currency, and market growth all contributed to the development of a complex civilization. By the 14th century, Islam had spread far beyond the Middle East and into South and Southeast Asia. Muslim merchants pushed past boundaries established by Islamic military leaders and brought with them not only a currency standard, but a state-agnostic system of trust through a decentralized legal framework, which provided for contract enforcement in the absence of reliable state violence.
In many parts of the Islamic world, the dinar became established as a stable currency, used as a unit of account even in the absence of actual dinars. Muslim philosophers and theologians, like al-Tusi and al-Ghazali, often described markets and prices as extensions of the will of God. An ideological nexus formed, combining religion, market, and state.
Islamic market economies largely prohibited lending at interest. Yet in Europe, the promise of interest as a reward for investing in high-risk endeavors — with people who may or may not be trusted — became the driving force behind two major engines of modern capitalism: the selling of sovereign debt (in the form of bonds) and fractional reserve banking.
Selling sovereign bonds, a practice by which the state sells a promise to repay the price of the bond at a fixed interest rate after a specified period of time, became the primary way that states financed warfare in modern Europe. Just as states encouraged citizens to buy their bonds at interest, banks encouraged people to lend them money at interest to create credit (often for the same state). As both creditors and debtors, banks became centralized guarantors of collective interest while also insuring and distributing risk.
In addition to seeding the social practice of earning and financing through interest, the early modern period also saw a new innovation in trust technology: the joint-stock corporation, which allowed groups of people with money to invest in high risk, high return endeavors. Joint-stock corporations were a way of distributing risk and reward for violent seizures of treasure that would just as likely end in disaster as in profit.
As both creditors and debtors, banks became centralized guarantors of collective interest while also insuring and distributing risk.”
Many joint-stock ventures amounted to little more than state-sanctioned piracy. By sharing in the “stock” (equity) of the voyage, the “crew” of the pirate ship was extended to include all of its financiers as well as the actual seafarers. Despite extreme risk, many joint-stock expeditions proved so profitable they gave rise to a new era of corporate economic life. Piracy quickly transitioned into more systematic colonialism, bringing the apparatus of the state with it and giving rise to the first stirrings of international law.
The combined social technologies of returns on interest and returns on equities led to a sea change in how money was made in the world. Economic growth, which had held steady at about one percent per century since time immemorial (based on the scant data we have), began to grow precipitously in Europe. During the 19th century, this growth became an exponential curve, spurring rates of technological innovation unprecedented in human history.
By the end of the 19th century, banks were also underwriting the distribution of equities, ensuring that all investors got their fair share of returns. This placed banks squarely at the center of economic growth in capitalist nations.
IV. BLOCKCHAIN AND BEYOND
At the beginning of the 21st century, humanity is undergoing yet another state change with regard to trust technologies. The very banks which underwrote modern capitalism have, in many cases, become an impediment to further growth. This is because banks are frequently inseparable from the state apparatus.
Banks buoy state power not only by storing fiat currencies issued and backed by governments, but also by punishing oppositional groups or individuals, freezing accounts or confiscating assets. Banks can maintain social hierarchies by deciding who gets to open an account, and playing gatekeeper to the global financial system. Countries, companies, and individuals must submit to regulations and terms of exchange that may not be beneficial to them or risk losing access to markets and financing.
Some economists even argue that banks have not engaged in fractional reserve banking for quite some time. Instead of loaning out the money they have, they simply create new money with every loan. This practice blurs the distinction between money and credit. It also establishes a system in which the collapse of trust in either particular banks or banking writ-large has catastrophic network effects.
Banks are debtors as well as creditors. When they’re lending out money they are also lending out confidence in themselves — assurance they are a stable, secure store of value. When that confidence wavers,as it did in 2008, money simply disappears and banks suddenly find themselves in need of a bailout.
Technologists around the world have begun to imagine alternatives that scale trust while also making it more intimate and reciprocal. After decades of trial and error, the bitcoin blockchain emerged as the first functioning infrastructure for “trustless” transactions, enabling direct exchange between parties who don’t need to trust each other whatsoever, and who can own their assets directly.
However, the word “trustless” isn’t entirely accurate. People transacting on the bitcoin blockchain mediate their trust not via a centralized institution, but by a technology that includes both a mathematical consensus mechanism (“proof of work”) and a social incentive structure (rewards via the bitcoin cryptocurrency, native to that blockchain).
For the first time in history, it’s possible to achieve mass economic inclusion without the need for banks or governments to serve as central repositories of trust.”
As the bitcoin blockchain is distributed across thousands of repositories, it is virtually immutable. It is a tamper-proof ledger of exchange that prevents the powerful from engaging in the kinds of the manipulations of fact and memory that are possible under more centralized systems. This structure — a distributed, immutable ledger — has for the first time in history made it possible to achieve mass economic inclusion without the need for banks or governments to serve as central repositories of trust.
While there is guarantee of a return for any who invest in a blockchain’s native cryptocurrency, the currency still has the benefit of preventing a few powerful actors to manipulate its value. In the case of bitcoin, its attendant cryptocurrency is deflationary by design, incentivizing people to save it as it accrues in value over time.
As a result, we can begin imagining a future beyond credit-money and debt. When everyone expects interest or geometric returns on investment, debt balloons exponentially. Bitcoin, on the other hand is currently offering incredible returns with no credit and no debt — simply by relying on its value as censorship-resistant, sound money.
So far, the social experiment that is bitcoin has proved remarkably resilient. Institutions who see it as a threat to their self-enrichment have tried to destroy it. In places where corruption is rampant and the value of fiat currency is low or volatile, people are rushing to invest in a store of value whose price — despite volatility — is reliably increasing. If bitcoin survives in the long-term, it could prove to be one of the most important social technologies yet invented. We can’t foresee the full significance of this shift yet, but it may herald a new era for capitalism, and for trust.