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Bitcoin Must Be About the Mission Rather than the Money, Says MIT Media Lab Founder Nicholas Negroponte at Scaling Bitcoin

Op-ed - Bitcoin Must Be About the Mission Rather than the Money

Legendary Internet pioneer Nicholas Negroponte, a founder of the MIT Media Laband the One Laptop per Child initiative (OLPC), gave a controversial talk at theScaling Bitcoin workshop in Montreal.

The Scaling Bitcoin workshop has been focused on how to safely improve the scalability and decentralized nature of the Bitcoin network, and included many technical talks on current issues such as the block-size debate and proposed enhancements such as lightning networks.

But Negroponte chose to keep away from these technical implementation details and focus on the big picture, the “raison d’être” of Bitcoin, its political dimension, and its implications for the evolution of society, with a high-level approach similar to that of his 1995 book “Being Digital” on the future of the then-emerging Internet.

Negroponte mentioned his past involvement with DigiCash, an electronic money corporation founded by cryptographer David Chaum in 1989. DigiCash, which pioneered anonymous digital transactions and is often considered a conceptual precursor of Bitcoin, declared bankruptcy in 1998. Negroponte was an investor and the first chairman.

“Chaum’s raison d’être was electronic privacy, and his plans for DigiCash were ambitious,” noted a Forbes article titled “Requiem for a Bright Idea” published after the DigiCash went out of business. “Digital pseudonyms would protect the identity of Netizens as they roamed the Web. Chaum became a hero to cyberlibertarians.”

Despite his past involvement with DigiCash and the idea of electronic transactions, Negroponte definitely doesn’t come across as a cyberlibertarian. On the contrary, he self-identifies as a socialist. “If it’s not clear, I am about as socialist as you can get,” says Negroponte at the beginning of the Q&A session after the talk. “I come from an era and a part of the world where socialism was viewed as good.”

Negroponte opened his talk with three anecdotes: the spontaneous use of sky lift e-tickets as a parallel currency by the people of a Swiss sky resort; his experience as target of cybercrime by hackers who impersonated him via email and stole a lot of money from his bank account, which he couldn’t recover even after the intervention of his brother John Negroponte, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State; and his recent experiences in Greece when the banks were closed as a consequence of the Greek crisis.

Negroponte is firmly persuaded of the importance of Bitcoin.

“I can’t think of too many things that are more important than Bitcoin,” he said. “And don’t blow it. Don’t screw it up.”

Many people in the audience applauded at this point, including libertarians and crypto-anarchists, but these didn’t applaud much after Negroponte started to explain his thoughts on how to ensure a bright future for Bitcoin – with a socialist slant.

The worst thing entrepreneurs can do, according to Negroponte, is to consider Bitcoin as a get-rich-quick scheme, because treating Bitcon as such creates large price fluctuations and episodes that scare people away from Bitcoin. On the contrary, Bitcoin should be approached with a sense of mission – a mission to make the world a better place, he said. Negroponte urged the entrepreneurs in the audience to do non-profits.

Similar considerations apply beyond Bitcoin. Negroponte, who has been involved in about 60 startups himself, is critical of the startup culture. Today’s startups, according to Negroponte, cause enormous brain drain.

“Some of the smartest kids are being sucked out of society to do the stupid apps on some iPads with their girlfriends and boyfriends,” he said (another applause here), instead of working on big, hard problems. Here, Negroponte seems to agree with hardcore libertarian venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who, in an interviewpublished on MIT Technology Review, exhorted entrepreneurs to go after bigger problems than the ones Silicon Valley is chasing.

“We wanted flying cars; instead we got 140 characters,” Thiel said.

Though the role of entrepreneurs and philanthropists in technology development is often emphasized, Negroponte thinks civil servants also have an important role to play. He considers roads, public transportation, education and the Internet itself as important parts of the infrastructure of a civil society, which should be developed by the government and made available to everyone at no cost.

Currency – including emerging digital currencies like Bitcoin – should also be part of the essential infrastructure provided by the government, he said. Bitcoin is important from a global point of view, said Negroponte, and could help creating much-needed global governance structures in an increasingly fragmented world.

“What’s wrong in being run by the government?” asked Negroponte, “If you think the government can’t run anything, go to Switzerland and ride a train.” He added that Finland has the world’s best education system, and no private schools. While acknowledging that there are lessons to be learned from libertarians, Negroponte sees an important role for the government to collect taxes and distribute benefits to everyone.

Negroponte’s talk, which is likely to provoke heated debates, can be interpreted as self-serving. In fact, the Digital Currency Initiative at MIT Media Lab, founded by Negroponte, is claiming a role of arbitration and leadership in Bitcoin developments, in prestigious academic settings far from get-rich-quick schemes, and Negroponte hinted at the Media Lab’s role at several points in the talk.

Photo Gin Kai / Wikimedia (CC)