July 16, 2010

Perspectives: the difference between the 1990s money guys and the 2000s p2p guys

And, only because I wrote it in the same thread as Zooko's post, here is a retrospective on how the 1990s payments startup guys saw life, as compared to the 2000s p2p generation.

On 18/06/10 12:27 PM, Serguei Osokine wrote:
> > In fact, I thought that this was exactly the hint that Zooko was
> > dropping with his question about MN history. Was kind of surprised
> > to read all the serious history descriptions that followed - though
> > enjoyed them anyway... :)

:) Maybe to add to your surprise, there was a serious history! Perhaps a little more background will help.

In the late 1980s, a guy called David Chaum invented a cryptographic form of cash which he called digital cash. His invention was a variation of the RSA formula that allowed a transfer of something from one person to another, that a third party could prove as valid, but not track the transfer. This allowed the third party to be an issuer of value, and users to transfer coins without being traced.

David was a privacy guy and worked out somehow that the future of the planet depended on robust but private exchange of goods for cash. He saw the bank and the government as the greatest threats to people in their breach of privacy. The basic threat is that if the crooks, governments or banks know where the value is, they won't be able to keep their hands off it for long.

David started a company called DigiCash in Amsterdam which built a system of digital cash (of course) and then in around 1994 he started trying to sell it to banks as the latest hot Internet invention. From a PR point of view, he succeeded dramatically; more was written about the invention of digital cash than practically any other thing with perhaps the sole exception of Netscape.

Which intersected with a large community of anarchists / libertarians / privacy nuts called the cypherpunks. So around 1995 there was an explosion of interest in money systems, wherein money was seen as the solution to every problem. This interest rumbled on, with hundreds of startups taking on different perspectives until 2 events knocked the fun out of the game (2000 dotcom crash and 911).

Now, just about that time, as the money business was being rewired in some post-fun image by dotbomb+911, Napster started up and showed a new model. So a natural shift occurred as people started looking at the p2p market as the solution space.

MN was one of those. The thing to understand though is that the people in MN all came from the earlier generation. Zooko worked for DigiCash and Jim was a cypherpunk, I guess. Well, we all were in some sense, I was too.

So, that generation saw money as the solution. This generation sees p2p collaboration as the solution. Who's right? Who's wrong?

It all depends on your assumptions. Economics will tell you that the money guys are right if there is a scarce resource, and/or the resource is worth real value. But, if not, then collaboration can be done if we can find the sweet spot. Now, it's rather difficult to predict how any particular problem plays out, but it is somewhat easier to say this: if the system is valuable, it will eventually have value. To steal. And if not, maybe we're wasting our time?

So, in such a system, money might solve the accounting of trades of value, but that's not a guarantee -- money is very tricky stuff to get right, and there is plenty of merit in leaving that part to the end. Which is kind of what Jim was getting at: MN tried to solve too much. Out of it came some successes, but they were cut-down, like BitTorrent and Tahoe. As time goes on, more value finds its way into these successes, and the call to add in a money gets louder.

Caveat: I was an observer of those efforts, of the things mentioned above, so corrections from the insiders can be expected!

Posted by iang at July 16, 2010 09:03 PM | TrackBack

So are the Bitcoin guys the old farts who have gotten with the times?

Posted by: gf1605 at July 18, 2010 12:06 AM
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