Can the World Computer Save the World? Part 2: World Models & Theories of Change

Vinay Gupta

Vinay Gupta

Aug 19 · 10 min read

Technological and social movements start in minds and manifest in the world. Crypto is no different. What is our view of the world we seek to change, and how do we change it?

This 3-part series presents a guiding narrative and vision for the blockchain industry fit for the current and oncoming conditions of the world.

  1. Wicked Problems
  2. World Models & Theories of Change
  3. Building an Economy with a Future

Let’s get to work.

What is a theory of change?

Right now we have no idea how we are going to get out of this mess.

Here are some ideas about how we are going to change the world which intelligent people from different subcultures will try and sell you. Each one encompasses a theory of change.

  • The problem is governments. Bitcoin will destroy governments.
  • Solar panels, wind farms, batteries and so on will get so cheap we will entirely stop using coal, oil and gas, and the planet will heal.
  • We can grind up mountains made of olivine into new beaches, which will soak up CO2 faster than humans are pumping it out, at a fairly affordable cost.
  • The problem is cities. If people would just go back to human-scaled settlements with deeper personal interconnectedness, we would stop over-consuming physical things to meet our unmet emotional needs. Society needs therapy.
  • The problem is giant squid from beyond time have invaded the human group mind and are making us drive ourselves to extinction by pretending to be our gods. The magician-artist Alan Moore figured it out and killed them during the process of producing Watchmen, and freed from their awful influence humans will make better decisions. The world is slowly healing.
  • The planet is conscious and will defend itself from human overpopulation by sending a plague.
  • The problem is capitalism. We can reorganize global society along eco-socialist lines and there will be enough for everybody’s needs, but nobody’s greed.
  • The problem is trauma. Widespread use of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy will create saner humans on average, and these saner humans will start living right.
  • The Pentagon’s UFO reports make it very clear that our understanding of the laws of physics as we understand them are incomplete. Either the beings operating these devices, or our physicists who learn from observing them, will use these newly discovered laws of physics to save us.

Now clearly nobody could believe in all of these possible futures at the same time. You’d be mad. Not only do they contradict each other, they..

  • Contradict the laws of physics
  • Contradict all possible models of history and human nature
  • Contradict… in fact there are an almost infinite list of things that other people’s models of the future can contradict.

But apart from the one idea I put on that list to test people, intelligent people can hold and argue any one of those beliefs.

Can you pick which one is the stupid one?

World Models

In fact, what models of the future we take seriously are tightly tied to two things. These two implicit pieces of mental furniture are profoundly important in understanding why we as humans find it so difficult to agree on how to save each-others’ lives, which is what the world demands of us now.

The first piece of mental furniture is our world model: what we believe to be the facts of the situation. No human mind can contain the entire global situation. Our world model is inevitably partial and incomplete. It takes us time to ingest information. Our lifespans are not infinitely long. The sheer volume of a field like chemical engineering could take 12 lifespans to master. Or 120.

So the world model system in our minds contains some sub-functions:

  • curiosity metric for estimating what information is worth fitting into our world model — what do we choose to learn about?
  • An existing set of facts that we consider to be true — the world model itself
  • A mechanism for discarding facts which are no longer thought to be true: the deletion rules
  • A model of who’s facts we will trust, which forms a trust graph
  • detail filter which throws away things like precisely which elements go into making solar panels, now that the Indium Crisis is not thought to be a factor in production
  • social harmonizer which tries to make sure that our world model is close enough to that of our tribe (including family, close friends, employers, or even the voting public) to keep our world model from becoming a survival liability

It’s clear in the era of covid misinformation that even relatively small points of scientific knowledge (“are vaccines safe?” “do cloth masks work?” “do FFP3 masks work?”) result in dramatically different management of this deadly disease — and even the fact that covid is deadly is hotly debated in some circles.

It is unsurprising that in an age of infinite information choices, it has become extremely rare to meet two educated people who believe the same things about the world. Our world models have become distant from each other and fractured, because the curiosity metric is empowered by Google to find out anything.

Even if we stay in the domain of solid academic publications, where you focus results in completely different models of the future.

Theories of Change

The second piece of mental furniture is our theory of change. Not everybody has a theory of change. Many people share a few basic (and wrong) theories of change based on history.

Typical working folk are not consciously trying to change the world, for the most part. They’re trying to provide for their kids, their parents, and their own old age. This can turn into “who dies with the most toys wins” but for the most part people are spending on schools and elder-care. The yachts are few, but the prep schools are many.

The big formulaic theories of change, mostly rooted in historical analysis, are given names like Marxism or Socialism or Capitalism. Each one of these political movements, and all the others like them, contain a historical analysis and a proposed set of actions. In other words, a world model and then a theory of change that operates on that world model.

However, as people are increasingly self-educating on the internet our world models have become increasingly diverse and disassociated. It becomes harder and harder to synchronize world models with the people around us to participate in collective action. If our general world models do not match up, it is even less likely that our theories of change will match. Another way of saying this: if we cannot agree on the past and the present, it is unlikely we will agree on the future.

Ethereum does not have a particularly strong theory of change. It starts as a direct evolution of bitcoin: “bitcoin plus smart contracts.” A simple sense of “this is the next step” technologically is enough to get that started. Afterwards the lack of political consensus between the early founders of the Ethereum project resulted in a sort of forced Swiss neutrality. The exchange of fire about whether Ethereum should be a corporation left enough political fallout that the question of where Ethereum was on the political landscape has gone generally unanswered. Radical Markets is probably the political brand most closely associated with Ethereum. But even that has taken a back seat to the rainbow unicorns and various animal-themed token projects. We have here a technology without an ideology.

Unfortunately the world is still on fire.

Proposing an explicit theory of change for Ethereum

Should Ethereum even have a theory of change?

Is it possible for the Ethereum community to share a theory of change, given how culturally diverse the community is? The DeFi people and the NFT people, for example, barely touch.

You could frame this as “the internet does not have a theory of change, so why should Ethereum?” But actually the internet does have a theory of change: “a little bit of everything, all of the time.”

Omniversal access to information! The internet superhighway. Freedom to know!

However you frame it, this is the internet’s theory of change — individuals using the internet all embrace this model, at least a little bit, by virtue of their actions. It may be implicit, but that theory of change is universal: somehow, hollering at strangers on the other side of the world using social media will fix things. Somehow.

So at the very least there are a handful of universals in the Ethereum theory of change, the implicit factors. The basic structures in the world model include:

  • Not your keys, not your crypto
  • Anyone can create a smart contract
  • Radical inclusion through open access to infrastructure
  • Anonymity and pseudonyms are absolutely recommended
  • Ethereum runs everywhere in the world

Usually the whole theory of change is summarized as “decentralization”. There’s an idea of tearing down monopolies and dispensing with middle men, kind of freeing up markets to Do The Right Thing freed from exploitation because perfect competition gets rid of rentiers.

And that’s about as close to a theory of change — a coherent story about how we are going to save the world — as Ethereum gets these days.

I am very clear that “decentralization” needs a lot of unpacking and context to be a valid way of looking at what the blockchain does. Permissionless also needs serious unpacking in a situation where (for example) exchanges decide which tokens to list. A lot of sketchy projects slip by because we do not get down to the details of who actually makes the decision. Decentralized can often mean oligarchical because one token means one vote, for example. Permissionless usually fares a little better, but then how do people know who to trust or who is being scammed by who? It is not like we have universally adopted Ethereum-wide public key infrastructure and identity infrastructure for projects.

Also note how much this theory of change shares with bitcoin’s theories of change. Now that EIP 1559 has firmly placed Ethereum on the deflationary path there is no doubt that a lot of the bitcoin-style reasoning about Ether as money will start to converge.

So in this sense, many of the parts of this theory of change do not belong uniquely to Ethereum. The basic structures of this world model are heavily overlapped with cryptocurrency in general, rather than applying specifically to smart contracts or the whole world computer context.

Something as revolutionary as Ethereum should have a more clearly articulated theory of change, I think — and not one, but several! Ethereum’s theories of change may be plural, but we would be making a lot more impact if they were clear and explicit: how are we going to help save the world?

Who am I to propose this?

I came into the Ethereum project in 2014. I decided to quit my job in military academia because it was impossible to change the world from that position in the ways that I wanted to. I wanted to retool the world’s militaries for climate change operations through civilian-military cooperation on disaster relief. It was a dead end.

Then I heard a story about a team working on a bitcoin-like smart contract system, and recognized that it was going to change the world. I chose to dedicate my life to making it work.

I was already well experienced with digital currency, having been a full send user of e-gold in the late 1990s. I knew my way around ERIGHTS and ESPEAK, capability based operating systems and all the rest: I had, after all, been a crypto activist in the 1990s when crypto meant “encrypted communications” not “digital currencies.” My background in distributed systems went back into the 1980s (!). I had a choice between the Ethereum technical track in Berlin, or the Ethereum Communications track in London and I chose to stay put rather than move. Comms needed help, and I’d done quite a bit of work for charities doing communications. I wound up as the release coordinator for the Ethereum launch. Critically, I was managing community expectations about what would be released and when. It’s all ancient history now but for a while I was one of the public faces of the entire project!

The Ethereum Launch Process

I’m Vinay Gupta, the newly minted release coordinator for Ethereum. I’ve been working with the comms team on strategy…

I’m telling you this now so you understand that I was deeply grounded in the Ethereum project, but in no way foundational to it. I’m often confused as being one of the original Gang of 8, but I was something like employee 30.

The Gupta World Model
A word about my world model, since world models are what we’re talking about. I’d spent most of my time since 9/11 working on climate change, poverty, natural disaster, and plagues in the think tank world, military academia, and charities. It had been an extremely hardcore 12 years, and I was burned out, bitter, and filled with experience of bureaucracy, corruption in power hierarchies, and the disastrous nature of governance and government. It was, in short, bleak.

So I viewed Ethereum as a chance to hang up my “end of the world” hat. I got to work with the direct challenges of getting the world the smart contract platform it so desperately needed. I was part of a fabulously talented team of legends. It was a big turn in my life.

One of the phrases I’d picked up during my time in military academia was “unity of action without unity of command.” I picked it up from Lin Wells (famous for the Wells Memo on predicting the future among other things.) This was, to me, the goal of Ethereum: to coordinate the world so we could increase efficiency, reduce waste, and take care of all of humanity’s concerns more effectively.

Some people heard “World Computer” as “a computer that spans the world” but I heard world computer as “a computer that heals the world.” I had a very clear sense of what I wanted from this thing: I wanted a system which could out-perform current models of capitalism (intensely wasteful and wrongfully productive) without requiring political turmoil to adopt. I wanted an evolution in the culture and the machinery of the market, to produce a world with carbon accounting and an end to world hunger because crops no longer rotted in the fields.

I had not worked out the details, but that’s where I thought the project was going.

Where do we go from here?

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