Tom MacWright

In defense of verification

In lieu of a follow-up to my last IPFS post, here’s why I’m not writing that post.

When I tested out IPFS and Arweave, what I was doing was partly for fun, partly as exploration, and partly to “kick the tires.” After all, IPFS and Arweave make their own bold claims - Arweave that it “stores documents and applications forever” and IPFS that it can “help here and now” and that it can “speed up performance” and “slash bandwidth costs.”

You don’t have to be cynical to ask “does this thing do what it says it does?” To want to actually install the software and confirm whether it’s a competitive market, an uncompetitive market, or not a market at all. Whether the software actually works out of the box, or if it’s fragile and unfinished.

It’s tempting to do the same for other stuff. In a discussion about NFTs in September, I read that most of the marketplaces were “open source and tracking free.” Being a competent user of my browser’s development tools, I decided to check, and unsurprisingly, the opposite was true. OpenSea, Zapper, and Zerion were saturated with ad-tech. They had error tracking set up with breadcrumbs that leaked a user’s IP, browser, wallet, balance, and username, all to a third party. In five minutes, anyone could have figured out the same thing: NFT marketplaces aren’t private at all.

Or look at this exploration of the ‘games’ in this ecosystem. They’re universally not fun, good, or interesting. They’re depressing and pointless.

There is a distinction between the thing itself and the economic overlay on that thing. This ecosystem excels in the economic overlay, in a way that lacks substance. For example, think about the law firms that help US companies transfer their intellectual property to Bermuda or Curaçao. The law firm makes a lot of money. The company saves a lot of money on taxes. From a purely economic view, a lot is happening. From the view of substance, nothing is happening. Or if you look at it closely, worse than nothing - a net loss for society.

Sometimes when I actually try and use these crypto projects, it feels like flying to Bermuda to really understand why Google was (until 2020) so invested in it. Walking the beaches and talking to the locals and asking “so this is a really great place for intellectual property, right? Is it the ocean breeze that inspires such creativity?” And the answer is, of course, it’s bullshit. The company didn’t actually “move” to Bermuda, and the only thing that attracts companies to tax shelters is their usefulness as tax shelters. The same seems to go with Axie Infinity, the most popular ‘crypto-game.’ A lot of the players are poor people, funded by rich people, playing to earn money. It isn’t fun. That isn’t why they’re there.

So it’s silly to “kick the tires” of these projects, because it doesn’t matter. People either assume they work, or don’t care if they work. Some people probably do care, but by virtue of operating in the crypto space their practical concerns will be driven out by speculative mania.

My demands are simple. I want projects that are useful and real. There’s a place for speculation and investment and that’s fine and good, but that’s not what I do or am interested in. I want a community that considers verification and critical thinking to be valuable, that doesn’t cast people out as unbelievers.

Communities that never verify their claims and have unbounded optimism for the future are guileless, not visionary.