In one of my new favorite books of all time, Where’s My Flying Car, J. Storrs Hall introduces the Machiavelli Effect.
Many people simultaneously fear the new and different, and they also want to protect whatever status quo they benefit from (or at least feel comfortable with).
In the book, he lays out an agreement for why there’s a pervasive sense of stagnation in the developed world and puts risk-averse technology regulation at the heart of what’s to blame. In summary, the people who’ve won in the current technological paradigm have the motive and the means (money, law, power) to maintain the status quo. And the people supporting a new paradigm, are always playing a lukewarm defense as they might or might not win in their new paradigm.
This is also coupled with Venkatesh Rao’s point on how good-products-dont-change-the-world. People are always slow to adopt technologies, but sometimes technologies can be so new that we use policy to destroy what we perceive to be a threat to our reality.
We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.
This ends up triggering a meta baptist-and-bootleggers problem. The Baptists are the people fearful of the specific brand of technological change. The Bootleggers are those who profit from the status quo. I say meta because this might apply with generality to all new technological shifts.
The only way to beat this effect is to be highly intentional in the design of a technology. The best radical technologies today are designed look like incremental improvements or toys, until they’re not. This form of design is less likely to face regulatory pushback, and can slowly shift the Overton window of the population until widespread adoption is achieved.
Maybe distributed ledgers are in the tail end of that toy phase now? Of course, intentional design is necessary but not sufficient, we also need to play the game well :) The challenge for blockchain tech is a delicate balancing act of avoiding the most harmful regulation while embracing regulation which genuinely avoids harm.
This seems to also be the opportunity for people working on other frontiers to watch and take notes. Biotech, neurotech, nanotech, and all other forms of paradigm shifts might face equivalent or worse challenges. And there’s no better time to learn than now.