At the turn of last century, industrial improvements made it possible to produce food at scale. Where a local bakeshop once served a five-minute walking radius, a commercial bakery could feed an entire city.
There was just one problem though: food production scales, but trust does not. We trust our friends and neighbors not to feed us garbage, but we don’t take candy from a stranger.
Until the rise of industrialization, local bakers sold whole wheat bread. Brown bread is nutritious and has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and obesity, according to the first Google result on the internet. Unfortunately, whole grains also cover up dirt and dead bugs, which was a big deal in the age of typhoid and tuberculosis. To convince consumers of the purity of their product, commercial bakeries began baking white bread. Worms and weevils can’t hide in white.
In the absence of a trusted relationship, consumers can either demand radical transparency, or outsource their trust to a government agency. White bread got boring after a few decades, so we opted for the latter.
Today, no one has a clue what’s in the black fuzzy liquid we call Diet Coke, or the crispy-fried critters KFC serves in a bucket. But thanks to the FDA, we can consume artisanal avocado toast without worrying whether some substance is really just marmalade.
3-letter agencies have become a stand-in for trust. The FAA inspects airplanes, the DOT ensures roadworthiness, and the NSA works with technology companies to establish encryption standards for computer security. And sometimes that doesn’t work out so well.
Sometimes our goals are not totally aligned with those of government agencies. Maybe we want private communications, or censorship-resistant financial transactions. If we can’t trust the cops to protect these rights, we have to fall back on transparency as a substitute.
Decentralized digital currencies only work because they’re transparent – not only does everyone have a copy of the blockchain, but all the software is open source. We might not trust our counterparties, but we can verify that they haven’t double-spent us. We might not even trust the developers, but we can see for ourselves that the software isn’t uploading private keys to a Russian server.
Strangely, there’s this new trend where people treat transparency as a signaling device instead of an opportunity to perform due diligence:
Bancor is 40 lines of code. The men who invested $144,000,000 in it, didn't hire a developer to audit the software. Astonishingly stupid.
— BeaUASFtyon (@Beautyon_) June 19, 2017
If it’s open source and on the blockchain, it can be audited, and if there were any bugs to be found, someone else would have said something! Wisdom of the crowds leads to diffusion of responsibility.
(Or maybe people assume that as long as it’s on Ethereum, there’s a central authority looking out for them.)