Technology and Trust

A couple of weeks ago, along with the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) co-founder, Robert Bell, I had the opportunity to be in a two-day discussion with the leaders of Tallinn, Estonia — via Zoom, of course. As part of ICF’s annual selection process for the most intelligent community of the year, the focus was on how and why they became an intelligent community.

They are doing many interesting things with technology both for e-government as well as more generally for the quality of life of their residents. One of their accomplishments, in particular, has laid the foundation for a few others — the strong digital identities (and associated digital signatures) that the Estonian government provides to their citizens. Among other things, this enables paperless city government transactions and interactions, online elections, COVID contact warnings along with protection/tracking of the use of personal data.

Most of the rest of the world, including the US, does not have strong, government-issued digital identities. The substitutes for that don’t come close — showing a driver’s license at a store in the US or using some third party logon.

Digital identities have also enabled an E-Residency program for non-Estonians, now used by more than 70,000 people around the world.

As they describe it, in this “new digital nation … E-Residency enables digital entrepreneurs to start and manage an EU-based company online … [with] a government-issued digital identity and status that provides access to Estonia’s transparent digital business environment”

This has also encouraged local economic growth because, as they say, “E-Residency allows digital entrepreneurs to manage business from anywhere, entirely online … to choose from a variety of trusted service providers that offer easy solutions for remote business administration.” The Tallinn city leaders also attribute the strength of a local innovation and startup ecosystem to this gathering of talent from around the world.

All this would be a great story, unusual in practice, although not unheard of in discussions among technologists — including this one. As impressive as that is, it was not what stood out most strongly in the discussion which was Tallinn’s unconventional perspective on the important issue of trust.

Trust among people is a well-known foundation for society and government in general. It is also essential for those who wish to lead change, especially the kind of changes that result from the innovations we are creating in this century.

I often hear various solutions to the problem of establishing trust through the use of better technology — in other words, the belief that technology can build trust.

In Tallinn’s successful experience with technology, cause-and-effect go more in the opposite direction. In Tallinn, successful technology is built on trust among people that had existed and is continually maintained regardless of technology.

While well-thought out good technology can also enhance trust to an extent, in Tallinn, trust comes first.

This is an important lesson to keep in mind for technologists who are going about changing the world and for government leaders who look on technology as some kind of magic wand.

More than once in our discussions, Tallinn’s leaders restated an old idea that preceded the birth of computers: few things are harder to earn and easier to lose than trust.

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Bitcoin & The New Freedom Of Monetary Policy

Every developing technology has the potential for unintended consequences.  Blockchain technology is an example.  Although there are many possible uses of blockchain as a generally trusted and useful distributed approach to storing data, its most visible application has been virtual or crypto-currencies, such as Bitcoin, Ethereum and Litecoin. These once-obscure crypto-currencies are on a collision course with another trend that in its own way is based on technology — mostly digital government-issued money.

Although there are many possible uses of blockchain as a generally trusted and useful distributed approach to storing data, its most visible application has been virtual or crypto-currencies, such as Bitcoin, Ethereum and Litecoin. These once-obscure crypto-currencies are on a collision course with another trend that in its own way is based on technology — mostly digital government-issued money.

In particular, another once-obscure idea about government money is also moving more into the mainstream — modern monetary theory (MMT), which I mentioned few weeks ago in my reference to Stephanie Kelton’s new book, “The Deficit Myth”. In doing a bit of follow up on the subject, I came across many articles that were critical of MMT. Some were from mainstream economists. Many more were from advocates of crypto-currencies, especially Bitcoiners.

Although I doubt that Professor Kelton would agree, many Bitcoiners feel that governments have been using MMT since the 1970s — merely printing money. They forget about the tax and policy stances that Kelton advocates.

Moreover, there is a significant difference in the attitude of public leaders when they think they are printing money versus borrowing it from large, powerful financial interests. James Carville, chief political strategist and guru for President Clinton famously said, “I used to think that if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the president or the pope or as a .400 baseball hitter. But now I would like to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody.”

For Bitcoiners, the battle is drawn and they do not like MMT. Here is just a sample of the headlines from the last year or so:

It is worth noting that MMT raises very challenging issues of governance. Who decides how much currency to issue? Who decides when there is too much currency? Who decides what government-issued money is spent on and to whom it goes? This is especially relevant in the US, where the central bank, the Federal Reserve, is at least in theory independent from elected leaders.

However, it also gives the government what may be a necessary tool to keep the economy moving during recessions, especially major downturns. Would a future dominated by cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, essentially tie the hands of the government in the face of an economic crisis? — just as the gold standard did during the Panic of 1893 and the Great Depression (until President Roosevelt suspended the convertibility of dollars into gold)?

This picture shows MMT as a faucet controlling the flow of money as the needs of the economy changes. If this were a picture of Bitcoin’s role, the faucet would be almost frozen, dripping a relatively fixed amount that is dependent upon Bitcoin mining.

Less often discussed is that cryptocurrencies, as a practical matter, also end up needing some governance. I am not going to get into the weeds on this, but you can start with “In Defense of Szabo’s Law, For a (Mostly) Non-Legal Crypto System”. The implication is that cryptocurrencies need some kind of rules and laws enforced by some people. Sounds like at least a little bit of government to me.

Putting that aside, if Bitcoin and/or other cryptocurrencies succeed in getting widespread adoption, then it would seem that they would limit the ability of governments to encourage or discourage economic growth through the issuance of money.

Of course, some officials do not seem to worry too much. This attitude is summed up in a European Parliament report, published in 2018.

Decentralised ledger technology has enabled cryptocurrencies to become a new form of money that is privately-issued, digital and that permits peer-to-peer transactions. However, the current volume of transactions in such cryptocurrencies is still too small to make them serious contenders to replace official currencies. 

Underlying this are two factors. First, cryptocurrencies do not perform the role of money well, because their value is very volatile and they are thus not very good stores of value. Second, cryptocurrencies are managed in ways that are very primitive compared to what modern currencies require.

These shortcomings might be corrected in the future to increase the popularity and reach of cryptocurrencies. However, those that manage currencies, in other words monetary policymakers, cannot be outside any societal system of checks and balances.

For cryptocurrencies to replace official money, they would have to conform to the institutional set up that monitors and evaluates those who have the power to manage money.

They do not seem to be too worried, do they? However, cryptocurrency might eventually derail the newfound freedom that government economic policy makers have realized they have through MMT.

As we have seen in the past, new technologies can suddenly grow very fast and blindside public officials. As Roy Amara, past president of The Institute for the Future, said, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”.

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved