Saturday, February 17, 2018

Jeremiah and the Blockchain

I don’t know why these two disparate things entered into my mind all of a sudden six months ago. On the one hand, I have had a fascination and affection for the person Jeremiah the Weeping Prophet, for many years. But interest in cryptocurrency and the blockchain is recent. Once these two dissimilar things arrived within my consciousness I decided to explore. So how do we tie together Jeremiah and the Blockchain? My thoughts developed as follows. To begin, Jeremiah is one of the most important links in the chain of people and events that created the Jewish people and enabled them to survive. And without them the history of the past two thousand years would have been completely different. No Christianity or Islam, for sure. Would there have been a Renaissance? Enlightenment? Science and Industrialization?
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn - Jeremia treurend over de verwoesting van Jeruzalem - Google Art Project
Rembrandt van Rijn,
 Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of
, c. 1630

Jeremiah and his Time

The First Axial Age

Jeremiah belongs to the Axial Age, a time that saw similar and near simultaneous changes to the major civilizations from Europe to China. Confucius, Lao-Tzu, Siddhartha (Buddha), the Hebrew prophets, the Greek philosophers were essentially contemporaries. All of these people have had a permanent effect and a role in creating the cultures and religions that have lasted down to the present. In this period, religion transitions from the communal to the personal. Karl Jaspers originated the axial age concept and some recent explicators are Karen Armstrong, Robert Bellah, and Ilia Delio. The last author combines and summarizes several sources in her book Christ in Evolution when she says:

“In the preaxial period, the human person was cosmic, collective, tribal, mythic, and ritualistic. Myth was a way in which the human person gave meaning to his/her world through the context of stories that contained essential truths. The idea of primal consciousness as mimetic consciousness, that is a consciousness of imitation, meant that humans identified with their surroundings…..Axial consciousness generated a new self awareness that included awareness of autonomy and a new sense of individuality. The human person as subject emerged. Jaspers states that, with axial consciousness, personality was revealed for the first time in history. With the emergence of the rational individual came a new sense of freedom by which the human person could make conscious and deliberate decisions.(1) Although the world religions that emerged in the first axial period are widely divergent in their doctrines and rituals, they share a common existential thread: self reflection and self transcendance of the human person.” 
A Problem with Trust

Jeremiah exemplified the new self-aware person of that era. He appears as one of the first people in history who reflects upon and describes his feelings. He is expressive. He attempts to help his fellow citizens in Jerusalem and exiles in Babylon make the transition from over emphasis on ritual to instead elevate their personal conduct and interact with their neighbors with integrity. Trust and individual responsibility are important to him. He described their problems in this area when he says:

“Let everyone be on guard against his neighbor,
And do not trust any brother;
Because every brother deals craftily*,
And every neighbor goes about as a slanderer.
“Everyone deceives his neighbor
And does not speak the truth,
Jeremiah 9:4-5 New America Standard Bible (NASB)

* some translations use the word "deceiver"

Jeremiah taught individual ethical responsibility. And also his younger contemporary with whom he corresponded, Ezekiel, communicates the same. Ezekiel 18 states that no longer will the proverb hold that says the fathers have eaten and the children’s teeth are set on edge. But rather, the soul that sins, it shall die.

Our Present Time

2nd Axial Age

But how does Jeremiah and the axial period relate to us now? He helped us to get us to where we are now.  And, perhaps, where we are is a new, second axial age. This might be illustrated by making analogies with his time and ours. The first thing to note is the question of what brought about the first axial age. Part of the answer must be that it was spurred by technological developments related to travel, communication and money. New technology creates new ways for humans to relate to and organize each other. The technology that we use for communication determines our consciousness, how we think, and how we perceive the world. Marshal McLuhan, who may have been the first to fully describe this, is convincing to me. And the developments since his death, involving the personal computer and the internet, validate what he said, in my opinion.  Our external memory is enhanced much more than what was possible for Jeremiah and other Axial people. A necessary first step was the invention of the printing press. It allowed books and mass literacy to proliferate. And, more recently, digital memory allows thousands of books even in a small thumb drive. And, due to the internet, we have near instantaneous access to the thoughts of others anywhere in the world which may bring instant validation, challenge, critique or other engagement of our views. And likewise, we have continued to develop ethics and morality and self-discipline. One may decry current ethics and morality but progress has been made in many areas. The world now frowns on wife beating, slavery, torture, punishment for religious beliefs, and many other things that were acceptable even to the deeply religiously devout of earlier societies.

It may be noted that coinage, that is, technology related to money, was invented in the 1st axial age. In parallel with that in our time, the new digital currency and what is entailed by it, just might be helping to usher in a 2nd axial age. 

Trust and the Blockchain

Three Top Cryptocoins (3) 
Like Jeremiah, we still have problems related to trust. The invention of the Blockchain addresses this problem. It makes possible a universal and unchangeable record of transactions. Incentives reward the keepers of the record. This permanent record may be viewed by anyone. Once something makes it to the blockchain, whether a financial transaction or medical record, after requisite confirmations, it is there permanently. It may not be changed.

In our new era, there is a distrust of central authority. Authority is being decentralized. Authority has become relational and social.

How to manage social relationships? For Jeremiah: Know God. Be honest. Know Thyself. Be personally responsible. What Jeremiah said still has validity for us. We are individuals who should act responsibly. In addition, in this 2nd axial age, we are developing newer tools. Yes, the blockchain is new technology for currency and payment, a breakthrough in money just as the invention of metal coins was in the first axial age. But, the development of the blockchain is making possible a web of trust, a decentralized means for validating and measuring trustworthiness. And making possible new and creative means for attending to other of our social problems that Jeremiah and those Hebrew prophets addressed, like feeding the poor, eliminating poverty, providing clean water, improving health, and other things an easy search will uncover (4). I’m kind of excited about the prospect of a basic universal income too.  

We live in fast changing and exciting times, in many ways. What the near future will bring to us in terms of breakthroughs and problems related to technological and cultural changes, I don't know in detail.  But I'm with  Jeremiah, I take it that we have a hope and a future.  (Jer 29:11).

(1)  Ilia Delio, Christ in Evolution, Orbis Books, 2011.

(2) Delio cites here Karl Jaspers, Origin and Goal of History, trans. Michael Bullock
 ( New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953), 1, 23, 27.

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