Rarely does one have an artistic experience when discussing a topic known for its boring references to hashes and nodes. Yet, Andy Tudhope has spun us a story so artistic, as he shares his decentralized journey of discovering a fulfilling life path in the blockchain space, which takes him around the world, even as he makes his own distributed contribution to displacing the unequal status quo.
By reason of growing up in South Africa and having a firsthand experience of what it means to live in a society still rife with unequal segregation, the omnibus access principle of bitcoin (and its underlying technology, blockchain) struck a chord. “I grew up in South Africa - the most unequal society on Earth by many measures. While we put many laws and policies into place after the end of Apartheid in 1994, like Black Economic Empowerment and Affirmative Action (a quota-based system that rewards organisations for employing workforces more representative of the demographics of the country), these have been abused to enrich only a small section of our population and have proven largely ineffective at redressing the social inequality that still so obviously exists to this day. It's clear that we require some means of creating and sharing value that does not rely on a few powerful individuals who are incentivised to look after only themselves. Learning about Bitcoin was the first time I felt that I had found a tool which could be used to enable widespread access to global financial markets, which really excited me because I genuinely think that the best means of addressing such vast inequality is simply access, rather than policies which can always already be manipulated by those in power.”
Andy’s definition of “blockchain” is hands down the most coherent one I have ever come across. His response to the question “what is blockchain?” first gives us a linguistic background about how we ascribe meanings to words, before expanding with a practical and ideological definition of this word, many have chosen as heralding the fourth revolution.
“Ferdinand de Saussure described the process by which words come to have meaning best. Each word is made up of sign, signifier, and signified. Take the word ‘dog’. The actual word itself, the three letters d-o-g, is the signifier. The signified is this particular poodle over here that I am referring to when I speak to you, and the sign is kind of like the Platonic ideal of a dog which we share in our minds: i.e. a four-legged furry creature that serves as man's best friend. Importantly, we must have some shared experience of a dog in order to have a meaningful dialogue about it. This is easy enough with simple words and common experiences but becomes more difficult with new and abstract nouns like ‘blockchain’. All this is to say that there is still a major semantic battle underway for what ‘blockchain’ really means.”
“Practically, it is the technology which allows a random and unknown set of participants to share a common ledger and agree on the exact order of transactions in that ledger without needing to rely on an intermediary to broker trust. It was first used in Bitcoin, to implement a digitally-native currency that is censorship-resistant and cannot be controlled by any one party (especially central banks and government). Combined with networking protocols and well-understood cryptographic tools like hashes and public-private key infrastructure, a "blockchain" allows peers in a network to agree on a shared set of rules, defined by common software, that can govern the creation and transfer of value, broadly defined.”
“Ideologically, this allows us to route around the chokehold centralised institutions currently have as brokers of trust between all us individuals. Governments and central banks have proven, time and again since the 1920s, that their bureaucratic processes are not flexible enough to respond to the fast-changing and complex nature of modern society. Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Turkey, Hungary and many others are examples of governmental failure, and you need to just read something like "The Lord's of Finance" or "The Man Who Knew" to get a real sense of the issues faced by central banks. In fact, a hash of the FT article titled "Chancellor on Brink of Second Bailout for Banks" was included in the Bitcoin genesis block and can be read as a political statement of the need for some means of handling currency and global trade other than those under the sole control of inept, bureaucratic and often unelected (in the case of central bankers) individuals with asymmetric power.”
“More broadly speaking, the "blockchain" is, therefore, a new kind of global coordination tool. Just look at the issues we face as a generation: climate change and migration being two good examples of problems that, by definition, extend beyond the borders of any one nation-state. Thinking of solutions to such large and complex issues seems hopeless at first. However, when you're a software developer, you know that complex problems must be broken down into their simpler, constituent parts - which can then be solved iteratively - as a means of coming up with various and robust solutions to the entire problem. Bitcoin and all the projects it's given birth to is one such iterative means of creating solutions to global problems. If we really are to work together at the sort of scales required to tackle climate change or rapid migration, we need a kind of money - and, more broadly, a means of communication - that cannot simply be censored or rendered valueless by the actions of any one government or bank.”
“This is what "the blockchain" really means: it is an alternative protocol for organising ourselves and the value we create and share such that we can more effectively tackle issues that require global cooperation.”
Following his encounter with Blockchain which saved him from misery in an unfulfilled role as a web developer for a financial services company, Andy now spends his time doing things he loves. “Personally, I am responsible for Developer Relations at Status, which means I create and manage most of our technical documentation and tutorials, travel around the world giving presentations to people about what we do, manage all our software bounties, build and maintain our web presence, and product manage certain initiatives in the organisation, the latest of which is figuring a means of curating decentralised applications on Ethereum that relies only on smart contracts, is not owned by anyone, and yet is fair.” He looks forward to “making light clients an actual thing and coupling that with uncensorable communications as we build out the full Ethereum technology stack, such that this first World Computer can actually be accessed, used, and understood by a majority of people around the world.”
Apparently, Applied Maths, Physics, and English Literature have no common denominator, well not until Andy comes to mind. In his pursuit of the most succinct language he could find to describe the actual mechanisms of the universe, he chose to study Applied Maths, Physics, and English Literature. “When you study Quantum Mechanics, though, it turns out that there is no such thing as an electron, not really. It is a metaphor we use for a probability-density wavefront moving through spacetime. Obviously, that sentence means very little to ordinary people, but the key is that it turns out that metaphor underlies even the beauty of mathematics. It is, in some important sense, more fundamental to how we understand the universe and our place in it. So, I did a postgrad in English trying to understand more about metaphor. But it turns out, especially when you study post-colonial literature, that it has become largely impossible to say anything meaningful - especially politically meaningful - in common language anymore, so inundated are we by cliche, and all that is inevitably excluded in any narrative act.”
“Nevertheless, I discovered that there has been a long-running search throughout history for what might be called the "perfect language". Gottfried Leibniz worked on this a lot in the 17th Century, and ended up claiming that binary was the best candidate for a language in which 1) I can say exactly what I mean, 2) You can understand exactly what I mean and 3) I can be sure you have understood exactly what was meant. It took some time and a bit of Turing magic before he was proven largely correct in the 1930s. Computer languages allow me to say what I mean and test it (i.e. the program either runs or leaves a nasty red stack trace in my terminal), and be fairly sure that - if you run the same string of text - you will get the same output. They are executable text, which is totally fascinating (and not something most English students tend to think much about, floundering in their inability to speak the whole truth and nothing but the truth). Being executable means that we can write text which carries action across space and time at near the speed of light. Even putting a simple @ before a tweet now allows me to send my thoughts across the world in an instant to their intended recipient: it is, for all intents and purposes, a ‘techno-social wormhole’.”
“Bitcoin amplifies that because the common software we all run ensures that the output you get from some instruction is exactly the same as what I get. I cannot stress enough how powerful this simple linguistic fact is. As Rumi once said, ‘Speak a new language and the world will be a new world’.”
Media hype on the Lambos and the so-called crypto billionaires has propagated the erroneous impression that the crypto space is just a global get rich quick scheme. Andy holds a different view. “It's not about getting rich. It's about redefining wealth as a concept.”
“Projects I work with need to be crystal clear about the principles around which they are formed and which guide any decision they make. Top of mind is a commitment to being totally open source: I will not work with a project that does not meet this simple requirement. They also need to demonstrate that they understand the real benefits (and trade-offs!) implied by building decentralised systems (i.e "Do you really need a blockchain?") and show a willingness to build systems that really do diffuse the power of privileged individuals, showing a clear commitment to not cutting corners simply because it is easier to do so.”
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“I think that they likely also need to share some of my idealism. They need to be projects who see their work as having a potentially large impact on the world in terms of 1) how people organise; 2) what they think of as "valuable"; and 3) how they describe and share that with the people they're close to. Finally, they also need to be committed to using technology to make a real, lived difference in the lives of ordinary people, not just enriching a new class of white male nerds (as opposed to bankers and lawyers). This idea is best summed up by a letter Cary Fink once wrote to Carl Jung:
‘As you talked I grew more and more aware of the immeasurability of the ideas which were filling you. You said they had the shadow of eternity upon them and I could feel the truth of it […] because the Red Book told of a battle between the world of reality and the world of the spirit. You said in that battle you had very nearly been torn asunder but that you had managed to keep your feet on the earth and make an effect on reality. That you said for you was the test of any idea, and that you had no respect for any ideas however winged that had to exist off in space and were unable to make an impression on reality’."
Early on, as he forged a path for himself in the space, Andy recalls having support in form of mentorship and guidance from Jarrad. “I think that Jarrad Hope (the founder of Status, of which I am a part) has influenced my thinking a lot and taught me to look at the world in ways I would not have otherwise. Jarrad has a unique, multi-dimensional and long-term view of where these sorts of technology could take us a species, and thinking in some of the frameworks he has suggested leads to very interesting ideas and insights.”
“As for mentees, I am lucky enough to have taught a whole lot of people - many of whom are significantly more talented programmers than me - about "the blockchain" and what new and different possibilities it creates, especially for the technically gifted. Such people, whether through courses I ran in South Africa, Botswana, Germany or at events like ETHBuenosAires, ETHIndia, ETHBerlin, CryptoLife etc. continually surprise me with what they're able to imagine and build (which is almost always beyond my own, fairly limited, skillset).”
On one side of the coin, most blockchain enthusiasts are thinking of banking the unbanked, the rest on the other side of the coin prefer to unbank the banked. Talk about a decentralized revolutionary. At first, he is not sure how his line of work could have an impact on the world but goes on to explain how his earnest wish is to see more individuals and corporate entities adopt decentralized solutions. “I'm not sure that this kind of speculation is particularly useful in my line of work. Certainly, the attempts to ‘save the world’, or even to just ‘unbank the banked’, are so global as to be essentially meaningless (as well as being pretty much one-way streets to insanity, deep disappointment, disaffection, or all of the above).”
“I tend to think that equality is a great success metric, but a terrible goal (precisely because there are so many different ways to measure it). However, by building the most robust, most carefully decentralised systems we can, I think we likely have a better hope of improving the world in some small part as a side-effect of the systems we choose to create. Therefore, I like to think that the impact of my work will be that people use more decentralised systems by default, often without realising it. I hope (and my mind tells me that there are intelligent reasons to believe) that this will lead to a more equal world based purely on the fact that anyone and everyone can access global markets and no-one can stop them.”
“However, the ends are never in our hands; only the means. ‘All we have, Frodo, is decide what to do with the time we're given’ - imagining there is any more to it than this is just grandiosity.”
Newbies looking to break into the space - here are Andy’s four words for you: “Learn how to code.” In the very nearest future, code could become a universal language. “It really is as simple as that. For a full tweet storm, go here. I started with freecodecamp.org, became a web developer, got a job with actual deliverables that forced me to learn properly, and then only began to work full time on decentralised networks. Cryptozombies and The Ethernaut are the best places to start learning about Ethereum, which is what I work on every day.”
It’s no secret that the majority of people in the blockchain and crypto space are young persons. In fact, as Andy says, we do not even need to worry about encouraging young people to enter the space. “It is already a very young and idealistic industry, in all senses. I think that, if young people were not attracted to it, that would be a sign of a failure to capture the imagination of a generation who have to figure out some nasty global coordination problems or perish in the accumulated waste of our species (both literal and ideological). Looking at the average age of the Ethereum Foundation, or my own colleagues, in particular, does not give me this sense.”
“However, obviously, making it easier to access, understand and use open source software is also critical. I have already listed some good starter tutorials, and there are also awesome programs like Gitcoin and Bounties Network to help you earn some crypto as you start learning more about it.”
Isn’t it amusing that the one person who should be calming down the fears of institutional players, is actually passionately multiplying the fear? “We held a meetup in the offices of a large company in Johannesburg a few years back, and this whole audience of auditors rocked up to hear about this weird "blockchain" thing they'd read about online. There was - as there usually is at such events - a panel of esteemed minds meandering around the finer points of how hashes work and the effect chaining them together is going to have on our financial and communication systems. The CIO of a big South African bank went off on a long rant about how he would specifically instruct his children, when the time came, not to become auditors because the need for such a profession vanishes when you have a single, shared, duplicated source of truth defined only by software, rather than corruptible or incompetent human beings. To watch a C-level executive of a big bank strike fear into the hearts of a room of suits with whom he should really have been aligned was, from the sidelines, enormous amounts of fun.”
Who is the guy that shows up for a training of C-level executives in tracksuits and a hoody? Yeah, you got that right, Andy. In his defence, it was never his intention. “There was also a time where a slight breakdown in communication led to me sitting in the main boardroom of another bank, teaching their entire (and very stern) executives for a full day about blockchain while wearing tracksuit pants and a hoody (I have very rarely been looked at in such shock as when I walked in and one of the Director's PAs welcomed me), but that can wait for another interview.”
Using the blockchain and crypto community as a platform, Andy and others have executed several philanthropic activities in areas needing assistance. One of the most fantastic of these philanthropic projects being organizing on the blockchain, a digital auction of artworks created by some South African kids. “I have been involved in a number of hackathons across the world which have had an outreach aspect to them. However, my biggest responsibility was running Merry Merkle this year. It's an annual Ethereum tradition held in December each year - last year they raised nearly $200k (CAD) for a children's home in Toronto and this year, at the very bottom of the markets, we still managed to raise over R110000 for a school in Cintsa East, South Africa. We also brought 9 people from around the world involved in crypto to SA and built a classroom for the school's new Grade 8 class, because getting your hands dirty and making ‘an impression on reality’ is what it's all ultimately about. In addition, we also put together an amalgamation of the current Grade 7's artwork (i.e. the kids going into the new class we built), tokenized it using SuperRare and held the world's first ever digital auction for such an artwork. We raised 2.5 ETH for that single set of self-portraits.”
“Merry Merkle started because we believe that having humane traditions at the heart of technological advancements is critical if such technologies are to be used responsibly and to the benefit of all. Gift-giving as a physical ritual quickly becomes a tradition. And traditions propagate myth across generations. If your communal myth is founded on a notion of the gift and its ability to create a space for "our" beyond just you and I, and you have a tradition of actual gift-giving - this forms a neat feedback loop that could help secure a slightly more equitable, slightly more human world.” Aptly summed up in one word, Andy hopes the legacy he leaves the earth is: LOVE.