In the next few decades, virtually every financial, social, and governmental institution in the world is going to be radically upended by one small but enormously powerful invention: the blockchain.
Do you believe that? Or are you one of those people who think the blockchain and crypto boom is just a massive, decade-long fraud—the bastard child of the Dutch tulip bubble, Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, and the wackier reaches of the libertarian internet? More likely, you—like me—are at neither of these extremes. Rather, you’re longing for someone to just show you how to think about the issue intelligently and with nuance instead of always falling into the binary trap.
Binaries have been on my mind a lot since I took over the editor’s chair at WIRED last March. That’s because we’re at what feels like an inflection point in the recent history of technology, when various binaries that have long been taken for granted are being called into question.
When WIRED was founded in 1993, it was the bible of techno-utopianism. We chronicled and championed inventions that we thought would remake the world; all they needed was to be unleashed. Our covers featured the brilliant, renegade, visionary—and mostly wealthy, white, and male—geeks who were shaping the future, reshaping human nature, and making everyone’s life more efficient and fun. They were more daring, more creative, richer and cooler than you; in fact, they already lived in the future. By reading WIRED, we hinted, you could join them there!
If that optimism was binary 0, since then the mood has switched to binary 1. Today, a great deal of media coverage focuses on the damage wrought by a tech industry run amok. It’s given us Tahrir Square, but also Xinjiang; the blogosphere, but also the manosphere; the boundless opportunities of the Long Tail, but also the unremitting precariousness of the gig economy; mRNA vaccines, but also Crispr babies. WIRED hasn’t shied away from covering these problems. But they’ve forced us—and me in particular, as an incoming editor—to ponder the question: What does it mean to be WIRED, a publication born to celebrate technology, in an age when tech is often demonized?
To me, the answer begins with rejecting the binary. Both the optimist and pessimist views of tech miss the point. The lesson of the last 30-odd years is not that we were wrong to think tech could make the world a better place. Rather, it’s that we were wrong to think tech itself was the solution—and that we’d now be equally wrong to treat tech as the problem. It’s not only possible, but normal, for a technology to do both good and harm at the same time. A hype cycle that makes quick billionaires and leaves a trail of failed companies in its wake may also lay the groundwork for a lasting structural shift (exhibit A: the first dotcom bust). An online platform that creates community and has helped citizens oust dictators (Facebook) can also trap people in conformism and groupthink and become a tool for oppression. As F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, an intelligent person should be able to hold opposed ideas in their mind simultaneously and still function.