So you want to build an “unstoppable” app?
Ankit Bhatia, Co-Founder & CEO,Sapien
“Ethereum will finally let us build completely unstoppable applications!” proclaimed a bright-eyed developer with a cold brew in his hand somewhere in the outskirts of Berlin.
“Yeah, that’s cool but what does unstoppable really mean?” I asked, somewhat rhetorically.
The dev looked back at me inquisitively, “Well of course—to build a completely unstoppable application is to build an app completely free from censorship, middlemen and centralized points of failure.”
“Hmm…are you ready to unleash that on the world?” I probed.
The conversation went deep into the night but no answer on either side felt complete or without caveats.
So what happens once we crack scalability, privacy, real utility, and wrap that into a beautiful user experience that charms the mainstream market? Should unstoppable apps become the de facto standard for blockchain projects?
The Web3 revolution will bring a new wave of applications that operate with a different set of core values, optimizing for freedom and financial empowerment over corporate profitability and user exploitation.
This paradigm will also bring with it new social, ethical, and technological implications that seem to be a mere afterthought for many developers in this space. Yes, the technology is new and shiny, but let’s take a step back and understand what happens once we open Pandora’s box.
Bitcoin, the OG blockchain, was a profound invention but like all disruptive technology, it is a double-edged sword. A January 2018 study revealed that nearly one-half of Bitcoin transactions are associated with illegal activities. Just a few days ago, a trail of bitcoin transactions led US authorities to a child pornography site on the dark web. A site that US attorney Jessie Liu called “one of the worst forms of evil imaginable.”
Don’t get me wrong here—I am a huge proponent of Bitcoin and decentralized technology. We cannot fault paper for the illicit writings of humans.
But I do feel that some quasi-libertarians, radical technologists, and borderline anarchists are viewing decentralization through rose-colored glasses. The problem is exponentially compounded now that we are capable of decentralizing applications, organizations, and countries on platforms like Ethereum and EOS.
At Sapien, we had a few blockchain engineers who had spent some time building a completely decentralized social network on Ethereum, IPFS, Web Torrents. This wasn’t a mere proof-of-concept but a fully-featured application that had content feeds, friends, posting, and more. We all know smart contracts are forever and with IPFS, this includes any images, videos, and media content that is uploaded.
But what happened next was a bit disheartening.
Those engineers shared with us that on the first day they launched the social network, somebody uploaded child pornography to the platform.
Day one. Immutable and unstoppable.
Zuckerberg was recently grilled by Congress over his plans for Libra. Many members expressed their skepticism given the platform’s shady history. Issues ranged from hate speech and content moderation to civil rights and data violations.
In one sense, Facebook is an “unstoppable application” — a behemoth fueled by capitalist machinery spreading like malignant cancer, forever shielded by the free markets of America.
Facebook has hundreds, if not thousands, of levers that it can manipulate to alter its trajectory but the company is clearly shackled by their obligations to shareholders.
If a centralized company with this much fiscal and political power can’t steer itself to a solution, how can we (the Web3 ecosystem) be so naive to imagine that we will be able to reign in runaway dApps when that technology is misused beyond our wildest imagination?
We do not want to build apps capable of facilitating genocide.
I’ll share a few items every Web3 developer should think deeply about:
- Immutability. Will your smart contract or application follow an immutable or upgradeable model? Ethereum by design, for example, has a “difficulty bomb” to encourage frequent protocol updates.
- Tokenomics. Does your native token or cryptocurrency create the right incentives to reward intended use or punish abuse? Encode project core values right into your app or service.
- Governance. How can your network balance power between developers, users, and stakeholders? How should power be acquired and how should it be distributed? Here are some of my favorites: DAOStack, Aragon, and Polkadot.
I often joke our team that we want to embody Sapien with the power to penetrate the North Korean market. An unstoppable (caveats included) democratic platform that is built for the user. That’s when the real fun starts.
Transparent flow of information and value are capable of dissolving sovereign borders. This is the future that we should all strive for.
Let’s just make sure we don’t forgo compassion on the path to decentralization.