The Orwellian predictions are getting a bit nauseating, but they’re difficult to avoid. The internet hasn’t saved the world, and so far the complexity of self-learning machines has provoked more fear than hope. Here on the crossroad of dystopia and sustainability, our biggest enemy is still fear itself. It keeps profits high, leaves communities segregated, and destroys the middle class; it has allowed possibly one of the greatest monopolizations of wealth in history. Old timers like Noam Chomsky claim that up to 70% of Americans are “literally disenfranchised.” Throw in climate change and an orange egomaniac with nuke codes, and we’ve got a Doomsday Sunday. The only thing Democrats and Republicans, young and old, seem to agree on is that we’re all going to hell.
When I awoke on a warm October morning in Houston, TX in mid-October, the above introduction to this series remained on my computer screen from the night before. It’s important to address the problems while realizing that they are all connected parts of the same egalitarian problem. The real question now is…are we hopeless?
But that was all a bit heavy for 5 in the morning, and I had more immediate concerns, like getting to the airport on time to fly to Orlando. I am, after all, a professional. I was slated to travel to a convention where a small, close knit community of companies in the domain industry were coming together with tech startups and a few blockchain evangelists for discourse and investment opportunities. My focus was on a Silicon Prairie company called Embermine, a blockchain startup developing a creative content platform that puts creators in control of their own DRM (digital rights management) and data, which is not currently possible in any existing company.
Once I had time to gather my bearings and table the existential question of hopelessness, I shuffled, half-asleep across the room and hit the spacebar on my computer. Spotify was also still up on my computer screen from the night before, and from my library stored on the Spotify network, music played once more. The algorithm for shuffle in Spotify’s code ran automatically, and I now had a randomized personal soundtrack for my morning. Who knew what could come next? Shuffle produced Rakim, Kacey Musgraves, The Roots, the late Tom Petty and Spillage Village as I rounded out the morning routine. I could predict the next song up about as well as I could predict what to expect from this trip.
My introduction to Embermine, and the blockchain community in general, began shortly after last Independence Day weekend. An eccentric, professional talker and closet visionary named James Drake gave me the pitch for his project in a lofted studio-office in the Turbine Flatts building in Lincoln, NE. James has had enough businesses and marriages to know the reality of love and business: nothing good happens before it’s ready. He’d rather do something right then go chasing profits. He’s enthusiastic and sometimes corny, but a sharply calculated decision maker that has, thus far, delivered every promise he’s made to the Embermine community and been open and transparent throughout, which is apparent on their Telegram and social media pages.
I had never heard of blockchain before and was barely familiar with Bitcoin, so at first I thought James Drake was crazy. For the record, I still think he’s crazy, but now I think he’s the type of crazy to pull off such a disruptive and independent enterprise. He created Embermine to allow the monetization of personal value, through creative, collaborative environments, by allowing the individuals to control it.
He and his nephew, Garrison Breckenridge, were fresh off an attempt at a publishing company before being pushed out of business by Amazon’s control of the market and an inability to streamline royalty payments. By wielding the power of a decentralized blockchain, Embermine will allow members to create smart contracts and channels of consensus to determine how their value can be used by others without forcing participation into a distribution monopoly with artificial difficulty. In English, they are creating an open marketplace for digital content where the creator doesn’t have to go into debt to collaborate on a project.
Garrison Breckenridge is the co-founder and Director of Research and Development of Embermine. He was one of the first people to help me understand blockchain in general and how that spurred the Embermine vision. Forward-thinking and thoughtfully skeptical, Garrison is the Yin to James’ Yang. James and Garrison are both highly familiar with blockchain, crypto and the implications of the technology.
There is hope in creating an inclusive, truly free market. There is incentive to build and maintain the network and blockchain integrity. But revolutions aren’t built entirely on hope. They need to be bought with promises, paid for by compromises, and blessed by the Church of Money. It will take some random luck to make all the pieces align simultaneously. Even Spotify’s shuffle algorithm picks the perfect song every once in a while. The MERGE! Convention in Orlando would tell me if Embermine’s business algorithm had enough promises and luck to pick the right song.
Once I was ready, I wasted no time hailing an Uber. I had taken a bit too much time on my morning coffee. If traffic got bad on this smoggy East Texas morning, I could run the risk of missing my flight. The Uber driver arrived on time. He was a young Colombian man from California, wearing an Affliction shirt. The ride went without a hitch in conversation or freeway traffic. He ended up having some flavorful tastes in music. I wonder if he used Spotify.
I exited the Uber at the airport, payment was administered automatically, and all my personal data that was used to do so is now stored on the Uber servers–controlled by them and free to be sold by them. What’s the price of convenience?
The flight, scheduled to depart at 7:15 am, was on time. I was not, and was rudely informed over the airport PA system that Flight 830 to Orlando was already boarding.
“Would [censored] please report to gate A-whatever, boarding closes in 2 minutes.”
The airline network would carry on with or without me. Luckily, I was on the right side of fate that day by exactly 1 minute and 30 seconds, all without breaking a sweat. Like I said, professional. No level of professionalism, however, allowed me to pinpoint an expectation while flying east over the Louisiana river deltas from Houston to Orlando. At least I had some time to think now.
It was around 8 am, and the fog had made way for the sunrise by the time we rose above the clouds and the service trolley made its rounds. I hate flying and I had some serious word crunching to do before arriva; these things take preparation, and I needed a productive morning, so it was natural to order some kick for my coffee. A shooter named Jack would do the trick.
MERGE!(ing) technologies need momentum, and the domain space may provide a slope for the blockchain community to pick up momentum. Embermine aims to give every creator an economic incentive to not only create, but to connect and collaborate by creating a secure identity linked to a domain. To give the reader some scope of the ambition of this project, it’s worth noting that they are entering a market that puts them in direct competition with Amazon. It’s a regular David and Goliath scenario, but after spending a week following them around in Orlando, the idea of a sling bringing down a giant seems plausible if it’s well placed and timely. The challenges are definitely there, but hope, some money bags somewhere along the line, and a pinch of dumb luck, and the creative content industry could be remade. Revolutions start slowly, with long lists of complaints about governance. How is your faith in government lately?
“Make it a double,” I mumbled at the flight attendant, not thinking about the $7 price tag for shooters nor losing my train of thought, which continued with: how can a small startup company from the Silicon Prairie change enough things to not only compete with Amazon, but completely change how the industry operates?
I had work to do on the plane, but I wasn’t going to do anything without calm nerves. As I sipped on my spicy coffee and leaned away from the person overflowing their seat next to me, I wondered whether I was flying to the place where the Jeffersonian future would get its kickstart like the blockchain enthusiasts predict, or to another graveyard for wishful thinking. I seem to remember John Perry Barlow having a grand vision that somehow doesn’t feel so lofty now under the Irony Curtain erected by Aji Pait’s FCC.
Any argument about Net Neutrality becomes flaccid when you realize that openness and liberty are inherent and unstoppable forces in cyberspace. Silk Road had a good run, and Pirate Bay still operates. But the blockchain community thinking that the politically imagined “issue” of Net Neutrality doesn’t affect development of new and competing technologies is absurd.There’s a new economic pie being baked, and the business tycoons of our age are already looking for ways to corner the market.
Establishing a Jeffersonian web is easier said than done, as always. Bitcoin and Ethereum are the first immediate examples. A distributed ledger/decentralized blockchain creates an environment where greed can drive one to secure the network instead of compromise it, because profit depends on trust between nodes in the network. Decentralized blockchains can make digital privacy possible again by securing identity as well as transactions. Digital certainty and digital scarcity are now possible and verifiable through blockchains and smart contracts,which could allow value to be rightly attributed to the creator of said value.
Around the time I finished my coffee, the flight attendants came around with trash bags, and I had some time to act like a sane human before the plane landed. I would have to thrust myself into a world in which I am clearly an outsider. But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Bringing people together, connecting the world and the economy by connecting people, creating hope…and value.
The plane landed with some clumsy jolts to exercise the sphincter muscles, followed by the usual wait to get off the plane. It’s all a very anxious process. As I made my way to the pick up point for my second Uber of the day, I tried not to think, at least until I had some more information.
The Orlando version of my Uber driver wasn’t much of a conversationalist and listened to shitty music, so I spent the ride across the city re-riding the mental rollercoaster of what-ifs and how-abouts that blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies have sprung on the world. If I didn’t find hope in Orlando, I would certainly find some clarity.
The driver pulled up to my destination. I thanked him and wandered into the an Airbnb rental house that would hold the Embermine team for the duration of their stay in Orlando. James and Embermine’s public relations director, Kami, were the only people awake. Kami wore a slick new Embermine shirt. Her passion and degree are in archeology. I might as well jump into the pool, I thought. I already felt in over my head. What could I possibly offer a tech company that hires archeologists? At least I didn’t make a joke about dinosaurs, because she seemed too serious for jokes. But as I got to know her, I realized her composure is a product of her organizational skills. She, James and I sat for a while and chatted, but I was hungry, and someone was cooking breakfast in the kitchen.
Breakfast and greetings happened as the team members awoke. Since the last time I saw the Embermine team in person, it had grown from 4 or 5 members to eleven. Diana, currently PR Manager, explained her background in sales for a local company as she cooked bacon and eggs.
Justin Clay, a Husker fan and project manager to Domain Token (an Embermine project that will play a central role in the platform), and somehow a seasoned teller of dad jokes even though he had no children of his own, was one of the first new faces to make an introduction. He could be found in the middle of the action at pretty much any point throughout the week.
I had met Josh briefly over the summer, a talented photographer and maker of multimedia as well as the owner of a strange and entertaining sense of humor. He and Jordan, another videographer with a sarcastic sense of humor and a mind for pragmaticism, were the next to make their way downstairs for breakfast. The three of us were natural birds of a feather. They skulk around the outskirts of events to catch video evidence, and I skulk around looking for an angle. Seekers of perspective, if you will.
Lam, a Vietnamese-American investor, missed the handshake in our bro-hug at first. But no matter, Lam and I were familiar with each other, and he’s been involved with Embermine since near the beginning. He’s got a mind for market forces and the realities of speculation. He, like every other crypto-trader, wants a Lambo, which is fitting, given his name, but he has since broadened his horizons, adding “changing the world” to his list of expansive goals.
Joey was the last to make his way to breakfast. He’s the Creative Arts Director and has a tendency to push the limits, which makes him a great graphic designer as well as a worthy companion for bartop shenanigans. Above all, my good friend Joey is honest, and I’ve known him long enough to trust his word. He was the first to turn me on to Embermine, and the man that first introduced me to James Drake.
The lot of us went to the convention center on Friday to set up and gather our bearings. An accurate reading of what to expect was still looming, but everyone seemed in good spirits as night fell on Friday, October 13th. I’m not superstitious, but that doesn’t mean I am without beliefs, and I believed I was in the right place that weekend to seek answers and find out whether or not our economy can believe in hope for a more distributed future, and if Embermine would be the company to pave the road.
Airbnb, Uber and all the other services I used on my travel day are the tip of the iceberg in what has come to be called the sharing economy. But they aren’t without their problems and are essentially just the next generation of big business. Centralization is a racket, and the business model applies to the sharing economy as well as the industrial one.
Airbnb, Uber, Amazon, etc., are all networks that lock users into contracts because they have monopolized their networks over a particular product or service and have such control that they can change the rules however and whenever they see fit, the average user be damned. An average user has no say in the company policy of Airbnb, or even in how their own data is used, even though the company is built on the users’ assets.
The airline industry is similarly a closed network, holding people within their network on their own terms through contracts. That fine print on your boarding pass might get you beat up and dragged off a flight you paid for. Even airports themselves are closed networks controlled by the TSA
The world is built on closed networks, several of which were navigated throughout this excessively long article, but they all carry the same risks of centralization. The cost of an open internet is steep, and privacy seems to fall next to Presidential Rule of Law in the Irrelevant and Ignored category of recent history. Love might be universal, but so is greed, and greed finds opportunity in centralization. Putting all the eggs in one basket attracts poachers. I can’t be sure one of these companies might not get lazy like Equifax or greedy like Wells Fargo and pump profits at the expense of my digital security.
Embermine is unique. It will be one of the first pioneers in returning the power of contract to individual people so they can work and shop on their own terms, not the terms of the owner of the networks. The goal, economically and philosophically, is to return the power of networks to the people that occupy the nodes.
By making databases distributed it makes hacking more difficult and certainty verifiable without holding data hostage. It’s more efficient, it could save banking industry millions per year in infrastructure costs, and when the descendants of the cypherpunks figure out how to scale it, it will give economic freedom hope against the monied interests of the world that only a revolution can give. Will we end up one rotation older or resolve the lopsided trajectory of our economic liberty?
The obstacles are stacked in their way, but the night before MERGE!, the Embermine team was ready to take the stage. The only question would be whether they could defend the Embermine vision against the scrutiny of competitors, collaborators, and investors.
Some chose to rest up for the big day, but me, I’ve got grit, and late nights help me think. And don’t forget that I was away from my daily job and routine, I was and try to remain in spirit…