Democracy the Ethereum way

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In the world of cryptocurrencies one of the leading thinkers and visionaries is surely Vitalik Buterin. A regular at the seemingly endless merry-go-round of crypto conventions and conferences, at the age of just 24 he has already been made a millionaire many times over thanks to his role in creating Ethereum.

But while his naming of the cryptocurrency was decidedly random – he’s reported to have been seeking inspiration by looking through a list of element names used in science fiction and came across Ethereum – he has always had very definite ideas about its purpose.

For example he has always maintained that the blockchain technology behind Ethereum should make it something he’s described as “an open-source project for the world”. What’s more, this positioning has helped the cryptocurrency to become almost as well-known as bitcoin and made Ethereum an appealing investment opportunity for many.

But, as he’s since discovered, this democratic approach has a definite number of drawbacks. A prime example is the clash of beliefs that led to the now legendary fork of the cryptocurrency following the notorious hack of the DAO in June 2016.

In even more recent times there have been heated debates around the cryptocurrency regarding everything from the ways to develop new mining hardware to the best way to recover the sorts of lost funds that were misappropriated in the DAO hack. But dictating the way forward is not Buterin’s style so he has been working with Dr Glen Weyl, a Princeton PhD and economics researcher, to explore an effective way to allow those with a vested interest in Ethereum to have their say.

While, superficially, simply throwing discussions open to all and allowing them to register their opinions, would seem the most logical way forward this could be fraught with issues. For example, those with a high value of Ethereum could be at a distinct advantage just as the influence of the wealthy is disproportionately high in many other areas. At a time when fake news and dubious accounts are also very much to the fore, there would also always be a question mark hanging over exactly whose opinions are being expressed.

The possible solution that Buterin and Weyl have come up with, and which the former has outlined in a blog post,  is a system of quadratic voting that aims to both address these issues and allow stakeholders to express their greater interest in certain areas under discussion.

In its simplest terms, the proposed system will allow those who want to join the debate to buy a certain number of votes, possibly using a currency still to be created. Then they can allot these votes according to how interested they are in a particular subject area.

The pair are acutely aware that the economic disparities between those with large amounts of currency and those with less could result in the unequal division of power. But how to overcome this is still very much open to debate.

What is more certain is the anticipated result of introducing the system. The hope is that it will be a solution that brings the greatest good to the highest number of people, a principle that harks back to the 19th Century utilitarianism of philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

Whether these noble sentiments will come to fruition remains to be seen. But at a time when democratic voting in all of its forms is becoming the focus of a great deal of attention, it may end up having far wider implications than simply in the rather rarefied world of cryptocurrencies.

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