Summer of Time Travel Protocol: Cryptography Technology Imagination from a Humanistic Perspective

Author: Fang Ting, Source: Crooked Neck Three Views

Summer of Protocols is the first pure humanities and social science research project sponsored by the Ethereum Foundation, in which core Ethereum contributors draft basic literature, Vitalik and others provide opinions, and project researchers jointly form the final results. Full-time and part-time researchers will receive unconditional funding at different times to complete research topics, and selected researchers include academic professors, research funding initiators, and continuous successful entrepreneurs in the field of ocean technology. The research project is centered on “protocols”, and the topics are freely selected by the researchers, without being related to Crypto. The final results will all be open source.

01 Diegesis: The Wide-angle View of Technology

Blockchain users have an unexpected similarity to “naturalists”: they are both in a low-prompt/no-prompt tranquility. The emergence of new technology often accompanies many designs intended to prompt its functionality, which makes life after the industrial revolution somewhat too noisy: even when surrounded by still objects, we are also in the noise of technology in all aspects. The artifacts “prompt” each other’s functions: the mirror reflects light, the power supply flashes, and the refrigerator is always low temperature, self-declaring a million functions in silence. When “no-prompt” technical architecture appears, people often spend much more time finding a place for it: but the result is usually that the blueprint is modified.

The history of technology is a long “One Thousand and One Nights”, and the emergence of blockchain based on cryptography is such a story chapter: it is empty, without a word, a piece of paper without size or thickness (“This Blockingge intentionally left blank”), on which there is a ruler that everyone can draw a line when they pick it up. The inside of the “story” is not filled with words, it is empty, but it cannot be said that there is nothing, but it is just the complement of emptiness, that is, a space with its own rules. All in all, it is a completely passive technology.

We do not often hear the concept of “world” at the beginning of a technology, let alone all new technologies that can evoke “narratology”, but the conciseness of the blockchain story evokes the concept of world (diegesis) in narratology. This is also the “autonomous world” proposed by Ludens in “Blockchain-based “Autonomous” World”, which is now more associated with fully on-chain games (FOCGs). It emphasizes the “empty” part of this technology story, that is, the part that can be self-operated and autonomous through a series of digital physical rules, and the shape of the space is larger than the internal load. Therefore, “autonomous world” is more about “relationship” than “entity” in perspective on what blockchain can achieve. Furthermore, this is why Ludens will propose “interobjective realities”, even though this concept is not mature and does not have any tutorial meaning for know-how.

That’s why there’s a “Summer of Protocols”: as one of the researchers, when I learned that the Ethereum Foundation was willing to spend more money funding our “completely non-code” humanities and social science research than on funding a specific project, I thought: We finally stopped on the roadmap, and started to look at this abstract technology with an equally abstract attitude.

The above paragraph has a joking element (obviously), but it is undeniable that “stepping back a few steps” is a necessary redundancy- Ethereum has spent three to ten years from “world computer” to “digital future”, some practitioners have gone from mines to zuzalu, and the industry hierarchy, from “Defi Summer” to “Protocol Summer”. Rethinking the rules of the new space (digital space) we have obtained, and in a “protocol” way, is a very bold experiment: the word “protocol” may (and very likely) be a straw error, and its depth of language may not be able to carry all the research topics. The value to be explored. And its core researchers may have a completely opposite understanding of this word. There are no established evaluation criteria, no articles that must be written, and no peer review that must be passed. All that exists is an endless “space where conversations happen”.

This is the fun of this big game.

(And the inevitability or contingency of failure is not important, because any philosophical conclusion, when viewed from the inside of intellectual history, is a series of failures.)

The series of articles will start from the published Pilot Study as the starting point, and introduce the existing 11 research projects and their sub-topics in turn (including the project I will participate in), and add some off-track/jumping tracks when necessary. Views, and unexpected and interesting events that occurred during the entire research experiment.

02 Pilot Study: The Unreasonable Sufficiency of Protocols

This paper is the starting point and cornerstone of the research project. The original title of the paper is “The Unreasonable Sufficiency of Protocols”, and the main text is written by Venkatesh Rao, Tim Beiko, Danny Ryan, Josh Stark, Trent Van Epps, and Bastian Aue, and is also improved under the advice of Hasu, Micah Zoltu, Matt Garnett, Vitalik Buterin, Ben Edgington, Alex Stokes, and Josh Davis.

As the foundational literature of the research project, it introduces the origin of the “Summer of Protocols” project, makes some initial attempts to define and characterize “protocols”, and is a twenty-page paper that will be continuously revised and adjusted based on everyone’s research results during the process, so it is a dynamic literature.

The first section of the full text is translated as follows: (ChatGPT4 made the main contribution, and Fang Ting reviewed it again)

One Introduction: The concept selection and working definition of “protocols”

Complex coordination issues seem destined to be difficult to solve – we use pessimistic language to talk about economics as a “depressing” science, social phenomena are dominated by the “tragedy of the commons”, organizations are irretrievably captured, and complex problems become thorny. Even our research on the simplest mental model of coordination and cooperation issues, such as the prisoner’s dilemma in game theory, is surrounded by obviously poor results, and the worst behavior drives the system away from expectations.

However, in practice, we are often able to solve coordination problems quite well. Feasible solutions continue to emerge, often accompanied by the haze and doomsday scenes that are common in theory and cultural commentary. Given this, these unexpectedly good results are almost suspicious luck, or coincidence. Just three examples:

  • Transportation involves millions of objects, each weighing several tons, traveling at high speeds in close proximity. However, traffic can flow quite safely thanks to a relatively simple set of rules starting with consensus on which side of the road to drive on.

  • There are a variety of dangerous pathogens in our environment, yet Joseph Lister’s simple hand-washing method of thoroughly washing hands with disinfectant has been shown to be highly effective and arguably more important than many more advanced medical technologies in managing infectious diseases.

  • Billions of transactions involving sensitive information take place on the public internet every day, yet the vast majority of transactions are completed smoothly thanks to reliable packet-switched networks and secure public key encryption technologies.

Two Working Definition of Agreements

Each of these simple examples contains one or more agreements. Agreements are a relatively simple and fixed set of behaviors that reliably produce good results for everyone when enough participants (humans and/or AI) adopt them in a given situation.

These good results produced by agreements are typically achieved in the face of those pesky influences of breach, free-riding, and other bad behavior patterns. While agreements may fail, and indeed they do fail—think Kyoto Climate Accord—the real point is that they more often don’t slide into the expected failure.

Well-functioning agreements not only solve nominal problems, but also catalyze creative prosperity around activities regulated by these agreements. For example, reliable and trustworthy “land ownership agreements” often unlock significant economic prosperity by “allowing private land to be used as collateral for capitalist investments.” In the public sphere, good environmental management agreements can bring endangered species back from the brink of extinction and restore fragile ecosystems.

However, precisely because they become an invisible background when they are working, excellent agreements often only emerge in the event of failure, reinforcing pessimistic views of the problem areas they address. Prior to the Covid19 pandemic, few were aware of the existence of global public health agreements, which had successfully contained the spread of other infectious diseases in the years leading up to it.

ThreeThe “Serendipity of Agreements”

In many cases, one “agreement” is all it takes to turn what seems like an impossible problem into a manageable one. And any residual disagreements or uncertainties can be well controlled within the range of ordinary human problem-solving abilities. Surprisingly, agreements often take collective problem-solving behavior from the “tragedy of the commons” to those regimes of serendipity that give us unexpected pleasures. As they evolve, good agreements often meet the standard articulated by Friedman: they “let even wrong people do the right thing with positive effects.” Agreements do not rely on extraordinary virtues or levels of wisdom, but make it possible for ordinary, fallible individuals to find workable solutions while controlling the impact of that bad or stupid behavior.

In some cases, establishing good protocols simply requires identifying and disseminating good solutions that are easy to replicate. For example, in the classic iterated prisoner’s dilemma (IPD) game, the well-known “tit-for-tat” and its derivative strategies solve the dilemma simulated in the original game and establish mutual cooperation as an evolutionarily stable strategy. Although such strategies typically arise naturally in the environment and are established through natural selection, they can also be formalized and established as a formal protocol through design. The standardization and formalization of these good solutions, whether or not they are technologically enabled, are typically at the core of “good” protocols that are both attractive to participants and adaptable enough to the evolutionary environment.

Four What is a Good Protocol

A good protocol not only considers the solution to the problem as an ongoing task (solving bugs and imperfections from a long-term perspective), but also considers the positioning of the problem itself as an ongoing task. The creation, growth, and strengthening of a good protocol often catalyze mature responsibility management and ensure sustainable generativity. On the other hand, bad protocols, if they survive early on, tend to be increasingly ignored over time, leading to long-term stagnation and eventually being captured and corrupted. Deep-seated problems are patched up by superficial fixes, making the overall system increasingly fragile.

However, as we discuss later in this article, bad protocols are usually subject to strong evolutionary pressure and are therefore often replaced by better protocols. Although it is important to resist the temptation of excessive technological optimism—bad protocols with high adaptability do exist and can persist for a long time, causing persistent damage—there is reason to believe that protocols are a natural engine of progress, and historical logic usually favors good protocols (either from a value perspective or an evolutionary perspective) over bad protocols.

In short, a good protocol embodies A.N. Whitehead’s famous dictum: “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.” Good protocols not only bring about the progress of civilization, but also achieve this goal in a sustainable way. “Stable without stagnation” (the guiding principle of the Rust programming language) is the state pursued by good protocols, and it is surprising that they can often achieve and maintain this state for a long enough time to produce and consolidate significant civilizational progress.

Five What is “Superabundant Sufficiency”?

This article (Pilot Study) takes its title from Eugene Wigner’s classic 1960 article “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”. Not only did that article establish a resonant title template and inspire many Snowclones, it also established a pattern for discovering unexpected delight: the uncanny, unreasonable efficacy of mathematics in describing the natural world, as compared with our primitive, naive expectations.

While various protocols differ in their efficacy, their salient feature is that they possess an unusual, superabundant “sufficiency”. Relative to their size and complexity, they solve more problems than we expect, and more comprehensively than we expect. In short, good protocols catalyze good enough outcomes across a variety of competing standards, and in conditions of significant constraint.

Thus, even though cultures around established protocols are always rife with ritualized complaints, they inspire enough voluntary commitment and participation to overcome centrifugal forces of deviation and exit, and establish a center of continuity and history. Good protocols tend to form persistent Schelling Points around the problem space that’s worth solving, around good enough solutions–at least for a time. Surprisingly, they often guide patterns of voluntary commitment and participation that are more complex than centralized coordinating systems.

Six “Protocol” as a First-Class Concept for the Future

The purpose of this paper (Pilot Study) is to emphasize this salient feature of protocols, to provide a conceptualization and explanation of the nature of protocols, and to propose a preliminary exploration agenda. Our goal is to help accelerate, broaden, and enrich the conversation about protocols, and for this, we invite readers to offer rigorous critique and challenge to the preliminary views presented here.

Through this paper and the broader “Summer of Protocols” program to which it belongs, we hope to help catalyze a more extensive, deeper, richer, and more optimistic conversation about all aspects of protocols, from the highly technical and mathematical to the social, political, and cultural. We believe that “protocols” should be a first-class concept in any discussion of co-creative phenomena, from handshakes to every aspect of the future of civilization. We believe that protocols, especially at the level of computers, will play an increasingly important role in all aspects of modern human life. Our cognitive, capacity, and imaginative grasp of protocolized futures will help determine whether those futures are good or bad.

It originated from a three-month discussion in a corner of the Ethereum community about the essence and future of protocols, with the aim of conveying a continuous and evolving atmosphere of dialogue that we hope to expand. As participants and stakeholders in the Ethereum ecosystem, we are naturally interested in protocols based on computational technology, especially cryptographic computing technology, and the encrypted economic ecosystem they have generated. Although our discourse is inevitably influenced by the history, current priorities, and long-term vision of the Ethereum project, we attempt to explore the world of protocols broadly and hope it is generally beneficial to all protocol learners. Here, following the upcoming discussion does not require specific technical knowledge, only a broad curiosity about technology and culture.

The rest of the pilot study is organized as follows:

In Section 2, we provide a working definition of protocols, briefly distinguishing them from adjacent concepts such as standards, APIs, and social conventions, and tentatively identifying a set of interesting questions about protocols;

In Section 3, we delve into ten aspects of protocols, focusing in particular on various aspects of the “extraordinary sufficiency” we have identified as a key formative feature of protocols;

In Section 4, we briefly survey some cutting-edge issues in the most advanced protocols;

Finally, in Section 5, we provide a thumbnail sketch of a protocolized future that we believe is worth striving for.

Full text of the Pilot Study translation:

03 Protocolized: Living Well Under Protocols

The inspiration for our pilot study may be primarily derived from this quote-“The progress of civilization lies in the expansion of the number of important operations we can perform without thinking.” This explains why researchers have chosen “protocols” as the central analytical object in the social sciences: protocols are a type of automation device, and in the accelerating development of history, mechanical-level automation gradually deepens into a core device of interpersonal collaboration automation, whose essence contains resistance to the uneven distribution of decision-making power in the current social structure.

A good protocol is a good weight network in which each node’s interaction follows the path of least resistance. To avoid readers overcomplicating this vision and thereby affecting the optimistic state of collaboration, the authors of the paper make a promise in the opening that “protocols” have more than we imagine The coordination ability, that is, the “extraordinary” sufficiency.

People cannot all walk into the promised future like walking into a golden world in a queue. The digital world is not flatter than reality, and the progress depends on how we cooperate (protocolized). Based on the assumption of the original text, what we need to be firm about is not the belief in the protocol itself, but the belief in each other: we can live well under a certain protocol, just as we can survive well under a blue sky. Welcome to a digital world with a shorter line of sight, let us map it together on this huge paper. The new land on the coast in the past is now in the cloud.

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