Bridging the Empathy Gap Through Decentralization

I recently had the opportunity to speak at Cryptolina on empathy and decentralized tech. It was a wonderful experience and below you can view the video and transcript.

I went off script for some of this talk but here is a loose transcript of what was covered.

What is Empathy?

Today I want to talk about a topic we don’t always hear about in this space: empathy and how we can increase it using decentralized tech. First, what is empathy? It’s the ability to place yourself in the shoes of another and grok their struggles, their triumphs, their love, and their pain. It’s not pitying but rather edifying — it’s what makes us human beings instead of human doings because we’re not automated but rather deeply connected to one another through the shared experience of existing.

It’s been theorized that the internet has hindered the ability to empathize with others through anonymity and as someone who grew up with this technology I am well aware of the darker places that it has. The human heart can be a cavernous place of hurt that spews hatred as a cover for this hurt and hides behind the mask of anonymity. Some even argue that we’re physically disconnected from each other; blocked by screens and distracted by the allure of long distance connections. But I’d argue that it is because we’re desperate for deep connections that we fear missing out on ones that may not be in our immediate presence. Whether or not this is proper etiquette is another discussion but I’ve experienced this on a personal level.

Personal Experience

Growing up, I was an outcast. I was bullied and had few friends I could trust so I escaped into the world of books and then into the world of the internet. I found people I had common interests with that made me feel like I belonged. Having connections limited by location has been the way the world worked throughout all of history and as we’ve broadened the scope of our relationships through the ability to physically travel, more and more people have been able to connect and share in the trials and celebrations of people sometimes very far away from their homeland. We’re now able to virtually travel almost anywhere in the world and it’s only a matter of time before this experience can be shared by everyone regardless of locale.

The ability to connect with others across the world who share varying interests has had profound effects on global human flourishing. When we see instantly how others around the world are surviving on this great big floating rock it inspires feelings of togetherness and brotherhood.

Our Tribes are International

We live in an age where any tragedy or triumph can be seen by millions in the click of a button and it has created international tribes of people joined together through niche interests. The centralized concept of a nation state seems more absurd every day when we see the natural instinct of people to organize across borders based on common interests and as our communications have become decentralized we’ve seen more services arise to meet this need. Access to these programs is increasing across the world at rapid rates. This is important because the ability to control a population becomes threatened when technology spreads and the opportunities to connect to outside territories increase. The internet has changed the way we communicate and connect with one another and it is a fascinating development to see how easy it is to build relationships with people all over the world.

Power Inequities Decrease Empathy

Decentralized tech is being used to address many social problems. But why decentralization? The simple answer is power. Understanding how empathy between people decreases in unequal power dynamics is crucial in addressing social issues. Those in higher positions of power don’t have to regard the feelings of subordinates and those in lower power positions feel less able to challenge wrongdoings. By challenging these power dynamics using decentralized tech we won’t achieve total equality but we can create a more caring and level playing field. Inequity and therefore decreased empathy thrives in centralized systems. When we have centralized institutions controlling our finances, reputations, and ability to connect with others they undoubtedly benefit from retaining this locus of control. These institutions are primarily concerned with self preservation through centralization. That’s not to say decentralization is without challenges but it can accommodate the needs of many diverse communities with differing value systems. Also, the ability to send money or value to anywhere in the world democratizes currency. Competing currencies by their very nature decentralize the power that nation states can have over trade and history has shown how free trade naturally leads to more flourishing for all parties. The more we interact with each other even through simple transactions the more we become connected on an empathic level to our fellow humans.

The Internet is Borderless and The Future Will Be Too

We no longer live in a time where our tribe is limited by jurisdiction. Tribes are worldwide now. When we see footage of, say, a natural disaster we now have the ability to empathize with those affected and turn that empathy into positive action. For example, mutual aid group Fr33 Aid did just this after a tsunami in the Philippines. By encouraging the use of bitcoin, they were able to send a team to help those affected in remote areas where larger organizations could not reach and there was no danger of funds being intercepted or cut off by an agency that may require tedious paperwork to help others. At one point PayPal froze their account and hindered donations from getting to people in need. Bitcoin succeeded where PayPal failed in this case. The signal couldn’t be stopped.

While I try to temper my enthusiasm with realism, the tenacity of the human mind to learn and create sometimes trips me up. More realistic people have brought up the point that people in less developed country have little use for technology but i am reminded of a story a few years ago where the One Child One Laptop project donated locked down tablets to children in Ethiopia who could not read or write. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs [in English] in the village. And within five months, they had hacked Android. For context, the boxes of tablets were dropped off, sealed with no instructions and had several features disabled that the children then hacked. Kids, who had never used technology let alone written words or read a book were able to figure out Android tablets. Don’t try to tell me people with limited access to any kind of technology can’t figure out how to use bitcoin especially with the right platform.

Individuals are also empowered through the use of block chain tech to help other others all across the world. Instead of relying on state funded aid organizations to assist people, we have more of a choice in the matter with the way technology has connected us and research shows that they are likely to donate more when the choice is voluntary. People truly love to help each other especially when they can see that we’re often more similar than we are different.

That Decentralized Principle Though

Decentralization is at the core of Bitcoin technology and while some organizations want to sacrifice it for ease of use so as to resemble legacy systems others realize the value of keeping bitcoin decentralized. When teaching others about the benefits of using Bitcoin to send financial assistance across the world it can be challenging to get someone up to speed on how to keep their coin safe after all it is hard to be empowered financially if funds can be easily lost or stolen. The learning curve is a hurdle even in a first world used to instant, safe transactions where centralized organizations hold the user info in the event of password mismanagement.

Generational and educational differences cause hurdles too — users desire platforms that makes things easy — something achieved by tech giants but sometimes elusive to the security oriented Bitcoin space. I’ll admit I became discouraged for awhile when it came to getting people set up to take Bitcoin because while I could easily explain the benefits, making sure their funds were kept safe and explaining the reason for numerous passphrases that could not be misplaced without loss of access became daunting.

A friend of mine, Ernie Hancock, frequently calls this the “grandpa just button” and he was skeptical of bitcoin platforms because of their complexity — grandpa needs one button for his banking services not a series of just to this, then just do this, then just do this, etc. His criticisms were satiated when he discovered Airbitz.

This is where Airbitz excels. Airbitz has designed a platform that balances privacy, scalability, and ease of use very well. The fact of the matter is, many people are not going to take the time to learn about bitcoin on a deep technical level to be able to protect themselves from theft. If we want people to use this technology that could vastly improve the lives of millions around the world then it has to be easy to use. It has to be something that anyone even those unfamiliar with any kind of banking can use from your grandfather to children. Whether in a country where mobile banking is familiar or one where people are just getting access to new technology, we want to make it easy on everyone.

Best Features of the Airbitz Platform

Some features I like about Airbitz are the expanding directory of places that take bitcoin, the ability to separate transactions into easily distinguishable categories for financial management, and that this ease of use is combined with better privacy than a Swiss bank which is a service limited to a small percentage of people. High privacy standards can be for everyone not just those who can afford it.

Also, because of how we’ve applied peer to peer decentralized storage to our platform there is no single point of failure so even if our servers go down users can still access and send funds. You can also easily recover your password if you forget by activating a series of safety questions similar to other services. Gone are the days of lengthy passphrases that can easily be lost along with your funds.

Airbitz believes that financial services should be able to be available worldwide without the reliance on legacy systems. Because of this worldwide focus we stand in sharp contrast to existing systems who have no incentive to make their services accessible to lesser advantaged people. While our platform has the feel of mobile banking we’re not a bitcoin bank and by partnering with third parties we can scale faster on a global level. One function we’re excited to roll out is buy/sell functionality. This will be accessible soon in the U.S. and in Canada, Mexico, the Philippines, and Europe. By going outside of the U.S. we hope to broaden access to financial services and by prioritizing security we ensure that user data is protected. We’re also working to expand our expertise outside of just financial services as well to foster a global community of empowered individuals.

We don’t want control over your funds because there is inherent power inequity in the banking systems today. When a bank can control how much of your own money you can withdraw as in Greece do you really have any? Much like Uber owns no cars and AirBNB owns no homes, Airbitz aims to be a financial platform that owns no money. Are we starry eyed idealists? Maybe, but as Paul Graham has said, “Live in the future and build what’s missing.” There’s no time I’d rather live in and with a focus on what’s possible we hope to build what will be. When power is decentralized down to the individual level we collectively thrive more and empathy flows through channels unable to be stopped by any centralized organizations; financial or not.

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