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Friday, September 23, 2022


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Another cryptoverse. I sleep.

sirhc desantis

Stephenson... didn't he write some book that turned out to be totally wrong yet is still cited? The Rand-lite libertarian? Claims it built the rockets for Blue Origin? Name sort of Clangs. Oops.
Ser Adeon is right.
(Plus I have a better beard and I don't colour mine - honest)


I'll be more interested in other virtual worlds and metaverses when they don't involve cryptocurrency and NFTs


Neal hasn't acrued a great record with tech companies, there was his sword fighting game, and he was associated with the Magic Leap debacle for a while.

Bernadette DALY Swanson

Amazing. Congratulations, Neil.

Gwyneth Llewelyn

Hm. Interesting, but isn't precisely that what High Fidelity proposed (albeit toning down the blockchain component of it) a decade ago or so?... and we all know how that ended.

With due respect to Stephenson (whom I like very much as an author and have read about half the things he wrote), I'm not sure if his 'vision' is better than Philip's, and even Philip, with all his hands-on experience, was powerless to stop High Fidelity from crumbling into dust; Stephenson is definitely a much better narrative writer than Philip, but how exactly gives that an edge in creating THEE Metaverse (or any other)?

While I remain cautiously skeptic — who knows, miracles may happen — I would like to remind the potential investors in Lamina1 blockchain technology-cum-virtual world that modern 3D engines such as Unity and Unreal are perfect for developing all sorts of photorealistic 3D environments, both for fast-paced games and other uses (architecture, CGI...), but they are not appropriate for contiguous virtual worlds with user-generated, collaborative content. They predate that paradigm, and, to be honest, so do most of the off-the-shelf contemporary 3D engines.

Granted, throw enough money to the problem, and it might be possible to add extra features to Unity/Unreal/Torque/YouNameIt3DEngine that allow the kind of Metaverse that Stephenson imagined. As far as I understand it, that's not what the Lamina1 technology allows, but rather leaves those bothersome details for potential 'partners' that might be willing to explore the 3D aspect of whatever Metaverse they want (and not what Lamina1 offers).

Of course, it's unquestionable that securely and safely transferring money between users, as well as assigning binding contracts to digital goods exchanged using such money, is a worthy area of exploration, in a purely theoretical framework. There is a place for cryptocurrency and NFTs on the Metaverse — it's just that blockchain, while 'innovative' (it's been around 'only' for a decade and a half), is not the only valid approach to that problem. Rather the contrary: since at least early in the days of just-in-time car manufacturing that both issues (binding digital contracts and secure digital money transfers, using fiat currency) needed to be solved, or else the whole concept of just-in-time manufacturing would just crumble apart. And that's only one example, of course. I was working on such technology (nowadays obsolete) back in 1993 or so — and it wasn't a 'novelty' even back then (although the 'novelty' was to use the Internet protocols as the preferred network transport protocols — there were, and are, other solutions, which at the time were far more secure, but not necessarily as widespread and popular as the Internet, and far, far less future-proof, like the Internet is).

Indeed, I'd say that Linden Lab has their own solution to both issues. It's called 'Linden Dollar' (tokens exchanged for digital goods and services) and 'the permission system' (a binding contract that cannot be broken, establishing ownership rights and digital transfer/copy rights granted by the creator to the licensee). It is, however, centralised, while cryptocurrency traditionally isn't; but one might argue that, since Lamina1 will provide the underlying technology, even if it's based on a
'blockchain' concept, it nevertheless relies upon software developed by Lamina1, so one wonders how 'de-centralised' the system can be, if it's just one company providing the software... (even if it's open source!)

Remember, even Linden Lab had their 'banking API' or however it was called, with which third-party exchanges could interact with SL's system in a secure and safe way. For many reasons (from abusing the system, scamming, as well as regulatory issues), Linden Lab dropped that functionality, but that doesn't mean it cannot be 'resurrected', namely, via Tilia.

I don't see a real need for a 'special' system to handle fiduciary transactions — when we have the real world for that, after all. One might argue that things become different once you have different virtual worlds connected together into a single Metaverse. That might be the case, but such 'different' worlds will, by necessity, have to agree on common protocols to exchange data (avatars, inventory items...) between themselves. And this is what real-life organisations already do in... real-life. Why should they behave differently on the Metaverse? Even Stephenson's vision of the Metaverse was not a free-for-all anarchy, but rather there was a 'mysterious' owner of most of the networking infrastructure (although CPU power was mostly provided by its users), who, however, refrained from interfering and just plays a minor role (if at all) in the novel.

It's arguable that a Metaverse where everybody will create their own worlds on their laptops and attempt to connect it to the Metaverse might require, at some point, some agreement about what currency to use, and this would arguably be a case for a blockchain-based currency to be used. But even in such a scenario, I'd wonder about the real advantage of such a technology — when, in fact, we have already so better options out there.

Here's an example from the OpenSimulator crowd: Kitely, which struggled with that issue when setting up the first 'grid neutral' marketplace — allowing content to be delivered anywhere on a hypergrid-connected OpenSimulator grid — didn't impose 'his' currency on the other grids, because it would be impossible to do it for the smaller ones (and the larger ones might feel a 'threat' from a 'rival currency' and refuse to interchange with Kitely's currency system). Instead, the Kitely Marketplace works with US dollars. How exactly you pay is up to you — if you wish to keep your credit card data away from Kitely's owner(s), there are other ways to do so, safely, legally, and within the current, existing financial infrastructure.

Unless Stephenson is betting that upcoming regulation will put some order in the chaotic universe of crypto exchanges and that Lamina1 will be able to position itself in a regulated market (and thus offer their services in safety, under transnational laws, to virtual world operators), I really don't see the point of creating that company in the first place.

Let's postulate that a large group of existing virtual worlds (like, say, the hypergrid-connected, but independently run, OpenSimulator grids!) wants to allow money transactions (as opposed to digital content) to flow between residents in different grids. Naturally enough, they do not want any one of them to have an 'edge' over the others, by having to submit to the 'imposed' currency of one of the worlds (they don't trust anyone but themselves!). There were already made two attempts (at least!) at creating a 'generic' currency that could be used by anyone on any grid — but that, obviously, required that the companies behind such a 'neutral' currency could persuade as many grid operators as possible of their bona fides — which, in turn, also meant relying on their infrastructure to handle such transactions. It did not always go as smoothly as desired.

If the alternative to that is a blockchain-based currency, well, there would be a few options (none of which require the existence of Lamina1):

  • They could simply use one existing cryptocurrency and spare themselves the cost of establishing a new one from scratch. There are plenty to choose from, and there are plenty of solutions involving exchanges, wallets, and whatnot to allow money to flow in from the real world (in fiat currency) and be transacted among whoever wishes to use the system. Why not simply pick one existing cryptocurrency and use it as the de facto 'neutral' currency? There is, of course, the caveat: cryptocurrencies are anything but stable (by design, mind you), and in their current form, they serve little purpose except for speculation. For transacting goods and services (again, outside the speculative bubble), they are not practical, since their value fluctuates so wildly that it's impossible to tag a fixed price on items!
  • Develop your own blockchain-based cryptocurrency. The tech is free, open source, well known, available, and can be implemented reasonably quickly among participants. In the OpenSim scenario, it would mean that each grid operator would also run their own copy of the ledger, and thus be able to independently validate all transactions. Some grid operators might run their own exchanges; some would not bother with that, and just let people use whatever exchange they prefer (or let them run their own); some would continue to use their own grid's currency, but allow anyone to exchange the 'global metaverse currency' by in-world currency at will. There are many possible variations, which would allow different grids — from home-run individual regions to large grids such as Kitely — to participate in the same economy, without feeling that they would be seen as a 'lesser player'. Aye, all that is very nice indeed, but all blockchain-based cryptocurrencies today are based on some assumptions (which, IMHO, are a bit insane, but they certainly have worked well for speculators), namely, the willingness to spend lots of energy in CPU number-crunching for the purpose of validating a transaction; and, of course, the ever-growing need for disk space to keep a full copy of the ledger around, which will only grow and never shrink, since nothing in it can ever be deleted. These are things that have to be considered from the start (because, later on, they cannot be changed).
  • Create a plain, old, simple 'universal digital currency'. Well, as said, this was tried already twice, but I believe that ultimately the problem was that such a model relied on having a business operation running the currency servers. That's all very nice — until such companies fail, for whatever reason. Consider, however, a 'variation' upon current-day cryptocurrencies. These assume that you don't need to build a chain of trust of digital certificates in order to exchange information about a transaction — you can rely upon other mechanisms instead. Alas, the resulting service is anything but efficient; it trades off 'efficiency' for 'anonymity with universal trust'. But what about doing it the other way round? Imagine a model where a non-profit, running with money pooled from donors (potentially the OpenSimulator grids themselves), would emit digital certificates for the sole purpose of digitally signing money transactions between organisations — and keep running the servers that would validate such certificates. In that scenario, a 'money transaction' between two grids would just be the equivalent of an encrypted email with the recipient's public key, and signed with the sender's private one. The 'central bank' would not interfere in the transactions; each organisation would simply keep their own ledgers, in whatever way they felt more secure; all they need to know is what keys or certificates are valid, and which have been revoked. That's pretty much accomplished with existing tech, such as PGP (with a long record of being considered 'unbreakable'), where, in this scenario, the valid keys would be stored on a 'special' server of the non-profit organisation (which could even have some downtime for maintenance without disturbing the flow of inter-grid transactions — once two grids exchange their public keys, and have them validated at least once by the 'central authority', they can continue to do transactions with participants of the system with valid keys, without relying on the 100% availability of the 'central authority server'). What about individuals participating in the system? Well, every grid has its own in-world currency; all that would be required is a simple module (which can even be running outside the grid servers) which would 'know' about off-grid transactions, sign them on behalf of the origin grid, encrypt the transaction with the recipient's grid public key, and send it off to them. That's all there is. New grid operators — even one-region-only-running-on-a-laptop grid operator — could join the system by merely applying for a digital certificate from the 'central authority'. There might be a small fee for that; there might be some sort of ID validation (proof that you are, indeed, signing monetary transactions from your grid) and a cost associated to that as well; and there might be some regulations for using such a system. However, each grid operator would still be able to consider requests coming only from the grids they trust (in case the 'central authority server' had been hacked, and lots of fake certificates have been emitted, signed by them...). They might place limits on each transaction coming from grid X or Y, or on outgoing transactions as well. Such a simplistic model has many flaws, of course (namely, how to prevent grid operators from generating an unlimited amount of money 'out of nothing'?), but I'm sure that it would be much more welcomed by independent grid operators who neither want the speculative aspect of cryptocurrency to invade their virtual worlds, nor have a 'competitor' imposing a currency over theirs, nor even an 'outsider' company which would charge transaction fees for an outsourced service over which they had effectively zero control (and which would be hard to replace if it 'suddenly' stopped its operations).

The last suggestion mirrors how a similar system was implemented in my own country across real banks. When banking became fully liberalised (in the early 1980s, if my memory doesn't fail me), banks soon wished to have ATMs that could be used by any end-user, not only those with accounts on their own bank. This required deploying a networking infrastructure to connect all banks, and a way to generate the digital certificates to validate that transactions were legitimate. At that time, a prime candidate for providing such a service was the state-run Post Office, which had already a country-wide digital network, and was certainly a bona fide organisation — to which banks already trusted with their (snail) mail, after all. But the newly created private banks did not trust government to run their financial network; so, instead, they joined together to create a new organisation which would organise the central servers (the ones that would validate transactions between banks) and emit the certificates. Since all banks were part of that organisation, they could all check its (internal) records and make their own, independent audits — they did not need to trust the other banks. The system worked well and expanded to a zillion new uses — new private banks, starting to operate in Portugal, will almost always start by joining the organisation and get access to its network — going well beyond what ATMs were supposed to do in the early 1980s. In the early 1990s, all communications were done over the Internet protocols (inside a private network, of course), which was not that usual back in those days; banks and other large organisations mistrusted 'the Internet' and preferred to use their own, private networks, but the success of the ATM network's safety (which was never hacked into) persuaded banks to abandon their prejudice against 'the Internet'; and, indeed, when telecommunications were also liberalised — a decade later than banks! — this operator already had its own country-wide networking infrastructure, which it could lease or rent to third-parties as an additional source of income (besides transaction fees)...

Anyway, I digress as always, but my point is that there are a lot of much more interesting alternatives to secure, trusted financial transactions between different operators — and they don't necessarily rely upon blockchain-based cryptocurrency. Most importantly, they do not need to work fueled on speculative greed. The irony of cryptocurrencies was that its legendary (and pseudonymous) inventor, Satoshi Nakomoto, wanted cryptocurrencies as a means of anonymously sending money 'instantly' between individuals across the world, free from whatever taxes, surcharges, or exchange rates. It's clear that the world moved in a completely different direction.

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