What Came First: The Invention of Email or the Nigerian Prince?

A story about monkeys, money, blockchain, and our very human tendency to ruin things

a 750 square foot lab at Yale, a scientist named Keith Chen taught monkeys the concept of money.

Chen taught monkeys that they could exchange small silver discs for necessities. The monkeys began to understand that these circular pieces could be traded for things of value. They started trading the scientists for grapes and other food.

“Monkey Business”

Almost as soon as they understood what “money” was, they began to steal from each other. There was even an incident where one monkey stole a large sum of coins and hurled them into the main chamber of the lab. Something Chen referred to as the first-ever “Monkey Bank Heist”. The monkeys would go as far as to fashion weapons out of sticks and other items they could find around their caged environment.

After learning the art of theft, monkeys also began to exchange money for sexual favors. In their 750 square foot, closed-off environment, they invented prostitution. They’ve never even seen Pretty Woman!

Ironically, “The Worlds Oldest Profession”, was also the first monkey profession. They didn’t invent monkey accountants or bankers to manage their discs. Perhaps that isn’t an organic extension of their nature.

When taught to use money, a group of capuchin monkeys responded quite rationally to simple incentives; responded irrationally to risky gambles; failed to save; stole when they could; used money for food and, on occasion, sex. In other words, they behaved a good bit like the creature that most of Chen’s more traditional colleagues study: Homo sapiens.

Where there is innovation, there are early adopters who will find ways to abuse it.

It’s not even human nature, it’s just nature.

As Chen discovered, even monkeys are prone to financial temptations. Whether those be gambling or selling one's body to improve financial standings. This speaks to the nature of adoption. When humans face innovation, we see the same phases of adoption occur.

Human nature & innovation

First, they ignore it because it can’t pose a threat.

Then, they mock it.

Finally, they regulate and adopt.

You might be asking, “What does monkey prostitution have to do with technology?” Good question.

Human nature, and apparently monkey nature, cause us to abuse innovation.

Whether it’s Bitcoin, paper money, or email — humans will mess it up.

As soon as we discover a fancy new process we try to manipulate it to benefit ourselves. Manipulating these innovations casts them in a negative light. That negative light illuminates the innovation just enough for the vast majority to take notice, and brush it off.

I bring up Keith Chen’s study to bring to attention the fact that, we will always find ways to abuse innovation. Whether it’s Bitcoin, paper money, or email — humans will mess it up.

Throughout history, we’ve seen the same arguments and rationale used to stifle innovation over, and over again.

Right now, we’re seeing them applied to Bitcoin. The argument that Bitcoin is only used for illicit activities should go out the window. Not only is it untrue, but the same can also be said for almost any innovation humans are responsible for. If you take the time to study the history of government-issued money, you’ll find it was (and still is) abused much more than cryptocurrency.

Whether we’re discussing cryptocurrency, the internet, automobiles, or money — the same themes are found.

As long as there have been people, there has been crime.

Human phases of adoption

Invention

  • We abuse the innovation for our own self-interest.
  • Large organizations and governments dismiss the innovation as a pipe dream.

An obvious example of this is the Silk Road. Largely accredited with bringing Bitcoin the attention it needed to reach its current volume. The Silk Road was a black market eCommerce site where users could trade Bitcoin for anything from fake passports to condensed milk.

Early adoption

  • More users adopt the innovation.
  • The innovation is mocked by the vast majority.

A clear example of this is when Jamie Dimon said: “if you’re stupid enough to buy bitcoin you’ll pay the price one day”. He then shared that he himself had decided to invest in Bitcoin after he conveniently pushed the price down with his negative attention. A few months later, news came out that JP Morgan plans to release JP Morgan Coin.

It’s quite a tangled web that Mr. Dimon weaves.

Accelerated development

Binance halted registration so that it could scale up infrastructure. It wasn’t prepared to handle the huge influx of new users it saw when Bitcoin hit all-time highs.

Mass adoption

  • The vast majority is now behind the curve.
  • In attempts to stop from missing, out large organizations/governments attempt to regulate it.
  • If regulation fails: large organizations adopt the innovation themselves. They perform the same function as the early adopters: abusing innovation in their own self-interest.

We’re seeing this right now with Venezuela attempting to launch a national cryptocurrency, China announcing that they’ve been working on digital currency for years, and Facebook announcing their own cryptocurrency; Libra.

Money & human nature

We know that humans manipulate new technologies to serve their own self-interest. We also know that even monkeys begin to commit crimes when introduced to money.

What does this mean for cryptocurrency? Being both a disruptive technology and a form of value — it’s especially prone to shadiness.

What came first, the advent of email or the Nigerian Prince desperately in need of your help?

Throughout history, early adopters of new technologies have used them to extort others.

How long after the invention of the horse and carriage was the first Grand Theft Carriage committed?

Money brings out the worst in humans. It requires us to put our trust in others to take part in the global economy. When we put our trust in others, we give them the opportunity to harm us. Perhaps the best way to progress as a civilization is to remove these opportunities. Through implementing trust-less systems.

The true proponent of crime is paper currency.

Organized crime depends on the relative anonymity and untraceability of money; drug dealing, illegal weapon sales, and other illicit markets all rely heavily on cash transactions.

The excerpt above is from an article titled, “Why Crime Needs Cash”. In the article, the author describes how cash is a necessity for criminal activity, he goes far enough to refer to it as, “the oxygen to crimes’ flame”.

Fiat currency the payment method of choice for drug dealers, cartels, and pimps. It may also be contributing to the level of crime we see globally.

Moreover, the perpetrators of petty crime usually rank among the 43 million “unbanked” Americans who do not have access to financial services like a checking account, and they engage primarily in a cash-based street or underground economythat uses cash either due to its illicit nature (illegal drugs; prostitution) or a lack of access to financial services (street vendors; pawn shops; corner stores).

Bitcoin is a potential solution to provide banking to the 2 billion families that don’t have access to it. Lack of access to financial services is a common thread amongst petty criminals. they’re left out of the global economy. I’m not trying to start a pity-party for the guy the stole your cellphone on the bus. I’m saying there might be fewer people stealing if they had the same opportunities that most Americans do. Seven to ten percent of American households don’t have access to financial services. Yet, we’re still far beyond much of the world as far as the amount of “Unbanked Citizens”.

Is Cash the problem?

In the 1990s, the US government passed the Federal legislature which created the EBT card. The EBT card was to replace paper checks the welfare recipients received at the time.

The problem with paper checks is they turned into paper money. Paper money distributed across lower-income neighborhoods, where crime was more rampant. Injecting paper currency into low-income neighborhoods actually increased the number of crimes committed.

When the switch was made to EBT, something interesting occurred.

In a study of the correlation between cash in circulation and crimes committed. Scientists found that “by removing something less than $55.9 million in cash from circulation each month, we estimate that EBT achieved a 10% decrease in the crime rate.” (source)

With Chen’s study on how monkeys react to the concept of money, we learned that we abuse each other to increase our personal financial standing.

With the study of cash and its correlation to crime, we learned that cash is pivotal to criminal organizations.

With these in mind, it’s feasible to believe that Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies can be a solution to problems they’re often accused of perpetuating.

If cash is required for illicit activity, can Bitcoin kill organized crime? As Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies transition from “Development” to “Mass Adoption”, it will become more difficult for criminals to use them. When mass adoption occurs, governments and police forces are going to realize what complete transparency means. They can follow anyone's digital paper trail with a few key pieces of information.

I whole-heartedly believe that smart contracts will change the world. Humans are untrustworthy, I’m sorry to be the one to let you know.

We suck.

We’re the only organisms in our ecosystem that don’t have a purpose. A tree exists to create more oxygen, a spider exists to control the insect population. Everything in our ecosystem is there because it has to be.

Humans on the other hand — all we do is break things.

We rob, we steal, we whore each other out for profit — at least the monkeys were transparent about it! We destroy our environment, level rain forests, and deplete natural reserves at irresponsible rates.

The good news is, with smart contracts, it doesn’t matter how much we suck. We can create contracts that remove trust from transactions and everyday processes. Through complete transparency and Distributed Ledger Technology, we can remove the need to trust one another.

It’s depressing, but it’s the unfortunate truth we’re living. We’ve shown time and time again that as humans, we can’t be trusted to look out for each other's well-being. Let alone the well-being of our planet.

Trust-less systems and incentives will shape the future. It’s my hope that through the growth of blockchain technology as a whole, we’ll start creating a world that takes care of itself.

Bespoke Design Labs / Blockchain Lead @ Akoin / Obsessed with decentralized economies and blockchain as a whole: reza@bdl.media

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