Beauty in Subtraction or Corruption in Subjection?

Last year at Devcon4 in Prague, Aya Miyaguchi (Executive Director for the Ethereum Foundation) shared the values and organizational philosophy of the Ethereum Foundation. She told us the Foundation had embraced a Japanese business management practice known as "kaizen" ("improvement"). This refers to an industrial-style production regime or process that seeks to continuously improve an organization's tools, techniques, and labor force by cutting down all work-related functions to their bare essence. It's basically a form of Zen Buddhism as applied to lean manufacturing. This involves an aesthetics of spiritual purity which aims to create a kind of formal beauty out of a state of emptiness. Aya explained her understanding of this organizational philosophy in the following way:

"In today's society we're programmed to value addition; and society has trained us to believe more is better, the bigger is better. But this addition has a dark side. More people comes at the cost of more resources. More money comes at the cost of more human exploitation. And more power comes at the cost of more human inequality. When we add thoughtlessly we create embarrassments in the world. This is why we have to increasingly think about this philosophy of subtraction […] This philosophy isn't really new to me. In Japan we have this expression, 'beauty in subtraction' and it's deeply rooted in Zen Buddhism. It's similar to minimalism, but not quite the same. Subtraction allows ideas, tastes, and strengths to exist in their purest form."

"At the Ethereum Foundation we actually aim to grow small. That doesn't mean we're not hiring. But hiring should only be for what the Foundation can do and we try to minimize our power wherever we can (as much as possible) because what we want to grow is the entire ecosystem, not just the Ethereum Foundation. So, as the community grows and the industry grows, we'd like to be a tiny part of it.

I should begin by saying I have the utmost respect for Japanese culture. I'm acquainted with the Kyoto School and have learned a great deal from various Buddhist traditions. I don't wish to dismiss the wisdom of the East. I commend Aya for guiding the Foundation in this direction and wish no insult upon her. She strikes me as a wonderful strategic mind and a very effective coordinator. With that said, I have the distinct impression she has misinterpreted the spirit of this doctrine. I'd like to look at the "dark side" of her interpretation (as I interpret it) and offer a more balanced point of view.

My primary concern is that beauty in subtraction (improperly implied) will in fact lead to "corruption in subjection". The Foundation shouldn't be ceding more and more of its publicly-endorsed authority without first finding suitable publicly-endorsed replacements, which is close to impossible given the immature and chaotic state of the ecosystem. It's critical to bare in mind that the public trust was vested in the Foundation itself. By cutting down their strategic leadership to its bare essence the Foundation has in reality created a power vacuum, which causes other interests to rush in to seize the reigns. Generally speaking, the majority of these interests are unlikely to be committed to the public interest. They won't be sharing the Foundation's benevolent ideas or values or philosophy. By permitting this void in the power structure to exist, the Foundation has invited a reckless struggle for control between the technical elite. This kind of competition will lead to a scenario where the strongest players subject everyone else to their preferred regime. The end result is that the line of succession will be broken and all legitimate power therewith will evaporate in the eyes of the global community.

One can just as easily behave thoughtlessly through subtraction as through addition. In aiming for "purity" we also clear the path for impurity. All things are inverted by their opposites and kaizen is not exempt from this philosophical fact. With more people comes the ability to generate more resources. With more money comes the ability to relieve more suffering. With more power comes the ability to rectify more inequality. A strong vision and sense of leadership is what safeguards the integrity of the ecosystem and keeps it in a healthy state (as we all move forward to a far more publicly-viable kind of decentralization, i.e. with reasonable checks and balances to prevent abuses). This is why we should recognize both ends of the spectrum. Each side has a critical role to play. Only through the measured balancing of both do we achieve things in their highest form. The Foundation shouldn't aim to be "small" in the near-term (in the long-term perhaps, but now is not that time). Instead, the Foundation should expand and contract organically to reach our collective purposes. I would strongly advise them to assert their power, which is actually a prism for our collective power, to whatever extent is most reasonable and necessary to support the public good above all (you make a profound error in creating a "devocracy").

It's an existential risk of very great consequence to undermine the community and the ecosystem itself by undermining the very basis which grounds them both. My concerns are shared by many others in this community and they shouldn't be dismissed just because a few people in strategic decision-making positions have embraced a spirit of techno-magical escapism, ethico-political denialism, and cynical compromise. I don't believe these "stars" fully grasp the implications of their ideology. They're leading a great many of us astray and I fear no one will be left with the power to stop them.

Submitted March 16, 2019 at 09:55AM }
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