For a crypto veteran like me, the bull market between 2020 and 2022 was most notable for what was missing: Vitalik Buterin. The thoughtful, unassuming creator and intellectual figurehead of the Ethereum ecosystem was largely pushed out of headlines by bombastic, performative (and fraudulent) caricatures like Do Kwon and Sam Bankman-Fried.

But with such charlatans and their allies now discredited well beyond crypto circles, Buterin is back in a big way with a lengthy essay he published on Monday entitled My techno-optimism.” Though the message is broad, it arrives as a specific response to the recent public rift at OpenAI. That fight was broadly driven by a split between “Effective Altruists,” or EAs – the group Sam Bankman-Fried allied with and helped fund – and “Effective Accelerationists,” or (e/acc), a far more free-market oriented faction that includes people like Marc Andreessen

In the recent OpenAI leadership fight, the EAs seemingly took the role of techno-pessimists, trying to slow the spread of AI tools, while the “e/acc” faction backed Sam Altman’s focus on growth. But Buterin sees both sides as having “far too many plans to save the world that involve giving a small group of people extreme and opaque power and hoping that they use it wisely.” As I’ve written elsewhere, the two factions are branches of the same underlying Silicon Valley ideology, and both have deep conceptual flaws that ultimately sum out to authoritarianism.

Buterin’s response appears in many ways far more nuanced than the positions he is reacting to. He calls it “d/acc,” or “defensive accelerationism.”

What is Defensive Accelerationism?

Buterin’s counterpoint leans most of all on decentralization and democratic decision-making in the management of human progress. Buterin says that “The ‘d’ stands for ‘defensive acceleration,’ or perhaps decentralized, or differential acceleration.” It could just as easily, based on Buterin’s ideas, stand for “democratic accelerationism.”

Vitalik argues that those various Ds are linked. A society that develops in a “defensive” way is a more just and fair one, because its decentralization discourages attacking others, in turn leaving democracy free to flourish – at the local or small-group level specifically. He uses the example of Switzerland, whose mountainous terrain historically helped it maintain a more horizontal and localized system of political power, since the various sub-national polities can’t easily attack each other, or be attacked.

In more contemporary technological terms, Buterin specifically emphasizes privacy and autonomy, as well as cybersecurity and “infosecurity” as key principles of development on “d/acc” lines. He fully endorses “a security-focused open-source movement, rather than closed and proprietary corporations and venture capital funds.” This seems a specific knock on the EAs, who have been resistant to making AI tech more accessible. 

On a related note, Buterin seems viscerally repulsed by the “enthusiasm for military technology” among the effective accelerationist crowd. On this point, he accuses the e/accs of making the same egotistical mistake as the EAs: Supporting the advancement of military tech, Buterin writes, requires “believing that the dominant technological power will reliably be one of the good guys in most conflicts, now and in the future.” 

The essay also explores other important topics, like pandemic preparedness, and lays out decentralized approaches. At a very high level, Buterin praises systems like prediction markets and X/Twitter’s “community notes” feature, specifically because they’re structured to usefully integrate feedback from any member of the public. No surprise, Buterin also emphasizes the value of blockchains and cryptocurrency in his notion of digital “defensive infrastructure,” for instance for their ability to prevent centralized “chokepoints” for data.

Buterin’s “D” does not, crucially, stand for “deceleration.” He opens the essay with a strong argument for technological progress as a boon to human well-being, and explicitly connects that to the beneficial potential of artificial intelligence. And though he also accepts the risk of superintelligence dominating human life, he thankfully gives short shrift to the sci-fi fantasies of destructive AI that seem to haunt the Effective Altruists and their “AI Doomer” allies. He’s far more concerned with the realistic, here-and-now threat of AI turning humans into passive “pets,” simply because the AIs will make objectively better decisions.

A ‘Subspecies of e/acc’

But even given such risks, Buterin rejects the idea that any small group – like the OpenAI board – should control technological progress. Notably, this echoes close to a decade of Buterin’s own proactive efforts to reduce his own power over Ethereum. He rightly identifies reliance on central authority as an implicit element of contemporary Effective Altruism, and generally he seems to have the least affection for that set of ideas.

Buterin is more clearly allied with the “effective accelerationists,” and calls d/acc “a subspecies of e/acc – just one that is much more selective and intentional.” But he rightly pushes back against their most extremist tendency, too – their belief that unstructured “free markets” in themselves lead to human progress. Buterin’s objections here include the uncontroversial fact that “many markets have proven to be natural monopolies.” Following the e/acc free-market doctrine, he writes, seems likely to lead to a monopoly on artificial intelligence specifically, with disastrous implications for human freedom and flourishing.

There’s much more breadth and subtlety to Buterin’s dense disquisition – for instance, he includes transhumanist ideas like brain-computer interfaces in his idea of “defensive” technological development. But it’s not hard to see “d/acc” as a rebranding of the left-wing libertarianism that has come to define the political ethos of the Ethereum community. Buterin’s pitch also reflects the same basic optimism and openness that defines the actually-existing Ethereum community today. 

“I believe humanity is deeply good,” Vitalik writes in closing. “Yes, human beings are often mean, but we much more often show kindness and mercy, and work together for our common benefit.”

“Two billion years from now, if the Earth or any part of the universe still bears the beauty of Earthly life, it will be human artifices like space travel and geoengineering that will have made it happen,” Buterin continues.

“We need to build, and accelerate.”