To what extent they'll change our world, people enthuse to differing degrees. And they are enthused for sure. More than this, like me, they're humming with excitement at the prospect of blockchains ushering in a new world era (I'm not kidding). Anyone who thinks blockchain's effect will be anything less are quite frankly, just not getting it.
The excitement I feel at discovering the possibilities of blockchains for myself (I feel way behind the game), is the kind of excitement that comes from not only imagining, but seeing a utopian future and realising the tools to achieve it already exist. You can probably tell, I've been bitten - and the possibilities of blockchain tech', to me, are a paradigm shift in not just global economy but civil society itself. Quoting from Scott Rosenberg's article which I go on to reference again later (good stuff, helped me get my head around blockchains);
"some see the blockchain insurrection - just overturning the global financial system, cutting costs and speeding up commerce, killing off the banks and credit-card giants along the way. Others see a broader revolution that also engulfs the entire universe of telecommunications - elbowing out interlopers such as the NSA and Facebook, restoring privacy to our communications and autonomy to our interactions. For the hardcore blockchainiacs, even that’s not enough; they expect to dissolve governments, rewire daily life, and pour civil society a whole new foundation made of math.”
...This hardcore last stratum, now refers to me.
I was already in agreement with Paul Mason's thinking that the start-up and peer to peer/sharing economy is ushering in a post capitalist era - now I'm convinced. Blockchain technology is a super charged catalyst poised to jettison us into an unrecognisable future.
I'm getting ahead of myself — what is blockchain technology?
This takes some explaining, so I'm going to rely partially on other people's definitions. In my initial forays into blockchains I consumed (and was consumed by) a fair bit of content to get my head around what they actually were. Our internal team were looking at how we can utilise blockchains in the social enterprise space, and my colleague David de la Peña was already our in-house data head on the subject. Along with David's summary on his 'tech to watch' round-up, Scott Rosenberg's article was extremely useful in distilling the concept of blockchains. Scott summarises the blockchain as thus:
"You know what a ledger is, right? Debits and credits; who got what from whom, when. Think of the blockchain as a shared ledger - one that records every transaction back to the very beginning of Bitcoin, or whatever else it is you might be using the blockchain to track. (That initial-transaction moment of creation is known, with a scriptural flourish, as “the Genesis Block.”) Every bitcoin user has a personal copy of the entire blockchain ledger. Every time some bitcoin changes hands, the deal is recorded in the blockchain, every copy of which gets a little bit lengthier. Each of these additions is verified by cryptographic problem-solvers - the “miners” who are rewarded in bitcoin for their efforts."
Vitalik Buterin, a pioneer in blockchain technology summarises:
"the blockchain is a ledger that anyone can add things to but no one can remove anything from. In other words, when you’re using a blockchain, every new transaction carries with it an unforgeable record of the entire history of the currency and all previous transactions — like a kind of financial DNA."
This video Bitcoin and Blockchain explained is a great video I discovered during my research depicts.
Ethereum - what is it and how does it relate to blockchain?
Bitcoin financial transactions are simply one focused use of the blockchain. Bitcoin’s success (over and above other attempts at cryptocurrency), serves a greater purpose. To validate the stability of the blockchain technology that underpins it.
Ethereum is an evolution of the blockchain. Essentially Ethereum provides an open source platform (Vitalik the inventor of Ethereum calls it a global computer, that sits as a layer on the internet) on which to develop blockchain applications and other kinds of transactions. Not simply financial transactions. Transactions of information, instruction, governance, ownership. Anything that can be transacted. And that’s everything.
Ethereum aims to be backbone of the internet of the future - what the internet was originally intended to be. Giving power to the people, using blockchains to move control away from what has become the few (Google, Facebook, Amazon, governments, banks), and to the many. Ethereum does this by proliferating blockchain technology and making their use accessible. Therefore accelerating the decentralisation of control and decision making, one of the key components of the blockchain mechanic.
Admittedly Ethereum is only one of a number of propositions that hope to become the defacto platform on which blockchains are built. It does however seem to be currently leading the field. Only time will tell if Ethereum goes on to dominate the future landscape. Owning our transactional future will become a highly competitive landscape, that's for certain.
Why am I excited only now? The story...
Blockchains were something I knew little about other than Bitcoin's reliance on the technology to operate. Bitcoin as many might know has been around since 2008 - but the high-profile cryptocurrency, was once again positioned front of mind when Australian businessman Craig Wrightclaimed to be Satoshi Nakamoto. Satoshi Nakamoto being the shadowy pseudonym employed by Bitcoin's elusive creator to remain anonymous. Another claim now thought to be added to the list of debunked.
After reading Craig’s story, I began to deep dive into blockchain. What I found were fascinating individuals and projects, radical thinkers and Zuckerberg/Turing-esque figures with captivating stories. I'm pretty certain Vitalik Buterin will be one of the most prominent figures in the soon to be history of the blockchain explosion.
Appearing something of a prodigy at only 19 years old and at the forefront of his field, Vitalik herereferences his own immersion into the Bitcoin community - living in an abandoned factory/anarchist cooperative outside Barcelona with anticapitalist activist Enric Duran.
For those that haven't heard of Enric, he came to notoriety when in 2008 he withdrew €500,000 from various European banks and then promptly defaulted on the loans. He then dumped the money into a number of different cooperatives, earning him the moniker of 'Robin Banks'. This historical nugget gives an indication as to what end many are striving to progress the development of blockchain. For social equality.
It's not surprising that the event of blockchain - a technology likely more impactful than the birth of the internet, will produce characters whose lives play out as something akin to characters in a William Gibson novel. We won't be referring to blockchains in the near future, they will simply be the default assumed way to transact. The technology's ubiquitous uptake will facilitate change at an exponential pace. Change at a far greater pace than that driven by any previous technology.
What the hell has this got to do with user-centred design?
A lot actually, the central ethos is the same. I work in user-centred design and with many; non-profit, b-corp, social enterprise and public sector bodies. User-centred design thinking, is to create products and services for people, for the better, to meet their needs. Add to that our ethos to work with organisations who impact society for the better, and you get a feel for us as an organisation.
Blockchains can create decentralised transparency in financial transactions, yes. This is the basis of Bitcoin (bringing about an even quicker demise of the banks as we know them). As Ethereum suggests, blockchain has the capability to do this for any transaction. Transacting of anything. Information, ownership, decisions, literally anything. And blockchain transactions by design are; traceable, transparent, peer verified and inherently trusted.
Imagine the wealth of data and information that exists currently, if it could all be compiled and connected. All seamlessly peer reviewed and peer verified. If all information held were used to make decisions on all future transactions. We currently talk about aggregating and analysing data sources (big data) to generate pithy insight as to how organisations can create various levels of personalisation in content and communications. In reality, this is micro data. We're going macro to the nth degree.
A force for good
What if all transactions were based on blockchain. Global peer review, based on an entire traceable, transparent history of every interaction. Money would perhaps not be lent to those who invested unwisely or unethically. Governance and positions of power would not be given to those who show no acumen or were shown to be irresponsible. Property and wealth would not be given into the hands who use it to exploit those less fortunate. Resources would not be given to those who have proven to use it for their own gains as opposed to social good....This is the Utopian dream. Back on a micro level, this is how I perceive our work in user-centred design. Making products, services and propositions better, for people.
A FORCE FOR BAD? NOT REALLY
Of course there are dissenters who highlight the negative uses of Bitcoin and by association blockchain. But if we draw comparisons with the advent of the internet, has decentralised control of information and content been a good thing overall, or bad? You can’t say the internet’s been a bad thing?!
Yes the internet and indeed bitcoin has been used to facilitate transactions in unpalatable markets, but these markets have always existed. Telecommunications, the internet, blockchain these are just channels. It is lack of regulation that people are afraid of. I don't know, or suppose to know the answer to regulation of the internet or blockchain. Or how to stop such horrific markets as assassination or slavery that can and do operate by using these channels - no-one does. Yet.
What I do know is that in theory, self-regulation through transparency is proven to work as a positive - and I feel blockchain’s inherently transparent, trusted, peer-led nature, means it can only drive us ultimately, towards positive outcomes. You only have to look at other products, services, structures and organisations that employ the same qualities (transparency, trusted, peer-led) as a basis for success. To quote Dominic Frisby, another author on blockchains;
“The revolution will not be televised. It will be cryptographically time stamped on the blockchain."
What am I going to do with my new found lust for blockchain tech'?
I’m going to try to make things with the team and speed up the revolution by spreading awareness (talking a lot). Want to chew the fat? I’d love to bounce ideas off other people who are excited by blockchains, come to our conference and explore the possibilities. We’re holding a roundtable on the the future of blockchains. Rhodri Davies from the Charities Aid Foundation will be opening the conversation as a key speaker at #twbconf and exploring the philanthropic nature of the thing.
Want to help build Utopia? Get in touch and let’s see what we can create. Kieran is Planning Director at Sift Digital, a specialist user-centred design agency effecting organisational change. If you want to discuss any of the topics covered here, you can reach him on 07806 565935.