Ever noticed how everybody telling us how blockchain is going to save the world, is the head of a blockchain company? It’s almost as if they’ve got something to gain personally by announcing that the technology will rid us of corruption, revolutionize global banking – and even protect the Amazon Rainforest from oblivion.
Like much of the evangelism riding tech’s cutting-edge – AI, self-driven cars, cryptocurrency – there is a distinct anarcho-utopian spirit that pulses through speeches and presentations about blockchain-related solutions. Government stealing your land? Blockchain can solve that. Want faster, safer public transport? Turn to the blockchain.
Undoubtedly, blockchain can help sure up these issues. Sweden is implementing a blockchain-powered land registry, as are Kenya and Ghana. Tiny Malta, a petri dish for many European tech rollouts, launched a project with British firm Omnitude to improve its buses (the EU member, in its latest of many image campaigns, wants to become the Blockchain Island: more on that at Red Herring soon).
The biggest problem with blockchain, as with most technologies, is not the tech at all but the people using them. First, who will convince politicians to go fully transparent with their meetings? Canada has experimented with Ethereum as a way to track a state committee’s spending habits. But the silence of leaders in Nigeria, for example, Africa’s largest economy, is deafening when questions turn to blockchain.
Blockchain might seem an obvious opportunity for US President Donald Trump, who wants to streamline the state and “drain the swamp” of “special interests” (which is a curiously partisan clique). But as in the music industry, middlemen and those peddling dark money want nothing that reveals their role greasing the wheels of American democracy. If the President’s taxes are a black hole, don’t expect blockchain any time soon.
There are additional questions about privacy where the regular public is concerned. Must a citizen really make all their transactions and movements within a certain context available to view and track publicly, by anyone?
Oddly enough, despite its growing crusade against privacy violations, the European Union published what may be the most optimistic piece of blockchain-related information from a public body, “How Blockchain Technology Could Change Our Lives”, a 24-page evaluation of the platform.
“For each transaction that uses a distributed ledger instead of a traditional centralized system, the intermediaries and mediators are displaced, missing out on their usual source of power and income,” concluded the paper, highlighting both the advantage of blockchain – and why it will be so difficult to implement.
Blockchain is a potentially wonderful invention, with the possibility to ease many of society’s greatest ills. But it will not neutralize them – and, like all new things, whether it is a utopian seachange depends very much on who controls it. Expect that power struggle to be the key component of the blockchain story heading into 2019.