Cathy Mulligan in the UN Chronicle: “…What can blockchain give us, then?
Blockchain’s 1,000 Thought Experiments
Blockchain is still new and will evolve many times before it can be fully integrated into society. We have seen similar trajectories before in the technology industry; examples include the Internet of things, mobile telephony and even the Internet itself. Every one of those technologies went through various iterations before it was fully integrated and used within society. Many technical, social and political obstacles had to be slowly but surely overcome.
It is often useful, therefore, to approach emerging technologies with some depth of thought—not by expecting them to act immediately as a fully functional solution but rather as a lens on the possible. Such an approach allows for a broader discussion, one in which we can challenge our preconceived notions. Blockchain has already illustrated the power of individuals connected via the Internet with sufficient computing power at their disposal. Far from merely tweeting, taking and sharing photos or videos, such people can also create an entirely new economic structure.
The power of blockchain thus lies not in the technology itself but rather in how it has reframed many discussions across various parts of our society and economy. Blockchain shows us that there are options, that we can organize society differently. It has launched 1,000 different thought experiments but the resulting solutions, which will be delivered a decade or two from now, may or may not be based on blockchain or cryptocurrencies. The discussions that started from this point, however, will have been important contributions to the progress that society makes around digital technologies and what they can mean for humankind. For these reasons, it is important that everyone, including the United Nations, engage with these technologies to understand and learn from them.
At its most basic level, blockchain speaks to a deep, human need, one of being able to trust other people, organizations and companies in a world where most of our interactions are mediated and stored digitally. It is arguable how well it captures that notion of trust, or whether any technology can ever actually replicate what a human being thinks, feels and acts like when they trust and are trusted. These concepts are deeply human, as are the power structures within which digital solutions are built. Blockchain is often discussed as removing intermediaries or creating democratic solutions to problems, but it may merely replace existing analogue power structures with digital ones, and cause decision-making within such contexts to become more brutally binary. ‘Truth’ on the blockchain does not leave room for interpretation, as today’s systems do.
Context is critical for the development of any technology, as is the political economy within which it exists. Those who have tried to use blockchain, however, have quickly realized something: it forces a new level of cooperation. It requires partnerships and deep discussions of what transparency and inclusion truly look like….
Perhaps one of the reasons that blockchain has received so much attention is because it speaks to something that many people across the world are feeling instinctively: that we can only create new solutions to some of the world’s oldest problems by working together and including everyone in the discussion. Blockchain appeals to many people as a viable solution precisely because it is about applying a counter-intuitive approach to problems; despite the often technology-deterministic manner in which it is discussed, it is important to listen to the underlying message. The call to inclusion, trust