If you are like me, a girl working in the schizophrenic world of IT who mainly cares about beautiful designs, you are probably asking yourself the same question right now:
What the fuck is blockchain?
Also, should I care about it? I mean, it is undoubtedly one of the most popular terms going around lately and everything points out that it is here to stay and slay.
Your colleagues are talking about it, your manager is probably asking you to follow up on it, your LinkedIn feed is crammed with posts about it and there are plenty of workshops and infographics about blockchain provided by the “big players” in the IT industry. So being my usual curious self, I wanted to understand what it is.
Now, there is a plethora of articles out there on the topic of blockchain which makes it even more difficult to find unbiased and understandable articles in order to get the picture and in order to get some answers like:
– What problem is blockchain solving?
– Is blockchain really secure and reliable?
– Do I need to use it? Will it be applied it in my work ?
– Will blockchain have consequences in my life and they way I interact with several applications, organisations and other individuals?
– Who is behind it and what are they making out of all this?
After reading plenty of articles online about blockchain here is a sort of definition for it;
Blockchain is a new technology that will supposedly innovate the way we handle (business) transactions.
Amei ! Let me be brutally honest – I do not care about economics and transactions at all. Aside from the fact that I am Greek so I am genetically not interested or good in handling money, I also do not want to bother with logistics, “the market”, rates , trade, Bitcoin or what have you. So at first I thought “Oh Thank God! I do not have to care about Blockchain!”
I am happy I have an accountant who does his magic and I know how much I have to pay for taxes every year because I trust him and he makes my life easier. My paycheck is adequate and covers my needs. I pay rent via the (terrible) ING app on my phone and my invoices with the Scan & Pay functionality of doccle because it is fast and easy.
I don’t mind logging in with my Gmail account or my fingerprint to these apps in order to use them or identify myself although I know , I know I should be more careful with my personal data and not give up for the shake of convenience. Overall, what I want to say is that I trust my current set up and I really do not need any third party entities to be removed from my transactions because I don’t mind them.
However, as I kept on reading about blockchain my initial impression that I would not need to care for it started to change. It became obvious that blockchain can be applied in much more than just business transactions and that by applying it in other domains a lot more can change. From the way I will manage my taxes, my future loan payments, my digital identity, or even whether I can eat that chicken or not as we can read in this article about how you can ensure that your chicken is free-range (in China)
Things are getting a bit freaky at this point so I had better keep on reading about this.
The way (I think) blockchain works
Ok, but how does it work then? I could not find a much simpler and cooler analogy to describe blockchain than the one Mohit Mamoria uses in his article on Medium**, I strongly encourage you to read his article on blockchain but since I have you here, I will share in this post my much simpler-shorter version.
Assume that we are a group of people, let’s call us a crowd, and we want to keep track of our transactions. We make an agreement that in order to keep track of these transactions and in order to keep clarity and honesty within the crowd, each one of us will keep identical records of these transactions in files which we will call …. drum roll please: blocks.
So we are recording our transactions in these blocks and once our blocks are “full” it is time for each one of us to start recording in a new block. The block that is full of transactions and cannot fit anymore to it gets timestamped, secured & sealed and becomes a part of a chain which connects all blocks.
Here is the situation now, once a block is sealed and chained chained chained, it is done. There is no way back. The contents of the block can no longer be modified. At least not easily and not without that been detected. It is safe to say that the contents of a block cannot be compromised easily or in fact cannot be compromised at all.
If for example someone from our crowd has bad intentions and tries to manipulate the content of a block for whatever reason that would be very difficult and (s)he can never trick the other members of the crowd. This is because the modifications will only be reflected in only one block and not on the other identical blocks of the other members. There is also no way to “hack” into the block of someone else and corrupt it as it is rather complex to do so and in order to do it, you will also have to be fast enough not to compromise the progress of your own chain.
So far so good. This seems to me as a straight forward, quite idealistic concept full of amazing potential.
There is a twist though something that we cannot ignore. As Mamoria continues to explain in his article, blockchain is basically built on the the simple assumption that the majority of a crowd is always honest. That makes me ask the following question; what happens if the majority of the crowd is just not honest? Let’s say that the majority of people in a group have some sort of agreement to not record true transactions but rather ones that serve their interests? Then the few who will be honest in the chain will seem to be the ones who are corrupted and there will be no (easy) way to prove otherwise. Moreover, according to the principles of blockchain they will be banned and excluded from the chain.
In the risk of sounding really not confident about the honesty of human beings, crowds and the way we handle any kind of transactions, I am going to remind you that only a few years back 64% of Greeks voted “No” in to taking up yet another loan from the EU Commission and their decision was majestically ignored by their government to serve the interests of the few. I am unsure to this day how did this happen and what went on behind closed doors.
At the same time, we are being told that Russian hackers, social networks and media influenced the elections of the most powerful country in the world. So yes, I am being cautious when it comes to rely in the honesty of others in several contexts.
But then again can these be the very same problems that blockchain will solve?
My colleagues who are interested in blockchain support that these are the very same problems that blockchain will solve. They support that blockchain is here to protect us from corruption and give people more control over their transactions and data as blockchain is un breakable and honest.
So I thought ok then…
Can blockchain help us (re) claim our digital selves?
Ever since 2007, I have been posting content about me non stop on FaceBook and now Instagram is slowly taking its place. I am also way to trusty and lazy that I log in to several apps and websites with my gmail account as I previously mentioned. This online behavior of mine gets measured by all these services in order to feed me back several content and ads. I am constantly encouraged to interact more with apps and give more information about me to them obviously so that they can sell me even more stuff.
I have little to no control over the data that I have willingly and freely given away. Moreover I can never ask for them to be deleted or edited, not easily at least, and I can never stop them from being sold to a third party for profit. Now here is where I do mind third party entities !
Can Blockchain change that?
Ron Miller, reporter of TechCurch, supports that “…. if our identity were on the blockchain, it would give us more control over this information, and with proper applications allow us to present just the minimum amount of information a given party needs to identify us. That could be your date of birth at a bar, your credit score at a bank or a unique identifier to access an online service.”
Ideally, taking into account this article, if your digital self is in blockchain it would be gathered in one place and not only you would be in total control of it but you would also avoid the risk of your information or interests being sold to a third party service without you not knowing about it or giving your permission.
Another perfect concept because fuck yeah, I should control my digital self and the information that I will share depending who I share it with!
In that same article, written by Nick Milanovic, we are looking into the hopeful future where a universal digital identity well protected and encrypted by blockchain will make you a citizen of the world. Travel and live anywhere in the world and be able to still get money from the bank quickly, have your medical records at hand in case you get ill, your education certificates would make it possible for you to apply at a job anywhere in the world, passports will become redundant etc etc. Perfect!
Ok hold on a second though, who are kidding here? It was just the summer of 2016, so not that long ago, when we lived a major refugee crisis. People were literally drowning in the sea and the lucky ones that survived were faced with closed borders in the EU. People were fucking drowning in their attempts to escape war and no one gave a SHIT !
Consider now that your identity is in fact in blockchain, how can we ensure that in a similar scenario governments in EU will not erase entire populations thus permanently excluding them from participating in our perfect world?! I know that this is a sort of catastrophic scenario and I am probably being too sceptical. After all the technology is designed to protect us instead of going against us right ? In a hopeful view when a similar crisis occurs thanks to blockchain thousands of people would be in fact able to move into EU perfectly protected without being judged based on their origins.
It is easy to focus on the positive-hopeful aspect of it all. Blockchain is a democratic kind of “power to the people” idea. I am pretty sure it will be applied and that it will work. Investors will blindly give money to get it applied in order to get a piece of that juicy pie. That very fact will in turn result into blockchain being applied more broadly in different domains thus changing many aspects of our lives. And here is where we should be cautious I think. Starting now in fact.
Will blockchain be applied correctly? How will it be governed and how can we ensure that the majority of the people in it stay honest? How long can we profit from blockchain and how (long) can we avoid disastrous consequences? Who the fuck is behind it and what are they gaining from all of this?
We should not forget that a similar concept was created a long long time ago in our physical non internet world. It is called democracy and it was supposed to give power to the people, protect them. Centuries later have look at where we are. How is democracy applied today? Is it people who have the power?
So yes, we should absolutely give many fucks about blockchain and if anything we should make sure that if it will be applied it will be applied correctly and when necessary.
Photo by Alex Alexander on Unsplash
**Here are the articles I read to understand Blockchain and ones you should read too:
https://hackernoon.com/wtf-is-the-blockchain-1da89ba19348 We thought of the same title, okay!? I did not steal it ! And if you do not believe me I quote Picasso: Good artists copy, great artists steal!