The Social Impact of Blockchain
On Christmas 1998, my father gifted me my very first PC. I can still remember the thrill of plugging it in for the first time: very carefully, out of fear that something would explode. When I was sure that everything was where it should be, I pressed the power button and… nothing happened. I then proceeded to open the casing and remove all the components (whose names I didn’t know yet) before mounting them again.
On my second try, the PC started and, a month later, I became an intern for a local ISP. That machine had changed my life. Since then, I have kept my eyes riveted on how technology influences us. Not just through our habits, but also through the way we interact with each other, the way we behave as a society, the way it changes our lives.
When one evokes the social impact of technology, they often refer to ‘tech for social good,’ which is fine but somehow contributes to widening an imaginary gap between our online and offline engagement. Social isn’t confined to the ‘meatspace’ anymore. Just one look at any social media site will let you see communities and cultures that are online, borderless, and sometimes transient, striving as never before.
Grow, Connect, Move
Today, it is through technology that we keep ourselves informed, express ourselves, and form in our mind the seeds of decisions that will drive our offline actions, from choosing a restaurant for a dinner date, to choosing a president. Further than choice, technology influences the way we grow, the way we connect and, yes, even the way we move.
I am pretty confident that during the last seven days, you, the reader, have learned something new. I would also bet that in the previous six months, you have learned online and applied at least a minor practical skill. Going further, I would even bet that googling a tutorial or insightful article has been of great help at least once in your career.
Now, learning is one thing, but it won’t mean much if we can’t boast about it every now and then, right? And isn’t it frustrating when you display a newly acquired skill or a long-sought-after achievement and don’t get replies, or reactions? I just wrote ‘replies’ and ‘reactions,’ are you thinking about social media? Chances are that you are. It makes sense, though, because Tweeting is much more practical than calling 800 acquaintances to tell them about your take on such and such topic.
Or maybe we could gather those 800 people around, make it an event. But personally, I would rather do this online, just like I gather online with my high-school friends around an easy-ish video game and embark, from my room, into a boy’s night out that spans across seven time zones. I am ‘going out’ without moving. What a world we live in, right? But then today ‘Counter Strike’ is considered a sport. We ‘game’, our kids ‘game,’ and we don’t have to call them back inside for dinner. They’re already there.
These changes, I call them social changes because they are affecting us much deeper than we think, at a reflex level. We google, tweet, game, as part of a new strange social contract which keeps on evolving even as it is being written.
This can also explain why our fears and worries are also shifting towards more… ‘modern’ concepts. While the Amazon rainforest is still burning, we still have a space in our minds to worry about our agency and privacy, to ponder on whether Microsoft is a digital nation, about why Google might know about our dead relatives who have never used the internet, or about whether anything we read can still be trusted. As someone once said, “With great power comes the possibility to remove ‘Don’t be evil’ from our code of conduct.”
About Heroes and the Breathing of Technology
Heroes. Heroes happened.
See, technology breathes. We’ve seen 20+ search engines in action before Google became the giant it is today, as many social media sites before Facebook became ubiquitous, and 90+ iterations of home consoles before the handful of platforms we know today. Now, who searches on Yahoo! anymore? Who would add me on Friendster? When is the last time you played a game on the ZX Spectrum? Those products have been… exhaled.
When an idea appears, technology inhales everything from first movers to spinoffs and holds its breath for a while. When it’s done, it exhales, and usually, most of the entities it took-in are then taken out, except the strongest, best-established ones. Those who remain are those heroes, the custodians of what we say, how we present ourselves, where we go, what we eat, watch, buy… We empower them to deal, in our place, with all the little and huge bothers we needed to overcome on our own in the days of old. By the time they become significant enough to see their names transformed into a verb, those heroes have quite literally changed the way we grow, connect, or move.
What Does This Have to Do with Blockchain?
Looking at the state of blockchain in 2019 is looking at more than 2,500 cryptocurrencies and around 40 different consensus types. Bitcoin and Ethereum are battling at the top over transaction fees, and many other variants gravitate in the ecosystem, trying to follow or to innovate. Similarly to the early days of search, social media, or games, the blockchain tech ecosystem has initiated its inhaling phase. Now is the time to try and anticipate the social changes it has the potential to introduce in the near future -both as an intellectual exercise and a strategic decision.
First of all, let’s keep in mind that blockchain doesn’t do anything new, at least not in the way that email or the HTTP protocol did. It does the same things as centralized solutions, but in a decentralized manner, which is enabled by a strong implementation of cryptography. This means that the transformational power of blockchain is emergent and discrete, while still bearing massive potential when it comes to trust, efficiency, and sovereignty.
It’s a Matter of Trust
Trust is the first concept that comes to mind, especially since blockchains are often said to be trustless systems: there is no need to trust your counterpart, intermediary, or any source that is external to your transaction. Simply trust the system, the math.
In various industries, it means that many transaction types can be drastically sped-up simply because it is now possible to trust digital data. On a person-to-person basis, the immutability and verification, ex-mathematica, of blockchain’d data might be a key element in getting rid of our current “Everything is fake unless proven otherwise” approach to information and discussion. It might let us opt for a more relaxing approach more in the taste of “Everything is provable if there’s a record.” Paradoxically, trustless systems might very well help us trust each other better.
Efficiency, Sustainability, Communities
As I wrote earlier, higher trust towards digital data can speed up many transaction types (just look into blockchain for supply chain use cases, it’s worth it). This, though, is only a fraction of what blockchain can achieve when it comes to efficiency. From a zoomed-out perspective, and with the right implementation, blockchain can help create decentralized marketplaces for mostly anything that can gain a market value, from green energy microgrids to domestic waste. Communities can gather and grow around the common usage of a traceable, tradable commodity. This can potentially lead to better local resource repartition and management, with better wealth circulation at a micro-level. In short, blockchain can definitely enable systems for high sustainability.
In parallel, the trustless aspect of blockchain theoretically allows people to collaborate more dynamically, around more granular projects. A blockchain-powered platform allowing people to quickly form company-like workgroups where remuneration, benefits, procedures, etc. are managed through smart contracts or smart transactions is feasible, and might very well appear in the years to come.
When looking at concepts like decentralized marketplaces and blockchain’d companies, what strikes me is that individuals have a chance to start addressing each other, as in trading and working in a peer-to-peer manner, as opposed to dealing with massive entities for whom the individual isn’t much more than a statistic.
On a longer term, blockchain could even bring back barter, upcycling and re-use as a major part of our trading culture, along with concepts such as social credits and time-as-a-currency, maybe even leading the way to a virtuous circle of sustainability and resources optimization, all that while bringing people together and strengthening communities.
You Do You
In the end, the most significant change brought by blockchain will emerge from its uses and the way it handles data. While, today, we trust our custodian heroes to handles every aspect of our life that can be turned into a data point, decentralization can empower us with true control and true sovereignty.
As another paradox, it is because blockchain is decentralized that we, as users, can become the central point of view for our own data. I, for one, dream of a day when I can use the same safe identifier to grant access to my employment history, sign my online articles, pay for an after-hours round with my colleagues, vote, and redeem 90 minutes of Muay-Thai lessons against a previously given IT training.
While processing all these transactions, there would be no thought about whether or not I am legit, certified, or approved. Evidence would either be blockchain’d, or not. There would be no more heroes to decide whether or not my transactions, or even my very name, are compliant with their community standards. Just me, my counterparts, and the data.
This painting is, of course, on the utopian side. I am well aware that some organizations are averse to the very concept of transparency, let alone sharing and decentralization. After all, many of our ‘heroes’ have a business model only made possible by an asymmetry of knowledge between them and their users. That said, because I prefer to put my money where my mouth is, I have always preferred supporting projects which incorporate integrity, community, and sovereignty as their baseline, and will continue to do so.
Disclaimer: This article leans heavily on the editorial side. It is in no way a tech report or heavily documented research, but rather a piece of experience the author feels he should share.
Author: Jean-Daniel Gauthier, Co-founder of Blockchain Zoo