Blockchain: What it Means vs How it Ends

I’ve been on a blockchain focused retreat for “creatives” in Bali (appropriately named #buidl_bali) for a few days now. The retreat is being hosted by Peepeth and its founder Bevan Barton. We’ve been having a pleasant mixture of conversations that consider the technical, philosophical, and altruistic solutions for myriad modern issues.

The retreat experience deserves its own post, so I’ll spare you most of the details for now.

What I’ve realized with the help of our discussions here, is that often “blockchain enthusiasm” can over-emphasize the technical means rather than the less-than-technical ends. In doing so, those most enthusiastic about blockchains may overlook a wonderful opportunity to make the potential impact of blockchains more concrete and… like-able (for lack of a better word)… to people less-than-enthusiastic about the space (either from skepticism or a lack of familiarity).

So, allow me to put a few ideas inattention-grabbing oversized letters so that you’ll I’ll remember to bring them up later in conversations about blockchains:

Blockchains won’t change the world. People will.
Blockchains don’t matter. People do.

Most people can readily understand and happily agree to those ideas. This makes them powerful starting places. The statements also happen to be true at a very fundamental level, so you can smile easily while you pass them along.

What’s the point?

Well, the debates about transactions per second, which layer is most ideal to scale on, the number of nodes, or the hash difficulty of a network are all very important – but you’ll be lucky to find someone to listen. Most people find it uninteresting, confusing… even tiring. Most of us in the blockchain space have become aware of this reality.

What we’re seemingly less aware of, by and large, is that talk about public vs private chains, inflation vs deflation, governance models, token distribution statistics… those are all just as irrelevant to most people.

What people generally care about is people (even if it’s only themselves – worst case). So discuss blockchains with them on their own terms. Instead of focusing on the technological means, focus on the humanity-driven ends.

For Example: Public Organizations & Transparency

  • Radical financial transparency in public institutions, charities, and even businesses could curb undesirable behaviors including corruption and the misallocation of resources more generally.
  • Real-time value transfers without middle-men should make individuals wealthier. If someone’s holding money, they’re probably making some interest off of it. The person receiving the interest should be the person who owns the money… not the government (in the case of taxes and tax “refunds” and not the banks (even over the weekends) or money transmission companies.
  • Open, public, transparent financial data can inform our consumption habits and even aspects of our identity. If you were able to look over the “wallet” history for the brands of water at your supermarket, for instance, you may choose to buy from the brand that’s donating to a cause you’re passionate about. If you discovered your favorite brand sending money to lobbyists that are known to lobby against individual freedoms in favor of corporate privileges, then you may change your favorite brand.
  • There’s been a push for transparency in charitable organizations, and for good reason. Measuring the impact of your donations should be as standard as measuring the cost of your daily necessities. (Everyone at the retreat has been given a copy of Doing Good Better, so this has been a topic of discussion on occasion.) There is no better way to make informed decisions than to have access to verifiable information. In a world where everyone that interacted with a charity was doing so using a public blockchain, measuring the effects of a charity would be as simple as writing a snippet of code. Something to strive for.

For Example: Government Documents; Time & Money Savers

Government authenticated records have become (unfortunately or not) inescapable for many activities in modern life. From birth certificates, to drivers licenses – you won’t go far without the proper “credentials”. Many people would agree that trustworthy credentials are important – those same people would likely also agree that having to travel to one’s birth place for a copy of a birth certificate is less than ideal… as is having to wait in line for a new marriage certificate simply because the original has been misplaced. No one likes paying the fees involved with document (re)issuance.

Being able to prove the contents of a credential document, without needing to go fetch a physical copy would be a huge time and money saver. (Hashes could ensure some level of privacy. Some permission scheme and hardware devices could take privacy a step further, but remember, we’re focused on the ends.) Ask people if they’d rather stand in line at a government office or have their credential data verifiable anytime, anywhere in a way that the data can be absolutely trusted. People are generally all for saving time and money.

More Ends Worth Mentioning (but not dragging the piece on to discuss in depth)

  • Data portability – in a world where your online identity is valuable, why should a few companies be able to lock in billions of people by holding their data hostage?
  • (For the philosophically inclined) Why should people be forced to use a currency that is imposed upon them by their physical location? Without digital and low-cost/no-cost currency conversion, even using a collapsing currency could be the only option available to some people. What if protesting against a regime could easily include ditching their currency in favor of another… from a mobile phone anywhere in the world?
  • If governance was on the blockchain and your “elected” officials could be anyone you chose to delegate your votes to… and they could have any particular vote overridden by their “constituents”, would that strike a better balance between a representative democracy and one that truly represents the will of the people?

But, Really, What About The Means?

Some of these ends could, potentially, be achieved by more centralizes means. So, with all the focus on ends, you might wonder, how can we sell people on a particular means… that is: blockchains?

  • You can appeal to their meritocratic side: open, public systems are the only ones that allow anyone an opportunity to improve and innovate on behalf of the world.
  • You can focus on reliability and uptime: you wouldn’t want to be at closing for a new home purchase and suddenly be unable to verify the lot details the government has on file.
  • You can focus on the anti-corruption aspect: a “fixer” in a government office has a much better chance of being detected if government actions are recorded publicly and truly accessible.

People Matter

Long and winding article aside (appropriately, I think, tagged as “ramblings”), the point is this: if you’re enthusiastic about blockchains, you’re a powerful voice, your enthusiasm will be apparent – don’t waste all of your enthusiasm presenting the means, as critical of a detail that it is.

For greater effect, focus on the ends: the impact blockchains might have for peoplepeople seem to comprehend those ideas on a much deeper level.