For the Love of Science: Blockchain

Technology is cool as shit, but boy does it keep you on your toes. Just as I’ve got used to the concept of Web 2.0 (‘netflix and chill’, memes, looking way too happy on social media), a little birdie has warned me about the emergence of Web 3.0. Here we go again, folks.

Web 3.0 is apparently going to be underpinned by blockchain technology, a word which at first glance, sounds like a kind-of-indie, kind-of-metal band playing on one of the smaller stages at Glastonbury. Real Blockchain, of course, is drastically different. Blockchain technology underpinned bitcoin, the digital currency that allowed for peer-to-peer transactions, the disappearance of intermediaries and yet had no intrinsic value. Bitcoin became all the rage in the financial markets – and in my case, caused a small existential crisis about the internet being the fourth dimension – and it turns out that the technology and thought process behind this invisible money can be applied almost anywhere and everywhere.

Blockchain technology operates as a digital ledger (ledger: book / collection of financial accounts). Transactions made throughout this ledger are recorded chronologically but cannot be copied. Not being able to copy a record increases its validity. Furthermore, the ledgers are stored in multiple computers around the world, presumably to avoid loss of critical data if a certain storage point fails, but also to decentralise data and spread the locus of control from a single entity.

It has taken me a while to wrap my head around the concept of blockchain but in a sentence, this seems to be it: a new way of recording data points that is more trustworthy, transparent, fraud-resistant, and will probably also please your parents.

As if the whole deal wasn’t confusing enough to the layman, blockchain technology was reportedly founded by an anonymous individual or group of developers who goes / go by the name of Satoshi Nakamoto. How this can be possible, how they he / she / they / it have stayed anonymous for so long, is an absolute mystery to me.

Blockchain hasn’t quite become as trendy as FaceTube or fidget spinners, primarily because right now, it is nestled neatly within the dark and dusty corridors of the banking / financial sectors. Needless to say, banking relies on transactions, and blockchain technology allows for these transactions to be as fraud-free and trackable as possible. On the other, drastically different, hand, blockchain technology is also being used to distinguish ethically sourced diamonds from ‘dirty diamonds’ by tracking the whole process from mining to cutting; unethically sourced diamonds are often used as a currency amongst terrorist groups and militia to fund violence and conflict, and so catching the illegal diamond trade in its tracks is becoming crucial.

Even between these two examples, we can see the drastic reach and potential that blockchain has. It is not just about making the most money or shouting the loudest. This technology is actually, or apparently, fighting the ‘real problems’. As Vitalik Buterin (founder of Ethereum, an open source software platform for Blockchain developers) says, blockchain ‘is not about the places where people are really rich. Blockchain’s opportunities are the highest in the countries that haven’t reached that level yet’. In other words, once we all actually understand how blockchain works, it could be used for real impact in the public sector, politics and international development.

Blockchain is already making some little ripples outside of the financial services sector. It could be used to make election data public, allowing for more transparency, clarity and perhaps predictability of the political campaign process. It could also be used to protect intellectual property, allowing for peer-to-peer micropayments between the owners and users of said property (for young people, who have grown up scrounging for the most part, this could be dismal news. But ethics.). It could also be used to do cool shit like create interdependencies between devices and transportation and sensors through the Internet of Things, allowing for remote access to and controlling of objects. You can control things without touching them! Long live Blockchain.

Perhaps the coolest, nichest and most Foreword-relevant example is that of land title registration. In developing economies, property ownership is still very much a grey area, with the process of providing appropriate documentation, guarantors, payments, and proof of ownership at the end all being either documented on paper or not documented at all. According to the World Bank, 70% of the world lacks appropriate land titling. Natural disasters and political turmoil make this process that much more difficult. Government agencies in Honduras, Georgia and Sweden are trying out systems that can succinctly store information on all the parts of the process using blockchain technology. If one of the Nordic countries is giving it a crack, it’s got to be something worthwhile.

Blockchain relies heavily on trust, as well as inspiring it. The sharing economy and increasing decentralisation in business / technology have meant that personal reputation, morals and ethics are at the top of the agenda. Whilst companies like Uber and Airbnb act as intermediaries that set these ethical / moral rules between the service provider and the service user, blockchain eliminates these intermediaries altogether, making us all best friends for life.

It’s funny, in a sort of sad way, how technology is trying to bridge gaps whilst modern politics attempts to widen them. Technology is seeing the best in the human race whilst politics is seeing, or rather digging up, the worst.