Júlio Santos

@julio_santos

Forever on the Chain

tl;dr: Blockchain technology introduces permanence and immutability into the digital world. We built a tool for everybody to experience this immutability in a tangible and intimate way. The results were surprising and ranged from fascination to shock. Here is what happened.

When I talk about blockchain technology, I often find it useful to take a step back and draw the following grand arc. Three aspects are needed to build a modern society. The first is memory. This is how we build mythology, culture, lore, and learn from the achievements and mistakes of others. The second is communication. Communication allows us to form communities, to exchange memories and learnings, to interact.

The third component, which underpins the other two, is trust. Memory and communication are of limited use in the absence of trust — you need to be able to trust what you remember, and what others are telling you. We don’t think much of it, but everything runs on trust. We trust our banks to keep our money safe. We trust Google with our personal and work emails. We trust the courts to make unbiased decisions and keep proper records.

Memory and communication are of limited use in the absence of trust.

For the most part, this trust is not misplaced. Banks and courts are highly regulated entities, even if their incentives aren’t always necessarily aligned with ours. But this trust is still a human affair, and hence regularly betrayed. Not to mention that trusts costs money — we pay these institutions a trust tax, which in practice translates to thick legal agreements and insurance premiums.

The way I see it, the printing press was the revolution that commoditized memory. Because of the explosion in books, the amount of people who could benefit from humanity’s shared memory increased dramatically. Later on, the internet commoditized communication. What was once either localized or painfully slow became global and instantaneous. And modern society was all the better with it, capitalistic woes and lagging regulation notwithstanding.

Blockchain is the technological revolution that commoditizes trust.

Enter blockchain. Blockchain is the technological revolution that commoditizes trust. It does this by integrating trust on an infrastructural level into any service built on blockchain. Trust normally has to be enforced via laws, courts, armies, and other costly, fallible institutions. Replacing these with disinterested cryptography promises a revolution in the way we enable trust.

If you want to know more, read my short explainer article on how blockchain works and what it can do for you: What can blockchain do for you?

Forever on the Chain

Life on Mars, our software consultancy, has been quick to adopt blockchain technology.

An exciting result of one of our hackathons was a very simple demo that we called Forever on the Chain. It’s the equivalent of a digital tattoo: a smart contract that anyone can use for free (minus transaction costs) to leave a permanent message onto the Ethereum blockchain. Permanence and immutability are properties of all transactions on the blockchain, and thus any message stored in the blockchain is etched into thousands upon thousands of computers, unfading and eternal.

It’s the equivalent of a digital tattoo: a smart contract that anyone can use for free (minus transaction costs) to leave a permanent message onto the Ethereum blockchain.

It was interesting to translate this abstract knowledge of immutability and permanence into an easy to use experience for everybody, not only the digital natives. I shared Forever on the Chain with friends, and some of the reactions were wholly unexpected.

People were surprised that blockchain could “do that”. Someone said they were uncomfortable with how much this reminded them of Black Mirror, referring to an episode where everyone’s experience is constantly recorded and can be re-experienced instantly, anytime. I was admonished to “think about the monster you’re about to release here”, and not to “publish technology this powerful on a whim just because you can”.

Arguably, as technology becomes part of our extended mind, the right to be forgotten becomes tantamount to memory manipulation.

Another response brought up the right to be forgotten. A law that grants individuals, under some circumstances, the right to demand of websites that they remove information about themselves. However, in a distributed consensus system like blockchain, enforcing the right to be forgotten becomes technically impossible.

The impact of permanence

As technology becomes part of our extended mind, the right to be forgotten can be construed as tantamount to memory manipulation. You might think that this is an important and necessary thing we have to do in order to protect social harmony, or you might loathe it as an entrenchment on your individual freedom. Blockchain technology, however, has no opinion. It takes no ethical stance. It protects our collective memory from adulteration, ill-intentioned or otherwise, with no regard for whatever the consequences may be.

Regardless of personal opinion, there are plenty of good reasons behind the right to be forgotten, as there are good reasons to allow for libel suits in a criminal system. Communication and expression have consequences, and freedom of expression shouldn’t be conflated with freedom of consequences.

The point here is that blockchain technology must usher in a new era of regulation, if we are to keep protecting the rights we’ve enshrined.

I don’t mean to delve too deeply into this topic now. These and other ethical considerations will be explored in future posts. The point here is that blockchain technology must usher in a new era of regulation, if we are to keep protecting the rights we’ve enshrined. Additionally, how exactly said regulation would be deployed in a post-blockchain era remains unclear.

Looking ahead

As with every new, poorly understood technology, blockchain raises concerns. However, I’m optimistic. I believe we will harness it as we have every other technology humanity has been blessed with. Moreover, technology has a way to establish itself independently of our wills and worries. Now that blockchain is here, the best thing you can do is explore it, understand it, and make it work for you instead of against you.

I’m not old enough to have had to convince businesses of the virtues of the internet, but back in 2012 I was still having a hard time convincing some large corporate clients that this social web thing (Facebook, Twitter and the like) was going to catch on. Don’t be those guys. Embrace what’s looking to become a revolution as large as the Internet itself.

Thinking of exploring blockchain? Talk to us.

If you want to know more, read my short explainer article on how blockchain works and what it can do for you.

Many thanks to Charles Ulin, Frederik Eichelbaum, Jack Kinsella, João Gradim, Lukas Egger, Nele Wollert, Paulo Köch, Paulo Pereira, Sean Perkins and Vanessa Costa for reading drafts of this.

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