It is the best of times, it is the worst of times, it is the age of Wikipedia, it is the age of memes, it is the epoch of free speech, it is the epoch of murdered journalists, it is the season of grassroots campaigns, it is the season of dark money politics, it is the spring of artificial intelligence, it is the winter of climate change, we have everything before us, we have nothing before us — in short, the present period in its collision of technology, global society, and communication is beyond a superlative degree of comparison to any other.
The past ten years has seen internet access grow by nearly three billion people, from around 20% of the global population to over 50%, improving literacy, access to information, and introducing the ability to instantaneously communicate on a global scale.
Meanwhile, computing power is following Moore’s Law and roughly doubling in cost-to-output every 18 months. Some even predict a technological singularity between human and artificial intelligence when the linear chart ‘goes vertical’.
Combined with the realities of climate change, regressive political policies, and coordinated disinformation campaigns, this watershed moment brings the possibility of either catastrophic consequences or vast improvement to global conditions in a relatively minuscule amount of time.
In this piece, I will give a brief overview of current conditions in politics, society, and technology, their effects on each other, and how the advancement of blockchain systems can address some of the challenges faced today.
Bernie Sanders and the Political Revolution
In the summer of 2015, when Senator Bernie Sanders announced he would be running for President of the United States, I dropped everything to return to the U.S. and help. What began as volunteering to knock on doors grew into opening campaign offices, organizing events, recruiting volunteers, and more face-to-face political conversations than I could count. Collectively, a small grassroots campaign for awareness began to snowball into the largest ground-swell of political involvement in modern US History.
Advocating for Bernie was easy, you just need to empathize with others and share Bernie’s own words. For nearly every reactionary mistake that the US federal government has made in the last 30 years, Bernie has been speaking in favor of progress. Supporting civil and gay rights, opposing military interventionism, and advocating for education and social welfare, Bernie has been tireless in his advocacy for a sensible government that works for everyone.
However, there was one campaign slogan that many found hard to support — Political Revolution. For many, the word revolution conjures imagery of violent coups, anarchy, and the guillotine. While this interpretation is not without historical justification, it is not inherent in the broader definition of the word:
The paradigms of politics and technology are being challenged, with major adjustments in the very way that we organize and interpret the world around us. Wealthy interests and corrupt politicians continue to manipulate economic markets and governments, often eroding democratic institutions, but the shifting power of technology, communication, and information has presented us with great opportunities.
Social Media and ‘Fake News’
In a democracy, the ability to have open, honest, and fair elections is the foundation upon which all other problems can be addressed. With social media allowing information to be spread faster than can be credibly fact-checked, it is not surprising that falsehoods and outright propaganda have become a major problem.
In Brazil, conservative anti-minority and pro-torture Jair Bolsonaro coordinated with international firms to spread lies and propaganda against his opponents through WhatsApp, the popular Facebook-owned messenger. In Russia, the “Internet Research Agency” employed thousands of people to create and disseminate propaganda to US voters, visible to over 126 million users on Facebook alone, and the Mueller-led investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia so far has issued 36 indictments and 5 Trump aids have struck plea deals.
We must also be careful, however, we do not react with censorship on the internet itself as a utility. While individual companies like Facebook and Twitter are obviously free to operate freely, banning users, language, and images as they wish, the internet itself as a utility must remain open and transparent, letting the good outweigh the bad.
In Syria, the volunteer White Helmets rescue group uses social media, combined with aircraft sensors and machine learning algorithms, to quickly warn of incoming bombs and missiles and coordinate rescue efforts. It is estimated these decentralized early warning systems have reduced casualties by 27% in heavily bombarded areas.
The pro-democracy “Arab Spring” movement began with a rapidly shared video of a street vendor setting himself on fire in front of a local government office, protesting the government harassment of his fruit stand. Online communication and coordination spread through numerous countries faster than efforts to censor it.
Dark Money and Shadow Politics
While the spread of falsehoods and propaganda is disruptive, it can be combated with the truth. The more existential threat to elections in the USA is dark money and Super PACs.
A Super PAC is a Political Action Committee that is technically separate from and has no communication with, a political candidate. Thanks to the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission, a Super PAC can raise and spend unlimited sums of money on advertising, not disclose who their donors are, and advocate for or against specific candidates as long as there is no evidence of direct coordination.
This is a perversion of electoral democracy that allows secret funding of political organizations to bombard all forms of media with advertising that is often misleading or inaccurate. In the 2016 elections, over $1.4 billion of dark money was spent by Super PACs. Wealthy individuals and corporations give massive amounts of money to both the official election campaigns and Super PACs, and in turn elected officials make decisions at to their benefit.
That is, unless you believe it is purely coincidence that Internet Service Providers gave over $100 million to congressional campaigns before Net Neutrality was destroyed, or that Halliburton won massive no-bid government contracts in Iraq while Dick Cheney, their former CEO, was Vice President, or that oil, gas, and coal companies spent $354 million in campaign contributions in 2016 while receiving $29.4 billion in federal subsidies?
Or perhaps when President Trump’s Justice Department settled a $230 million Russian money laundering case involving New York real estate for just $6 million dollars, it was a coincidence that the lawyer representing Russia had previously organized the now-famous Trump Tower meeting between herself, Donald Trump Jr., and Trump campaign officials.
Speaking of shadowy money, it has been estimated that the Department of Defense and Department of Housing and Urban Development have misappropriated $21 trillion in unsupported adjustments from 1998–2015. The complete lack of voter oversight of how tax dollars are spent is astounding.
We also recently witnessed the largest document leak in history known as the Panama Papers, detailing information on more than 200,000 offshore entities and exposing how world leaders, businessmen, and celebrities from over 200 countries used shell corporations for fraud, tax evasion, and skirting international sanctions. Yet despite 1,260 companies named in Nevada alone, almost no prosecution has happened in the USA because companies and wealthy individuals have perfectly legal ways to hide their money offshore.
Election Fraud and Voter Disenfranchisement
Compounding onto the problem of voter disinformation and dark money influences, the USA faces very real problems of electoral fraud and voter disenfranchisement. While some issues have seen progressive advances in recent decades, such as returning voting rights to felons, the ability for eligible voters to be registered and able to vote should be a non-starter.
The 2018 elections were rampant with election fraud and voter disenfranchisement. In Ohio, heavily African-American neighborhoods saw ten percent of registered voters purged from lists, compared to four percent in surrounding areas. In North Carolina, the evidence is mounting that absentee ballots were collected by political operatives and only turned in for Republican voters.
In Georgia, 53,000 voter registrants were placed in a “pending” status due to minor misspellings or missing hyphens prior to the election, and a predominantly African-American county had to reject a plan to close seven polling locations. The Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp had removed an estimated 1.5 million people from voter rolls during his tenure and oversaw the very election in which he was running for Governor.
Dodge City Kansas, with a population of 27,000, had its single polling location moved outside the city. All across the country, fewer polling locations have resulted in longer lines, with many voters unable to take enough time from work to participate. These conditions happen despite the USA having a very low turnout of around 50%.
Studies show that automatic voter registration increases participation, with twelve states having passed legislation since 2015. Moving election day to a weekend or having a national holiday may also increase turnout.
Striking the Roots
The key to addressing major regressive policies is to first confront electoral fraud, voter rights, and the influence of money in politics. From there, voters will have the electoral tools to fight numerous injustices still prevalent in modern society.
We could begin with the $5 billion for-profit prison industry that is unaccountable to the public, the growing number of civilians killed by drone strikes, whistle-blowers being punished for legally and ethically telling the truth, or the $100 billion in taxpayer funds awarded to war profiteers like Lockheed Martin and Boeing every year.
With better civilian oversight of taxpayer funds, we could implement a universal healthcare system that is not only ethically and morally just, but a Koch brothers funded study found will save money in the long run.
Empowering the electorate with transparent, free, and honest elections is the foundation upon which progress is made. Let’s look at how technology will help us in the process.
A Change in Paradigm: Code is Law
To explain the basic structure of a blockchain, think literally of the words ‘block’ and ‘chain’. In computer terminology, a block is a ‘piece of text processed as a unit’. A blockchain is literally a long string of computer code, with piece after piece ‘chained’ together.
In isolation, this is nothing more than a growing ledger of information. The advantage blockchains offer is operating peer-to-peer with no central database. This means every network user reads and writes to the exact same blockchain, also called a distributed ledger.
Imagine a giant typewriter, with everybody able to access the keyboard and add their text one at a time. There is just one piece of paper, constantly getting longer. Anything typed onto the paper is permanent and unalterable. This is known as immutability and is one of the most important facets of blockchain technology.
Another key function is that blockchains incorporate cryptography through hashing, most often SHA256. This is the act of applying mathematical functions to text, ensuring that only the correct cryptographic key can decipher it. In this way, there are different ‘private keys’ that unlock the ability to access specific parts of a blockchain, known as a ‘public address’, but there is no ‘master key’ that can access everything.
This use of decentralized cryptographic networks shifts us from earlier paradigms of law and order. In more chaotic times, the sword was law and disputes were settled by force. As civilization advanced, word became law, and through democratic elections, the populace began to shape legal frameworks. However, words are still open to interpretation by lawyers, and unjust legal practices often apply the law unequally. Distributed ledgers offer many advantages of a trustless system where the code is law.
To show how this operates, let’s look at the first and most famous blockchain, Bitcoin.
Bitcoin: Peer-to-Peer Digital Cash
Bitcoin (also written BTC) started in 2009 with a single block being ‘mined’ by the creator, to this day known only by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. Mining is when computers on the decentralized network solve the encryption hash to create the next block of BTC and write the network transactions onto the blockchain.
Anyone can view any address or transaction on the Bitcoin blockchain by running the network software, or viewing a ‘block explorer’ website such as blockchain.com. By reading the ledger backward, you can trace every fraction of BTC through every transaction back to its origin.
For instance, you can view the genesis block at 000000000019d6689c085ae165831e934ff763ae46a2a6c172b3f1b60a8ce26f, where 50 BTC was created at ‘Block #0’ and sent to the public address 1A1zP1eP5QGefi2DMPTfTL5SLmv7DivfNa. This wallet still holds 66.90222543 BTC, and only the person who created this public address (Satoshi in this case) was given the private key necessary to send these BTC to another address.
Because the Bitcoin software is open-source, anyone can view and verify the integrity of the software, with no vulnerability or ‘backdoor’. Any change in the open-source code requires a consensus of the decentralized network of miners and users, meaning changes in the code are hotly debated.
Bitcoin operates peer-to-peer and encrypted, with full immutability, meaning no individual, company, or country can alter or censor it. This decentralization also allows transactions to happen safely with no trust in other users or a third party required, and double spend transactions are prevented.
Bitcoin also has a controlled supply written into its code, with over 17 million BTC currently available and new BTC creation slowing until a finite number of 21 million BTC. This is a stark contrast to traditional fiat currencies such as the Dollar, Euro, or Pound, which can be printed at any time.
While sometimes slowed by heavy network usage, the Bitcoin network once processed a transaction valued at 300 million dollars for just 4 cents in a matter of minutes. Using the international banking standard SWIFT costs $15–35 dollars, takes 1–2 days minimum, and cannot be used independently of banks.
Because discussion of Bitcoin inevitably turns to prices, I will state simply that early technologies see many price increases and corrections, and it’s best to look beyond this. The internet was not abandoned after Pets.com went bankrupt and Amazon lost 90% of its value in 2000. In 9 years, BTC has exponentially risen from pennies to dollars, from hundreds to thousands, dropping by more than 50% over 8 times, and it is the first generation of new technology.
While I must move on, there is much to discuss regarding Bitcoin, including that an estimated 3–4 million BTC will never be accessed due to lost private keys, protecting the network from quantum computers that may one day break SHA256 encryption, how ‘forks’ happen when the network users disagree on updates to the source code, and digital currency competitors that offer faster, cheaper, or fully untraceable payments.
Smart Contracts and the Evolution of Blockchain
To understand how most of the following examples utilize blockchain technology, it’s first necessary to introduce the concept of ‘smart contracts.’ Thousands of blockchain-based ‘cryptocurrencies’ have been created, expanding the capabilities of blockchain and distributed ledgers. While many simply focus on payments and transfer of value, whether faster, cheaper, easier, or anonymous, a growing number are utilizing distributed ledger technology in creative ways.
Ethereum, EOS, and other infrastructure cryptocurrencies have code scripting that can be deployed by users. This allows the creation of smart contracts, which are immutable code placed on a blockchain, stipulating what parameters must be met for an action to take place automatically — a permanent and secure ‘if-this-then-that’ statement operating on a decentralized system.
Where Bitcoin revolutionized the ability for censorship-proof exchange of value with no middle-man, smart contracts allow for distributed computer networks to run decentralized applications, known as ‘DApps’. In this way, no trusted third party is necessary for an agreement to be made between two users, with any form of digital data being stored or exchanged upon specific code being processed. This is where blockchain technology expands its real-world utilization, and the possibilities are fantastic.
Finance and Asset Ownership
Unsurprisingly, numerous cryptocurrencies are focused on the exchange of money or goods. In addition to payment channels, there are blockchain-based companies integrating stocks and securities exchange, allowing users to trade cryptocurrencies pegged to assets such as publicly traded stocks, gold, silver or various national currencies. This breaks down barriers of entry and eliminates brokerages and banks as middlemen. Some cryptocurrency exchanges are even fully decentralized, requiring no centralized system of accounts, passwords, or databases, allowing users to keep control of their traded assets locally.
Projects such as Humaniq are working to help members of developing nations who are largely unbanked, bringing beneficiaries out of poverty through financial independence. Manna is a non-profit that’s created a Universal Basic Income available to anyone and distributed through their blockchain.
Other companies use smart contracts to ‘tokenize’ real-world assets, such as land and home ownership, art and high-value objects, wills and legal agreements, even electricity usage, and carbon credits. By operating on a distributed ledger, owners can hold the private key or pass legal ownership of assets independently. Agreements can be coded into a smart-contract, eliminating the need for lawyers, making arbitration simpler and cheaper, and ensuring stipulations of the agreement are enforced by immutable code.
Further, private or government-run blockchains can provide legal frameworks that are fully transparent, automated, and secure. The Republic of Georgia is currently testing just such a program:
“By building a blockchain-based property registry and taking full advantage of the security provided by the blockchain technology, the Republic of Georgia can show the world that we are a modern, transparent, and corruption-free country that can lead the world in changing the way land titling is done and pave the way to additional prosperity for all.” — Papuna Ugrekhelidze, the Chairman of the National Agency of Public Registry of Georgia
Corruption and Transparency
Because most distributed ledgers are fully transparent and all transactions are traceable and immutable, corruption and misuse of funds can also be addressed this way. Spain has committed to building EU-wide blockchain and AI applications to fight corruption in the EU single market, and the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) is replacing its current system with blockchain technology to cut transaction costs, improve security, and fight fraud.
If a government truly wanted all taxpayer funding to be appropriated transparently, a blockchain-based system could audit every penny quickly and easily. Funds paid to contractors, employees, or government programs could be monitored with complete trust and any corruption, bribery, or misuse of funds would be easily identified.
Supply Chain and Counterfeit Goods
Complete transparency and the prevention of fraud is also needed in the global supply chain of goods, where the negative impact of counterfeit goods and piracy are estimated in the trillions, with $200 billion lost annually to counterfeit medicines alone. Tamper-proof packaging with a blockchain-based tracking system that can independently verify the origin, shipping, and handling of medicines will save lives, money, and establish trust between producers, handlers, and consumers.
Numerous startups all over the world are competing to secure contracts for their supply-chain ecosystems, IBM is building its own supply-chain blockchain, and DHL has partnered with a blockchain company to track pharmaceuticals from origin to purchase.
Identification and Data
It’s no surprise that tech companies like Facebook and Google have large amounts of data on users, but recent revelations that Facebook literally gave Amazon, Netflix, and Spotify access to hundreds of millions of users’ private messages expands the scope of unethical use of user data.
In the new interconnected global economy, data is currency, but everyday users are left out of the equation. Companies like 23andMe have become popular by mapping your DNA, but there is the caveat that they are able to sell your biological data once it has been ‘de-identified’.
Companies such as Civic are using blockchain security to create secure identity login systems with the user in complete control. The Unification Foundation, a company I helped incubate in its early development this past year, is finalizing development of a blockchain-based protocol to standardize data across industries and give consumers full control of every data point. This lets users visualize, manage, and even monetize the data they create, all secured through a decentralized encrypted network they have the keys to.
Startups focused on DNA testing, insurance and coverage, medical records, and clinical trial matching are all working to bring ownership of medical data back to consumers. The ability to truly own and control access to your online, medical, and financial data is paramount to personal freedom.
Communication and File Storage
Another important use for distributed ledgers is in structural systems of communication and file storage. The ability to communicate freely, without censorship or surveillance, is rapidly being lost.
In China, it’s estimated that over 30,000 people are employed as ‘Internet Police’, monitoring websites and personal chats for dissenting opinions to censor, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre or criticisms of President Xi. In the USA, the National Security Agency (NSA) has collected massive amounts of data on its citizens going back to the 1960s, with revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden showing just how pervasive current surveillance is.
Projects such as Adamant and Mercury Protocol allow for completely decentralized, censorship-proof, anonymous communication and data transfers. This allows the creation of truly secure data transmission for users as well as applications themselves.
Decentralized file storage systems such as IPFS allow users to securely and permanently store or share data. In Thailand, an activist uploaded an anti-government song by Rap Against Dictatorship onto the IPFS storage system, then used the anonymous cryptocurrency ZCoin to safely share the link. The ZCoin blockchain at block 111089 permanently displays the IPFS link, mXFf5QLQi3DhbwyrgR7qH8tHAZcGyWtWtsBy6iij4B7aL, which can be used to access the song.
Voting and Election Integrity
Perhaps one of the strongest ways blockchain technology can help secure a stable and free society is through voting systems. In the USA, elections are handled by local and state officials, which has many advantages of not centralizing electoral authority or providing a single failure point. However, this means that there is little consistency between states regarding method of voting, paper trails, or voter identification laws.
One major issue in the USA is the use of voting machines. Numerous studies have shown that the machines are severely at risk of tampering and hacking, and one vendor admitted to installing backdoor software into the voting machines. Some states use Direct Recording Electronic voting systems, storing the votes on a hard drive, but have no form of paper trail backup.
Voting on a blockchain system would mean that at the time of submission, a voter could view the literal code being input to verify its contents. Voters could be provided a transparent record of votes cast while protecting their, and also providing voters with a decryption key to verify that their vote on the blockchain is correct. Voter registration could be standardized and secure, errors, operating costs, and fraud could all be dramatically reduced by utilizing bio-metric verification of voters.
The nation of South Korea, a political party in Thailand, a city in Japan, and the US state of West Virginia have all begun trialing blockchain-based voting systems. In the USA, states that have ballot initiatives and direct issue voting could hold secure real-time voting on a variety of measures.
Some states have already begun to adopt election methodology other than the first-past-the-post electoral system which results in only two major parties over time, a phenomenon known as Duverger’s Law. Integrating safe and secure technology into our voting systems can help the push for more fair and democratic election methods such as ranked-choice voting, where voters rank their choices and an automated run-off system determines the most preferred candidate.
Connected but Decentralized
Human beings are wired for connection. However, we also require privacy, protection, and individuality. As technology brings us together on a global scale, we must ensure that the general population regains control of the structural foundations that our interconnected world is built upon. This applies to communication, finances, personal data, elections, and much more.
We are on the cusp of a fully connected and decentralized internet that incorporates not only our phones and computers but increasing numbers of devices in the Internet of Things. We must ensure that the structural systems of communication are transparent, free, and uncensored.
And most importantly, empowering ourselves with technology can empower society collectively through transparent code-based agreements, uncensored speech and journalism, secure personal data, and direct democracy that is secure and fair.
Will Mekemson is an outreach specialist, political organizer, decentralization evangelist, and cryptocurrency investor and analyst.
Will bridges communication gaps between developers and communities, politicians and voters, businesses and consumers.
Contact Will through LinkedIn or William.Mekemson@gmail.com for speaking at blockchain conferences, business outreach and strategy consultancy, or political campaign and event organizing.