Back in 1984 I was 17 and in my last year of high school. As part of rather half hearted attempts to turn out rounded young people, we were encouraged to read more widely than our chosen A Level subjects demanded. There was a room lined with many years of issues of The New Society, Economist and New Scientist magazines. We also had a room where we were allowed to smoke on school premises, as far as I could tell, with the same motivation. That is, literally, breath taking. At least it was a different room I suppose.
That year, I read an article in The New Scientist about the Internet. I must have read hundreds of articles in that room (ok, tens). The only one I remember was that one. In part because of the co incidence that followed, but also because the potential was obvious and terribly exciting. At that time, internet was already in its teens but still largely unknown to most of us, being mostly of interest to military and academic types.
A few months later I was interviewed for a place at the University I was later to attend. As part of the day we were subjected to talks, tours and interviews. One of the talks was instantly recognisable to me. It was essentially the article I’d read a few months earlier in lecture form. I stuck my hand up with a doubtless nauseating combination of smugness pretending to be earnestness, and asked if he’d written said New Scientist article. He had. Later that day it just so happened that he interviewed me. It was a comically easy interview. He wasn’t to know that that was the only vaguely relevant thing I’d read outside of the classroom in my entire 6th form.
Setting aside my good fortune, I also recall the disorienting feeling I got from reading that article as it dawned on me, that the implications of being able to transfer data from anywhere to anywhere, reliably and almost instantaneously were imaginable but also chaotically unpredictable. The article left me feeling excited and bewildered at the same time. It was the first time in my life I learned of something relatively unknown and knew that THIS WAS GOING TO BE HUGE. THIS WAS GOING TO CHANGE EVERYTHING!
Since then all sorts of things have happened, socially, politically and technologically. Some of those things have been huge too. It was not until recently that I again came across something a little obscure and again had that same feeling of immediately imaginable but ultimately chaotic consequence.
In November 2015 I was walking a stretch of the South Downs Way, just outside Winchester. Despite being November it was warm and sunny and I got sun burn. It never occurred to me to wear sun cream in November! As I wandered along I listened to an article from The Economist. It was about another technology that is GOING TO CHANGE EVERYTHING. That is BlockChain. At the moment this is the preserve of tech geeks, entrepreneurs, governments and worried bankers. I had to stop for a few minutes to think it through, frazzling further as a result.
Blockchain, to quote The Economist article is a Trust Machine. Arcane huh? So what?
Managing trust is really important but gets in the way. It makes otherwise easy processes expensive and slow. Sometimes it means we are not properly in control of things that are ours such that we trade that control for ease of use. In many countries it slows their economies and holds back development.
A very few examples, of very very many…
A lot of what they do boils down to the fact that we trust them (albeit grudgingly) to manage transactions and stores of value on our behalf. Make that easy to replicate and setting up a bank becomes much easier, simpler to scale and a lot less risky to get into. As well as that being a challenge to the banks it could also do for financial management in the developing world what mobile did for communication (and a few clunky financial transfers).
A lot of what lawyers do is execute processes in an independent and standard way so we can manage risks through someone we trust. Behind the scenes they are often executing very standard processes. Add automated trust and all sorts of processes can go digital. Probate, conveyancing and almost anything that needs a notary just for starters. More importantly, remove the friction of the lawyer and lots of other processes that appear to need lawyers open themselves up for disruption. To be brief, consider that most contracts, however expensively drawn up, are combinations of parameters that could be automatically negotiated if only the trust component could be served.
Surely it has occurred to most people that we ought to be able to vote online? Once we can do that, we can have a referendum every five minutes if we like. I didn’t say it was all good!
The scope here is eye watering. For a taster consider how much on line now depends on reputation. Uber drivers, AirBnB hosts and guests, credible restaurant reviews and so on. Then there is the control and monetisation of our identities on line. I can think of nothing more likely to disrupt Facebook and Google’s dominance than the application of this technology.
Anonymity vs Accountability:
This is a hot internet topic where the balance between, say, unaccountable trolls and the need to be able to blow the whistle on wrong doing makes the issue of anonymity intractable. That is, until you add a trust broker, who holds your acceptance of accountability in escrow so you can be anonymous when there is a need.
This is also impossibly clunky at present. As with banking, this will be an area of huge disruption to vested interest (banks, lawyers in particular) and a fast track to developing countries to gain access to the sort of systems (e.g. land registry, I could have told you it was dull) that create the sort of secure environment that accelerates commerce and growth. The sort of frameworks that took us hundreds of years to build could easily be set up and scaled in a generation for the rest of the developing world.
I could go on at much greater length. Like I say, this changes EVERYTHING, it changes it EVERYWHERE and it will do so for EVERYONE.
There will doubtless be down sides. The most obvious is the wholesale destruction of very many very high value jobs and the further concentration of power and wealth around those who own the Blockchains. Some of the implications for the Internet of Things are too mind bending to explore here until I have thought a bit more.
The Economist article is here, you should be able to read it without a subscription as long as you haven’t read too many already this week. There are oodles of others.
There are issues in scaling Blockchain. I’m expecting some innovations and doubtless a few compromises will be needed to make it work.
The implications are truly staggering. Let’s a have a look in 20-30 years. Another blink of an eye.
What do you think?