Tag: blockchain

Higher Education and blockchain

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the most useful applications of blockchain technologies are incredibly boring. That goes in education, too.

This post by Chris Fellingham considers blockchain in the context of Higher Education, and in particular credentialing:

The short pitch is that as jobs and education go digital, we need digital credentials for our education and those need to be trustworthy and automisable. Decentralised trust systems may well be the future but I don’t see that it solves a core problem. Namely that the main premium market for Higher Education Edtech is geared twards graduates in developed countries and that market — does not have a problem of trust in its credentials — it has a problem of credibility in its courses. People don’t know what it means to have done a MOOC/Specialization/MicroMasters in X which undermines the market system for it. Shoring up the credential is a second order problem to proving the intrinsic value of the course itself.

“Decentralised trust systems” is what blockchain aficionados refer to, but what they actually mean is removing trust from the equation. So, in hiring decisions, for example, trust is removed from the equation in favour of cryptographic proof.

Fellingham mentions someone called ‘Smolenski’ who, after a little bit of digging, must be Natalie Smolenski, who works for Learning Machine. That organisation is a driving force, with MIT, behind the Blockcerts standard for blockchain-based digital credentialing.

Smolenski however, is a believer, and in numerous elegant essays has argued blockchain is the latest paradigm shift in trust-based technologies. The thesis puts trust based technologies as a central driver of human development. Kinship was the first ‘trust technology’, followed by language and cultural development. Things really got going with organised religion which was the early modern driver — enabling proto-legal systems and financial systems to emerge. Total strangers could now conduct economic transactions by putting their trust in local laws (a mutually understand system for transactions) in the knowledge that it would be enforced by a trusted third party — the state. Out of this emerged market economies and currencies.

Like Fellingham, I’m not particularly enamoured with this teleological ‘grand narrative’ approach to history, of which blockchain believers do tend to be overly-fond. I’m pretty sure that human history hasn’t been ‘building’ in any way towards anything, particularly something that involves less trust between human beings.

Blockchain at this moment is a kind of religion. It’s based on a hope of things to come:

Blockchain — be it in credential or currency form …could well be a major — if not paradigmatic technology — but it has its own logic and fundamentally suits those who use it best — much as social networks turned out to be fertile grounds for fake news. For that reason alone, we should be far more cautious about a shift to blockchain in Higher Education — lest like fake news — it takes an imperfect system and makes it worse.

Indeed. Who on earth would want wants to hard code the way things are right now in Higher Education? If your answer is ‘blockchain-based credentials’, then I’m not sure you really understand what the question is.

Source: Chris Fellingham (via Stephen Downes)

Blockchain was just a stepping stone

I’m reading Adam Greenfield’s excellent book Radical Technologies: the design of everyday life at the moment. He says:

And for those of us who are motivated by commitment to a specifically participatory politics of the commons, it’s not at all clear that any blockchain-based infrastructure can support the kind of flexible assemblies we imagine. I myself come from an intellectual tradition that insists that any appearance of the word “potential” needs to be greeted with skepticism. There is no such thing as potential, in this view: there are merely states of a system that have historically been enacted, and those that have not yet been enacted. The only way to assess whether a system is capable of assuming a given state is to do the work of enacting it.
 

Back in 2015, I wrote about the potential of badges and blockchain. However, these days I’m more likely to agree that’s it’s a futuristic integrity wand.

The problem with blockchain technologies is that they tend to all get lumped together as if they’re one thing. For example, some use blockchain technologies to prop-up neoliberalism, whereas others are seeking to use it to destroy it.

As part of my research for a presentation I gave in Barcelona last year about decentralised technologies, I came across MaidSafe (“the world’s first autonomous data network”). I admit to be on the edges of my understanding here, but the idea is that the SAFE network can safely store data in an autonomous, decentralised way.

Last week, MaidSafe announced a new protocol called PARSEC (Protocol for Asynchronous, Reliable, Secure and Efficient Consensus). It solves the Byzantine General’s problem without recourse to the existing blockchain approach.

PARSEC solves a well-known problem in decentralised, distributed computer networks: how can individual computers (nodes) in a system reliably communicate truths (in other words, events that have taken place on the network) to each other where a proportion of the nodes are malicious (Byzantine) and looking to disrupt the system. Or to put it another way: how can a group of computers agree on which transactions have correctly taken place and in which order?

This protocol is GPL v3 licensed, meaning that it is “free for anyone to build upon and likely prove to be of immense value to other decentralised projects facing similar challenges”. The Bitcoin blockchain network is S-L-O-W and is getting slower. It’s also steadily pushing up the computing power required to achieve consensus across the network, meaning that a huge amount of electricity is being used worldwide. This is bad for our planet.

If you’re building a secure, autonomous, decentralised data and communications network for the world like we are with the SAFE Network, then the limitations of blockchain technology when it comes to throughput (transactions-per-second), ever-increasing storage challenges and lack of encryption are all insurmountable problems for any system that seeks to build a project of this magnitude.

[…]

So despite being big fans of blockchain technology for many reasons here at MaidSafe, the reality is that the data and communications networks of the future will see millions or even billions of transactions per second taking place. No matter which type of blockchain implementation you take — tweaking the quantity and distribution of nodes across the network or how many people are in control of these across a variety of locations — at the end of the day, the blockchain itself remains, by definition, a single centralised record. And for the use cases that we’re working on, blockchain technology comes with limitations of transactions-per-second that simply makes that sort of centralisation unworkable.

I confess to not having watched the hour-long YouTube video embedded in the post but, if PARSEC works, it’s another step towards a post-nation state world — for better or worse.

Source: MaidSafe blog

Blockchain as a ‘futuristic integrity wand’

I’ve no doubt that blockchain technology is useful for super-boring scenarios and underpinning get-rich-quick schemes, but it has very little value to the scenarios in which I work. I’m trying to build trust, not work in an environment where technology serves as a workaround.

This post by Kai Stinchcombe about the blockchain bubble is a fantastic read. The author’s summary?

Blockchain is not only crappy technology but a bad vision for the future. Its failure to achieve adoption to date is because systems built on trust, norms, and institutions inherently function better than the type of no-need-for-trusted-parties systems blockchain envisions. That’s permanent: no matter how much blockchain improves it is still headed in the wrong direction.

Fair enough, let’s dig in…

People have made a number of implausible claims about the future of blockchain—like that you should use it for AI in place of the type of behavior-tracking that google and facebook do, for example. This is based on a misunderstanding of what a blockchain is. A blockchain isn’t an ethereal thing out there in the universe that you can “put” things into, it’s a specific data structure: a linear transaction log, typically replicated by computers whose owners (called miners) are rewarded for logging new transactions.

It’s funny seeing people who have close to zero understanding of how blockchain works explain how it’s going to ‘revolutionise’ X, Y, or Z. Again, it’s got exciting applicability… for very boring stuff.

[H]ere’s what blockchain-the-technology is: “Let’s create a very long sequence of small files — each one containing a hash of the previous file, some new data, and the answer to a difficult math problem — and divide up some money every hour among anyone willing to certify and store those files for us on their computers.”

Now, here’s what blockchain-the-metaphor is: “What if everyone keeps their records in a tamper-proof repository not owned by anyone?”

This is the bit that really grabbed me about the post, the blockchain-as-metaphor section. People are sold on stories, not on technologies. Which is why some people are telling stories that involve magicking away all of their fears and problems with a magic blockchain wand.

People treat blockchain as a “futuristic integrity wand”—wave a blockchain at the problem, and suddenly your data will be valid. For almost anything people want to be valid, blockchain has been proposed as a solution.

It’s true that tampering with data stored on a blockchain is hard, but it’s false that blockchain is a good way to create data that has integrity.

[…]

Blockchain systems do not magically make the data in them accurate or the people entering the data trustworthy, they merely enable you to audit whether it has been tampered with. A person who sprayed pesticides on a mango can still enter onto a blockchain system that the mangoes were organic. A corrupt government can create a blockchain system to count the votes and just allocate an extra million addresses to their cronies. An investment fund whose charter is written in software can still misallocate funds.

When, like me, you think that humanity moves forward at the speed of trust and collaboration, blockchain seems like the antithesis of all that.

Projects based on the elimination of trust have failed to capture customers’ interest because trust is actually so damn valuable. A lawless and mistrustful world where self-interest is the only principle and paranoia is the only source of safety is a not a paradise but a crypto-medieval hellhole.

Source: Kai Stinchcombe

Blockcerts mobile

I still don’t really see the need for blockchain-based credentials (particularly given the tension between GDPR and immutability) but this is good to see:

Learning Machine is proud to introduce the new Blockcerts Wallet mobile app (iOS/Android) for people to easily receive, store, and share their official records. These might include electronic IDs, academic records, workforce training, or even civic records.

Blockcerts are compatible with the Open Badges specification. What I do like about Blockcerts is the idea of ‘Self-Sovereign Identity’ (which I actually think you can do without blockchain):

Blockcerts is the open standard for how to create, anchor, and verify records using any blockchain in a format that is recipient owned and that has no ongoing dependency upon any vendor or issuer. This is what we mean by Self-Sovereign Identity, the ability for people to control their own identity records without paying rent to central authorities for transmission or verification. Instead, people can receive their records once, then share them online or directly with third parties like employers whenever needed. Even if vendors or institutions cease to exist, people never lose the ability to use their official records and prove their identity.

Just as it makes sense for Facebook to try and get everyone to use it as their only social network, it totally makes sense for a startup like Learning Machine to be focusing on the Blockcerts Wallet being the single place for people to store their official records.

The Blockcerts Wallet is positioned to be a lifelong portfolio of official records, a personal repository from across disparate institutions in one convenient location. This means that individuals can become their own lifelong registrar of learning and achievement. So, it’s critical that the Wallet remain free and friendly to use, with plenty of accommodation for people who may lose or transition devices.

The good thing, of course, is that Blockcerts is an open standard. So anyone can build a wallet.

Source: Learning Machine blog

GDPR, blockchain, and privacy

I’m taking an online course about the impending General Data Protection Regulatin (GDPR), which I’ve writing about on my personal blog. An article in WIRED talks about the potential it will have, along with technologies such as blockchain.

People have talked about everyone having ‘private data accounts’ which they then choose to hook up to service providers for years. GDPR might just force that to happen:

A new generation of apps and websites will arise that use private-data accounts instead of conventional user accounts. Internet applications in 2018 will attach themselves to these, gaining access to a smart data account rich with privately held contextual information such as stress levels (combining sleep patterns, for example, with how busy a user’s calendar is) or motivation to exercise comparing historical exercise patterns to infer about the day ahead). All of this will be possible without the burden on the app supplier of undue sensitive data liability or any violation of consumers’ personal rights.

As the article points out, when we know what’s going to happen with our data, we’re probably more likely to share it. For example, I’m much more likely to invest in voice-assisted technologies once GDPR hits in May:

Paradoxically, the internet will become more private at a moment when we individuals begin to exchange more data. We will then wield a collective economic power that could make 2018 the year we rebalance the digital economy.

This will have a huge effect on our everyday information landscape:

The more we share data on our terms, the more the internet will evolve to emulate the physical domain where private spaces, commercial spaces and community spaces can exist separately, but side by side. Indeed, private-data accounts may be the first step towards the internet as a civil society, paving the way for a governing system where digital citizens, in the form of their private micro-server data account, do not merely have to depend on legislation to champion their private rights, but also have the economic power to enforce them as well.

I have to say, the more I discover about the provisions of GDPR, the more excited and optimistic I am about the future.

Source: WIRED

No cash, no freedom?

The ‘cashless’ society, eh?

Every time someone talks about getting rid of cash, they are talking about getting rid of your freedom. Every time they actually limit cash, they are limiting your freedom. It does not matter if the people doing it are wonderful Scandinavians or Hindu supremacist Indians, they are people who want to know and control what you do to an unprecedentedly fine-grained scale.

Yep, just because someone cool is doing it doesn’t mean it won’t have bad consequences. In the rush to add technology to things, we create future dystopias.

Cash isn’t completely anonymous. There’s a reason why old fashioned crooks with huge cash flows had to money-launder: Governments are actually pretty good at saying, “Where’d you get that from?” and getting an explanation. Still, it offers freedom, and the poorer you are, the more freedom it offers. It also is very hard to track specifically, i.e., who made what purchase.

Blockchains won’t be untaxable. The ones which truly are unbreakable will be made illegal; the ones that remain, well, it’s a ledger with every transaction on it, for goodness sakes.

It’s this bit that concerns me:

We are creating a society where even much of what you say, will be knowable and indeed, may eventually be tracked and stored permanently.

If you do not understand why this is not just bad, but terrible, I cannot explain it to you. You have some sort of mental impairment of imagination and ethics.

Source: Ian Welsh

Decentralisation 2.0

What this article calls ‘Decentralisation 2.0’ is actually redecentralising the web. There’s an urgent need:

A huge percentage of today’s communications flows through channels owned by a few entities, which in turn do all they can to influence these communications. Google alone comprises 25 percent of all US internet traffic right now, and has access to millions upon millions of users’ personal information. Where the internet was once seen as a tool for more societal freedom, it has come to represent the opposite.

The author takes aim at the so-called ‘sharing economy’ which, sonewhat paradoxically, actually entrenches centralisation, as companies like Airbnb and Uber exercise a lot of control over their platforms:

Counterintuitively, this is only possible because of a high degree of centralization: the company owns the identity of its participants, the transportation logistics, the payment mechanisms, the pricing, and the rules that govern the marketplace

The author has experience of bottom-up activism in Russia, usurping dominant players promoting unfair practices. I like his optimism about blockchain-based technologies. I don’t necessarily share it, but we can hope:

True decentralization is fast approaching. Before long, we will see it in public administration, finance, real estate, insurance, transportation, and other key areas — often enabled by the blockchain technology. Its purpose is not to destroy centralized systems, but to create extra relationships on top of them. While maintaining the advantages of conventional platforms, decentralization 2.0 will reduce people’s dependence on mediators.

Source: The Next Web