Tag: blockchain (page 1 of 2)

Friday fermentations

I boiled the internet and this was what remained:

  • I Quit Social Media for a Year and Nothing Magical Happened (Josh C. Simmons) — “A lot of social media related aspects of my life are different now – I’m not sure they’re better, they’re just different, but I can confidently say that I prefer this normal to last year’s. There’s a bit of rain with all of the sunshine. I don’t see myself ever going back to social media. I don’t see the point of it, and after leaving for a while, and getting a good outside look, it seems like an abusive relationship – millions of workers generating data for tech-giants to crunch through and make money off of. I think that we tend to forget how we were getting along pretty well before social media – not everything was idyllic and better, but it was fine.”
  • Face recognition, bad people and bad data (Benedict Evans) — “My favourite example of what can go wrong here comes from a project for recognising cancer in photos of skin. The obvious problem is that you might not have an appropriate distribution of samples of skin in different tones. But another problem that can arise is that dermatologists tend to put rulers in the photo of cancer, for scale – so if all the examples of ‘cancer’ have a ruler and all the examples of ‘not-cancer’ do not, that might be a lot more statistically prominent than those small blemishes. You inadvertently built a ruler-recogniser instead of a cancer-recogniser.”
  • Would the Internet Be Healthier Without ‘Like’ Counts? (WIRED) ⁠— “Online, value is quantifiable. The worth of a person, idea, movement, meme, or tweet is often based on a tally of actions: likes, retweets, shares, followers, views, replies, claps, and swipes-up, among others. Each is an individual action. Together, though, they take on outsized meaning. A YouTube video with 100,000 views seems more valuable than one with 10, even though views—like nearly every form of online engagement—can be easily bought. It’s a paradoxical love affair. And it’s far from an accident.”
  • Are Platforms Commons? (On The Horizon) — “[W]hat if ecosystems were constructed so that they were governed by the participants, rather by the hypercapitalist strivings of the platform owners — such as Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook — or the heavy-handed regulators? Is there a middle ground where the needs of the end user and those building, marketing, and shipping products and services can be balanced, and a fair share of the profits are distributed not just through common carrier laws but by the shared economics of a commons, and where the platform orchestrator gets a fair share, as well?”
  • Depression and anxiety threatened to kill my career. So I came clean about it (The Guardian) — “To my surprise, far from rejecting me, students stayed after class to tell me how sorry they were. They left condolence cards in my mailbox and sent emails to let me know they were praying for my family. They stopped by my office to check on me. Up to that point, I’d been so caught up in my despair that it never occurred to me that I might be worthy of concern and support. Being accepted despite my flaws touched me in ways that are hard to express.”
  • Absolute scale corrupts absolutely (apenwarr) — “Here’s what we’ve lost sight of, in a world where everything is Internet scale: most interactions should not be Internet scale. Most instances of most programs should be restricted to a small set of obviously trusted people. All those people, in all those foreign countries, should not be invited to read Equifax’s PII database in Argentina, no matter how stupid the password was. They shouldn’t even be able to connect to the database. They shouldn’t be able to see that it exists. It shouldn’t, in short, be on the Internet.”
  • The Automation Charade (Logic magazine) — “The problem is that the emphasis on technological factors alone, as though “disruptive innovation” comes from nowhere or is as natural as a cool breeze, casts an air of blameless inevitability over something that has deep roots in class conflict. The phrase “robots are taking our jobs” gives technology agency it doesn’t (yet?) possess, whereas “capitalists are making targeted investments in robots designed to weaken and replace human workers so they can get even richer” is less catchy but more accurate.”
  • The ambitious plan to reinvent how websites get their names (MIT Technology Review) — “The system would be based on blockchain technology, meaning it would be software that runs on a widely distributed network of computers. In theory, it would have no single point of failure and depend on no human-run organization that could be corrupted or co-opted.”
  • O whatever God or whatever ancestor that wins in the next life (The Main Event) — “And it begins to dawn on you that the stories were all myths and the epics were all narrated by the villains and the history books were written to rewrite the histories and that so much of what you thought defined excellence merely concealed grift.”
  • A Famous Argument Against Free Will Has Been Debunked (The Atlantic) — “In other words, people’s subjective experience of a decision—what Libet’s study seemed to suggest was just an illusion—appeared to match the actual moment their brains showed them making a decision.”

Friday feudalism

Check out these things I discovered this week, and wanted to pass along:

  • Study shows some political beliefs are just historical accidents (Ars Technica) — “Obviously, these experiments aren’t exactly like the real world, where political leaders can try to steer their parties. Still, it’s another way to show that some political beliefs aren’t inviolable principles—some are likely just the result of a historical accident reinforced by a potent form of tribal peer pressure. And in the early days of an issue, people are particularly susceptible to tribal cues as they form an opinion.”
  • Please, My Digital Archive. It’s Very Sick. (Lapham’s Quarterly) — “An archivist’s dream is immaculate preservation, documentation, accessibility, the chance for our shared history to speak to us once more in the present. But if the preservation of digital documents remains an unsolvable puzzle, ornery in ways that print materials often aren’t, what good will our archiving do should it become impossible to inhabit the world we attempt to preserve?”
  • So You’re 35 and All Your Friends Have Already Shed Their Human Skins (McSweeney’s) — “It’s a myth that once you hit 40 you can’t slowly and agonizingly mutate from a human being into a hideous, infernal arachnid whose gluttonous shrieks are hymns to the mad vampire-goddess Maggorthulax. You have time. There’s no biological clock ticking. The parasitic worms inside you exist outside of our space-time continuum.”
  • Investing in Your Ordinary Powers (Breaking Smart) — “The industrial world is set up to both encourage and coerce you to discover, as early as possible, what makes you special, double down on it, and build a distinguishable identity around it. Your specialness-based identity is in some ways your Industrial True Name. It is how the world picks you out from the crowd.”
  • Browser Fingerprinting: An Introduction and the Challenges Ahead (The Tor Project) — “This technique is so rooted in mechanisms that exist since the beginning of the web that it is very complex to get rid of it. It is one thing to remove differences between users as much as possible. It is a completely different one to remove device-specific information altogether.”
  • What is a Blockchain Phone? The HTC Exodus explained (giffgaff) — “HTC believes that in the future, your phone could hold your passport, driving license, wallet, and other important documents. It will only be unlockable by you which makes it more secure than paper documents.”
  • Debate rages in Austria over enshrining use of cash in the constitution (EURACTIV) — “Academic and author Erich Kirchler, a specialist in economic psychology, says in Austria and Germany, citizens are aware of the dangers of an overmighty state from their World War II experience.”
  • Cory Doctorow: DRM Broke Its Promise (Locus magazine) — “We gave up on owning things – property now being the exclusive purview of transhuman immortal colony organisms called corporations – and we were promised flexibility and bargains. We got price-gouging and brittle­ness.”
  • Five Books That Changed Me In One Summer (Warren Ellis) — “I must have been around 14. Rayleigh Library and the Oxfam shop a few doors down the high street from it, which someone was clearly using to pay things forward and warp younger minds.”

The world is all variation and dissimilarity

Another quotation-as-title from Michel de Montaigne. I’m using it today, as I want to write a composite post based on a tweet I put out yesterday where I simply asked What shall I write about?

Note: today’s update is a little different as it’s immediately available on the open web, instead of being limited to supporters for seven days. It’s an experiment!

Here’s some responses I got to my question:

  1. Tips for aspiring Mountain Leaders (@CraigTaylor74)
  2. Decentralised learning (@plaao)
  3. Slippers and sandals (@boyledsweetie)
  4. Carbon footprint of blockchain-based credentials (@ConcentricSky)
  5. How educators can promote their good practices without looking like they’re bragging (@pullel)
  6. Why the last episode of Game of Thrones was so very bad (@MikeySwales)

Never let it be said that I don’t give the people what they want! Five short sections, based on the serious (and not-so-serious) answers I go from my Twitter followers.

1. Tips for aspiring Mountain Leaders

Well, I’m not even on the course yet (two more Quality Mountain Days to go!) but some tips I’d pass on are:

  • Be flexible with your planned route, especially in respect to the weather
  • Don’t buy super-expensive gear until you actually need it
  • Write down your learning experiences the same day as you experience them
  • Go walking with different people (although not with anyone who’s got their ML, if you want it to count towards your QMDs!)
  • Do buy walking poles and gaiters, even if you feel a prat using them

…and, of course, subscribe to The Bushcraft Padawan!

2. Decentralised learning

Decentralisation is an interesting concept, mainly because it’s such an abstract concept for people to grasp. Usually, when people talk about decentralisation, they’re either talking about politics or technology. Both, ultimately, are to do with power.

When it comes to learning, therefore, decentralised learning is all about empowering learners, which is often precisely the opposite of what we do in schools. We centralise instruction, and subject young people (and their teachers) to bells that control their time.

To my mind, decentralised learning is any attempt to empower learners to be more independent. That might involve them co-creating the curriculum, it might have something to do with the way we credential and/or recognise their learning. The important thing is that learning isn’t something that’s done to them.

3. Slippers and sandals

I’m wearing slippers right now, as I do when I’m in the house or working in my home office. I don’t think you can go past Totes Isotoner, to be honest. Comfy!

Given I live in the North East of England, my opportunities to wear sandals are restricted to holidays and a few days in summer. I had a fantastic pair of Timberland sandals back in the day, but my wife finally threw them away because they were too smelly. I’m making do now with some other ones I found in the sale on Amazon, but they’re actually slightly too big for me, which is annoying.

4. Carbon footprint of blockchain-based credentials

I’ll start with the Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index, which gives us a couple of great charts to show the scale of the problem of using blockchains based on a proof-of-work algorithm:

That’s right, the whole of the Czech Republic could be powered by the amount of energy required to run the Bitcoin network.

As you can see from the second chart, Bitcoin is a massive waste of energy versus our existing methods of payment. But what about other blockchain-based technologies, like Ethereum?

They’ve had the same problem, until recently, as Peter Fairley explains for IEEE Spectrum:

Like most cryptocurrencies, Ethereum relies on a computational competition called proof of work (PoW) . In PoW, all participants race to cryptographically secure transactions and add them to the blockchain’s globally distributed ledger. It’s a winner-takes-all contest, rewarded with newly minted cryptocoins. So the more computational firepower you have, the better your chances to profit.

[…]

Ethereum’s plan is to replace PoW with proof of stake (PoS)—an alternative mechanism for distributed consensus that was first applied to a cryptocurrency with the launch of Peercoin in 2012. Instead of millions of processors simultaneously processing the same transactions, PoS randomly picks one to do the job.

In PoS, the participants are called validators instead of miners, and the key is keeping them honest. PoS does this by requiring each validator to put up a stake—a pile of ether in Ethereum’s case—as collateral. A bigger stake earns a validator proportionately more chances at a turn, but it also means that a validator caught cheating has lots to lose.

Peter Fairley

Which brings us back to credentials. As I’ve said many times before, if you trust online banking and online shopping, then the Open Badges standard is secure enough for you. However, I can still see a use case for blockchain-based credentials, and wouldn’t necessarily rule them out — especially if they’re based on a PoS approach.

5. How educators can promote their good practices without looking like they’re bragging

This is really contextual. What counts as ‘bragging’ in one culture and within one community won’t be counted as such in another. It also depends on personality too, I guess ⁠— something we don’t really talk about as educators (other than through the lens of ‘character’).

The only advice I can give is to do these three things:

  1. Keep showing up in the same spaces every day/week so that people know where to find you (online/offline)
  2. Share your work without caring about recognition
  3. Point to other people and both recognise and celebrate their contributions

Remember, the point is to make the world a better place, not to care who gets credit for making it better!

6. Why the last episode of Game of Thrones was so very bad

I’ve never even seen part of one episode, so perhaps this can help?


Do you have any questions for me to answer next time I do this?

The habit of sardonic contemplation is the hardest habit of all to break

Angela Carter with the story of my life there. I can’t help but be skeptical about ‘Libra‘, Facebook’s new crytocurrency project. I’m skeptical about almost all cryptocurrencies, to be honest.

The website is marketing. It’s all about ’empowering’ the ‘unbanked’ worldwide. However, let’s dive into the white paper:

Members of the Libra Association will consist of geographically distributed and diverse businesses, nonprofit and multilateral organizations, and academic institutions. The initial group of organizations that will work together on finalizing the association’s charter and become “Founding Members” upon its completion are, by industry:

  • Payments: Mastercard, PayPal, PayU (Naspers’ fintech arm), Stripe, Visa
  • Technology and marketplaces: Booking Holdings, eBay, Facebook/Calibra, Farfetch, Lyft, MercadoPago, Spotify AB, Uber Technologies, Inc.
  • Telecommunications: Iliad, Vodafone Group
    Blockchain: Anchorage, Bison Trails, Coinbase, Inc., Xapo Holdings Limited
  • Venture Capital: Andreessen Horowitz, Breakthrough Initiatives, Ribbit Capital, Thrive Capital, UnionSquare Ventures
  • Nonprofit and multilateral organizations, and academic institutions: Creative Destruction Lab, Kiva,Mercy Corps, Women’s World Banking

We hope to have approximately 100 members of the Libra Association by the target launch in the first half of 2020.

So, all the usual suspects. How will Facebook ensure that we don’t see the crazy price volatility we’ve seen with other cryptocurrencies?

Libra is designed to be a stable digital cryptocurrency that will be fully backed by a reserve of real assets — the Libra Reserve — and supported by a competitive network of exchanges buying and selling Libra. That means anyone with Libra has a high degree of assurance they can convert their digital currency into local fiat currency based on an exchange rate, just like exchanging one currency for another when traveling. This approach is similar to how other currencies were introduced in the past: to help instill trust in a new currency and gain widespread adoption during its infancy, it was guaranteed that a country’s notes could be traded in for real assets, such as gold. Instead of backing Libra with gold, though, it will be backed by a collection of low-volatility assets, such as bank deposits and short-term government securities in currencies from stable and reputable central banks.

So it sounds like all of the value is being extracted by founding members. Now let’s move onto the technology. Any surprises there? Nope.

Blockchains are described as either permissioned or permissionless in relation to the ability to participate as a validator node. In a “permissioned blockchain,” access is granted to run a validator node. In a “permissionless blockchain,” anyone who meets the technical requirements can run a validator node. In that sense, Libra will start as a permissioned blockchain.

This is as conservative as they come, which is exactly what your strategy would be if you’re trying to transfer the entire monetary system to one that you control. People often joke about Facebook as ‘social infrastructure’, but this is a level beyond. This is Facebook as financial infrastructure.

Given both current and potential future regulatory oversight, Facebook are very careful to distance themselves from Libra. In fact, the website proudly states that, “The Libra Association is an independent, not-for-profit membership organization, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.”

To be fair,Josh Constine, writing for TechCrunch, notes that Facebook only gets one vote as a founding member of the Libra Association. It does actually look like they’re in it for the long-haul:

In cryptocurrencies, Facebook saw both a threat and an opportunity. They held the promise of disrupting how things are bought and sold by eliminating transaction fees common with credit cards. That comes dangerously close to Facebook’s ad business that influences what is bought and sold. If a competitor like Google or an upstart built a popular coin and could monitor the transactions, they’d learn what people buy and could muscle in on the billions spent on Facebook marketing. Meanwhile, the 1.7 billion people who lack a bank account might choose whoever offers them a financial services alternative as their online identity provider too. That’s another thing Facebook wants to be.

John Constine

Whereas before there’s always been social pressure to have a Facebook account, now there could be pressures that span identity and economic necessities, too.

Some good commentary on the hurdles ahead comes from Kari Paul for The Guardian, who writes:

The company claims it will not attempt to bypass existing regulation but instead “innovate” on regulatory fronts. Libra will use the same verification and anti-fraud processes that banks and credit cards use and will implement automated systems to detect fraud, Facebook said in its launch. It also promised to give refunds to any users who are hacked or have Libra stolen from their digital wallets.

Kari Paul

Would this be the same kind of ‘innovation’ that Uber uses to muscle its way into cities without a license? Or to muscle its way into cities without a license? Perhaps it’s the shady business practices beloved of PayPal? Both companies are founding members, after all!

Right now, developers can get access to a ‘test network’ for Libra. The system itself won’t be running until the end of 2020, so there’s a lot speculation. Here’s some sources I found useful, but you’ll need to make up your own mind. Is this a good thing?

There’s no viagra for enlightenment

This quotation from the enigmatic Russell Brand seemed appropriate for the subject of today’s article: the impact of so-called ‘deepfakes’ on everything from porn to politics.

First, what exactly are ‘deepfakes’? Mark Wilson explains in an article for Fast Company:

In early 2018, [an anonymous Reddit user named Deepfakes] uploaded a machine learning model that could swap one person’s face for another face in any video. Within weeks, low-fi celebrity-swapped porn ran rampant across the web. Reddit soon banned Deepfakes, but the technology had already taken root across the web–and sometimes the quality was more convincing. Everyday people showed that they could do a better job adding Princess Leia’s face to The Force Awakens than the Hollywood special effects studio Industrial Light and Magic did. Deepfakes had suddenly made it possible for anyone to master complex machine learning; you just needed the time to collect enough photographs of a person to train the model. You dragged these images into a folder, and the tool handled the convincing forgery from there.

Mark Wilson

As you’d expect, deepfakes bring up huge ethical issues, as Jessica Lindsay reports for Metro. It’s a classic case of our laws not being able to keep up with what’s technologically possible:

With the advent of deepfake porn, the possibilities have expanded even further, with people who have never starred in adult films looking as though they’re doing sexual acts on camera.

Experts have warned that these videos enable all sorts of bad things to happen, from paedophilia to fabricated revenge porn.

[…]

This can be done to make a fake speech to misrepresent a politician’s views, or to create porn videos featuring people who did not star in them.

Jessica Lindsay

It’s not just video, either, with Google’s AI now able to translate speech from one language to another and keep the same voice. Karen Hao embeds examples in an article for MIT Technology Review demonstrating where this is all headed.

The results aren’t perfect, but you can sort of hear how Google’s translator was able to retain the voice and tone of the original speaker. It can do this because it converts audio input directly to audio output without any intermediary steps. In contrast, traditional translational systems convert audio into text, translate the text, and then resynthesize the audio, losing the characteristics of the original voice along the way.

Karen Hao

The impact on democracy could be quite shocking, with the ability to create video and audio that feels real but is actually completely fake.

However, as Mike Caulfield notes, the technology doesn’t even have to be that sophisticated to create something that can be used in a political attack.

There’s a video going around that purportedly shows Nancy Pelosi drunk or unwell, answering a question about Trump in a slow and slurred way. It turns out that it is slowed down, and that the original video shows her quite engaged and articulate.

[…]

In musical production there is a technique called double-tracking, and it’s not a perfect metaphor for what’s going on here but it’s instructive. In double tracking you record one part — a vocal or solo — and then you record that part again, with slight variations in timing and tone. Because the two tracks are close, they are perceived as a single track. Because they are different though, the track is “widened” feeling deeper, richer. The trick is for them to be different enough that it widens the track but similar enough that they blend.

Mike Caulfield

This is where blockchain could actually be a useful technology. Caulfield often talks about the importance of ‘going back to the source’ — in other words, checking the provenance of what it is you’re reading, watching, or listening. There’s potential here for checking that something is actually the original document/video/audio.

Ultimately, however, people believe what they want to believe. If they want to believe Donald Trump is an idiot, they’ll read and share things showing him in a negative light. It doesn’t really matter if it’s true or not.


Also check out:

Blockchains: not so ‘unhackable’ after all?

As I wrote earlier this month, blockchain technology is not about trust, it’s about distrust. So we shouldn’t be surprised in such an environment that bad actors thrive.

Reporting on a blockchain-based currency (‘cryptocurrency’) hack, MIT Technology Review comment:

We shouldn’t be surprised. Blockchains are particularly attractive to thieves because fraudulent transactions can’t be reversed as they often can be in the traditional financial system. Besides that, we’ve long known that just as blockchains have unique security features, they have unique vulnerabilities. Marketing slogans and headlines that called the technology “unhackable” were dead wrong.

The more complicated something is, the more you have to trust technological wizards to verify something is true, then the more problems you’re storing up:

But the more complex a blockchain system is, the more ways there are to make mistakes while setting it up. Earlier this month, the company in charge of Zcash—a cryptocurrency that uses extremely complicated math to let users transact in private—revealed that it had secretly fixed a “subtle cryptographic flaw” accidentally baked into the protocol. An attacker could have exploited it to make unlimited counterfeit Zcash. Fortunately, no one seems to have actually done that.

It’s bad enough when people lose money through these kinds of hacks, but when we start talking about programmable blockchains (so-called ‘smart contracts’) then we’re in a whole different territory.

smart contract is a computer program that runs on a blockchain network. It can be used to automate the movement of cryptocurrency according to prescribed rules and conditions. This has many potential uses, such as facilitating real legal contracts or complicated financial transactions. Another use—the case of interest here—is to create a voting mechanism by which all the investors in a venture capital fund can collectively decide how to allocate the money.

Human culture is dynamic and ever-changing, it’s not something we should be hard-coding. And it’s certainly not something we should be hard-coding based on the very narrow worldview of those who understand the intricacies of blockchain technology.

It’s particularly delicious that it’s the MIT Technology Review commenting on all of this, given that they’ve been the motive force behind Blockcerts, “the open standard for blockchain credentials” (that nobody actually needs).

Source: MIT Technology Review

Dis-trust and blockchain technologies

Serge Ravet is a deep thinker, a great guy, and a tireless advocate of Open Badges. In the first of a series of posts on his Learning Futures blog he explains why, in his opinion, blockchain-based credentials “are the wrong solution to a false problem”.

I wouldn’t phrase things with Serge’s colourful metaphors and language inspired by his native France, but I share many of his sentiments about the utility of blockchain-based technologies. Stephen Downes commented that he didn’t like the tone of the post, with “the metaphors and imagery seem[ing] more appropriate to a junior year fraternity chat room that to a discussion of blockchain and academics”.

It’s not my job as a commentator to be the tone police, but rather to gather up the nuggets and share them with you:

My attention was recently attracted to an article describing blockchains as “distributed trust” which they are not, but makes a nice and closer to the truth acronym: dis-trust…

Blockchains are, in some circumstances, a great replacement for a centralised database. I find it difficult to get excited about that, as does Serge:

It is time for a copernican revolution, moving Blockchains from the centre of all designs to its periphery, as an accessory worth exploiting, or not. If there is a need for a database, the database doesn’t have to be distributed, if there are decisions to be made, they do not have to be left to an inflexible algorithm. On the other hand, if the design requires computer synchronisation, then blockchains might be one of the possible solutions, though not the only one.

One of the difficulties, of course, is that hype perpetuates hype. If you’re a vendor and your client (or potential client) asks you a question, you’d better be ready with a positive answer:

In the current strands for European funding, knowing that the European Union has decided to establish a “European blockchain infrastructure” in 2019, who will dare not to mention blockchains in their responses to the calls for tenders? And if you are a business and a client asks “when will you have a blockchain solution” what is the response most likely to get her attention: that’s not relevant to your problem or we have a blockchain solution that just matches your needs? How to resist the blockchain mania while providing clients and investors with something that sounds like what they want to hear?

It’s been four years since I first wrote about blockchain and badges. Since then, I co-founded a research project called BadgeChain, reflected on some of Serge’s earlier work about a ‘bit of trust‘, confirmed that BlockCerts and badges are friends, commented on why blockchain-based credentials are best used for high-stakes situations, written about blockchain and GDPR, called out blockchain as a futuristic integrity wand, agreed with Adam Greenfield that blockchain technologies are a stepping stone, reflected on the use of blockchain-based credentials in Higher Education, sighed about most examples of blockchain being bullshit, and explained that blockchain is about trust minimisation.

I think you can see where people like Serge and I stand on all this. It’s my considered opinion that blockchain would not have been seen as a ‘sexy’ technology if there wasn’t a huge cryptocurrency bubble attached to it.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you need to understand a technology before you add it to the ‘essential’ box for any given project. There are high-stakes use cases for blockchain-based credentials, but they’re few and far between.

Source: Learning Futures


Image adapted from one in the Public Domain

Blockchain is about trust minimisation

I’ve always laughed when people talk about ‘trust’ and blockchain. Sometimes I honestly question whether blockchain boosters live in the same world as I do; the ‘trust’ they keep on talking about is a feature of life as it currently is, not in a crypto-utopia.

Albert Wenger takes this up in an excellent recent post:

One way to tell that trust was involved in a relationship is when we discover that the person (or company, or technology) acted in a way that harmed us and benefited them. At that point we feel betrayed. This provides a useful distinction between the concepts of trust and reliance. We rely on a clock to tell time. When the clock breaks we will feel disappointed. But when we buy a clock from someone who tells us it is a working clock, we trust them and when it doesn’t work, we feel betrayed (thanks to philosopher Annette Baier for this distinction).

As I keep saying, blockchain is a really boring technology. It’s super-useful for backend systems, but that’s pretty much it. All of the glamour and excitement has come from speculators trying to inflate a bubble, as has happened many times before.

Now some people have been saying that crypto is exciting because it has “trust built in.” I, however, prefer a different formulation, which is that crypto systems are “trust minimized.”

Exactly. What blockchain is useful for is when you have reason to mistrust the person you’re dealing with. Instead of a complex network of trust based on blood ties, friendships, and alliances, we can now perform operations and transactions in a ‘trust minimised’ way.

We live in a world where large corporations (especially ones with scale or network effects) have often abused trust due to a misalignment of incentives driven by short-term oriented capital markets. There are different ways of tackling this problem, including new regulation, innovative forms of ownership and trust minimized crypto systems.

So let’s see blockchain for what it is: a breakthrough for international trading and compliance checking. I’m happy it exists but still, several years later, find it difficult to get too excited about. And I’ll bet you all of your now-worthless Bitcoin that governments around the world will ensure that crypto-utopias turn into crypto-distopias.

Source: Continuations

Blockchain bullshit

I’m sure blockchain technologies are going to revolutionise some sectors. But it’s not a consumer-facing solution; its applications are mainly back-office.

Of courses a lot of the hype around blockchain came through the link between it and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.

There’s a very real problem here, though. People with decision-making power read predictions by consultants and marketers. Then, without understanding what the tech really is or does, ensure it’s a requirement in rendering processes. This means that vendors either have to start offering that tech, or lie about the fact that they are able to do so.

We documented 43 blockchain use-cases through internet searches, most of which were described with glowing claims like “operational costs… reduced up to 90%,” or with the assurance of “accurate and secure data capture and storage.” We found a proliferation of press releases, white papers, and persuasively written articles. However, we found no documentation or evidence of the results blockchain was purported to have achieved in these claims. We also did not find lessons learned or practical insights, as are available for other technologies in development.

We fared no better when we reached out directly to several blockchain firms, via email, phone, and in person. Not one was willing to share data on program results, MERL processes, or adaptive management for potential scale-up. Despite all the hype about how blockchain will bring unheralded transparency to processes and operations in low-trust environments, the industry is itself opaque. From this, we determined the lack of evidence supporting value claims of blockchain in the international development space is a critical gap for potential adopters.

There’s a simple lesson here: if you don’t understand something, don’t say it’s going to change the world.

Source: MERL Tech (via The Register)

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)