Monday, August 31, 2015

The blockchain and civil society

(Photo; BTC Keychain)

A lot of the excitement about the blockchain - the distributed ledger technology that undergirds currencies such as bitcoin - has to do with the potential of distributed authority and record keeping. Super enthusiasts think it could do away with traditional regulatory practices and intermediaries.

I think the pendulum of history will show that such a tech-dependent, unmonitored future is not without real challenges and won't come to pass. By now we ought to accept that algorithms alone don't provide due process, recourse and redress procedures, or protection against discrimination.

That said, why don't we investigate uses of the blockchain that aren't designed to disrupt but to complement (heresy, I know).

As algorithms and data become core resources for public policy, and as shared social goods and research on people increasingly depends on either deliberately or de facto black box decision making, there's a lot of interest in expanding Institutional Review Boards out from the halls of scientific research and academia into the community. This has potential and problems. Another idea is to use external ethics panels. This, too, has pluses and minuses.

The technology is said to facilitate private transactions, recorded in a public way that can't be (hyperbole alert!) be altered.

Here are some ideas for how it might be useful in  civil society:
  • Maybe there's a use for it as a record of consent along the data chain? 
  • Or as a "mutual monitoring and accountability" tool between those doing the research and those being researched? 
  • Maybe it would be useful to activists trying to track legislation? 
  • Or for community collaborators trying to track contributions and progress on shared goals?
  • For direct donations between giver and recipient?

Got more ideas? Please add them. MIT has launched a new Digital Currency Initiative - a great opportunity to be part of their research agenda.

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