Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The social sector and shiny objects (e.g. blockchains)

Like people in general, civil society organizations are easily distracted by shiny objects. Although I pinged blockchain as a buzzword a few years ago, the frenzied hype of last year's bitcoin boom and bust (probably manipulated) finally brought the idea through to general public.

There probably are good social sector uses of systems that permanently store information and make transactions verifiable by distributed participants. And there's lots of experimentation going on. My rule of thumb? Experiments with commodities on supply chains strike me as a safer place to start. Experiments with information about people strike me as disasters in the making.

Here's why:
  • The ethics of permanently storing information about people are treacherous, 
  • The legal frameworks for information about people are dynamic and diverse, 
  • The governance choices that shape different blockchains are poorly understood, and 
  • The technology itself? C'mon. Are we gonna fall for this again? "Trust me, this software is secure and safe." First of all, that's what the blockchain is - software + rules made by people.
When it comes to the blockchain there is no "one thing," there are many, and they operate under all kinds of rules. Blockchain = software + rules made by people. If you don't know how the software works, what it does and doesn't do, and if you don't understand the governing rules, don't go using the stuff on humans (my rule of thumb).  Blockchains promote encryption and permanence. It's scary how often people think they must be the right solution when the problem they're facing is bad database design, missing data, broken incentives, greedy partners, or oppressive governments.

We do need to be talking with experts from all sectors about if and when and how to use new types of software and governance structures. Software experts can explain what different systems can and can not do. Sector experts know the human and political problem and whether the challenge is one of security, verifiability, corruption, access or any permutation of these and other conditions. Governance experts know how rules get made, dodged, and broken and can advise on designing just systems that can be held accountable. The people who's data might be collected will know their concerns, now and in the next generations (remember, permanence means permanence).

Here are some useful resources from those doing good work on these questions:

Beeck Center, Georgetown University: The Blockchain Ethical Design Framework
Stanford Graduate School of Business: Blockchain for Social Impact: Beyond the Hype

And a funny, insightful video on digital economics, as told through the experience of cryptokitties (and the blockchain).

No comments: