Blockchain and the Limits of Trust

Last week I was privileged to be a guest on This Is Imminent, a new form of Web TV hosted by Simon Waller. The given topic was Blockchain and the Limitations of Trust.

For a replay of the Web TV event go here

As regular readers will know, I have been immersed in the world of Blockchain, cryptocurrency and digital assets for over four years – and while I am not a technologist, I think know enough to understand some of the potential impact and implications of Blockchain on distributed networks, decentralization, governance, disintermediation, digital disruption, programmable money, tokenization, and for the purposes of last week’s discussion, human trust.

The point of the discussion was to explore how Blockchain might provide a solution to the absence of trust we currently experience in many areas of our daily lives. Even better, how Blockchain could enhance or expand our existing trusted relationships, especially across remote networks. The complete event can be viewed here, but be warned that it’s not a technical discussion (and wasn’t intended to be), although Simon did find a very amusing video that tries to explain Blockchain with the aid of Spam (the luncheon meat, not the unwanted e-mail).

At a time when our trust in public institutions is being tested all the time, it’s more important than ever to understand the nature of trust (especially trust placed in any new technology), and to navigate how we establish, build and maintain trust in increasingly peer-to-peer, fractured, fragmented, open and remote networks.

To frame the conversation, I think it’s important to lay down a few guiding principles.

First, a network is only as strong as its weakest point of connection.

Second, there are three main components to maintaining the integrity of a “trusted” network:

  • how are network participants verified?
  • how secure is the network against malicious actors?
  • what are the penalties or sanctions for breaking that trust?

Third, “trust” in the context of networks is a proxy for “risk” – how much or how far are we willing to trust a network, and everyone connected to it?

For example, if you and I know each other personally and I trust you as a friend, colleague or acquaintance, does that mean I should automatically trust everyone else you know? (Probably not.) Equally, should I trust you just because you know all the same people as me? (Again, probably not.) Each relationship (or connection) in that type of network has to be evaluated on its own merits. Although we can do a certain amount of due diligence and triangulation, as each network becomes larger, it’s increasingly difficult for us to “know” each and every connection.

Let’s suppose that the verification process is set appropriately high, that the network is maintained securely, and that there are adequate sanctions for abusing the network trust –  then it is possible for each connection to “know” each other, because the network has created the minimum degree of trust for the network to be viable. Consequently, we might conclude that only trustworthy people would want to join a network based on trust where each transaction is observable and traceable (albeit in the case of Blockchain, pseudonymously).

When it comes to trust and risk assessment, it still amazes me the amount of personal (and private) information people are willing to share on social media platforms, just to get a “free” account. We seem to be very comfortable placing an inordinate amount of trust in these highly centralized services both to protect our data and to manage our relationships – which to me is something of an unfair bargain.

Statistically we know we are more likely to be killed in a car accident than in a plane crash – but we attach far more risk to flying than to driving. Whenever we take our vehicle out on to the road, we automatically assume that every other driver is licensed, insured, and competent to drive, and that their car is taxed and roadworthy. We cannot verify this information ourselves, so we have to trust in both the centralized systems (that regulate drivers, cars and roads), and in each and every individual driver – but we know there are so many weak points in that structure.

Blockchain has the ability to verify each and every participant and transaction on the network, enabling all users to trust in the security and reliability of network transactions. In addition, once verified, participants do not have to keep providing verification each time they want to access the network, because the network “knows” enough about each participant that it can create a mutual level of trust without everyone having to have direct knowledge of each other.

In the asymmetric relationships we have created with centralized platforms such as social media, we find ourselves in a very binary situation – once we have provided our e-mail address, date of birth, gender and whatever else is required, we cannot be confident that the platform “forgets” that information when it no longer needs it. It’s a case of “all or nothing” as the price of network entry. Whereas, if we operated under a system of self-sovereign digital identity (which technology like Blockchain can facilitate), then I can be sure that such platforms only have access to the specific personal data points that I am willing to share with them, for the specific purpose I determine, and only for as long as I decide.

Finally, taking control of, and being responsible for managing our own personal information (such as a private key for a digital wallet) is perhaps a step too far for some people. They might not feel they have enough confidence in their own ability to be trusted with this data, so they would rather delegate this responsibility to centralized systems.

Next week: Always Look On The Bright Side…


The Limits of Technology

As part of my home entertainment during lock-down, I have been enjoying a series of Web TV programmes called This Is Imminent hosted by Simon Waller, and whose broad theme asks “how are we learning to live with new technology?” – in short, the good, the bad and the ugly of AI, robotics, computers, productivity tools etc.

Niska robots are designed to serve ice cream…. image sourced from Weekend Notes

Despite the challenges of Zoom overload, choked internet capacity, and constant screen-time, the lock-down has shown how reliant we are upon tech for communications, e-commerce, streaming services and working from home. Without them, many of us would not have been able to cope with the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.

The value of Simon’s interactive webinars is two-fold – as the audience, we get to hear from experts in their respective fields, and gain exposure to new ideas; and we have the opportunity to explore ways in which technology impacts our own lives and experience – and in a totally non-judgmental way. What’s particularly interesting is the non-binary nature of the discussion. It’s not “this tech good, that tech bad”, nor is it about taking absolute positions – it thrives in the margins and in the grey areas, where we are uncertain, unsure, or just undecided.

In parallel with these programmes, I have been reading a number of novels that discuss different aspects of AI. These books seem to be both enamoured with, and in awe of, the potential of AI – William Gibson’s “Agency”, Ian McEwan’s “Machines Like Me”, and Jeanette Winterson’s “Frankissstein” – although they take quite different approaches to the pros and cons of the subject and the technology itself. (When added to my recent reading list of Jonathan Coe’s “Middle England” and John Lanchester’s “The Wall”, you can see what fun and games I’m having during lock-down….)

What this viewing and reading suggests to me is that we quickly run into the limitations of any new technology. Either it never delivers what it promises, or we become bored with it. We over-invest and place too much hope in it, then take it for granted (or worse, come to resent it). What the above novelists identify is our inability to trust ourselves when confronted with the opportunity for human advancement. Largely because the same leaps in technology also induce existential angst or challenge our very existence itself – not least because they are highly disruptive as well as innovative.

On the other hand, despite a general shift towards open source protocols and platforms, we still see age-old format wars whenever any new tech comes along. For example, this means most apps lack interoperability, tying us into rigid and vertically integrated ecosystems. The plethora of apps launched for mobile devices can mean premature obsolescence (built-in or otherwise), as developers can’t be bothered to maintain and upgrade them (or the app stores focus on the more popular products, and gradually weed out anything that doesn’t fit their distribution model or operating system). Worse, newer apps are not retrofitted to run on older platforms, or older software programs and content suffer digital decay and degradation. (Developers will also tell you about tech debt – the eventual higher costs of upgrading products that were built using “quick and cheap” short-term solutions, rather than taking a longer-term perspective.)

Consequently, new technology tends to over-engineer a solution, or create niche, hard-coded products (robots serving ice cream?). In the former, it can make existing tasks even harder; in the latter, it can create tech dead ends and generate waste. Rather than aiming for giant leaps forward within narrow applications, perhaps we need more modular and accretive solutions that are adaptable, interchangeable, easier to maintain, and cheaper to upgrade.

Next week: Distractions during Lock-down







My Four Years in Crypto

It’s four years since I began my career in Blockchain, crypto and digital assets. (I can’t claim to be an early adopter, although this blog first mentioned Bitcoin in 2013.) My knowledge on the topic was quite rudimentary at the time, and it was like jumping in at the deep end when I joined the small team at Brave New Coin. Apart from the 3 co-founders, there were 3 other core team members already on-board, so I was lucky 7.

My professional career has mainly been in law, publishing and financial services, plus a range of consulting, contract and freelance roles across various sectors. My point of entry into crypto was my experience with Standard & Poor’s and Thomson Reuters in market data, indices, analytics, content, research and portfolio tools – the basis of Brave New Coin’s business, and therefore an appropriate fit with my experience and skills set.

In the past four years, I have been privileged to witness at close hand the market exuberance of 2017 (fuelled by the ICO phenomenon and the incredible bull market), the regulatory backlash of 2018, the crypto winter of 2018-19, and the stop-start messages coming from regulators, markets, institutional investors, central banks and major corporations.

Getting to grips with some of the technical and other idiosyncrasies has been a steep learning curve – but I have tried to adopt a dual approach to expanding my own understanding. First, focus on the major components before getting to far into the weeds on any particular area of technical detail; second, create a personal framework of analogous concepts, and identify practical metaphors that you can also easily explain to others – self-education is critical to personal survival, but sharing knowledge is the path to wider adoption.

It’s also important to maintain an anchor based on your original point of entry – not only does that become a constant point of reference, it also enables you to build areas of personal expertise and domain knowledge. So, while many early proponents and adopters were drawn to crypto because of their underlying belief in Libertarianism, or their fascination with cryptography, or their distrust of centralised banking systems, my own points of reference continue to be around financial services (asset origination, tokenisation, digital wealth management), market data (indices, industry standards, benchmarks), regulations and analytics. While I am an advocate for Blockchain technology, I am not a hardcore technologist, but I realise that it will take time for issues such as scaling, interoperability and mass adoption to be fully resolved.

At the very least, a great deal of that market experience (especially driven by the decentralized, project-intensive and ICO-related activity of 2016-18) has demonstrated the following truths about Blockchain technolgy:

1. This is a new model of capital formation – just as companies no longer have a monopoly on human capital, banks and traditional intermediaries no longer have a monopoly on raising financial capital

2. This is a new means of asset creation, wealth distribution and market access – backed by Blockchain solutions, crypto is the first asset class that was retail first, in a distributed/decentralized bottom-up approach to issuance

3.This is a new platform for commerce – whether via tokenomics, network incentives, value transfer, smart contracts or programmed scarcity

4. This represents a paradigm shift in governance models – via the use of decentralized, autonomous, trustless, consensus and incentive-based operating structures and decision-making systems

5. This introduces new principles of distribution – assets are consumed closer to the source of value creation (fewer intermediaries and rent seekers)

6. But, it is not (and should never be) the solution for everything

Given what is happening at the moment around the COVID 19 pandemic, Blockchain, crypto and digital assets will prove to be perfect solutions to a number of problems such as: establishing the provenance of medicines; identity verification; managing supply chain logistics; enabling the distribution of assets; computing power for scientific modelling and testing; and providing alternatives to cash.

Next week: Social Distancing in Victorian Melbourne…


30 years in publishing

It’s 30 years since I began my career in publishing. I have worked for two major global brands, a number of niche publishers, and now I work for a start-up. For all of this time, I have worked in non-fiction – mostly professional (law, tax, accounting), business and financial subjects. I began as an editor in London, became a commissioning editor, launched a publishing business in Hong Kong, managed a portfolio of financial information services for the capital markets in Asia Pacific, and currently lead the global business development efforts for a market data start-up in blockchain, crypto and digital assets. Even when I started back in 1989, industry commentators were predicting the end of print. And despite the best efforts of the internet and social media to decimate the traditional business models, we are still producing and consuming an ever-growing volume of content.

The importance of editing and proofreading still apply to publishing today…. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The first company I worked for was Sweet & Maxwell, a 200-year-old UK law publisher. In 1989, it had recently been acquired by The Thomson Corporation (now Thomson Reuters), a global media and information brand, and majority owned by the Thomson family of Canada. When I began as a legal editor with Sweet & Maxwell in London, Thomson still had newspaper and broadcasting interests (the family continues to own the Toronto Globe & Mail), a directory business (a rival to the Yellow Pages), a travel business (comprising an airline, a travel agent and a tour operator), and a portfolio of publishing brands that ranged from the arts to the sciences, from finance to medicine, from defence titles to reference works.

Thanks to Thomson, not only did I get incredible experience from working in the publishing industry, I also got to start a new business in Hong Kong (which is still in existence). This role took me to China for the first time in 1995, including a couple of private lunches at The Great Hall of The People in Beijing. The Hong Kong business expanded to include operations in Singapore and Malaysia – during which we survived the handover and the Asian currency crisis. I also spent quite a bit of time for Thomson in the USA, working on international sales and distribution, before joining one of their Australian businesses for a year.

Given the subscription nature of law, tax and accounting publishing, many of the printed titles came in the form of multi-volume loose-leaf encyclopedias, which required constant (and laborious) updating throughout the subscription year. In fact, as editors we had to forecast and estimate the average number of pages required to be added or updated each year. If we exceeded the page allowance, the production team would not be happy. And if the number of updates each year did not match the budgeted number we had promised subscribers, the finance team would not be happy. So, we had a plethora of weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, semi-annual and annual deadlines and schedules to manage – even today, I recall the immense relief we experienced when we got the CRC (camera ready copy) for the next release back from the typesetters, on time, and on budget…

This blog owes its title to something that senior Thomson executives liked to proclaim: “Content is King!” We were still in the era of media magnates, when newspapers (with their display and classified advertising) had a license to print money – the “rivers of gold” as some called it. But as the internet and online search came to determine how readers discovered and consumed information, the catch cry became “Content in Context!”, as publishers needed to make sure they had the right material, at the right time, in the right place, for the right audience (and at the right price….).

Of course, over the 12 years I was at Thomson, technology completely changed the way we worked. When I first started, editors still did a lot of manual mark-up on hard copy, while other specialists were responsible for technical editing, layout, design, indexing, proofreading and tabling (creating footnotes and cross-references, and compiling lists of legal and academic citations). Most of the products were still in printed form, but this was a period of rapid transition to digital content – from dial-up databases to CD-ROM, from online to web formats. Word processing came into its own, as authors started to submit their manuscripts on floppy disk, and compositors leveraged SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language) for typesetting and for rendering print books as digital documents. Hard to believe now, but CD-ROM editions of traditional text books and reference titles had to be exact visual replicas of the printed versions, so that in court, the judges and the lawyers could (literally) be on the same page if one party or other did not have the digital edition. Thankfully, some of the constraints disappeared as more content went online – reference works had to be readable in any web browser, while HTML enabled faster search, cross-referencing and indexing thanks to text tagging, Boolean logic, key words and embedded links.

The second global firm I worked for was Standard & Poor’s, part of the The McGraw-Hill Companies (now S&P Global). Similar to Thomson, when I started with McGraw-Hill, the McGraw family were major shareholders, and the group had extensive interests in broadcasting, magazines and education publishing, as well as financial services. But when I joined Standard & Poor’s in 2002, I was surprised that there were still print publications, and some in-house authors and editors continued to work with hard copy manuscripts and proofs (which they circulated to one another via their in/out trays and the internal mail system…). Thankfully, much of this time-consuming activity was streamlined in favour of more collaborative content development and management processes. And we migrated subscribers from print and CD-ROM to web and online (XML was then a key way of streaming financial data, especially for machine-to-machine transmission).

Working for Standard & Poor’s in a regional role, I was based in Melbourne but probably spent about 40% of my time overseas and interstate. My role involved product management and market development – but although I no longer edited content or reviewed proofs, I remained actively involved in product design, content development, user acceptance testing and client engagement. The latter was particularly interesting in Asia, especially China and Japan. Then the global financial crisis, and the role of credit rating agencies such as Standard & Poor’s, added an extra dimension to client discussions…

After a period as a freelance writer and editor, for the past few years I have been working for a startup news, research and market data provider, servicing the growing audience trading and investing in cryptocurrencies and digital assets. Most of the data is distributed via dedicated APIs, a website, desktop products and third party vendors. It may not sound like traditional publishing, but editorial values and production processes lie at the core of the business – quality digital content still needs a lot of work to capture, create and curate. And even though the internet gives the impression of reducing the price of online content to zero, there is still considerable value in standardizing, verifying and cataloguing all that data before it is served up to end users.

Next week: You said you wanted a revolution?