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 lighter side of #Rona19

After several weeks of lockdown during #Rona19, and despite the serious challenges that we still face from the Pandemic and its consequences, it’s typical of the human condition and our spirit of resilience that people have managed to find humour and goodwill in the depths of despair.

In no particular order (and without any judgement) here are just some of the distractions and interactions that have been keeping us amused during social isolation, as well as a few of the apparent positive effects:

  • The video conference call bloopers (memo to team: pants on)
  • Clips of dogs vs cats navigating home-made obstacle courses
  • #MeAt20 flashbacks
  • Elderly family members accidentally gatecrashing Houseparty online drinks
  • Some introvert pupils actually enjoying schooling from home
  • Clients and suppliers displaying genuine concern for each others’ welfare in e-mails and on calls (I just hope this empathy endures beyond the Pandemic)
  • People reducing food waste (less shopping, less fussy about use-by dates)
  • Homemade videos and photos recreating scenes from famous movies and artwork 
  • More wildlife in urban areas (I’ve also seen more birds, bugs, bees, butterflies and beetles in my back yard and in nearby parks)
  • Public libraries of iconic images for use as video call backdrops (conference calls will never be dull again…)
  • An apparent drop in traditional crime rates, and fewer typical hospital casualties (people not going out getting drunk, getting into fights or overdosing)
  • Hosting virtual dinner parties (no need to organise a taxi home)
  • Many homes now have a “clearance corner” awaiting charity shops reopening (all that time to sort out cupboards and drawers)
  • A visible reduction in air pollution (as evidenced by before/after photos from various cities)

Next week: Startupbootcamp’s Virtual Demo Day

 

Steam Radio in the Digital Age

A few years ago, I wrote a blog on how radio had come of age in the era of social media. And despite podcasts and streaming services making significant inroads into our listening behaviour, radio is still with us. Plus it now gets distributed via additional media: digital radio (DAB), internet streaming, mobile apps and digital TV.

Image sourced from flickr

Most mornings I get my first information hit from the radio. Likewise, the midnight radio news bulletin is usually the last update of the day. When I’m on my way to or from the office I’m either catching up on a podcast or streaming radio, via TuneIn or dedicated station apps.

I particularly enjoy the BBC’s catalogue of on-demand content – both contemporary material, and archive programmes. There’s something inexplicable about the appeal of listening to 50-60 year old recordings, themselves being dramatisations of books and plays first published 100 years or more earlier.

The main reason I turn to these relics of steam radio is because I can curate what I want to listen to, when I want to listen. These programmes are also an antidote to much of what gets broadcast on commercial radio stations, which I find is mostly noise and no substance. (Blame it on my age, combined with being a self-confessed music snob.)

Most of these archive radio recordings still work because of two things: the calibre of the material; and the high production values. The former benefits from tight script editing and strict programme lengths. The latter is evident from both the engineering standards and the sound design.

One of the paradoxes of modern technology is that as the costs of equipment, bandwidth and data come down (along with the barriers to access), so the amount of content increases (because the means of production is much cheaper) – yet the quality inevitably declines. And since in the internet era, consumers increasingly think that all online content should be “free”, there is less and less money to invest in the production.

The importance of having a high level of quality control is inextricably linked to the continued support and funding for public broadcasting. With it, hopefully, comes impartiality, objectivity, diversity and risk-taking – much of which is missing in commercial radio. Not that I listen very often to the latter these days, but it feels that this format is destined to increased narrowcasting (by demographic), and parochialism.

In this era of fake news and misinformation (much of it perpetrated and perpetuated by media outlets that are controlled or manipulated by malign vested interests), and at a time of increased nationalism, divisive sectarianism and social segregation, it’s worth remembering the motto of the BBC:

“Nation shall speak peace unto nation”

Notwithstanding some of the self-inflicted damage that the BBC has endured in recent years, and the trend for nationalistic propaganda from many state-owned news media and broadcasters, the need for robust and objective public broadcasting services seems more relevant than ever.

Next week: Craft vs Creativity

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

School Reunion

Last weekend, I attended the first official reunion lunch in Melbourne for former pupils of my old high school. On first glance, that might not seem a very remarkable event. Except that my school was in London, I left in 1979, and my fellow lunch guests left as long ago as 1959. I had never met any of them before. Yet in different circumstances, and at different times, each of us has ended up living in Australia.

Normally I’m not one to play the “old school tie” card – I don’t particularly care, and I am not really interested in, which school someone attended. In fact, having spent my high school years overseas means that here in Australia, no one can really play that card against me without seeming elitist, snobbish, or just plain foolish. Because, despite its claims to being an egalitarian country, some sections of Australian society place a great deal of importance on their private school connections. (Remember OneTel and the Cranbrook alumni?)

One of our lunchtime topics of discussion (which also touched on current geo-political affairs, the state of the entertainment industry, the economy, and the future of the planet….) was the extent to which our secondary education had formed our world outlook. The main conclusion was that although the school placed a considerable emphasis on academic standards and achievements, it was not merely a sausage factory (at least, not during our days there). The goal was to produce well-rounded, confident and curious individuals, who were encouraged to make the most of their abilities. (If the list of alumni is anything to go by, the school has certainly turned out some highly individual characters.)

I’m still in contact with a number of my contemporaries, and I try to meet up with a few of them each time I’m in London. After all these years, it’s hard to know whether our alma mater is the primary factor that still connects us, as our friendships have both endured and changed over that time. Certainly, most of us wouldn’t otherwise have met – but even before we left school, we had established common interests (especially in music) that continue to this day.

In conclusion, I would say I’m very grateful for the high school education I received, for the opportunities it gave me, and the friends I have made. And on the basis of the first reunion event that has ever been held outside the UK (as far as we are aware), it looks like my school will continue connecting me to new and interesting people.

Next week: Climate Change and Personal Choices