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 network(ing) effect

To paraphrase Metcalfe’s law, the value of a network is proportional to the number of connections, squared (n²). Which is why valuations on social media platforms like Facebook and networking services like LinkedIn are mainly calculated on the number of users and subscribers, based on the volume of transactions and a notional value of each member engagement that can be sold to advertisers and other third parties. But as a user, these networks are largely two-dimensional – you are either “connected” to someone (or not), or you “like” something (or not? – Facebook does not support “dislike”). Whereas, in the real world, our relationships and connections are more multi-faceted, and our preferences are more nuanced than binary.

I was recently reminded of the 1990’s dinner party game, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, and the notion that we are all connected to each other by no more than six degrees of separation. At a networking event last month, I was talking to a senior executive from a major bank, whom I had just met. Within 5 minutes, we realised we had a number of mutual connections. In fact, when I looked at LinkedIn, I discovered we had more than 20 “1st degree” relationships in common, most of them deep network connections I have maintained over many years. And although LinkedIn was helpful in confirming the “proximity” of our business and personal networks, it was only by meeting in person that these links would have been identified.

Similarly, at lunch last week, a business associate I’ve known for several years’ mentioned names of two people he had been working with this year, in completely separate contexts and in unrelated situations. Turns out that I knew both of them personally. Again, LinkedIn may have been able to “confirm” these relationships, but the “value” was in already being connected.

So, this may suggest that the true network value of Facebook and LinkedIn is overstated, because:

a) the number of potential network connections far outweighs the number of actual connections

b) the limitation of binary classification of relationships does not allow for the depth and complexity inherent in our networks of relationships

c) neither platform allows users to build contextual connections (apart from basic linear profile information).

In the end, the quality of relationships wins out over the number of connections. As Kevin Bacon so aptly put it:

If social media and networking platforms measure success only by the number of “likes” and “followers”, then they devalue the importance of building deeper connections and sustainable network relationships.

Next week: Token Issuance Programs – the new structured finance?

Ring Out the Old, Ring In the New – Content in Context checks out for the holidays

In honour of the festive season, Content in Context this week takes the form of a short instrumental that I have composed for Melbourne’s Federation Bells.

Normal service will be resumed after the holidays, but in the meantime, I’d like to express my sincere thanks to everyone who has taken the time to visit this blog, especially those who have seen fit to “Like” and leave their valuable comments. Particular appreciation goes to those individuals who have offered specific feedback and encouragement (both online and in person), and those who have shared this blog with their own audiences on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and via other social media platforms and networks.

“Theme for Saturnalia” refers to the Roman festival, usually held from December 17 – December 23, and from which it is thought, Christmas derives many of its customs such as feasting and giving gifts. And while I do not adhere to any particular religious creed or spiritual beliefs, it would be churlish of me not to acknowledge the significance of the season. So, as 2013 draws to a close, and as we brace ourselves for whatever 2014 will throw at us, I would like to close the inaugural year of Content in Context by quoting the Irish comedian, Dave Allen, who ended his TV shows with the immortal words, “Goodnight, thank you and may your God go with you”.

Will Social Media Eat Itself?

The Internet has shortened the use-by date of most content. Even our attention spans are getting shorter, in inverse proportion to the amount of content we consume and length of time we spend engaging in Social Media and other platforms. Paradoxically, some stuff grabs our attention, and goes viral as everyone posts, shares, likes, blogs and Tweets the same content. Which brings me to this infamous “infographic” on donuts as a signifier for Social Media:

Donuts_SocialMedia_ThreeShipsMedia

Content by Three Ships Media – Photo by Doug Ray

Recently, I saw this image appear as a status update and a “like” by the person posting it. There was no obvious acknowledgement, giving the impression it was an original piece of work. But I recalled having seen it before (more of which later), so I was intrigued as to the true source and provenance. On closer inspection, there was a reference to a third-party website, but this was a dead-end leading to an anonymous blog post.

After a brief search, I located what I believe is the original source for the infographic, Three Ships Media, as well as the photographer who captured the image, Doug Ray. Not that difficult to uncover, given that the post has been “liked” and Tweeted about well over 100,000 times, and written up in Three Ship Media’s own blog (about how this innocuous image had gone viral….).

Now, I don’t believe that the person who posted this image was trying to claim the content as their own work. And I doubt they were deliberately seeking to violate anyone’s intellectual property rights. Yet, the failure to acknowledge our sources (regardless of whether we are exploiting them for personal commercial gain or simply invoking the fair use provisions) threatens to undermine our credibility as commentators, critics and thought leaders. If we keep recycling other people’s work without attribution, the risk is that social media will simply implode as it chases itself in ever-diminishing circles.

Ironically, I realised that I had first seen this infographic at a seminar on the legal and practical aspects of Social Media. It was used by a lawyer to introduce his presentation on copyright issues and the Internet. All very well, except that he insinuated that he had come up with the infographic, and he certainly didn’t cite the original source….

Footnote: The title of this blog was inspired by the writer, David Quantick who coined the phrase “pop will eat itself” in the mid-1980’s, to describe the way modern music is self-referencing itself into oblivion.