Blockchain Is A Technology, Not A Philosophy

John Barlow died last Wednesday. Mr. Barlow wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead, dabbled in Republican politics in Wyoming, and, more famously, had big dreams for the internet. He referred to the internet as “the new home of the mind” and demanded of governments, “I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us.”

Good things have come from the internet, no question, but for the most part Mr. Barlow’s dreams have not materialized. Twenty five years later, the internet means mainly Facebook and Google for most people, along with a loss of privacy, e.g., Equifax. The internet has made it easier to work from home and collaborate and start social movements like #MeToo and #TeaParty, but also allows Russia to interfere with our elections. We’re connected all the time, yet somehow feel more lonely. And all the information circling the globe leaves us with a citizenry somehow less informed than when television came in three black and white channels.

Mixed results are not unique to the internet. Pick any technology – electricity, automobiles, television, nuclear power – and you’ll find the same story of idealistic dreams transformed or broken on the shoals of the real world. We imperfect human beings keep asking technology to save us from ourselves, and it never can.

Which brings us to blockchain.

Speaking at a crypto-conference in New York the day Mr. Barlow died, I heard a speaker predict that blockchain would replace the banking system, that cryptocurrency would eliminate national currencies, that we are about to witness a fundamental change (for the good) in the human condition. You can read articles in serious business publications about the “ethos” of blockchain, how the technology will replace our broken trust in private and government institutions.

In my opinion that thinking isn’t just wrong but dangerous. Blockchain is not going to replace the banking system, and shouldn’t. Cryptocurrencies will replace fiat currencies only in countries without a functioning currency of their own. If you see a country where Bitcoin is the currency of choice, it’s like seeing a guy on the subway with an IV in his arm:  you’re not sure what’s wrong, but you know he’s sick.

If you think blockchain has an ethos, you’ll sell tokens without bothering about securities laws. You’ll encourage wage-earners to invest their savings in a cryptocurrency whose price chart makes Pets.com look stable, having decided that it’s not so much a “currency” as a “store of value.” Most dangerous, you’ll convince yourself that technology is a substitute for morality.

Like every technology, starting with fire, blockchain can improve the human condition only if we tether it to our needs.

Fortunately, based on what I saw at the conference on Wednesday, there’s a lot of tethering along with the hype. Among other things, we heard from entrepreneurs using blockchain technology to:

  • Improve healthcare outcomes
  • Give consumers control over their financial records
  • Facilitate business and consumer payments
  • Reduce fraud in the financial markets
  • Make sense of our antiquated system of property ownership

With the grandiose predictions and the mystification and, frankly, some wishful thinking by lawyers, the blockchain industry has earned a black eye in the minds of many, including government regulators. Even so, light shines through. As an industry, let’s dedicate ourselves to using the technology wisely, making it work for ordinary people, being more transparent than the law requires, thinking long-term, and above all, remembering that how blockchain is viewed 25 years from now depends not on technology, but on imperfect human beings like us.

Questions? Let me know.

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