Challenges of decentralized technologies

Decentralization is becoming a major topic lately, being the Blockchain technology at the bottom of that topic. This broadly known technology, born to allow Bitcoin existence, is becoming more and more popular and relevant: it is the paradigm of decentralization technologies.

The possibilities that this technology already allows is astonishing and the future opportunities that the Blockchain could enable is undoubtedly incommensurable. And that is what keeps all kind of experts pending on this matter. But I’m not writing this just to say (just one more time) the good, amazing and promising the Blockchain is. I’m here today to write about its risks and challenges: the risks and challenges that I consider that these kind of technologies represent to the current status quo.

One of the main aims of new technologies and online tendencies is oriented to allowing access over ownership. It has been said to exhaustion that people don’t want anymore the burden that material and tangible goods represent: we all have been talking for the past few years about how we don’t want the CD anymore: we want the music it contains; about how we don’t want the DVD: we want the movie it contains. And that’s the main reason why Spotify and Netflix are so successful business models (setting aside all thepositive externalities that getting rid of tangible goods brings along such as the positive impact on the carbon footprint, minimizing transaction costs or obtaining a more efficient product).

But let’s now talk about another type of physical good that is also becoming more and more popular in its digital intangible form: money. Why is Bitcoin also so successful and promising? Exactly for the same reasons that I stated above: because we don’t want the money. What we want are the transactions it allows us to carry out. Right? And if those transactions are carried out in a more efficient, easier, and cleaner manner, even better! In order for us to be able to shift from money to transactions, we need to introduce the concept of value and change the paradigm. Money as we know it, it’s not a valid concept anymore in its intangible form: it no longer represents a form of exchange based on gold or any other tangible and valuable good.

When we shift from money to value we are also shifting representation as well as responsibility for that value. And when there is no longer any central authorization governing that representation and responsibility, when there is no unification but decentralization, a first question must be answered: how are we going to assign value to each transaction that we perform? Bitcoin has the issue already resolved: the value is matched to the market fluctuation and therefore the value of Bitcoin is a match to the value of money as we all know it and as it is accepted in the exchange market. But I guess some of us might agree upon that this is not the best outcome of a decentralized currency or its technology.

Value could be one of the most difficult concepts to assess. How can we establish what is value when there is no central authorization establishing what IS value? How can we achieve value for everyone without losing sight of equality? These are some of the recurring questions for lawyers and jurists at this respect. Because if value will be the “good” that will be traded in decentralized technologies who will determine what value is? And furthermore, what will happen in case of dispute between subjects with different conceptualizations of what value is or what it means to them?

So, if we are now moving towards implementation of the Blockchain technology beyond Bitcoin and applying it to another kind of transactions, let’s ask some further questions about value and those transactions in another kind of environment: let’s take the legal one, where I feel comfortable, and talk about its social impact. Lately there has been a notable blooming of notary-like platforms based on Blockchain technologies that provide a registry service of authentication. It has been the case of ascribe, for example. A platform that serves the purpose of an Intellectual Property Registry (even allowing the use of Creative Commons licenses in the platform!).

It is unquestionable (and quite impressive) what these initiatives may be able to do to end with the red tape nightmare that each one of us has had to suffer from time to time. Ending bureaucracy by ending with purposeless paperwork or requirements is one of the efficiency-oriented goals of these technologies.

But from a legal perspective, this efficiency might come along with more than one risk. When we think about a notary, a registry, or paperwork of any kind we instantly think of all these hurdles as being just costly and tedious impediments to our objectives. And sometimes they are. Sometimes they are just a way of establishing unfair public fees, maintaining obsolete nineteenth-century procedures, or increasing the list of useless public servants. But we must not forget that other times, they are a truly filter of injustice, abusive or illegal practices.

Let’s take the example of public registries and notaries. Although this might come as a surprise for some of the readers, not everything that we register or notarize actually needs to be registered or notarized by law. Quite on the contrary. Coming back to the Intellectual Property example, the registration of Intellectual Property (copyright-related: not patents or trademarks!) is not mandatory for that Intellectual Property protected good to exist and to be actually protected. The registration will only provide the author with a mean of proof in case he/she ever needs it in court. Registration does not create the right: the right exists by the mere creation of the object protected by Intellectual Property laws. And the same happens with notarization of documents: when they constitute only a mean of proof of existence there is a clear opportunity for decentralization technologies to play a major role in getting rid of unnecessary bureaucracy.

But what happens when our legal acts might contain illegal or abusive clauses, might be delicate in regard to future developments or interests or there are third parties involved that deserve some legal certainty?Those acts are where these technologies are not yet prepared to serve a good purpose. There is no validation crew in these decentralized technologies that can assess the justice or injustice of an act. And not being able to assess the justice of a legal act, or any kind of act for that matter, puts us on the verge of automation and dehumanization. Forgetting about what is the role of human judgment can easily put us closer and closer to the dystopian futures as were already described in 1984, Fahrenheit 451 or Brave new world.

We should not forget that the Blockchain-like technologies do not put “people” in line to create a crowd that validates acts on the chain. It puts machines. It puts CPUs in line to accept a command as true. As valid. Not legal, not fair, not just: only valid. It assesses reality of the facts. Not justice of the act.

And I will not forget about the entry barriers that currently exist regarding these technologies. Sometimes wrongly understood as a distributed and democratizing tool, with the use of Blockchain-like technologies we have shifted — as I just wrote — the decision-making process from humans to CPUs put in line and decoding huge amount of data to be sure nobody interferes with the decision-making approval process. And how can we talk about decentralization and democratization of the decision-making process when only a few can actually access those technologies to the level of really taking part in that decision-making process?

I do not pretend to sound catastrophic from an anthropologist point of view but I indeed wonder if what we are trying to achieve here is the elimination of human’s will. Maybe because after years of self-destructive tendencies we ourselves have lost faith in our own humanity. Have we lost faith in us as humans beings, and we rather deposit our faith in the hands of machines than in the hands of another human being? Humans beings capable of the greatest atrocities, but also capable of dreaming, caring, loving and reasoning. Capable of telling the difference between fair and unfair.

Capable of plenty of wonders that a bunch of nodes put together will never be capable of.

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Talking about Blockchain during the #OSFestBCN (in Spanish):

Licencia de Creative Commons
El blog de Sara Rodríguez Marín está licenciado bajo la licencia Creative Commons Reconocimiento-CompartirIgual 4.0 Internacional License.



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