“What do machines really do? They increase the number of things we can do without thinking. Things we do without thinking - there's the real danger.”
Frank Herbert

God Emperor of Dune

Revisiting Trust in Bitcoin and Blockchain

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I have mentioned before that I do not believe in bitcoin and blockchain technologies because of their attempt to circumvent trust. I believe in using technology to nourish trust relationships.

This article (via the P2PFoundation) does a good job of demonsrating the issue of trust and how it has already manifested and challenged ongoing blockchain explorations.

… Trust seems to be in short supply these days, although we have no choice but to rely on it. We trust schools and babysitters to look after our children. We trust banks to hold our money and to transfer it safely for us … Sometimes, however, our system of trust fails us …

Imagine a world in which we didn’t exchange currency, but kept track of who had what on a huge public spreadsheet, distributed across the internet. Every 10 minutes, all the transactions that took place in that slice of time are fused together into a single block. Each block includes a chain linking it to previous blocks, hence the term ‘blockchain’. The end result is a universal record book that reliably logs everything that’s ever happened via a (theoretically) tamper-proof algorithm. We don’t need to trust human bankers to tell us who owns what, because we can all see what’s written in the mathematically verified blockchain.

the fact of the matter is that blockchain technology is larded through with trust … First, you need to trust the protocol of the cryptocurrency … some actual human (or humans) wrote the code and hopefully debugged it, and we are at least trusting them to get it right, no? … Second, you have to trust the ‘stakeholders’ (including miners) not to pull the rug out from under you … Third, if you are buying into Ethereum … you are being asked to trust the people who review the algorithm and tell you what it does and whether it’s secure. But those people – computer scientists, say – are hardly incorruptible.

… it ends with other humans. Blockchains don’t offer us a trustless system, but rather a reassignment of trust. Instead of trusting our laws and institutions, we are being asked to trust stakeholders and miners, and programmers, and those who know enough coding to be able to verify the code. We aren’t actually trusting the blockchain technology; we are trusting the people that support the blockchain.

… Why are people so eager to put their faith in blockchain technology and its human supporters, instead of in other social and economic organisations? The upheavals of 2016, from Brexit to Trump, suggest that there is widespread fatigue with traditional institutions. Governments can be bought. Banks are designed to service the wealthy, and to hell with the little guy. ‘The system is rigged’ is a common refrain.

But instead of targeting the moral failures of the system and trying to reform it, the very concept of ‘trust’ has become suspect. Blockchain enthusiasts tend to cast trust as little more than a bug in our network of human interactions. To be sure, one of the weird features of trusting relationships is that, in order to trust someone, there has to be some chance that they will fail you. Trust involves risk – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Trust is what makes all relationships meaningful. Yes, we get burned by people we rely on, and this makes us disinclined to trust others. But when our faith is rewarded, it helps us forge closer relationships with others … Risk is a critical component to this bonding process. In a risk-free world, we wouldn’t find anything resembling intimacy, friendship, solidarity or alliance, because nothing would be at stake … Perhaps we ought to reconsider the desire to expunge trust, and instead focus on what should be done to strengthen it.

… we shouldn’t deceive ourselves with the idea that a technological fix can replace the human dimension of trust. Automation of trust is illusory. Rather than disparaging and cloaking human trust, we should face the brutal truth: we can’t escape the need to rely on other people, as fallible and imperfect as they might be. We need to nurture and nourish trust – not throw it away, like so much debased and worthless currency.”

As I read through this I noticed a recurring pattern (first brought to my attention by Charles Eisenstein): just as money erodes relationship so does blockchain erode trust in whatever traces of relationship we still have. To me that indicates that though blockchain was created as an act of rebellion against systems and institutions (which are demonstrably untrustworthy) it is deeply embedded in a shared (and I believe faulty) understanding of human nature and life. In this sense blockchain technology is giving CONTINUITY to destructive patterns embedded in our existing money systems.

 

 

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