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Is Blockchain the Antidote to the Woes of Social Media, Digital Identity?

We are all familiar with the feeling of being stalked on the internet. You have noticed how Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Google will point personalized content towards you as you scroll through the endless screens on your smartphone and computer.

You will come across YouTube recommendations on genetics, or sound engineering, if that is what you are researching online these days. Or you might see targeted advertisements for raincoats and a new banking app that promises to revolutionize your financial management, if that is the sort of information you have been seeking through your searches.

There are some serious issues with the underlying business models of social media networks.

There is no doubt that the internet cultivated by the big-tech companies over the past two decades has spawned into an entirely new crop of business models and market offsprings such as gig and share economies.

In this kind of an evolutionary perspective then, blockchain plays the role of a technology that upends this rapidly changing landscape of modern economics. Research posits that this effect has the potential to correct the noise of human fallacies that pervades the present state of our modern world. Blockchain’s design features are an obvious update on the calcified inefficiency that appears to make the human world somewhat disconnected from the ecological principles of the larger environment that this world has emerged from.

Our Online Existence Generates a Map of Our Identity

In this world of targeted and affiliate advertising, the opportunities for fraudulently misrepresenting information for cut-throat profiteering has naturally escalated. Since the late 90s there has been serious acknowledgement of the fact that fraud is the biggest threat to the internet economy. Towards the end of the previous century, Jacques Ellul said, There are no political solutions, only technological ones. Blockchain’s key features of decentralization, transparency, and a high resistance to tampering makes it a relatively new, but potent solution to safeguard against these evolving vulnerabilities of our information-driven world.

Today, we all have a digital footprint which bears the signature of our personal proclivities, generating a blueprint of our desires, needs, wants, and potential actions in the future. All this information — this data — is valuable, leading to billions of dollars in advertising investments each year. This is at least one compelling reason for why all the big-tech platforms warrant some serious updates in software as well as hardware that is applied to run the new world order. Loading new ideas and technological models on an outdated infrastructure will only lead to a clunky transformation that runs like a sloppily designed machine.

Blockchain: New Software on New Hardware

American computer scientist, Alan Kay, who pioneered object-oriented programming and GUI design, famously said that people who are really serious about software should make their own hardware. Blockchain can be envisioned as a new strata of open-source information management technologies that has only recently emerged over the basic substrate of the pre-existing internet. In addition to Bitcoin, blockchain is being used to run a variety of platforms from supply chain and digital marketing to insurance and biomedical research.

Essentially blockchain enables the encoding and processing of digital information and data through decentralized databases that are verified by a vastly distributed and steadily proliferating network of computational nodes. This kind of a configuration significantly reduces the typical security flaws that are rife in the traditional version of the internet, where centralized repositories store critical datasets and information on corruptible servers and clouds.

Because of its decentralized and publicly sourced attributes, blockchain creates an ideal peer-to-peer system that fosters trust amongst its users, simultaneously providing transparency as well as anonymity. Such counterintuitive features make this technology at once promising, but also difficult to adopt in the context of the pre-existing platforms that are based on almost opposite paradigms.

You might be more familiar with such arguments in favor of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, which herald that the entire concept of money is being revamped in light of the sea change that we are witnessing in today’s thriving digital and computational economies. Non-fungible tokens and attention-based economies are making us consider the basic premises of how we create and communicate value in the world of art and content.

Another example is healthcare, where blockchain is providing significant advancements in patient data management, privacy and security through better encryption of electronic medical records. Estonia happens to be one of the leading nations in this regard, with more than 90% of all its healthcare data being maintained digitally on the blockchain.

Problem is Not with Money But Monetary Systems

Recently, during a light banter about socio-economic systems, a friend of mine made the analogy that money is like fuel — it is essential for the machine of the human world to function. Without a system for transacting value, none of our industries and enterprises would be powered to provide us with our much needed goods and services. I believe this analogy is very useful in appreciating the mechanistic details of the technocratic society that we are relentlessly transitioning into.

The agricultural era led us to centralized means of producing food. The industrial age led to the concentrated mechanization and automation of the means of production and the eventual birth of consumerism. The digital age of computers and the internet bring forth yet another dimension in the unfolding of human societies. One can imagine this progression as a developmental process, beginning with an organic world eventually transforming into an electronic and digital world of hyperconnected communication channels.

Tools of Tech

Seth G. Jones’ book, Three Dangerous Men discusses a very specific dimension of today’s changing world — the conflicts between competing powerful nations and their military forces. Covert operations on an international scale have become increasingly common for the orchestration of disinformation campaigns involving espionage and economic coercion.

Examples of this phenomenon can be found throughout history; during the cold war era, intense paranoia and technological competition flared between the United States and former Soviet Union. Jones describes this new kind of battle between large military complexes (US, Russia, China, and Iran) as a kind of irregular warfare. At the heart of these global conflicts is the competition for technological dominance, particularly in relation to data and information control. History certainly seems to have taught the ‘powers-that-be’ that traditional warfares involving nuclear weaponry are not financially viable anymore. The focus therefore has shifted towards controlling the most powerful technologies, instead of military prowess, in order to establish economic supremacy.

Marshall McLuhan (1911 – 1980) wrote, “First we build the tools, then they build us.”

The rapid rate at which technology is seeping into the very fabric of our existence urgently warrants a prudent approach towards how we develop and use these technologies. A robust blockchain system that can validate data and its value through decentralized computation of proof-of-work, instead of human subjectivity, is a promising way to achieve this.

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Ankur Dynanmote

About the Author

Ankur Dnyanmote

Ankur Dnyanmote Ph.D. does research involving computational biology and bioinformatics. He is deeply interested in systems thinking and interdisciplinary work focused on a wide spectrum of issues related to science, philosophy, innovation, and technology. His curiosity about blockchain and cryptocurrency is largely driven by these interests.

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