How to use blockchain technology to empower community?
(and how not to)
[in the making]
I am writing this text from a very specific standpoint: anarchist and communalist. It means that my primary concern is a community, as a fundamental building block of the society. Humans express themselves and realize their potentials as members of one or more communities. Problems of any scale can only be solved via community or communities’ confederacies.
As a result, whatever empowers community, makes it more sustainable, resilient and agile, whatever increases its agency, without impeding others’, I will consider valuable.
So, when I try to build a model of blockchain technology in community context, I will refer to these criteria, whenever I judge anything as good/positive/appropriate, or bad/toxic/inappropriate.
The blockchain magic
But first, let us describe in simple way, what is the blockchain and what is the use of it that makes it so sexy in certain circles nowadays.
In essence, blockchain is a distributed notary public ledger, kept in digital (machine-readable) form across a large group of entities (computers), protected against tampering and coordinated over the global network.
Every block is just an entry in the ledger, referring to a corresponding previous one and being referred by the next one, creating the magic blockchain.
A chain of entries is actually a story — of anything we wish to put there. It can be a car for example. Every block will then register some important change in the car history: technical check-up, accident or change of owner.
Chains can cross — the same block describing car check-up may belong to two chains: car workshop record of activity and car maintenance history. And later can be included in other chains, built ex-post.
Thanks to the marvels of cryptography, each block is “signed” in a way that makes it (almost — think quantum computing) impossible to be changed without a trace. Creating a fake block would break a chain of reference and immediately expose it as an illegitimate “fork” of reality.
Cryptocoin: a minor miracle.
Now it is easy to understand how cryptocoins work. Putting aside the way they are created (mined), they are just numbers. Like numbers on traditional bank notes. And like traditional numbered banknotes, they just go from hand to hand. Only cryptocoins, having no physical form, have their travels registered via their blockchain ledger. For example, part of it may look like:
Coin number: Val543 Previous block # Block # Content Signature VAL543-00987 VAL543-00988 From Alice to Bob kbjh ly jhvl VAL543-00988 VAL543-00989 From Bob to Pornhub liuwd qpudnx VAL543-00989 VAL543-00990 From Pornhub to Tax Office oiwfnfnefonen
This is basically it. The rest are bells and whistles.
Why so sexy?
Well, we need to consider the fact that blockchain was invented as a solution to a specific need. And this need was to perform economic transactions with people we never met neither we trust them. The idea is that if we can register (in a tamper-proof way) every single interaction, we will be able to enforce proper (however we define it) behaviour by all involved actors.
Well, one can say, this is what we basically have without blockchain. We know people on the local food market, and we know who is honest, who is cheating and who sometimes gets generous and drop few aples free of charge. And in the city we know that authorities (theoretically) are checking licensed businesses, or at least react if we report a rat in our ratatouille.
Now, the context of the rise of blockchain is the global network and global e-commerce, expanding rapidly under radical capitalist assumption that the trade is everything and should not be hampered by any state or other kind of governance.
Of course, the ideal actor of such system is Homo Economicus — a rationalist, reacting solely to external stimula, while pursuing their own goals. As such, HE will only adhere to external norms if there is any benefit for him (or breaching the norms would bring him substantial harm).
Another founding concept for blockchain is free market, which requires universal access to information, equalising market actors.
Blockchain is the first element of the system, making such a market theoretically possible. If all market behaviours are blockchain-registered, it provides information for reputation systems, that would be the first step towards market self-regulation. Two other steps are: contract enforcement and punitive actions.
In his interesting critique of blockchain, Kai Stinchcombe writes: “Blockchain systems do not magically make the data in them accurate or the people entering the data trustworthy, they merely enable you to audit whether it has been tampered with. A person who sprayed pesticides on a mango can still enter onto a blockchain system that the mangoes were organic. A corrupt government can create a blockchain system to count the votes and just allocate an extra million addresses to their cronies. An investment fund whose charter is written in software can still misallocate funds“.
That’s the gist of it: whatever is entered in blockchain, can be brought up and cross-checked. But still, the final proof is in the pudding.
Is blockchain good for you (the community)?
The simplest answer is, as usually, “it depends”. Mostly it depends on the community itself: its goals, ideology (yes, every community has some ideology or at least accepts the default one, ruling its direct surroundings), spatial organisation and level of technology culture. Also, the usability of blockchain (and its most popular implementation, cryptocoin) will vary depends of functions, it is supposed to perform for the community in question.
Two extremes of this spectrum will be a high-tech, capitalist, geographically dispersed community, trying to create global virtual society (think Ethereum community) and, on the other end, a shepherds’ cooperative in Eastern Anatolia, which high-tech connection is a smartphone owned by one member’s grandchild.
Micro and macro
Blockchain is all about memory. It is a technology used to register events, connect them to create various stories and protect the records from being altered afterwards.
As such, it becomes not only important in the micro scale (Brown delivered dozen eggs to Smith at a given date) but also becomes one of the community memory subsystems — as much as parish chronicles or an archive of local scribe. This macroscale function is much more universal and…