Building A Cultural Dialogue Around The Permanent, Blockchain Web
Blockchain's scorecard on diversity is no better than the rest of the tech world. In fact, it is arguably worse.
In the last year, blockchain— the protocol best known for powering Bitcoin — has enjoyed an explosion in attention from industry publications and mainstream news outlets alike. It’s also made waves in some of the world’s most significant policy and economic institutions. This past January, blockchain was cited as one of the foundational technologies of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” at the 2016 World Economic Forum; this announcement came not long before the Inaugural DC Blockchain Summit, an event that brought together politicians, government agents and tech industry leaders to discuss blockchain development and regulation. Recently, blockchain has also received a vote of confidence from some of the most influential names in Internet governance: Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, and Vint Cerf, co-designer of TCP-IP, have all heralded blockchain as a means by which the Internet may be “re-invented” to more closely resemble its original vision as a lateral and truly peer-to-peer network.
Many still assume blockchain is inextricably linked with cryptocurrency. There is good reason for this: one of the protocol’s most significant innovations is the way in which it prevents the double-spending of digital currency. However, the Bitcoin blockchain — the single record that stores and keeps track of all transactions — is only one of a theoretically infinite amount of these records (often referred to as ”distributed ledgers” or “chains”). Blockchains are also being used to build tools that do not facilitate currency exchange, or only do so as a byproduct of their primary function. Auditable online voting systems, decentralized social media networks, a “permanent web” that resists censorship and data deletion, and even refugee registries immune to government tampering are among proposed applications.
Considering these revolutionary-sounding ideas, it is essential to begin broadening the cultural dialogue on these topics. Since late 2015, I’ve committed a great deal of my research and writing to blockchain. While I do not mean to perfunctorily condemn the blockchain community, it is necessary to point out that its scorecard on diversity is no better than the rest of the tech world. In fact, it is arguably worse. One particular but revealing example: of the thirty-eight speakers at the DC Blockchain Summit, only seven were female; only three were people of color.
Moreover, as a function of its association with Bitcoin, the blockchain world has also enjoyed a disproportionate degree of interest from those with the capital power to invest in digital currencies, which are more volatile than traditional currencies. This scenario is a logical result of blockchain’s genesis from the world of FinTech, but it no longer need be the case. As both an arena of professional interest and subject of experimentation, blockchain should not be limited to those capable of making risky investments.
If even a fraction of its hype is to be believed, the blockchain protocol may well come to impact billions of people across the world. From its earliest phases of development, its standards must be created with input from communities and individuals that represent the entire spectrum of those who will come to use them. While the continuum between web protocols and the lived experiences of web users across the world may seem so vast as to be meaningless, through layers of code, interfaces and use cases, technical infrastructure inevitably comes to impact all of our lives.
Here are some particularly relevant and impactful cases to consider around blockchain technology:
Web accessibility simply means that people can use the Internet to its full extent, regardless of their ability status. As a reality and a practice, it is manifest in myriad ways. The World Wide Web Consortium offers guidelines for web developers and designers to make sure their creations are as accessible as possible. Best practices in accessibility include everything from making sure text on screen is high-contrast (for users who are colorblind) to making GIFs and video content opt-in (for those with epilepsy and related neurological conditions).
Unfortunately, huge swaths of the web don’t meet the mark for accessibility. Users who are blind or low-vision typically rely on screen readers to translate text content into audio, but a great deal of text online is conveyed in image files that do not work with screen readers. Likewise, most video and audio content is not captioned for Deaf people. Had these users been taken into consideration during the earliest phases of the web’s encoding, larger portions of the web would be available to a wider number of people. Since a blockchain-based Internet would imply the fundamental restructuring of the web from the back-end, there’s a chance to mitigate these issues from the outset. For example, it may be possible to put code in place to mark text content properly, by default, for screen readers. Also, since new programming languages are being written for blockchain, they may be designed with ease of use for coding by voice, which would enable many more individuals to write code.
Data and ethics writer Kate Crawford recently published a wonderful article in the New York Times about the problems of artificial intelligence that learns from data with inherent demographic biases. As one might imagine, this can lead to all sorts of destructive situations. As she writes, “algorithms learn by being fed certain images, often chosen by engineers, and the system builds a model of the world based on those images. If a system is trained on photos of people who are overwhelmingly white, it will have a harder time recognizing nonwhite faces.” The way this may impact tools with serious social consequences, such as predictive policing software, are potentially devastating.
AI is also making its way into the blockchain world. AI researcher and blockchain engineer Trent McConaghy has written compellingly of AI’s role in blockchain based self-regulating groups, or “decentralized autonomous organizations” (DAOs). DAOs have the capability of generating, storing and meting out products, currency and consequences without any central point of regulation. Non-AI DAOs already exist, and McConaghy believes that DAOs which incorporate some element of artificial intelligence are soon to come. He uses the hypothetical case of a DAO that uses artificial intelligence to create and sell digital art to explain what this might look like. In this scenario, an ArtDAO would generate algorithmic art and assign a value to it using digital currency; it would then “sell” it using a blockchain tool to transfer ownership rights from the DAO to the purchaser. McConaghy explains that art is but one among many categories of products with potential market value capable of being produced by machine intelligence.
If DAOs are generating artifacts for sale using AI, and if this AI is learning about the preferences and needs of end users based on data that favors very narrow swaths of the population, we could end up with products that have been designed with a bias from the very start. Art, software tools and apps that, while produced via automation, are based on inherently biased “materials” (ie data that may favor certain racial, gender or other demographic groups, over others) and sold without human oversight is a distinct possibility here.
More generally, DAOs function, by definition, without human intervention. In theory, this is supposed to prevent discrimination, but on contact with social reality, this may cause more harm than good — even if no AI is involved. Recently, a DAO was hacked, causing those who invested in it to collectively lose around fifty million dollars. This in turn sparked debate about human involvement in resolving the matter, since that would mean temporarily forsaking the ideal of a fully decentralized operation.
At the time of writing, this is still a deeply contentious issue: the solution may set a precedent for the blockchain community’s openness to putting immediate human needs over longer-term values. When the stakes are purely financial, this issue may seem ambiguous, but when human dignity, productivity and safety are concerned, it is an ethical imperative to at least have the option of straying from abstract values reified in code.
The Permanent Web
One of the more interesting and arguably revolutionary applications of blockchain is the “permanent web.” Though that may sound far-fetched or even dangerous, the phrase “permanent web” is not a euphemism: right now, a number of groups and developers are working on an Internet that self-generates its own ineradicable archive, resisting data deletion and bypassing censorship on the deepest levels of its infrastructure. IPFS, the Inter-Planetary File System, is one such program. IPFS seeks to offer a more robust and future-friendly Internet data transmission protocol than our current one, HTTP, which they see as contributing to both the centralization of the web and its extreme precarity. As IPFS points out, the average lifespan of a website is only 100 days. Meanwhile, centralization of the Internet allows for an uneven power structure wherein monolithic institutions have control over the data of billions — far from the peer-to-peer network proposed by Berners-Lee et al a generation ago.
We need to look right now at some of the problems inherent to the notion of a “permanent, censorship-resistant” Internet. Even in the Internet we have right now, which is designed to be mutable, the distribution of abusive material online disproportionately affects women, particularly Black women, and other marginalized demographic groups, sometimes to the point where these users no longer feel safe online. A web environment in which content cannot be removed without the consensus of all the nodes on a network, if at all (à la the current model of blockchain organizations) could make the Internet unbearably dangerous for these groups. Think deletion-proof non-consensual imagery, deadnaming and outing, not to mention the doxxing of any sensitive materials — from private interactions to bank statements, social security numbers and home addresses. A hyper-durable archive that resists needless censorship is worth very little if it does not include protections that enable all users to explore it safely.
There are also political factors that affect vulnerable populations: web regulation varies widely across national borders, so the realities of how users across the world navigate their Internet must be accounted for. It’s very possible that users in a specific geographic region may only be able to access a censorship-proof web via tools that may mark them as dissidents or radicals (such as Tor), thereby subjecting them to punitive legal action. Developers of the permanent web must model possible scenarios of network access with the safety concerns of an international population at the forefront before they begin writing its code.
Blockchain tools that supersede Bitcoin and finance are still in their infancy; it’s impossible for just one thinker, organization or, indeed, ideology to account for all of the factors that will come to bear on its growth. Technologists and tech media alike must begin considering ways to foster interest and curiosity in blockchain from a broad global community, and in particular from those that may not necessarily envision themselves as having influence over cutting-edge network technologies.
The technologies that will shape the future of the Internet have an opportunity to benefit from hindsight that the earlier web did not possess. If a wide community of thinkers contribute to blockchain, we can ensure that the standards we enshrine for it represent as broad a range of interests as possible. With this in mind, the cultural dialogue around it must be, above all else, inclusive.