A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to present at the WESTPAC annual meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, on separating the reality from the hype when it came to blockchain technology. Blockchain is somewhat ubiquitous in the news, and I can understand a rolling of the eyes and tuning out when you hear the word. The Financial Times has even referenced blockchain technology as a belief system. My disbelief and, to be honest, annoyance at the kind of blind enthusiasm is why I decided to do presentations on blockchain. I found the responses to my WESTPAC presentation heartening. Most people were interested in both what it really was, and in the different varieties of applications I mentioned during my presentation.
So what is it?
Blockchain is really just a database structure designed to store information in a linear, chronological order, facilitated through the use of distributed ledger technology. I know, long sentence, but bottom line, it means:
a) There’s no one location for it, it lives on every computer that accesses it.
b) It uses an appended structure – it adds on, it doesn’t overwrite when it adds new entries.
c) It’s supposedly immutable – once entered, the content can’t be altered in that entry. However, subsequent entries with contrary information can be added.
So what would that be good for?
What would be the likely uses? The most well known is its use to facilitate cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin. It would prove useful for anything where you want a permanent, chronological record. So what kind of things would that be?
- Land registries – Brazil is testing blockchain technology to improve its notoriously corrupt land registry system, as is India. (In other news, New South Wales in Australia sold their land registry to a hedge fund.)
- Evidence – Chain of Custody – this is almost a no-brainer application as most chain of custody logs take the form of a long list, signed with each movement of a piece of evidence.
- Supply Chains and Payment Systems – This is at the heart of many blockchain applications and is the one that may appeal the most to librarians, especially when it comes to Interlibrary Loan services.
So what else are people using it for?
Here are some of the more surprising applications I’ve seen:
- Beef.io – Ranchers in Wyoming entering their cattle into a blockchain for supply chain management.
- U.N. World Food Programme – At a refugee camp in Jordan, the United Nations is using blockchain in combination with biometric eye scans to ensure that the distribution of food to refugees is done in a way that discourages corruption, both on the part on the distributors and the recipients.
- AP Moeller-Maersk – the shipping company is using it in their marine insurance contracts.
- J.P. Morgan – JP Morgan is heading up the Interbank Information Network, which is conducting speed tests on non-“run of the mill” payments between over 75 banks.
- Storj – Distributed ledger cloud storage. – Essentially, your documents live on no one central server, but everywhere, on a distributed ledger. Launching in 2019.
- Golem – Instead of offering data storage, it offers distributed computer power. Need more RAM? Get it from a blockchain.
- OpenBazaar – A marketplace designed on Etsy and Ebay, combined with AirBnB, accepting cryptocurrency payments.
- Chronicled – This is probably most interesting in terms of legal application; essentially, it’s records management through a blockchain.
- Gem – A company working with the CDC to track disease vectors through a blockchain.
- MedRec, SimplyVitalHealth, CoMEHeRe – three of a number of efforts to track medical records through a blockchain.
- Provenance, VerisArt, and Blockverify – all track provenance of items/art/documents through blockchain.
- Estonia – putting its public records on a blockchain (you can be an e-citizen!).
- Arcade City – An Uber/Lyft style ride share company facilitated through blockchain.
- La’Zooz – Coordinates empty seats with passengers.
- Ujomusic – Tracking and distributing music royalties.
- Webjet – Tracking and trading of empty hotel rooms.
- CryptoKitties – Virtual pets. Yup, virtual blockchain kitty cats.
That all sounds really cool, but what are the weeds you speak of?
I titled this post “Varietals and Weeds” for a reason. I said that blockchain has been described as a “belief system.” Well, in that belief system, I’m somewhat of an agnostic/heretic. There’s some reason not to believe the hype.
- Sometimes when people say “blockchain,” they don’t actually mean it. For example, a company called Primalbase purported to have a “blockchain-enabled co-working space” in central London but it wasn’t blockchain-enabled. Then there was the tea company that decided to change to being a blockchain company, but not really.
- It’s overblown. It may not be as secure as it purports to be, plus it’s not always appropriate.
- And the reason I personally have reservations – it doesn’t actively address the age old computer concept of “Garbage In, Garbage Out.”
Arizona recently passed Revised Statute 44-7061(E)(1), which states, in part,
“’Blockchain technology’ means distributed ledger technology that uses a distributed, decentralized, shared and replicated ledger, which may be public or private, permissioned or permissionless, or driven by tokenized crypto economics or tokenless. The data on the ledger is protected with cryptography, is immutable and auditable and provides an uncensored truth.” (Emphasis mine).
Uncensored truth. The idea that the legislature is saying something is unequivocally true bothers me on a number of levels, not just in terms of technology.
I have deep reservations about the the belief in a technology as a arbiter of truth and panacea for all that ails us. Yes, blockchain may be useful for ILL, authority records, linked data, the semantic web, and a number of other things. Yet now, more than ever, when data in a blockchain is considered by some as sacrosanct, data curation is of paramount importance, and that is where librarians come in. I tend to think of this as the need for discernment – discerning when the technology is appropriate, discerning what the data the technology contains needs to look like, and perhaps most importantly, discerning how we make decisions based on this technology. This may put librarians in a better position than ever to influence and contribute.
Cornell Law Library
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