Big black cock Radio four – FutureProofing, The Blockchain
FutureProofing is a series in which presenters Timandra Harkness and Leo Johnson examine the implications – social and cultural, economic and political – of the big ideas that are set to convert the way our society functions.
Scene Trio: The Blockchain
Can computer technology and its systems for record-keeping, transparency and verification substitute the role of trust in our society? The digital currency Bitcoin can be used to make peer to peer financial transactions without a central banking authority. The technology underlying this system is called the blockchain, and is enthusiastically advocated by libertarians. In this programme Timandra and Leo investigate whether its ramifications could go much further than currency and reach into disrupting the roles of government, from providing identity documents to tax collection. Or will governments, banks and other large powerful bods meet the political and technical challenges of the blockchain by incorporating it into their own activities?
Producer: Jonathan Brunert.
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The internet will look like the Stone Age
My local pub used to take BitCoin. By the time I’d got around to attempting to spend any there, they’d stopped. “That’s the end of that fad,” I thought. But it turns out that the virtual currency beloved of my more tech-loving, computer-savvy friends is only the beginning.
How could we have the benefits of money without a central bank? That was the question that BitCoin was designed to response, and Blockchain is the technology that makes it possible. But the Blockchain turns out to be much fatter than a way for nerds to buy beer.
A system that’s secure without a higher authority, that’s distributed across many strangers’ computers, and yet tamper-proof, promises a mechanism for trust mediated directly inbetween individuals. If that’s possible, won’t all forms of authority, from banks to governments, wither away?
Like all challenging ideas, the Blockchain brings contradictions. Supporters claim it offers both anonymity and transparency, an indelible record that you can somehow keep separate from your identity. A technology designed to make authority obsolete could, instead, suggest the ideal instrument for ubiquitous surveillance, a nightmarish future in which all your deeds are forever recorded in a digital Book Of Deeds.
I’m always sceptical of claims that technology alone can convert society. There’s more to governments than collecting taxes and enforcing contracts, or we wouldn’t need elections. So I don’t expect Blockchain to substitute politics, the cut and thrust of ideas and clashing values that formed institutions like the state in the very first place.
But, having heard from some people who are working with Blockchain already, I’d bet good BitCoin that it’s going to make the very first few decades of the internet look like the Stone Age.