Originally published on 1 August 2018.
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
You’ve probably heard that line before. It’s from Hamlet. And it gets thrown around a lot. Probably even more than most lines from Shakespeare.
The reason why is because it’s one of those eternal truths. It’s echoed in almost all philosophy and modern psychology.
The idea is, you can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you react to it.
A situation isn’t good or bad until you make a judgement about it.
And it is the same with technology. Technology itself is neither good nor bad. It depends on how it’s used.
For the first time in human history we can now create things that cannot be censored, revised, destroyed or denied.
This is what blockchain technology has given us. And, as you may expect, it is being used for both good and bad.
Today, we’re going to look at a few examples of each, which have emerged in recent weeks.
Betting on death
On 17 July I covered the release of Ethereum-powered prediction market Augur.
In normal speak that means a market where anyone can bet on anything.
Because it is powered by Ethereum, it is completely decentralised. That means no one can censor or control it.
So if a deplorable market pops up – say betting on someone’s death – no one can take it down.
Well, the day Augur turned off its “kill switch” and released its software into the wild, people started setting up death markets.
I imagine this will lead to some pretty dark markets, like betting on when a celebrity will die. Or betting then the next major earthquake will happen.
But even then, those markets would provide valuable information – why do so many people thing the next major earthquake will happen in country x? Have there been warning signs, should we be looking into this?
Why does the market think celebrity x will die within the month? Perhaps they need help. Etc.
Those ghoulish bets could actually end up saving lives.
Yeah, they could end up saving lives. Or, if there is enough money in them, they could just as easily lead to assassinations.
These prediction markets can be used for both good and bad.
One of the good examples I gave was politicians betting on whether they would implement their own policies:
How many times have politicians broken their promises once they made it into office? What if they were forced to put their money where their mouth is?
For example, candidate x could personally bet £5 million that they will increase public spending on the NHS if they get in. Sure they still might not do it, but if they don’t they lose £5m.
All it would take is one big name to do this in their campaign and the others would have to follow suit. It could lead to a world of politicians actually being held to account. Imagine that!
And there are countless other examples, both good and bad.
So is Augur good or evil? I would argue it’s neither. It depends on how it’s used.
Because it can’t be controlled, it is merely a reflection of the attitudes and ethics of the people who choose to use it.
Whether it ends up hurting or helping more people in the long run, only time will tell.
Saving lives by circumventing government censorship
In China bad medicine is a big deal.
From the Economist in 2016:
The country [China], it turns out, has been using millions of doses of outdated or improperly stored vaccines for the diseases not covered by the mandatory programme.
[The case] is fast becoming China’s worst medical scandal since 2008. That year, America’s Food and Drug Administration found that a Chinese manufacturer had been adulterating heparin, an anti-blood-clotting drug. There was also a huge public outcry in China that year when it was revealed that more than 300,000 children had fallen ill and six had died after drinking tainted milk.
And this July Futurism.com reported:
The State Drug Administration (SDA), the agency responsible for regulating China’s healthcare industry, announced that vaccine maker Changsheng Bio-Tech had forged data for roughly 113,000 doses of its human rabies vaccine.
The thing is, when this news was first reported, the Chinese authorities took it down.
As a government you don’t really want news getting out that your vaccination programmes have being poisoning your citizens. And in places like China, they have the power to censor the internet.
The Chinese authorities soon removed all traces of the article from the internet and social media platforms. Now they could put their own spin on it and not have “facts” get in the way.
Only they couldn’t, thanks to blockchain.
The writer of the original expose made a transaction on the Ethereum blockchain and recorded their full article into the transaction’s metadata.
It cost them $0.47, and it can never be taken down. Not by anyone.
If you’re interested in seeing it for yourself, you can find it here (to view it, click on the “view input as” dropdown and click UTF-8. But be warned, it’s written in Mandarin).
And this isn’t the first time someone has done this.
In April a student at Peking University in Beijing published an open letter. In it she detailed the threats she’d received after asking her university for information on a long-running sexual assault case involving the suicide of a student.
Chinese internet monitors swiftly removed her letter. So students published it on the Ethereum blockchain.
This one is in English, and you can read it here. (Click on the “view input as” dropdown and click UTF-8.)
It’s much harder to cover something up when it’s impossible to erase the records of it happening.
Is some censorship for our own good?
Of course, you are still relying on the original information being true. Someone or some agency could publish false stories and disinformation on the blockchain.
The technology can’t check for truth. Not yet anyway. Although eventually oracles will help with that.
You could ruin someone’s reputation by posting false allegations about them on the blockchain and even if they were proved to be false in court, no judge could order them to be taken down.
I’m sure judges will try. In fact I can all but guarantee that there will be orders to take down such accusations within the next few years. And probably many political speeches about the need to curb blockchain-based journalism and immutable fake news.
But the politicians and judges will soon realise the limits of their power in this space.
They will be no more effective at censoring blockchain than the famous “old man yells at cloud” meme, which has now been changed to “old man yells at bitcoin”.
Will that be a good or a bad thing?
A good thing in oppressive regimes people will argue. But a bad thing in places with a decent criminal justice system.
Right now Google has to censor many articles in Europe and the UK because of “the right to be forgotten” ruling:
The recent ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union has profound consequences for search engines in Europe. The court found that certain users have the right to ask search engines like Google to remove results for queries that include the person’s name. To qualify, the results shown would need to be inadequate, irrelevant, no longer relevant, or excessive.
Since the ruling there have been 655,000 requests, and Google has taken down 2.4 million links.
Of those removed links, 34,000 were at the behest of government officials and politicians, and 41,000 from celebrities.
I wonder what those 34,000 links about politicians and government officials contained. I guess now we’ll never know.
Tracing the illegal arms trade
One final and definitely – I would argue – good use of blockchain is in tracking arms shipments.
This week the Independent published an article by long-time investigative reporter Robert Fisk. The article was titled:
“I traced missile casings in Syria back to their original sellers, so it’s time for the west to reveal who they sell arms to”
You can read it here.
It detailed his years of investigation into tracing illegal arms used by warlords and terrorists. It turns out most of them, as you can probably guess, come from the West.
But many of the weapons origins were hard or impossible to prove. Papers were “lost”, governments refused to release information, and declined requests for comment.
Indeed, in a political landscape where “regime change” has become a moral, ethical objective, there can be no moral, ethical investigation of just how the merchants of death (the makers) manage to supply the purveyors of death (the killers) with their guns and mortars and artillery. And if any end user says that “allegations” of third parties are “vague and unfounded” – always supposing that the persons saying this are themselves “end users” – this, I promise you, must be accepted as true and unanswerable and as solid as the steel of which mortars are made.
All it would take for all this to change is for weapons makers to have to publish their manufacture and shipment details to the blockchain.
Then everything can be traced and the correct people held to account.
When shipments “went missing” of “fell into the wrong hands” it would be possible to trace exactly where and how they did so.
It obviously wouldn’t stop the illegal arms trade, but it would make manufacturers a whole lot more careful with how they sold their weapons and whom they sold them to.
A good or bad use of blockchain? This one would clearly be good.
What do you think? Let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next time,
Editor, Exponential Investor