Pandora's Box

The Blockchain’s Pandora’s Box

in Society by

There is an ideological outlook, arguably cypherpunk in origin, which sees the Blockchain as essentially the latest evolutionary step in internet technology.

And according to this outlook, whilst the internet’s underlying architecture is democratic  – TCP’s non-discriminatory approach to packet transmission – it nonetheless underpins a whole infrastructure of services which are anything but.

Servers are centralised as are the websites they dish up. If government X decides to shut down website Y – legally or otherwise – it will. And you don’t really need to be a government to take down a website – a lone wolf implementing a DNS attack will suffice. The disadvantages in a service being hosted, then, by a single node are obvious.

Blockchain technology, by platforming a given service across a series of nodes which remain in sync through some kind of consensus mechanism, now means that we have opened up a whole new world in which we can offer what will essentially be impregnable services. Whilst that may generally be considered a good thing, however, that may not necessarily always be the case.

Bitcoin Child Porn

That point was made by a story that went viral a few months back – and that, as it happens, was exaggerated out of all proportion – in which it was pointed out that some Bitcoin transactions contain meta-data which themselves contain links to child pornography on the net.

Whilst in practice those child pornography links aren’t particularly accessible, the point still stands that blockchain technology does allow for immutable storage of data – and if that data is slanderous, criminal, obscene or anything else, then we have a problem.

Of course, the Blockchain is not the first technology to open up a Pandora’s Box. The Internet itself – in combination with 3D printing – now offers, in theory, the ability for anyone anywhere to manufacture their own lethal arms. But where the Blockchain takes a step further is that its own lethal manifestations cannot be eradicated.

The Net Effect

We can accept, then, that this opening of Pandora’s Box will bring benefits and disadvantages. The question now is whether the overall effect will be a positive one or negative.

To answer that, we could begin by listing out the benefits that blockchain technology will inevitably bring – tamper-proof elections; transparent accounting; democratic, borderless banking … Then we could pit that against the downsides: permanent records of sullied data – going from anywhere from data which is simply erroneous through to data which is harmful.

The problem, of course, is that no-one can draw up a definitive list of either – never mind both – and, even if we could, it becomes a matter of subjective judgement in determining if/whether the benefits outweigh the cons. My own suspicion, however, is that, over the long-term, for most of us most of the time, the benefits will easily win out. No matter, Pandora’s Box has been opened – and observing the dénouement of the entire blockchain phenomenon, whatever the outcome, is about to make for a gripping ride.