God forgives, our technology can never.
Soon, it won’t forget, either, and that heralds a profound concern: the impossibility for redemption.
This impossibility should never be allowed. Yet I fear blockchain requires it.
Blockchain is essentially a widely distributed, digitized ledger that records online transactions and interactions. Any purchase you make, home you sell, contract you sign, any promise you give — made via the blockchain — is as good, as certain, as verifiable, perhaps more so, than all traditional forms. With blockchain technology, your actions, transactions, and interactions are certified and can’t be altered.
In all but the fullest sense of the word.
Understand, I come here not to bury the blockchain, but to limit it.
Blockchain has tremendous potential to rid ourselves of gatekeepers, to tear down high barriers to entry, to banish centralized powers to the 20th century, to throw out those people, institutions and companies which charge exhorbitant fees to “verify” and/or “record” and/or “archive” any transaction.
Blockchain is what powers bitcoin and similar cryptocurrencies and it’s potential — potential — cannot be over-emphasized. It could rival that of: the Internet Protocol meets cash money. Blockchain can be used for (any/all) transactions where we buy and sell — cars, houses, used furniture, a fleet of packaged goods, a tanker of oil, our time. But it can also be used to record our health information. Theoretically, it can be used to make a ledger of our tweets, our searches, our likes, our ratings, how others rate us, any of our digital interactions, whatever these may become.
But it can’t be erased.
This is a problem.
How do we take full control — full ownership — of our data when all the world’s gone blockchain?
Declaration: We must not allow blockchain to be used in any manner where we cannot ensure that we can engage an interaction fully anonymously or where we cannot rescind our involvement. What if you wish to ever erase a tweet, a transaction, any record of that adult book you downloaded?
Everyone has the right to be born again.
The (theoretical) potential of blockchain is immense, as are the money and organizations promoting its pervasive use. Blockchain may enable billions to escape the enforced-by-law-and-gun restrictions of fiat currency. It might radically cut fees and costs associated with every transaction of financial value, enabling billions of humans to leap into the global digital economy. Blockchain can democratize access to capital, information, and talent.
But we must have a personal out.
The freedom to be forgotten, forgiven, to not be tied to our past deeds, misdeeds, statements, impetuousness, ills, hate, should be absolute. We are in many ways the sum of our past, the present tense of a lifetime of choices, actions and refusals, but we can also be more than this — or less than this, or different from this. Blockchain suggests no escape.
We must not allow this.
This will be a difficult battle, but it is necessary.
We are immersed in technology. We spend hours every day displacing our physical self, transferring it inside screens, within online platforms, games, meeting spaces, and this can remove us from the trueness of life, of physical contact, of acceptance and truth. There is a budding movement to enforce limits on screen time for children, for families, for us at work, for the better. To make us fully present in our life, this world, with our fellow humans.
But this is not enough.
We need to be fully empowered to not just limit our engagement with screens but to be free of them should we ever so choose. For all the time we do spend online, inscreen, and for the statements we make, the information we search, the pleasures we seek, there must be a means of having that deleted.
A forever (e-)paper trail of your life, no matter how you change or what different you become, is not liberating but imprisoning.