Blockchain and the neutrality of technology

Prior to last summer, I had literally never heard of blockchain, cryptocurrencies or Bitcoin. Now, in October, I find myself writing my dissertation on this very topic. Although, granted, I might personally have joined the hype a little late, I am not alone. As the Google trends graph below confirms, these terms have only started gaining momentum in popular discussion very recently.

Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 15.02.15.png

Despite this snowballing talk of blockchain, we are still in a phase when IT geeks and fintech specialists are really the only predominant contributors to the conversation. Surprisingly enough, ethics and politics are still mentioned in the general literature, as questions such as ‘do cryptocurrencies enable fraud?’, ‘do miners act responsibly?’ and ‘does blockchain facilitate democracy?’ seem to prevail. Although interesting debates, what these questions all have in common is a concern for how people might use blockchain. In this way, they reduce the role of the technology to a mere passive tool; one which humans can decide for themselves to what ends they will be utilised. In other words, the general consensus is an instrumentalist view of technology.

But should we regard technology – and specifically blockchain – as a passive, ethically neutral object?

If, as some claim, the disruptive potential of blockchain is comparable to that of the Internet a couple decades ago, it’s probably worth exploring the flip side of this unquestioned, wide-spread viewpoint before the world actually morphs into a Black Mirror episode.

But first, let me take a step back.


A little intro to blockchain technology

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I don’t blame you.

In essence, a blockchain is a digital record of transactions that is distributed to every computer connected to the network. Dating back from the 90s, blockchain on its own is not a new technology. It’s only since 2008, when someone known by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto masterminded Bitcoin, that blockchain really took off and started bearing the functions we associate it with today.

With Nakamoto’s developments, digital transactions between individuals can now be authorised by being encrypted on a constantly updating blockchain, thus making the record of all transactions public and immutable.

A blockchain is therefore a decentralised digital system of transactions, as it relies on an automated technology for verification, rather than having to place trust on a human intermediary, or a ‘clearing house.’

Centralised traditional ledgers versus decentralised public ledgers (source)

For more in-depth explanations of blockchain and Bitcoin, take a look at the two videos below.


The financial crisis and the neutrality of Bitcoin

In light of what I mentioned about blockchain being viewed as merely a tool, it’s unsurprising that Nakamoto’s paper on Bitcoin was published in 2008, and therefore that the decentralized nature of blockchain materialized from the ashes of the global financial crisis. It represented a resolution for the widespread lack of confidence in financial institutions, as it introduced a way to cut away all the human fallibility, corruption and politics, otherwise an inexorable aspect in financial transactions.

In the words of Bitcoin developer Jeff Garzik, “when power is concentrated in the hands of a few powerful people there is a risk of catastrophe, corruption and chaos. Decentralizing a system hands power to immutable mathematics.”

Notice his wording: ‘immutable mathematics’. Garzik forwards the idea that the technology that underlies Bitcoin is more secure, and therefore superior, to any potentially corruptible human intermediary. The implication is therefore that the blockchain is politically and ethically neutral and infallible.

As I’ve already touched upon, this view is not confined to Garzik. The overarching consensus is that, just like a knife can be used to cook, kill or cure, blockchain can serve the intent of its users and act to fulfil their moral stance.

Indeed, it is often the case that finance ethics is concerned with “values such as privacy, democracy, autonomy, and with the behaviour of humans such as bankers, money traders, etc. and the fairness of financial institutions.” Although technology is considered, it is seen as normatively neutral.

It’s true, the behaviour of humans is highly political and must undergo ethical evaluation… but who is to say that the same shouldn’t be done for technology?

Jackson Watts’ iPod example is fitting: an iPod is only truly an iPod when it acts as one, and not a paperweight. Inherent to what iPods mean for society are the intentions of its creator and the possibilities and limits of its design. Ultimately, form cannot be divorced from function.

In the same way, blockchain is more than just a neutral intermediary, as it, too, is inseparable from its human creation. In fact, intrinsic to the development of blockchain is the objective of a libertarian utopia, where transactions can take place freely between individuals without the interference of a central authority.

This is reflected in the possibilities and limits of the design: for example, a lack of centralised authority for financial transactions implies that remittances are cheaper and access to money is less bureaucratic and ‘freer’… but any form of income redistribution becomes impossible, as only those with money can have access to it. This marks the first normative bias of the technology.

A further limitation, which ironically goes against this libertarian dream of decentralisation, is the fact that the process of verifying transactions and expanding the blockchain requires massive computational power. This creates an incentive for people who undertake this process to do it in places where energy is particularly cheap. The result, which is already materialising, is the centralisation of the process in places like China. This, as well as the fact that computational power ultimately requires energy consumption, once again demonstrates how the very structure of the technology bears political and ethical implications.

We are slowly coming to unveil how blockchain is not just a means to an ethically-charged end, but rather that this charge is intrinsic to the technology.

If we turn again to the skepticism of the financial crisis, we can now say that people took their trust away from biased humans, only to feel better when placing it in the hands of a biased technological system.

And this is not just limited to blockchain. This example sheds light on how our society, and the tech industry in particular, is deeply invested in the belief that technology is ethically neutral. Upholding this consensus enables those who create the technology to not be held responsible, and at the same time reaffirms the personal autonomy of users. But, as we have seen, this view is highly problematic.


What this all means…

You’re probably thinking, ‘ok, blockchain is not a neutral intermediary… so what?’ Ultimately, this analysis gives us a framework for how we ought to view blockchain, and other technologies, when developing science policy.

Given that blockchain is a representation of a political system, and assuming that it does indeed have Internet-like disruptive potentials, the implication of it remaining unregulated is that it will affect the way in which inter-personal transactions work – possibly to an extent where the changes become irreversible. Hence, one science policy consideration, as prompted by Van de Poel, is whether the development of blockchain technology should be regulated so as not to force non-consenting individuals to be subjected to it without the possibility to ‘opt out.’

However, we shouldn’t even leave this reflection at the realisation that technology is ethically non-neutral, as, don’t forget, ours is an ethically diverse society. We must therefore ask ourselves: which ethical vision should the design, development and deployment of potentially disruptive technologies be guided by? Indeed, as Michael Sacasas points out, this is perhaps exactly why we are “invested in the myth of technology’s neutrality in the first place,” as it simplifies the reality of having to live with competing ethical principles.

Although it’s not within the scope of this post for me to argue which ethical standpoint is correct, or to construct a method on how we ought to go about deciding, I have nonetheless debunked an important prevailing assumption: that of technological neutrality. The aim is that this will prompt popular discourse and science policy to appreciate that considering blockchain, and technology in general, as ethically neutral is an oversight and a simplification of reality.



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