We have been hearing increasingly about polarization, a “post-truth” world, and a fragmented media landscape. Before the printing press in the 15th century, religion was the unchallenged provider of worldviews, but narratives traveled mainly by word of mouth. Since then, the rise of broadcast and print media provided the ability to swiftly “manufacture consent” from the top down to the masses.
The internet promised to give more voice to the public by eliminating the need for a gatekeeper’s stamp of approval. Without a doubt it has democratized access to platforms, but also created new mechanisms for controlling the message. Private corporations can take away platforms and “cancel” whomever they see fit, without submitting to legal standards imposed on legacy media organizations. This seemingly arbitrary exercise of power has given rise to mistrust and conspiracy theories.
Veteran crypto commentator Balaji Srinivasan proposes a new approach: decentralized media. This would entail using blockchain to build both an immutable record of facts, and censorship-resistant creator outlets. Though the latter would function independently from one another, with a similar architecture they could be inter-operated and support curated feeds and recommendation systems. However, this piece digs into the first piece of the equation: the unchangeable record of facts and what it involves.
Lots of people talk about “the blockchain” these days, but not enough people actually understand what it is. Allow me to explain. A blockchain is a chain of “blocks,” which are sets of data entries in a ledger that exists in many computers. The information contained within those blocks is immutable. Once established, it cannot be changed by anyone. We won’t get into the extensive details of why it’s unchangeable, but suffice to say that (in some blockchains) there are extremely complex computations involved in this process.
You’ve probably heard that Bitcoin, for instance, which exists on a blockchain, requires a huge amount of energy. In order to meddle with a Bitcoin block, a would-be fraudster would need to hold over half of the computing power in the network, which is functionally impossible. To drive home this point, look again at Bitcoin: In its 12 years of existence, there are no known cases of counterfeits.
That brings us back to Srinivasan: “Fundamentally, the breakthrough of Bitcoin was that an Israeli and a Palestinian, or a Democrat and a Republican, or a Japanese person and a Chinese person all agree on who has what Bitcoin on the Bitcoin blockchain.” As we’ve seen with the rise of NFTs, blockchain doesn’t have to be used only for cryptocurrency. It can be used for other types of information, too — and can serve as an immense repository of data that can’t be meddled with.
From polls to sensor data to primary research measurements, objective facts and the metadata around them could become universally trusted. This is especially true of data of the type: “who said what when” or “what measurement instrument recorded what when.” An open-source blockchain with distributed miners decouples the data from the need for third-party corroboration. Once it’s inputted, it is there to stay.
This kind of technological development has huge potential to benefit humankind. Agreement on a common set of facts is the basis of all cooperation. What has taken us to the top of the food chain in large part is our ability to tell stories and collaborate by the millions. But in a low-trust environment, our stories are met with fear and suspicion that they serve ideological lies. In a high-computation environment, blockchain enables the information economy to rely on cryptographic transparency.
Srinivasan has a vision of decentralized media that would not rely on a “paper of record” so much as it would a “ledger of record.” It would be a blockchain-backed database to store facts that anyone can access and index. He argues that citizen journalism will replace corporate journalism thanks to this infrastructure (for source quality, along with other blockchain solutions for publishing and distribution). Society would thus no longer entrust private corporations and institutions with curating “fiat information” that the public is meant to believe. The “crypto-information” supply chain, traceable and transparent, will add a key layer of verification for people to evaluate others’ claims.
Indeed, blockchain can engender a paradigm shift in the information economy. Here is how it would impact a few industries:
1. Research and academia
Peer-reviewed scientific publications rely on credentialed researchers to submit their results such that they can be replicated by other scientists before they are published. But in the event of a pandemic that requires global cooperation to understand a virus in a short span of time, replication standards are revised for a much faster turnaround. This has contributed to conspiracy theorists, sometimes with a medical degree, profiting from misguided contrarianism on social-media.
A blockchain-enabled repository of research data would be independent from establishment institutions with strong ties to the elites and government. The public could have complete access to researchers’ data. It would include not just results but all data collected as well as the code needed to compute it. Researchers who wish to build a reputation can use the immutability of their inputs to their peril or advantage. A decentralized outlet would also mean that third parties could not use their distributive power to exercise pressure against a given ideology.
2. Food supply chain
We depend on the FDA, grocery chains, and department stores to ensure our foodstuff’s safety and origin. However, our food systems are global and worldwide supply chains operate under intractable quality-assurance standards. For example, Africa accounts for 12% of the world’s coffee production. While fair-trade labels develop local relationships with farmers who promise not to have children work the land, they rely on imprecise mechanisms to guarantee against such practices.
Even with unscheduled controls or production-sample pesticide testing, we cannot track with confidence several metrics instrumental to our food’s quality. Blockchain solutions provide indelible, decentralized records of who approved what, when, from where, and for which produce. Blockchain-backed sensor data as facilitated by Nodle can also monitor the temperature under which certain products were kept on a cold chain. Final customers could have access to this data by scanning a QR code, and even tip small farmers with cryptocurrency if they so desired.
3. Surveys and polls
Polling organizations like Gallup and Pew Research Center acquire critical information on political sentiment. They handle complex statistical collections behind a curtain and offer their insights as a service. We treat those and others as authoritative sources, but they are not verifiably transparent. They have a culture which subjects them to bias, are vulnerable to misaligned incentives between users and shareholders, and are susceptible to both external hacking and internal tampering.
Traditional polling organizations and think tanks do not boast features that would allow disparate segments of a population to agree on the facts they advance. Blockchain-backed polling would allow society to gather unchangeable, distributed inputs to societal questions along with the metadata that come with them. Proof of identity, proof of location, timestamp, and survey responses would be cryptographically encoded on a public ledger.
The technology behind a blockchain in the information economy (or a centralized corporation that would tool such a venture) must be more enabling than it is constraining. Ventures or DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) must tailor the blockchain’s scalability, decentralization, security, and economic barriers to their purpose. Sometimes, this calls for ecosystem changes be they technological, cultural, or policy-driven. Nevertheless, blockchain technologies herald disruptive opportunities to revisit our information economy.