Technology can change the quality of your work for the better—but first you need to recognize it’s possibilities.
Over the past year, I’ve noticed that most people seem to glaze over when I start talking about blockchain, a web-based technology that’s already been demonstrating its potential. It’s not that people are gun-shy about technology. (15 years ago almost none of us were taking portable supercomputers everywhere that we went.) So maybe its because we haven’t needed to master blockchain’s learning curve—gentle though it might be. It’s like the CRISPR gene-splicing tool. We’ve heard that it’s groundbreaking, but have never had enough of a reason to understand why.
The case for understanding blockchain today is strong and getting stronger. It not only holds the potential to transform everything from the banking system (via digital currencies) to the pursuit of social justice (more below), but also the ways that we work everyday. In a future where more of our jobs will be automated or performed more cheaply elsewhere, spending 8 hours a day in an office, lab, classroom, clinic or factory will be the exception rather than the rule. Most of us won’t stop working, we’ll just work differently and, in all likelihood, blockchain technology will be one of the innovations that enable us to do so.
A blockchain is a web-based chain of connections, most often with no central monitor, regulator or editor. Its software applications enable every node in its web of connections to record data which can then be seen and reviewed by every other connection. It maintains its accuracy through this transparency. Everyone with access can see what every other connection has recorded in what amounts to a digital ledger.
Let’s assume that the blockchain involves the buying and selling of Mackintosh apples. Let’s also assume the apples are of equal freshness and quality and that transportation costs will be handled separately. If you’re interested in buying or selling Mackintosh apples, a blockchain digital ledger could allow you to see the prices and quantities in every other transaction on that ledger before you do your own buying or selling. Because this information is already available to you, there is no need for a “middleman” to access it, establish the trading rules or be entitled to a piece of the action. Once buyers or sellers have entered their transaction on the digital ledger, everyone can see it and no one else in the blockchain can change it.
Blockchain-based software can be launched by individuals, organizations or even governments. Software access can be limited to a closed network of participants or open to everyone. A blockchain is usually established to overcome the need for and cost of a “middleman” (like a bank) or some other impediment (like currency regulations, tariffs or burdensome bureaucracy). It promotes “the freer flow” of legal as well as illegal goods, services and information. Blockchain is already driving both modernization and globalization. Over the next several years, it will also have profound impacts on us as individuals.
A year ago, the MIT Technology Review published a two-minute video explanation of this technology called Blockchain Decoded. If you’re still puzzled, this short video can also help you to visualize it.
What Is Blockchain’s Transformative Power?
Before turning to its likely impacts on our work, it helps to understand why blockchain technology has moved to the forefront of many of our on-line interactions today. Christopher Mims, who writes on technology for the Wall Street Journal, gave three reasons for why blockchain is already transforming business models in a column that he wrote a few months back.
First, it’s genuinely well-suited to transactions that require trust and a permanent record [such as business contracts]. Second, blockchain typically requires the cooperation of many different parties [making it suitable to complex customer and supplier networks]. The third reason is [the] hype [that bitcoin has received.] The excitement around cryptocurrency gives blockchain the visibility to attract developers and encourage adaptation.
In other words, because of the fanfare around digital currencies like bitcoin, blockchain technology is rapidly developing its own “ecosystem” of applications in the marketplace.
Some of the lowest hanging fruit has been in the area of supply chain logistics. Mims reports that companies like retailer Walmart and shipping company Maersk are already using blockchain technology to track grocery items and the movement of shipping containers over transportation networks. Companies like Kroger, Nestle, Tyson Foods and Unilever are also using it to monitor the flow of consumer products. Every point in the supply chain logs into a dedicated blockchain “node” to provide source, condition and location information that makes it easier to estimate times of arrival or to identify where goods were damaged.
Mim’s also speaks to blockchain’s longer-term significance, noting “that the most seemingly mundane applications of blockchain could lead to the biggest and most concrete changes in all of our lives.” He continues:
It’s too early to say whether blockchain, as both a technology and a movement, has the power to overcome issues that thwarted generations of software engineers. The most justifiable skepticism is that blockchain is incremental rather than revolutionary. In some cases, it isn’t much more than a marketing term imposed on systems that hardly differ from existing databases….
But if it works, it has the potential to be a fundamental enabling technology, the way new standards for transmitting data across networks led to the internet. More concretely, it could someday underlie everything from how we vote, to who we connect with on line, to what we buy. (emphasis added)
Some Of The Spotlight on Blockchain Comes From Bitcoin
I watched an entertaining and informative documentary this week called The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin. Bitcoin is a blockchain-based digital currency that can be used outside of the formal banking system. Here is a link to the documentary’s trailer and what an L.A Times reviewer said about it after its release in 2014:
Tracing the bitcoin to 2009, when a shadowy figure with the moniker Satoshi Nakamoto first floated the open source, peer-to-peer concept of “global decentralized money,” the documentary follows a community of tech geeks who were among the early adopters.They were soon joined by a parade of high-rolling speculators, libertarians and black market dealers who were all attracted to the notion of a currency that wasn’t tied to the institutional banking system or personal identity.
Inevitably the federal regulators caught up (one of the film’s subjects notes that historically, regulation evolves slower than innovation) and crackdowns and subpoenas followed. As a result, several of those featured bitcoin millionaires are later shown filing for bankruptcy or, in the case of Charlie Shrem, former chief executive of the early bitcoin exchange BitInstant, being arrested. (Last month he pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting the operation of an unlicensed money transmitting business.)
Despite subsequent damage inflicted by hackers and scammers, the bitcoin (currently hovering around $380 to $385) endures.
It’s worth noting that while a single bitcoin had no value in the marketplace a decade ago, the price for one last Friday (8/24/18) was $6,510–so bitcoin both endures and continues to prosper.
I recommend The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin because it’s a rollercoaster of a story and the sensation around the currency itself has driven interest in the blockchain that enables it. Bitcoin’s evolution is also about familiar themes on this page: entrepreneurship, navigating a “whitewater world” of rapid and confounding change in the workplace, and the risk/reward of leaving the security of what you know for the uncertain rewards that might lie over the next hill. This documentary throbs with that kind of adventure.
Blockchain Supports The Pursuit of Social Justice
Last fall, I talked here about the use of blockchain technology to simplify the recording of land titles. Enabling an activity that many of us take for granted is particularly important in developing countries where there can be significant bureaucratic and logistical hurdles to recording property deeds and transfers, particularly for people living outside of the largest cities. Without the ability to establish their ownership of land and of the improvements they have made to their land, poor people often find it impossible to escape from poverty by using “clear title” in their property to secure credit. A blockchain application established by Hernando de Soto and the Institute for Liberty and Democracy is dedicated to streamlining that process for whoever has online access in places like rural South America.
Other blockchain-based applications have recently been developed to store data from multiple, individual sources about atrocities that are being perpetrated in Syria by the Assad regime. For years, activists as well as average citizens have been attempting to document violence by taking photographs and videos as it’s happening with their cell-phones. Failing to record such violence in an accurate manner has consequences. For example, if the brutal chemical attacks against civilians in 2013 and 2017 can’t be documented reliably, it becomes easier for the regime to deny that they happened and for those running Assad’s war machine to escape accountablity. An executive at Truepic, a leading image authentication platform, wrote an article about local civic groups and international organizations like the Syrian American Medical Society that are using blockchain-based software programs to create a visual record of these atrocities that can easily be accessed and can’t be tampered with by anyone after the record has been uploaded.
Technological advances now make it possible to disseminate images and videos around the world in seconds. Journalists and observers can send authenticated, encrypted digital media over local cellular networks or high-speed internet connections. Device sensor data can verify precisely where a photo or video was taken, and the blockchain can ensure its integrity in perpetuity.
For readers whose non-profit work is dedicated to improving access and quality in education, health care, the environment, civic engagement—in fact, nearly anywhere involving diverse client connections—blockchain technology may open up new ways of tackling the problems you’re facing and improving the communities that you serve.
Blockchain Can Pay You For New Increments Of Your Work
All of the jobs that we do include providing products and services that are valuable to others but are difficult to put a price on and impossible to get paid for. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get paid for time and talent that we’re currently giving away for free?
For example I’m reminded of Steemit, a social network profiled here last October.
One of my regular complaints is that most of us are providing social media platforms with our time (the hours we spend liking, commenting, reading, and re-tweeting), our content (photos, videos, tweets, posts, articles and newsletters like this one) and our personal information (about what we watch and buy, about our friends, where we are, what we look like)—FREE OF CHARGE for the privilege of using Facebook or Twitter. We’re providing similar reams of free information about our interests and buying habits by using Google and Amazon.
There’s no question that the information we’re providing has value to these companies and that they’re making billions of dollars by selling our data to advertisers and others who are tracking our behavior. There is also no available way for us to get paid for providing these companies with our time and information.
Steemit’s social network is based on a different business model. It uses its own blockchain-based exchange to pay its users with a digital currency called Steem that can be redeemed in hard currency for your time, content and influence. In other words, you are compensated for small as well as large amounts of engagement and output. For its part, Steemit doesn’t monetize its platform with advertisements. Instead, its revenues come from users investing to promote their content and “earn more” from it. Over time, the digital currency that’s owned by the company also appreciates in value.
I learned about Steemit from a Wired article written by Andrew McMillan and wrote the following at the time:
Those who are active on the [Steemit] network are funding jobs like taking pictures for travel blogs as they wander around the world and their gigs as free-lance writers…
“The more people who like your post, the more you like other people’s posts, the quicker you spot a post that later becomes popular, that is, the more that you contribute to “the human hivemind” on Steemit, the more “money” you can make. McMillen estimates that at least one early-and-often user has accumulated more than a million dollars worth of Steem. In other words, people already have paying jobs on Steemit’s social network. And ‘Steem is the first cryptocurrency that attempts to accurately and transparently reward…[the] individuals who make subjective contributions to its community.’
As Steemit demonstrates, blockchain-based exchanges have already been built that pay individuals for their formerly uncompensated time and effort.
You might recall another October newsletter profiling Balaji Srinivasan, who predicted that blockchain-based digital currency exchanges will change how everyone does business while facilitating payment for every kind of product/service that has value to somebody else and is in limited supply. For him, blockchain is:
a programmable way to value every scarce resource (including, say, your availability to take a 5 minute survey that is sent to you by a marketer), and pay you for that scarce resource (namely, the 5 minutes that you would never have made available if you weren’t being paid for it). Time. Talent. 5-minute tasks. Listening to a lonely stranger [who’s willing to pay for your company]….
Think of it. Everything of value that is in limited supply today can become a commodity for sale in countless jobs–both small and large–because programmers have created an on-line exchange …that can handle each sale and get you paid for it in digital currency without the need for either banks or money as we know it. Compensation simply goes into your digital account.
Moreover, the marketplace could be global. Everyone in the world who has access to the digital ledger in a particular blockchain application would be able to buy and sell their work product. Such a marketplace would be bigger than Amazon’s without the need (or costs) of a company middle-man.
This work-to-benefit exchange, as I’ll call it, hasn’t been built yet, let alone populated by enough “buyers” and “sellers of work” to make the exchange itself and its valuation mechanisms viable, but rest assured, explorers like Balaji Srinivasan are already working through the details.
As 9-5 jobs increasingly disappear, there will be new ways to work and get paid for it. You will still need your talent, skill and vision, marketing, stamina and hustle, but in our lifetimes it will likely be possible “to make a living” in a marketplace where you (along with billions of others) each have a node in a global blockchain. Some people will still work in small and large groups and companies won’t disappear, but some of the void that has been left when traditional workplaces disappear will almost certainly be filled by these kinds of on-line, work-to-benefit exchanges.
Blockchain is a story that won’t be going away, and I’ll continue to cover it as the technology evolves to support the good work that we’re trying to do.
Over the past several months there has been an animated discussion about artificial intelliigence (AI) technologies (that will replace us in the workplace) and intelligence augmentation (IA) technologies (that will make us more productive). Blockchain is an IA technology. It is expanding rather than limiting the ways that we can make a living.
And that’s a cause for hope.
Note: This post was adapted from my August 26, 2018 newsletter.
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