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Blockchains and societies

Some practical and impractical applications and implications of blockchain.

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Photo Credits: Flickr

Blockchains are useful when you need to maintain an immutable history of transactions in which both parties do not trust each other as well as the intermediary. It is also useful in maintaining the anonymity of the participants in a transaction. Given these characteristics what does it mean for countries and societies at different levels of development and organization?

Close to dysfunctional government

Honduras recently has an incident where the top level bureaucrats went into the system allocated whole swaths of land to themselves. Such incidents do not inspire confidence in the authority which is supposed to safe guard people’s land rights and resolve dispute. A solution using blockchain to maintain land records was proposed to solve this problem.

Fiscally irresponsible government

When Argentina faced run-away inflation in 1989 people lost trust in the value of the currency. A currency such as bitcoin which is based on the blockchain technology can be a recourse for people in such a situation as no country can alter the supply of a digital currency forcefully.

Societies with irresponsible media

News based on photographs and videos taken on mobile phones are increasing becoming common on social media as well as main stream media. Unfortunately, so is their tampering and obfuscation. A system where all media is put on a blockchain before it is shared will ensure that it cannot be edited or deleted later on. Thus there will always be a permanent link to the that piece of information which can be visited in case of confusion or controversy.

Societies with poor banking services

Since trust is in distributed in the network peer-to-peer money transfers can be enabled with the inter-mediation by banks. The commission for mining will still have to be paid but the transaction can be recorded on distributed ledger and no one will be able to contest it.

Societies lacking unique identity documents

Services such as onename or keybase use blockchain technology to authenticate users uniquely. Other features like bio-metric information or attributes like address, birthdate, etc. can also be added on top of this.

Societies with authoritarian governments

The transactions on a blockchain are anonymous and thus difficult to track. They can be used for conducting transactions when the parties involved do not want to reveal themselves. Though the privacy provided is not as strong as it seems and there have been many instances when actual people behind the pseudonyms and keys have been identified.

Societies where stock exchanges do not function properly

Since a trusted intermediary is not needed blockchain can be used to trade digital assets or assets which can be uniquely represented in the digital form. This can also be applied to betting markets.

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Kanhaiya Kumar and blockchain

In a society with severe trust deficit technology can help bridge the gap.


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There have been many victims in the JNU incident but none suffered greater damage than the credibility of the media, especially the TV reportage. Video journalism was on the rise throughout the last decade but with the proliferation of smart phones this took a different turn altogether. Everyone can be a reporter now and not just write but present video proof in real time. The Kanhaiya Kumar case brought out another aspect of the video technology out in the open for everyone to see, that it can doctored. And doctored easily. We can expect this drama to go on for a while. Now that some videos have been found out to be fake, people will deny that they were aired. They will try to create obfuscation about the timing and the exact content of the videos. The hope is that you create so much confusion that people stop believing anything. But what if you had a very simple and tamper-proof way of checking the authenticity of the video or any other media?

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Enter blockchain. Blockchain is the technology behind the crypto-currency bitcoin. One of its fundamental properties is that it de-centralizes trust. You do not need to trust a central authority to do transactions or maintain records. Another property is that the history cannot be altered. Once a transaction is recorded in what is known as the distributed ledger then it cannot be tampered with. What it needs is a lot of individuals to run nodes (a software) on their own computers. The more people run the nodes, the more secure and fool-proof the system becomes. You can imagine it as a tweet which cannot be deleted.

It makes sense to put such videos on the blockchain. Once they are there no one can dispute or create confusion about the timing or exact contents of the videos. This is greatly help with quick resolution of facts instead of getting wound-up in endless hours of deciphering who said what. The best thing is that everyone can participate in the maintenance of the network and no one person or organization is responsible for it. There are many technical details that need to be figured out – like using the SHA1 hash of the video might be good enough, an incentive structure for running the nodes, etc.

Ultimately, no technology can help if there is no social capital for its adoption. But the blockchain technology is tailor-made to work in situations where there is a trust deficit. And the current Indian media qualifies.

Siddarth Gore is a Research Scholar at the Takshashila Institution and he tweets @siddhya

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