We need to talk about "blockchain"

A version of this article first appeared in Le Monde on May 5th 2019.  Katrin Becker is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Luxembourg.  Additionally, she is currently a Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Nantes. The Original version of this article can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/y4x4d9zy

We need to talk about "blockchain"

“The blockchain is revolutionizing the structures of society”, it is “changing the world”, we are currently reading in many articles. And if we look at the number of financial, governmental, entrepreneurial and other domains in which this technology is currently implemented, and at how it actually operates, this seems like a reasonable conclusion. What is blockchain – and why is it high time to open a broader public debate on its use and implications?

A blockchain is a public, decentralized, digitized registry that abolishes the need for a trusted third party to verify information prior to its registration, or to monitor the execution of a transaction. Thanks to a consensual, transparent and tamper-proof validation process, it enables the immutable and secure storage of (cryptographic) data.  By way of smart contracts – small computer programs operating according to the “IF-THEN” logic – the execution of transactions is rendered automatic and incorruptible: for example, upon reception of an amount in cryptocurrency, the smart door of the rented apartment opens or the ownership of a good is transferred to the buyer.

Thus, this “technology can convey confidence without the need of involving a third party, usually an authority or institution (a bank, a post office, a state, a municipality, etc.). [...] Blockchain therefore contains the theoretical power to suppress intermediaries and trusted third parties” (Information Report No. 1501, Assemblée Nationale in France).

Blockchain therefore raises the question of the neutral third party who oversees, legitimizes, guarantees: the core element of the functioning of culture.  According to the philosopher and legal historian Pierre Legendre, every society needs to establish a “great third” (Le Tiers) (God, the State, the People ...) which represents its collective imagination and sens commun, and serves as a credible and shared reference. It is in the name of this Third that a society and its members constitute their identity, that the legal and institutional system can act as a system of trust, setting the common values that allow the exchange between its members. Yet, blockchain promises to get rid of these structures of intermediate third parties (the legal system, the financial system) in favour of flattened bilateral self-executing transactions: the only entity seemingly needed being the source code of the blockchain ...

The advantage sought is to free the subject from the hands of big data-collecting companies, banking systems or corrupt states. In this regard, blockchain technology is part of the ideology of the “digital revolution” and its underlying idea of a heteronomy-free society that is programmable and governed by numbers (Alain Supiot). However, the possibilities of blockchain go even further: understood as a “truth machine” that is “more reliable than any truth we’ve ever seen” (Casey / Vigna, The Truth Machine) blockchain creates an entirely new system of representation.

To be legitimate, any institutional and legal system needs to be recognized by its subjects. The enthusiasm with which this technology is welcomed, with its promise of automation of legal functions that are programmable case-by-case, of customizable government services, or systems of “peer-to-peer democracy”, not only reveals a specific mind-set, but attests to a vision of individual and social life that risks undermining this very recognition. The increasing proliferation of blockchain projects gives this vision a new legitimacy and wide amplitude.

Due to its legal-cultural dimension, blockchain technology could have profound implications for the functioning and validity of the current institutional system. It therefore seems appropriate to open an in-depth debate that goes beyond a discussion of possibilities of legal regulation, the exploration of new application fields or its impact on consumer behavior.

This debate should begin with a general information campaign concerning this new technology which is supposed to have an impact on all social structures and yet still seems largely unknown to the general public. In addition, there should be in-depth analyses of the structural risks of abuse of dominant positions by those working on its implementation. Each application of blockchain code which ensures the immutability and traceability of transactions, which guarantees their automatic execution and which will soon control a growing number of smart objects (connected cars, smart locks, drones), may indeed confer increased power to those who know how to use it – especially in the context of private blockchains, which operate under the control of a central entity.

But the main task seems to be to raise awareness of its impact on the core elements of our society: how will the fundamental principles of our legal system be affected by the introduction of programmable and automated law (the “lex cryptographica”) that “finally” abolishes, as is enthusiastically stated, contractual ambiguity and the need for interpretation –  and thus, at the same time, the margin that allows to compensate for unforeseeable injustices? How can the state system guarantee its validity, while promoting a technology that proclaims the obsolescence of its own institutions? In the light of such questions, the dissemination of this “trustless trust” technology should raise more than a little mistrust, and especially needs to be followed and accompanied by a critical philosophical, anthropological and sociological view.

Katrin Becker

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