Thinking of uses for BlockChains

Kevin Kelly has written an insightful blog post about Class 1 / Class 2 Problems. I encourage you to read it.

I agree with the thesis, but not the specific conclusion.

Blockchain tech could unleash collaborations of several million members working on one project in real time, or orgs that are far more leaderless than today.


Projects like the Linux Kernel already have thousands of contributors - it may well be the largest, most distributed successful tech project. But it's not clear what putting people's work in a distributed ledger would do to encourage more users.

Twitter has millions of people generating content for it. Could a magic blockchain give people micro-cents every time their post was upvoted? Maybe. But that doesn't require a blockchain.

Could a global art project distribute funds via a smart contract? I guess. But with millions of users, people will gravitate towards leaders. Even if it's just following the way a paid-for "influencer" votes.

I too think that most of the tech problems inherent in DLT / smart contracts can be solved. But it isn't immediately clear what use they will be. And that is kind-of exciting!

Quick Definitions

Blockchains and Smart Contract are, when boiled down to their essence, simple propositions.

Blockchain: We all agree on the contents of this document, and its past can never be edited.

Smart Contracts: When these conditions are met, a set of computers will perform specific actions.

Both technologies only really work in cases where you can be assured that no mistakes can ever be made. If you make a mistake in a regular contract, you can go to court and get it reversed. A smart contract means code is law and no takie-backsies.

I don't know whether lawyers make more mistakes per line of contract than programmers make per line of code. I'd be willing to bet that coder are worse.

Similarly, are you 100% sure the information you're appending to a chain is 100% correct? There have been a number of high-profile "Fat Finger" incidents where professionals have typed the wrong number into a computer system and caused undesirable outcomes. That's reversible in traditional systems - but not so on a consensus based ledger.

But, let's assume some of these problems are surmountable. What are some good use-cases for these technologies?

Future Gazing

DRM is an obvious one. At the moment, I can't resell a digital copy of a book, movie, or video game. Suppose an MP3 came with a digital signature. A music player could look at a Blockchain and only play the music for the user who had the most recent entry in the chain. When I sell my MP3 to you, I enter your signature after mine. Now I can't play that music and you can.

We could also integrate a Smart Contract into the service to create a modern day "Spotify". Every time the MP3 is played - the computer playing it looks up the music's signature in a smart contract and splits a micro-transaction between the composer, publisher, singer, musicians, sound engineer, cover-art designer and so on. Rather than sending money to Spotify and hoping that they pay the publisher - and that the publisher distributes it fairly - a smart contract guarantees that all the creatives and investors receive the correct recompense.

Which, I guess is fine. Although it relies on everyone upgrading all their hardware and software, rebuying all their media again, and hoping that every media company uses the exact same platform. And that the drummer for the band didn't accidentally sign their rights away. And that no-one removes the DRM from their purchases.

Transferring ownership rights is problematic because they are susceptible to coercion attacks. Let's say someone holds a gun to your head and makes you transfer property to them. That is, you get mugged. If the police catch the rascal, they can hand your property back to you - even if it has subsequently been resold.

But that cannot happen on a decentralised blockchain. If the robber is unwilling or unable to transfer ownership back to you - you're out of luck.

So we don't want to use a chain or a smart contract for anything high-value.

How about things like social media? Well, I'm sure we've all posted something that we've later come to regret and decided to delete it. And I'm sure we've all fat-fingered a ❤️ that we didn't mean. So we probably don't want to use a chain from anything which could prove embarrassing.

Perhaps codifying human laws? Being able to say "on date X, the law said Y" might be useful. But governments tend to have both a lot of lawyers and guns. They can make things retroactively illegal if they want. Sure, everyone knows the law used to say "all animals are equal" - but having an indelible record isn't a defence against the fact that, now, "some animals are more equal than others."

Being wrong in public

I really hope I'm wrong about all of this. Blockchains are fascinating data structures, and Smart Contracts are intriguing execution environments. But I've yet to have someone explain to me what they could be useful for.

I remember when the Web debuted. It was pretty compelling proposition. Instantly updated prices, no geo-restrictions on information, permissionless publishing, free access to communications. Sure, there were a few busts, and not everything worked first time. Possibly this is hindsight talking - but it seemed like a natural evolution.

Blockchains and Smart Contracts are either a paradigm shift - in the original sense of the phrase - or they are the "flying car" of the web age. Something constantly promising to revolutionise the world - but never really delivering.

8 thoughts on “Thinking of uses for BlockChains

  1. says:

    IMO a lot of the supposed value about these systems falls apart if you consider the power that big companies have. There's nothing stopping us from making our own fair version of Spotify right now, but record labels have the money to outspend and outlive a grassroots competitor.

  2. Dave Cridland says:

    Blockchains are a fascinating solution to a problem we haven't found yet.

  3. How would a blockchain / distributed ledger tech be made compliant with GDPR? Simply adding corrections as later data blocks is not sufficient for compliance.

    That's before looking at the terrible environmental cost of proof-of-work 🙁

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