What is the blockchain good for? Increased transparency, distributed control, and the elimination of tedious administrative work certainly sound exciting, but we can’t put off conversations about the social impact of our work. Old industries used to call the negative effects of their work “externalities,” and it would sometimes take decades to discover the negative social effects and environmental destruction that had been wreaked by a new technological process. Software is collaborative and fast, which means early technical and ethical decisions will have a huge impact on the way new technologies evolve.
How stable or equitable should new systems be before we invite the world in to trust us with their data or their money? Certification, gatekeeping, or network effects that rely on traditional access to power will lock out many of the people who would otherwise benefit from the blockchain’s potential. The anonymity the blockchain offers can empower individuals or provide cover for powerful entities that we might collectively want to hold accountable. We also need to address the amount of processing power required for significant participation in blockchain networks. If we don’t address these issues, we may find that we will have built an extremely efficient system to fleece the most vulnerable members of society.
Deb Nicholson explains why, before “disrupting” existing systems by replacing them with the blockchain, we must ensure that the power and potential to improve lives is real and reasonably evenly distributed. We owe it to the future to make good early decisions and to refrain from overselling the blockchain’s potential to be a force for good until we’re certain it is.
Deb Nicholson is the director of community operations at Software Freedom Conservancy, where she supports the work of its member organizations and facilitates collaboration with the wider free software community. A free software policy expert and a passionate community advocate, Deb previously served as the community outreach director for the Open Invention Network, a shared defensive patent pool on a mission to protect free and open source software, and the membership coordinator for the Free Software Foundation. She won the O’Reilly Open Source Award for her work with GNU MediaGoblin, a federated media-hosting service, and OpenHatch, Free Software’s welcoming committee. She’s also a founding organizer of the Seattle GNU/Linux Conference, an annual event dedicated to surfacing new voices and welcoming new people to the free software community. She lives with her husband and her lucky black cat in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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