The Trust Infrastructure, or Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun by Nicholas Poussin

I recently attended the excellent Blockchain New Zealand conference

There were some extremely knowledgeable kiwi and international speakers in attendance, but one talk that interested me in particular was by a lady named Kaisi Ruusalepp. Kaisi co-authored the Estonian Digital Signatures Act of 2000; a piece of landmark legislation that enables secure digital identities and, in turn, the country’s electronic economy.

Kaisi’s talk helped me to get through the ‘faster horse’ paradigm that I was stuck in regarding the application and commercialisation of blockchain – particularly when she said, “just think of blockchain as the trust infrastructure”.

The phrase resonated with me: if blockchain is ‘trust infrastructure’ (irrespective of execution details), it’ll surely have very deep and systemic impacts on the way we live our lives, as opposed to it merely being used to supersede an existing technology – e.g. as a better payment messaging infrastructure (this incremental-to-transformative ‘maturity arc’ is of course very often the way with the diffusion of innovation, so I’m not going to beat myself up for not immediately making a cognitive leap :). For where i’m heading, as a parallel think about how the Internet was originally envisaged – hyperlinks as a ‘v2.0 document navigation' technique, intended to supersede page-turning. Now think about where we are today.

From here, I figured the best starting point for my thinking would be to find ways to apply a ‘trust infrastructure’ to my own life… the first question that sprang to mind was, ‘what happens to the concept of ownership if usage can be tracked & payed for with 100% accuracy?’.

  • Will you just be able to live wherever you want to live? A big house for 1 month per year in Central Otago (or Mirabel for that matter), then a flat in Auckland city for 6 months, then rest of your time in Piha – with your mortgage dialling up & down as appropriate, tracking usage in realtime?
  • Could insurance for the contents of the house you’re in immediately transfer to the new owner upon them moving in, thereby incentivising them to look after it (as it’ll belong to them during the time it gets broken) – and, if the new occupant isn’t satisfied with the condition of everything upon taking ownership, then an exception process takes place?
  • Will you be able to learn wherever you like in the world, as blockchain will track completion of learning modules across institutions, building up as you go – with no particular ‘end point’ to learning; rather the individual is rated by employers etc. on the type and number of modules they’ve completed (thereby not requiring any kind of ‘whoever ends up holding the student when the music stops has to provide qualification’ challenges)?
  • Will you be able to work in a pure gig-economy, where employers pay you for working on a project that also accrues superannuation, health benefits (leave?) etc. from that employer for the duration(s) you worked for them – with this ‘unit’ of super/healthcare etc. then getting added to your overall superannuation & healthcare ‘pool’ that’s been created through multiple employers over time?

I have no idea how things will play out (however, by the look of Webjet’s outstanding case study presented at the conference on using blockchain to aid reconciliation across the travel industry value-chain, I’d suggest adoption is closer than we think), but if the blockchain’s diffusion curve looks anything like that of previous transformative technologies, the ramifications of a repeatable method to build trust infrastructures beneath our day-to-day lives will be far more wide-ranging and foundational than taking paper out of a few administrative processes.