Distributed proof of jerk
The blockchain isn’t a magic wand
There’s no doubt about it. The block chain is a genuine innovation. The combination of an open public ledger and distributed proof-of-work is a new way to solve an entire class of problems relating to the management of digital assets. Hence I am always keen to learn about new applications of blockchain technology. I was very interested in a novel application that was suggested on Reddit a little while back.
But how can consentual sex be proven without a shadow of a doubt even if one of the parties decided to say they did not consent after the act took place? How about recording the consent to blockchain?
I was alerted to this by my good friend Izabella Kaminska from FT Alphaville. She had posted it with a comment I took to be a reflection on the gender divide in information technology and the sad tendency of the geek brain to formulate problems in a technological way and thus search for technological solutions. However, as I have a geek brain, I had a more important (to my mind) observation on the blockchain as a record of sexual consent in this way: it won’t work.
No means no, unless you control 51% of the network
It won’t work for the same reason that unobserved electronic voting won’t work, a point I made at the Fourth World Conference on Electronic Voting at the University of Surrey in the UK last year. I was invited to give one of the event keynotes and I choose to provoke the audience into thinking more about the potential use of electronic voting to develop new voting processes rather than simply automating the existing ones.
Why not use electronic voting to improve the democratic process? While there are a great many different possibilities, I thought I would construct four scenarios for using an electronic vote along these lines to improve the voting process. The first is based on engaging young people, the second is based on the “Who wants to be a Millionaire” pub quiz machines, the third is designed to add convenience while reducing costs and the fourth is based on eBay.
My point was that the electronic voting is an interesting topic and a good way to focus thought on a number of issues, but that’s it’s not as simple as texting a vote into one of those dreary talent contests that bedevil prime-time television. This is point that I came back to when commenting on some nutty suggestions on electronic voting in the UK earlier this year. Voting for the government is not the same as voting for Eurovision, because the Eurovision winner does not have power over you.
Voting must be in public in order to dispel any suspicion of coercion. Maybe it won’t have to be a polling booth any more (you could have general elections that last a week during which people can vote at Post Offices or bank branches or whatever), but it has to be somewhere public.
It’s all about coercion, you see. The fact that you put an electronic cross in an electronic box is meaningless unless the “system” can know that you are not coerced. When it comes to voting, we solved this problem by making voting a public act, which is how it must remain in the electronic era. Now, despite all of our surveillance technology, we still don’t know what happens outside the polling booth, so the vote itself must remain observed but secret: the observer must see that you are in a fit state to vote, but not how you vote. This makes it pointless to put a gun to someone’s head outside the polling booth.
Coins and consent
The blockchain does not solve this problem. It records a decision, but it does not record the circumstances. Suppose you were to ply me with Krug in order to get me to vote for George Galloway’s Respect party, or to ply me with Rohypnol in order to get me to read Russell Brand’s “book”: the fact that I put my finger on my iPhone TouchID sensor to assent to either of these unimaginably repulsive acts is useless as a record of consent.
It does not record whether I was coerced or not, nor does it record the mechanism of the coercion. It merely records I was there, but so does DNA evidence and CCTV evidence and mobile phone records and all sorts of other corroborating material. The identification and authentication not matter.
So sorry geeks. Bitcoin isn’t a silver bullet or a magic wand. Until the fingerprint sensor on your phone can also determine blood alcohol content and hormone levels and a variety of other correlating indicators (an idea that I’ve already seen put forward, by the way,) you’re going to be stuck with the old-fashioned negotiated nexus between the genders: respect.