How The Internet Domesticates Us & Blockchain Will Set Us Free

As everyone knows, the internet has brought incredible benefits to modern civilization including unprecedented access to information, streamlined communications, and free education. We’ve also seen a transformation in the way that business is conducted; we can purchase virtually any product or service with the click of a button and have it delivered within a couple days. Despite all of these advantages, there is a glaring drawback. Just like the proverbial yin and yang, there are shadows cast wherever light shines.

The Internet of Your Data

The internet gave us a new wealth of information and connectivity to people around the world, but we fell for one of the oldest tricks up a magician’s sleeve: misdirection. While we took advantage of the convenience of the modern internet, companies and governments started collecting and analyzing data about our behavior. Most of us had no control of, access to, or even awareness of this data. We were excited to be able to purchase products more easily, but companies collected information about our browsing and spending habits and began using that information to ‘suggest’ and sometimes limit our buying options. We enjoyed improvements in communications, streamlined business and being able to remotely connect with friends and family, but we did not consider how easily those exchanges could be recorded and mined for information.

Think about how you arrived at this very article and how many companies and/or government entities are aware that you’re reading it. Maybe you saw a link on Facebook? Facebook knows. Did you find it on Google? Google knows. Maybe someone sent you a link? Both of your email providers know. In addition, your web browser or mobile phone provider know, your internet provider knows, any company with cookies in your browser knows. Hell, even I know! But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Digital Advertising industry generated $230 billion in revenue in 2017. And guess what their product is? It’s you and your data! And guess who sells it to them? If you’ve been reading the news about the Facebook data fiasco, you already know the answer.

The Dystopian Future We Feared Has Arrived

Anyone that has read George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or another similar dystopian story should be well aware of the potential for technology to be an agent of mass manipulation. Usually, fiction portrays this as humans using technology maliciously to control and suppress many of the things that make us uniquely human: creativity, emotions, choice, and free will. Perhaps it’s time to dust-off your copy of 1984 — Orwell’s dystopian imagination is not so far away as your high school self may have thought.

A world where governments use technology as a tool of constant surveillance and manipulation is closer than we imagine. Most of this is done in the name of safety and identifying threats to national security, but the world today is gaining ‘safety’ at the expense of the freedom to make our own choices and not be manipulated. Do you remember PRISM, the NSA surveillance program leaked by Snowden in 2013? We found out that centralized platforms that we trusted like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft had been turning over all of our personal information to the NSA under the authority the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court). The FISA Court is a U.S. federal court established and authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Act of 1978. FISA Court is a secret court, meaning its hearings and records are closed to the public. Between 2007 and 2013, the FISA Court received 12,346 warrant requests for electronic surveillance and approved all but 7 requests. The world erupted over news of the NSA’s spying efforts; people were up in arms about it…for about a year. The 24-hour news cycle and our ever-diminishing attention span meant that we lost interest; we moved on and consequently lost a key battle in the privacy war.

Fast-forward five years to 2018; we recently find out about the Facebook data scandal and listen to Zuckerberg’s testimony before congress. This led to the revelation that Facebook has been collecting an incredible amount of data about users and selling it for profit. Anyone that has posted ads on Facebook already knew this given the incredible power of Facebook’s audience targeting, but even we didn’t realize the extent of it. In response to all the criticism, Facebook recently gave users the ability to to download the data stored about them. I was shocked by how much data and analysis they had on me. Many people are upset and are boycotting Facebook; you may be one of them. Give it a year (or less) and you’ll re-open your Facebook account. All of your personal information, images, posts, and videos will still be there because Facebook never actually deletes anything. Once again, we will lose a battle in the privacy war, allowing centralized platforms to continue to collect and sell our data.

Technology grows at a rate that follows an exponential curve, which means that the rate of technological change is accelerating. The amount of data that is collected and the control that companies and governments can exert over us is also accelerating. If we continue on our current trajectory, we will have lost the privacy war within the next decade and be subject to mass surveillance and manipulation. You might be saying, “well, I don’t do anything wrong so why would I care if data is being collected about me?” Whether you realize it or not, you are already being subtly manipulated by what information, products and services are presented or available to you.

It is just a matter of the government or large corporations flipping the switch to overt manipulation. Look at the ‘citizen score’ that China is making mandatory for every citizen by 2020. In that system, every citizen is scored based on their behavior and the behavior of their friends and then nudged toward behavior the government wants. Your citizen score determines your ability to get a passport, attend University, even which matches you get on dating sites. Sound like this episode of Black Mirror? And that’s not just happening in China. Just a few weeks ago, the Trump administration announced that it planned to require nearly all applicants for a visa to enter the United States to submit their social-media user names for the past five years. This proposal would cover nearly 14 million people each year and would cover 20 social media platforms.[1] This is just the beginning of modern day “1984”.

By rewarding certain behaviors and punishing others in an environment where everything can be tracked and monitored, centralized organizations and government entities are essentially ‘domesticating’ us.

Credit: Kevin Hong

Enter Bitcoin and Blockchain Technology

A mysterious person or group called Satoshi Nakamoto threw us a lifeline in October 2008 when it/he/she/they published a white paper titled: “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System”. And, in 2009 the first Bitcoin client was released. In the white paper, Nakamoto described a peer-to-peer mechanism to exchange money and data without the use of a “trusted” third party, like a bank or credit card company. Distributed ledger technology (aka “blockchain technology”) is a mechanism where everyone that is part of the network can maintain a permanent record of all the transactions that have ever taken place in a secure, chronological, and immutable way. It has taken nearly a decade of work for blockchain technology to *almost* be ready for mass adoption.

While blockchain is the key underlying technology of Bitcoin, it is important to decouple blockchain technology from Bitcoin/‘cryptocurrency’ and the corresponding valuation bubble (and subsequent reset) that has occurred over the last 9 months.

Once blockchain technology becomes more prevalent, it may enable us to reclaim our digital identities by decentralizing the internet functionality that we have come to rely upon. For instance, if someone created a ‘blockchain Facebook,’ it wouldn’t actually own any of its users personal data. Instead of a massive database controlled by a company, your information could be stored within a blockchain smart contract that you, and you alone, would control. Smart contracts are a collection of pre-defined rules and functions that execute automatically when certain conditions are met. They are similar to a traditional contract, but they can be used to transmit ‘cryptocurrency’ and function automatically without the supervision or input of a third party. In the Blockchain Era, you will have complete control over your own digital identity, money, biometric identification, real estate deeds, health records, and any other digital asset that you can think of. Even things like art, collectibles, wills, and companies themselves will be digitized and turned into smart contracts.

The Biggest Antagonists are Investing Heavily in Blockchain

Let’s not fall for the latest “magician’s misdirection” tactics. One of the largest contingencies of outspoken voices against cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, and blockchain technology are the big banks. Big banks currently act as one of the “trusted agent” and facilitate financial transactions, earning fees for doing so. They stand to lose a lot of revenue if people gain control over their own money and don’t require an intermediary to verify transactions. Meanwhile, those same big banks are hiring armies of engineers and consultants in the blockchain space. Guess who owns the most blockchain-related patents in the US? Bank of America, with 48 — in fact, 20% of the blockchain-related patents are owned by financial services companies. Perhaps the banks are simply trying to pump the breaks to buy time to figure out how to survive the blockchain revolution.

In September 2017, the Chinese government started cracking down on cryptocurrency investing and Bitcoin mining, publicly stating that the People’s Bank of China has full control over cryptocurrencies in China. Simultaneously, the People’s Bank of China has indicated that it believes “conditions are ripe” for it to embrace blockchain technology and has been working on developing its own digital fiat money. This is the same government that is rolling out the ‘citizen score’. Approximately 60% of the world’s Bitcoin miners are located in China; only time will tell whether the Chinese government is able to control its citizen’s ability to invest in and/or mine cryptocurrencies.

Everything Will be OK

In the Blockchain Era, we will take back the control we lost during the Internet Era. Companies and governments won’t own our data and won’t be able to conduct wide-scale surveillance and, as a result, we will be much harder to manipulate and profile. I’m not suggesting that the day is saved or that you can just sit back and relax. Centralized companies aren’t going to go down without a fight, there’s too much money in it. It’s up to you to educate yourself and help save the world through the choices you make.

[1] Most of the social media usernames that would need to be disclosed for a visa are based in the United States: Facebook, Flickr, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, Myspace, Pinterest, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, Vine, and YouTube. But several are based overseas: the Chinese sites Douban, QQ, Sina Weibo, Tencent Weibo and Youku; the Russian social network VK; Twoo, which was created in Belgium; and Ask.fm, a question-and-answer platform based in Latvia.

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Special thanks to Danielle Diamond for helping me write this, editing away my numerous grammatical errors, and making sure this wasn’t just a crazy rant about the end of the world and how blockchain is awesome!