Chaining culture

UC Berkeley Library

Recently there’s been a surge of interest in applying blockchain models to issues in digital culture. But every upsurging technology — particularly those which are seductively elegant — produce inherent conflicts. There are potentially tremendous social costs to blockchain, and we need to consider them carefully. At a basic level, blockchain’s taking is the loss of ambiguity.

At CC:Rewire, a Creative Commons event that I attended in San Francisco, Joi Ito noted that blockchain was at a very early stage of implementation. We’re at a point akin to our mid-1980s experimentation with networking communication protocols, such as FDDI, Token Ring and Ethernet. But blockchain’s inherent attractions, including high apparent reliability, verifiability, and durable provenance, are extremely alluring. Millions of investment dollars are pouring into application development. Blockchain frameworks, simplistically, create digital ledgers for transactions: what some have described as an ability to “redefine trust.” I believe that trust and culture are symbiotic: tinkering with their relationship bears risks.

Creative Commons has a real world interest in blockchain. They are potentially a means of conveying license information, identifying media just as accurately as a digital fingerprint or an identifying object hash. Being able to verify that a particular image is CC-BY, and that its creator was Robert Capa, is suggestive of a future where attribution, and credit for authorial work generally, can become automated and distributed. This has particularly excited the music and photography industries, but it has broader reach. Every commercial photographer alive would rapidly adopt a technology that ensures rights tracking and assured payments as their work moves across the internet; “track and trace” technology is a glimmer in the searching eyes of IFRRO, the International Federation of Reproduction Rights Organizations.

Here lies a motivational tension. The dream of an internet that can foster democratic production of data by engineering equality of access into its fabric is driving a significant amount of engineering work. The Internet Archive recently hosted a Decentralized Web Summit that drew both Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Vincent Cerf. While the W3 argues for modification and support for HTTP as an underlying transport protocol, others recommend blockchain-enhanced overhauls to packet routing, file exchange, and host naming. Yet these same technical aspirations entice Google, Amazon, and Apple’s media and cloud engineering teams by suggesting enhanced and secure means of globally distributing and transmitting information. Hierarchy and centralization are never so encouraged as when data can move more efficiently.

And so in this lies our paradox and threat: blockchain promises high efficiency, verifiability, and visibility for information transactions. Blockchain can create a radical transparency in how our culture moves across peoples, and across the planet, tracking our stories, photographs, and films. Yet, on the flip side, pervasive radical transparency can kill more than our cultural vibrancy; it can kill people.

Culture thrives in ambiguity; art gestates in the shadows. Wherever societies marginalize peoples and dampen expression, there people must create new forms of stories that enable them to survive in the world. If I am a woman wishing to rewrite a story of self-expression, or teach evolutionary biology in my village, my life and my body should not be at risk because of an omniscient network. If I am a dissident artist crafting a portrait of protest through a collage of images, I should not fear prison because a content registry automatically notifies my government. Blockchain has the potential to kill and inflict harm faster than any jurisprudence we’ve yet invented.

Radical transparency — the ability to create an unbreakable chain of provenance — threatens Fair Use, a fundamental aspect of copyright that enables people to use copyrighted content without asking permission. When every use of an image, film, or text can be tracked, recorded, and verified, we fall into a world where we’ve commercialized ever more of our culture, and reduced the window of openness for everyone. By careless default, we may end up creating a massive, global, collective licensing framework whose controls are in the hands of technology firms and frameworks, over which we’ve lost the democratic control that the technology proclaims itself capable of delivering.

Creative Commons is a smart organization, and in a high level staff and board meeting on the day preceding CC:Rewire, it debated at length just these issues. One of the participants noted in that meeting that blockchain’s verifiability is not needed where trust exists: but trust networks extend only so far, within limited subcultures, and as we have seen blockchain technologies seek explicitly to redefine trust for a digital, networked age. I and others would argue that Creative Commons works, in part, because of its inherent imperfections — in other words, it works because there is no registry, and no monitoring.

Joi Ito, at CC:Rewire, expressed some doubts about the potential for the more revolutionary claims of blockchain. Yet whether blockchain becomes widely woven into our network or not, we have a responsibility to consider the longer term ramifications of our work and the internet for marginalized people and nations. That is trust also: our ability to understand, empathize, and protect. Sometimes that means engineering things out of technology, instead of weaving it ever deeper into our lives.