Trust and Alarm: The Blockchain and Civic Innovation

Small steps belie giant leaps.

Last Monday, thanks to a stint of sponsored tweeting, I wandered around SxSW sporting a yellow day-pass sticker. I only say I wandered because, despite my best efforts to SxSW with purpose, it seemed every interesting panel attracted a maximum-occupancy audience. A tip for future attendees: always arrive early. I did, however, gain entry to the panel that I had tagged as ‘non-negotiable’ during the morning’s schedule scheming- Tech for Good: The Blockchain Trust Accelerator.

I knew I had to attend the panel because, unlike the cadre of overwrought “innovators” presenting variations on the same theme, the Blockchain Trust Accelerator represents something fundamentally new. It’s rare to find a well-informed person who hasn’t heard of the blockchain or bitcoin. It’s more rare to meet anyone, from any background, who can explain what it is, exactly, the blockchain does. But like most epochal technologies before it, the blockchain won’t wait to be understood before transforming the world. Thankfully, most of the technical details of its implementation can be abstracted away. It is enough to say that the blockchain serves as a generalized, global point of trust between agents in the same sense that the internet is a generalized, global network for transmitting information between agents. Over the years many individuals and organizations tried to crack the ‘nut’ of digital currency. But it wasn’t until blockchain solved the transaction verification problem that Bitcoin was born. As exciting as Blockchain’s implications are for what is now euphemistically referred to as ‘fintech’, they pale in comparison to the changes Blockchain will effect in domestic and international institutions. I had never before heard of a group working to bring blockchain-powered innovation to public policy.

The Blockchain Trust Accelerator is a group founded by the Bitfury Group, The National Democratic Institute, and New America. Representing these organizations on the panel, Daniel Swislow, Jamie Smith, and Tomicha Tillemann laid out the mission of the accelerator to a rapt audience in a mid-sized salon of the JW Marriott. You can imagine my excitement listening to three of the world’s experts elaborating on the ideas that have captured my imagination for the better part of two years: smart contracts, micro-payments, better government procurement processes, better administered aid programs, autonomous vehicles, AI-managed public good corporations, the Internet of things, and most compelling to me, new and previously unimaginable forms of organization. The panelists explained the basics of the blockchain with lucidity and precision. Jamie Smith of the BitFury Group was especially effective in her presentation. She urged the audience not to begin with the blockchain when imagining applications. Instead, start with one, simple question. When is trust between actors a relevant factor in public or global policy? Of course, trust is crucial in a whole host of policy domains. The tantalizing implication is that blockchains, as ‘global notaries’ solve coordination problems previously considered intractable.

The panelists floated ideas ranging from mundane improvements to dramatic transformations. What if you could literally “pay into” the social security system by working at pre-approved local charities? What if you were constantly receiving micro-payments for the electricity your home’s solar cells send back to the grid? What if the systems that manage consumer data restored ownership of that data to the people producing it? What if every person’s contribution in an organization was verifiable and comparable? Would that make the provision of public goods easier?

As these and other questions were posed, the level of excitement in the room was evident. But before the panelists could finish their closing statements, a roaring alarm accompanied a computerized voice demanding we leave the building: a fire had been reported. Seeing my opportunity, I navigated a sea of groaning attendees to score some face-time with the panelists. As sad as I was to miss the remainder of their prepared remarks, I admit to being excited as I listened to them talk about the issues one-on-one. What excited me most, I realized, was the reality of their personal convictions. For at least a few minutes, I was with people who know the world is about to change. Elated, I wandered off to some other, lesser panel. I heard later that there was no fire. Someone thought it would be fun to pull the alarm, just to see what happened. Only later did it occur to me that I owed my elation to a breathtaking breach of trust. I appreciate the irony but I can’t say I’m sorry it happened. It is true that the Blockchain Trust Accelerator is still untested, brand-new. But I saw many excited faces in the hall that day. And where there is smoke, there’s fire.

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