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Trust Is Just A Well-Kept Record
From Hammurabi’s stone to blockchain, the technology of trust is ever-evolving
There is a reason the stone of Hammurabi, with its hundreds of lines of legal and economic precedents, was made of, well, stone. You couldn’t easily alter it, or pick it up and walk away. That permanence, paired with its authorship by a ruling authority, gave it an “I am truth” aura. The form and function symbolized how vital the record and its keepers are to civilization.
Without a record in stone to point to, there would have been no standard practices, shared sense of value, or rules of social conduct. And without Hammurabi and his scribes there to preside over it, society would have risked falsification and dispute. One basalt monolith — and some copies — formed the cognitive glue that kept Mesopotamia together.
Today, records of who owns what, how much it’s worth, the rules of trading it, and so on, form the basis of all economic activity. Unlike ancient times, though, much of our modern economy has no physical basis. The act of record keeping has moved steadily from documenting stockpiles of physical commodities to the flow of intangible assets — ones whose sole existence is the record itself. “Owning stock” is just having a paper trail. Most tangible assets are represented as digital bits passed around in electronic marketplaces. A series of numbers and transactions form our identity. This trend will only continue. Today, without anything physical to ground us, the record matters more than ever. Those who keep it wield a vast responsibility.
As the power of the record increases, so do the risks for both the keepers and the individuals reliant on them. Each institution stores its own kinds of records inside a walled-off environment. Transferring them to and from that environment takes time, money, and permissions — even if the record in question is your own.
The weight of bureaucracy
Most of us know what it’s like to be unable to access funds in our bank account because of a system update, an arbitrary spending limit, or a simple maintenance issue. These instances are a direct reminder of how little control we have over our assets. If your bank makes a mistake, you could lose proof of what you own, have your credit destroyed, or have private information leaked.
Aside from the risk of malfeasance, perhaps the more relevant issue is the sheer amount of bureaucracy we encounter in our day to day. Filing, creating accounts, logging in, mailing records, going to notaries. Paperwork made official by more paperwork. The record keepers are the checkpoints for almost everything we do. Unfortunately, the ease of interacting with them hasn’t kept pace with the complexity they’ve brought to our lives. We’re stuck playing monkey-in-the-middle, proving and re-proving our records as we move from one institution to another. Identity, health history, financial status, all of it held in separate places.
In real-world terms, if you purchase a car you need to:
- Find the car you want.
- Authorize the dealership to run a credit check. This requires identification such as social security, driver’s license, etc.
- The credit report has to come from one of a handful of authorities who keep credit records.
- Once in hand, the dealership sends that report to an underwriter to determine if they’ll give you a loan.
- If they say no, you’re penalized on your credit history. If they say yes, you’re penalized on your credit history, but now you get to…
- Provide documentation proving car insurance, which is kept at another institution.
- Unless you carry a delicate piece of paper around, you have to log in with the insurance app, proving your identity yet again through one of the countless account names we accrue.
- Then, you may have to walk to another office — in the same dealership — and provide those documents to a different, more authorized person, who finalizes the loan.
- This person initiates a transfer of the title which may be sent (mailed?), yet again, to another bank buying your loan.
- Okay, keys in hand. Now wait to get proof of title for registration in the mail. Then take all of those documents to the DMV to prove your identity, lien holder, title, and insurance one more time.
- Finally, install your license plate.
(This list probably isn’t 100 percent accurate, but you get the idea.)
You’d better hope no one makes a typo. And don’t forget your passwords, or lose a single piece of paper.
The process of proving ourselves generates unnecessary risk and busywork in our lives; it keeps us from prioritizing more meaningful experiences. At worst, these situations create harmful repercussions through simple errors or malicious intent. While we could continue asking, “What kinds of regulation can protect us?” or, “Which app will finally tie the pieces together?” both of those outcomes entrust more of our lives to institutions and add complexity. If this act of record keeping is so critical, maybe it’s time we stop asking the questions above and instead ask: Can we change the record itself?
Record-keeping is for robots
If institutions exist only to create trust, then removing trust in the institutions is a natural next step. Blockchain represents a new form of digital stone that can’t be erased and isn’t beholden to a single institution. You scribe something in your stone. A bunch of other citizens agree to honor what you chiseled, and they chisel the same thing in their stone. Everyone has the same record, immutable, from that point on. No pleading to Hammurabi and his scribes to approve it and put it in the “to be chiseled” backlog. This scenario doesn’t change the need for, or role of, the record, only how it comes to be. Through automated consensus building. That’s blockchain. (Basically.)
Stone → block
Obviously, there aren’t people handwriting every one of the world’s transactions. Data entry was automated a while ago (mostly). Blockchain brings automation by enabling a network of disinterested parties to write unchangeable records in a publicly accessible, yet self-sovereign manner. It’s the robot production line for writing, storing, and safeguarding permanent information.
Consolidation and digitization of our records is not a matter of if, but when.
Those three words — “unchangeable, public, and sovereign” — are the crux of this technology. The record no longer needs the protection of a walled-off institution to make it truthful. Anyone can view or publish to it, and have that action be permanent, unchanging, and upheld by others in the network. It can’t be censored or taken down as long as members of the network exist. And anything you put on it should be under your control alone. This is how cryptocurrency is possible. You can’t send the same 3 “digicoin” to two different people because the network has permanently recorded your transaction to one or the other and your new balance.
Once you create a unique address on the network you can bond records, assets, securities, and titles to that address. Now access to those assets can be shared by you and only you. Simply provide your address to the service and with your encrypted signature, you can sign to allow the service to see, purchase, or trade any asset you need it to.
While the realities of this are hard to predict, purely for speculation, let’s replay purchasing a car in this new system:
- Find the car you want.
- The dealership sends a request for information to your blockchain address. (Think something similar to an email address.)
- Your phone notifies you of the request from the dealership to verify your identity, credit score, insurance, and the amount of money you have.
- You sign in to the network one time and press, “yes, give involved parties (dealership, underwriter) temporary access to these records.”
- Thirty seconds later, you receive another notification that you are approved, and you can accept or reject the offer. You press accept.
- Funds are automatically routed, and copies of contracts are created and signed with your digital signature. Records of the transaction are pushed to the DMV proving title, lien, insurance, etc.
- Thirty seconds later, you get the keys. A couple of days later, license plates arrive at your door.
What once took hours to complete could now be a handful of clicks.
A single-sign-on is all you need to transfer money, property, content, enter into contracts, and more, because your information lives encrypted on a network everyone can access, not scattered across multiple institutions. No mountains of passwords, usernames, or repetitive verifications required.
In this paradigm, institutions are more accurately termed “services.” The institutional aspect — being the source of truth — is moved to the automated network. Once responsible for being the authority, institutions are now only responsible for defining the purpose of the record. The DMV says, “This is the information a license should contain,” but it no longer needs to act as the source of that information.
The depiction above is a ways off, but maybe not as far as we think. It’s already forming all around us in parallel with how things exist today. Consolidation and digitization of our records is not a matter of if, but when. Services are already offering a consumer-facing view of a single-sign-on life. The tricky part will be knowing which of these services are indeed public, unchangeable, and affording us self-sovereignty.
While there may be uses for all kinds of public and private blockchain networks, it’s going to be up to us to know which ones we should adopt and why. If not, we may find this newfound stone controlled by the same old scribes.