Who Would Live in a Blockchain Society? The Rise of Cryptographically-Enabled Ledger Communities, Gregory Sandstrom

Author Information: Gregory Sandstrom, Independent Researcher, Ottawa Blockchain Group, gregory.sandstrom@gmail.com

Sandstrom, Gregory. “Who Would Live in a Blockchain Society? The Rise of Cryptographically-Enabled Ledger Communities.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 27-41.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3A8

Image credit: Shutterstock

It has math. It has its computer science. It has its cryptography. It has its economics. It has its political and social philosophy. It was this community that I was immediately drawn into.—Vitalik Buterin, Founder of Ethereum (Zug, Toronto, Moscow)

That was a memorable day for me, for it made great changes in me. But it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day. —Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, 1861

Section 1: Introduction to Blockchainn

In Blockchain Sociology, you are the sociologist. Even if you didn’t take a ‘degree’ in sociology or perhaps even ever take a course in it, you are a sociologist at least in so far as you are part of society, and indeed, of several or many societies. Being part of different societies, you observe them, hold views and opinions about them, collect data about them, shed your own information and actions (recorded by some empirical data collection devices) about them and to them and generally participate in them. In so far as you are that kind of sociologist, you are qualified to be reading this paper, which focuses pop-sociologically on blockchain technology[1] (BC tech) and its potentially major coming impact on societies near and around you and in which you are already a member without needing any sociologist to validate that fact.

This is an exploratory paper on BC that will need to be updated as BC tech develops. BC is an unknown phenomenon still for many people; partly fantasy and partly a soon-to-be new reality. In short, a ‘blockchain’ is simply a chronologically arranged online (internet-based) digital chain of ‘blocks’. [2] A ‘blockchain society’ is thus a kind of semi-fictional representation that harks potentially <15 years into the future, when BC tech will be widely integrated globally and locally into human-social life. In this near-future, I imagine a scenario where ‘machines’ or cybernetic organisms (read: killer robots) haven’t taken over people or led to ‘post-humanity’ (Terminator, Bostrom, Kurzweil, et al.) or ‘trans-humanity’ (Fuller). Rather ‘social machines’ (e.g. BC tech) are used to aid specifically human (homo sapiens sapiens) development.

It is already expected that people will make more and more frequent use of ‘social machines’ (Berners-Lee 1999) where the administration (automation and calculation, etc.) is done by computers, while the creative work and relationships are driven by (still-human) people.[3] This was the vision of one of the main persons who ‘invented’ the internet (protocols) and helped organise and encourage people globally to build it and use it. We thus look in this paper to the impact that this new BC tech can have on societies and their economies through development based on the rise of social machines. Part I focuses on BC basics, as a general introduction to the topic. Part II will focus more on the implications of living in BC societies and how our economies can prepare for the massive restructuring that the technology promises to deliver across a range of education, business, media, governmental and non-governmental sectors.

Figure 1. Humanising the Digital (source unknown)

Section 2: Blockchain Basics

Here we take an early look at what BC societies will become and focus in particular on ‘ledger communities’ (LCs). These LCs establish the basis on which transaction infrastructures may be built using algorithm-guided transaction protocols. Technical details are left out of this paper. It is speculative and probing in character; a fertile ground for ‘social epistemologists’ to explore beyond mere academic philosophy.

The paper underemphasises the cryptography involved, does not even touch on the important asymmetric cryptographic features of BC and simply assumes[4] for the time being that the cryptography enables various levels of anonymity that will allow new LCs to form with at least a basic level of identity safety. Between the lines I hint at concerns coming from a sociologist about what is almost inevitably to happen to societies due to BC tech, while reflecting on current global power structures, repeated social experimental failures of the past and the complex human space-time scales that may eventually be involved with developing BC tech. So it is a half-academic, half-public understanding approach to BC that is prompted by simply being fascinated by BC tech and what it is going to do to the human world as we now know it.

BC tech brings with it an entirely new set of preconditions and possibilities for participation and membership in societies and communities. The technology has immediate social impact when it is implemented because it is pragmatically based on ‘transactions’ that can be chronologically organised, structured and recorded that deal with buying, selling, trading or sharing of assets and values.[5] The value placed on any and all of these digital transactions serves quite ‘naturally’ to develop into a ‘virtual economy’ (Castronova 2006) on local and/or global scales. BC tech thus offers a new kind of societal pattern to which schools, universities, companies, associations, organisations, government ministries, non-government and other community groups may participate, willingly for the betterment of the broader niches within societies that they represent.

Will your future BCs and mine be made “of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers,” in all of the new varieties of human relationships and ‘societies’ that will develop along with them? Let us not be fearful of the unknown, but rather prepare to meet it with both our minds and hearts working ahead of time. In short, this paper with McLuhanite focus is inspired by what the ‘effects’ of BC tech will be when applied across a wide range of social and economic phenomena.[6]

Figure 2. Humanity in the Blockchain (source unknown)

Section 3: Whose Ledgers Do You Share In Today? Whose Will You Share In Tomorrow?

Let us assume that for many people this is an early reading on the topic of BC. Those already familiar with BC tech can skip to section 5. The following definition of BC by Professor Jeremy Clark offers a good start: BC is “a place [ledger] for storing data that is maintained by a network of nodes without anyone in charge.”[7] As can be seen immediately, the significant social implications[8] involve who will be in charge of what and who must ‘take orders’ from those in charge in any given LC. Is order-giving all digitally automated and if so, what might this mean for training in leadership and followership?

On the business side and in the science-technology world of ‘visioneering’ (Cabrera, Davis and Orozco, 2016) ideas, we can easily find a wide variety of definitions of BC,[9] some who call it a “second generation of the internet,”[10] question if it is “the most important IT invention of our age,” hype it into a ‘single source of shared truth,’ or suggest: “We can always trust the blockchain.”[11] Such statements are bound to bring a sound of alarm to sociologists’ attention. In this case economic sociologists are in urgent need for analysis and policy considerations as we prepare to live in BC societies and economies.[12]

It was a few weeks ago (April 2017) during a call with a sociologist friend, when I shared with her my view on the importance of BC tech for sociology. I said that BC is likely to bring about the single biggest revolution in the history of the field. It was as astonishing to have those words come out of my mouth as it was for her to hear them.[13] Nevertheless, I stand by this assertion even without daring many predictions about what this incoming ‘neo-sociology’ will be like. Simply put, BCs are going to significantly impact the way people almost everywhere on Earth live, act and behave in so-called ‘smart communities,’ and thus also how scholars and scientists are able to study the societies and economies in which we live.

Let us turn away from any type of promotional hype to the qualified reflexivity of the academic tongue, which according to Clark, reminds us that “[b]lockchains themselves aren’t a game changer.” Likewise, as HyperLedger executive director Brian Behlendorf cautions, “[t]here are over-inflating expectations [regarding BC] right now,” though along with others[14] he does view it as potentially ‘game-changing’.[15] So what is the promise of BC and BC tech and how it can be applied to people and societies and used globally?

Figure 3. Varieties of Ledgers (source unknown)

Section 4: Distributed Ledger for Consensus

First, let’s start with what we know fairly clearly about BC tech.[16] BC tech makes use of a digital ‘distributed ledger’ (DL) system. This is a collective (communal) bookkeeping or accounting system recording and copying a history of transaction events in each BC. The specific kinds of transaction that may be suitable for such distributed ledgers in on-line and mobile communities are still open to much discussion and debate.[17] The data from BC transactions is codified for application in the various algorithms run by the social machine and cryptographised to enable various levels of user anonymity and thus greater freedom of participation. Nevertheless, issues of transparency and access to any given LC’s recorded history and membership are still unresolved and will inevitably continue to challenge the conversations arising over BC tech. In short, BC tech offers a ‘cryptographically secured DL’[18] that provides people in voluntary LCs a new way of engaging in value-oriented relationships with the aim of making more efficient and equitable exchanges of value.

The DL serves as a kind of organised but decentralised electronic data storage which is arranged as an informational bulletin board accessible to all members of the LC. Users of a BC tech service volunteer to join a LC, wherein all participants share ‘one book’ with distributed access across the system. This is intended to create a kind of ‘immutable’ social history that cannot be corrupted by after-the-fact editing of events because it always leaves a noticeable trail that can be tracked to source of the corruption (see image below for why one can’t cheat BC tech). The DL system thus aims to provide a so-called ‘golden record’ of ‘end-to-end’ (E2E) verifiability, wherein validation of transactions is accepted as completed and irreversible by all members of a LC.

In common parlance, if you don’t want everyone to know everything about you and your possessions; but you want the people that you choose to know enough, in confidence, and to know if they are willing to share, trade or sell ‘in-kind’ knowledge, experience, ideas, votes or ratings with you, then BC tech will be made to deliver this. The technology is meant to lead you to and to facilitate transactions based on shared values and aims in a LC. Nevertheless, you must have the creative personal interest and volunteer to join that LC in the first place.

The LC’s transactions (e.g. purchase, sale, trade, bid, negotiation, auction, vote, authorisation, recommendation, special pass, etc.) are completed and verified by the participant themselves and by any other participants in the transaction. A transaction is completed via a ‘digital signature’ that each person receives with their membership registration and uses to verify their participation in any and all transactions. Participants in a LC receive ‘signing keys’ for transactions, which includes both public and private verification options. The history of these total transactions in a LC comprises a transactional database that confirms the values shared and distributed among participants.

The BC tech uses a time stamp validation that records the time, date and participants in all transactions in the LC. This enables participants in a LC to move various types of digital value (synthetic assets) using a peer-to-peer (P2P) network. The architecture of the P2P network is built around ‘consensus algorithms’ that facilitate the transactions in a LC linked to whatever ‘real life’ institutions, assets and values are involved, including all of the associated services already used by participants in a de-centralised network. The ‘service centre’ in such a network becomes an oxymoron, while service agents will still populate any LC with good service to its members in mind.

The notion that a ‘consensus’ can be reached in a community based on algorithms (i.e. mechanistically) is one of the most contentious issues in a BC society and also one of the most fascinating as it could lead to many new social and economic (niche) communities and configurations. If one doesn’t agree to the rules and regulations of a particular LC, then they simply will not (and even cannot!) join it and thus cannot be forced into accepting any consensus from that community, at least in principle. Instead, competing BCs may temporarily arise based on different sets of rules and regulations to which individuals and groups of people will be able to join and want to join, indeed, will feel compelled to join because many they know will join for mutual benefit. Thus, the spectre of globally widespread BCs must eventually gain the attention of any serious BC sociologist.

Section 5: Sustainable Development, Markets, Morals & Distributions

The largest area of application for BCs is what has become known as ‘sustainable development.’ BCs serve sustainable development goals by providing an opportunity to automate proportional distribution of value contribution (i.e. human, natural, financial, cultural and other ‘resources’) to ‘projects’ built upon transactions that are guided and thus in a sense ‘morally’ conditioned based on the well-being of the LC. Any ‘asset’ or with ‘value’ can be bought, sold, traded or shared publically counts as the domain of BC tech to tackle with higher efficiency, justice and equitability in transactions than pre-BC systems. BC tech thus redefines what a ‘market economy’ means with higher sustainability and improved proportionality at its core because of its new system for measuring, owning and allotting value in social economics, in a way that value can be redistributed quickly within a system. As one of the primary ideologies governing public and private policy now in Canada (where the author is writing from) and also globally is that of ‘sustainable development’ (contrast: ‘millennial evolution’) it has become engrained in the notion of BC sociology and economics from the start.

Thus BC tech in one sense offers a turn of focus away from N. Machiavelli’s view of the ‘state,’ or what we now call ‘nation-state’ toward a new kind of community attitude or ‘social epistemology,’ specifically voiced within a LC, which differs radically from the outdated notions of ‘communism’ from the 20th century that dwindle though continue to the current day. On the level of political economy, BC provides an alternative notion to Machiavellian (western autocratic) individualism by definition in enabling a more ‘trusting’ attitude in communal or group situations and that highlight value transactions in those communities. Thus the new level of BC ‘community morality’ will become a kind of boundary wall for inclusion in or exclusion from a LC, wherein by the will of the each BCs voluntary rules the policy arises simply that ‘dictators are not allowed.’ This move pushes actively into addressing a sociological void against strong-arm ‘hard power’ tactics in negotiations and politics, without necessarily diminishing the creative freedom and moral credibility of active individuals in a LC.

When a BC is built, established and fuelled with members it then must guarantee at least a minimal level of anonymity (as volunteered when joining the LC and agreeing to the rules and regulations of the Genesis Block – Part II) to enable continued participation. The flip-side is that BC requires maximum transparency according to the preferences and automations that people choose in their respective LCs. Thus, the architecture of any BC and the rules and regulations hard coded into the Genesis Block are of crucial significance to the success or failure of any LC. Likewise, if the moderation and service provision for a LC is not maintained appropriately, then it will not generate ‘stick’ or lead to growth, but rather lack of commitment and decline in usage. Thus in part we can answer the questions stated above in Section 3.

Section 6: Blockchain Applications

I hesitate to open this topic much because it is currently filled with both speculation and also practical experimentation. We are witnessing the emergence of BC tech on a global scale and the applications grow on an almost daily basis, so I see little point in categorising them now. The Blockchain Research Institute in Toronto is currently gathering the largest index of BC ‘use cases’ scheduled for completion by autumn 2018. The Delft University of Technology has a BC laboratory,[19] as do many other major universities. Governments have been experimenting with and discussing BC tech as well as a variety of new tech identifiers in business and finance (see references).

FinTech has largely focussed on developing cybercurrencies (Bitcoin, Ripple, etc.), for a variety of practical reasons, e.g. to limit ‘double-spending’ or more closely monitor debt repayment cases. Another aim of some proponents of BC in FinTech comes from the effort on behalf of citizen-consumers to eliminate overseers in financial transactions and thus to create a new kind of money ‘distribution.’ With new companies like Revolut and PayPal already working in the transfer of funds, BC tech looks to expand the reach of automated financial transactions throughout society as social machines start to replace unneeded human interventions in the system. Examples areas where work is already being done to integrate BCs include private stock trading, letters of credit, crowd funding, interbank loans, grants and many more.

The extremely high social value of ‘smart contracts’ (Szabo, Ethereum, more below) will combine with increased exposure to public voting in governance, social organisation and sustainable development. This may lead to more transparent government accountability and a fundamentally different way of determining public service election results and sustainable development policy implementation. Some optimism has been expressed that BC tech will lead to reduced voter fraud, yet the solutions posed also come along with increased mass hacking concerns. The BC feature of multi-party live or delayed computation enables real-time voting updates on bulletin boards [20] and also tentative voting (taking the social temperature first), which allows a person to change their vote before an election (e.g. based on expected or adjusted chance-to-win). Little more needs to be said to provoke interest and controversy; once BC tech and democracy are mentioned in the same sentence, fireworks often ensure.

BC tech has so many potential impacts in areas such as bargaining, auctions and estates, vehicle safety records, legal cost-sharing, real estate, mortgages, securities, lotteries, etc., that it is somewhat daunting to conceive how all of this is going to come about slowly, let alone within the next decade as some proponents are suggesting. BC tech can thus be seen in its early formulations like mathematical Nash equilibrium on humanistic socio-economic steroids.

Figure 4. Traditional and Blockchain Networks (source unknown)

Section 7: Why? So What? Who Cares?

The reorganisation of society that this technology has the potential to enable and indeed, in some ways to require, is simply beyond significant; BC is the massive shift that people have been waiting for since the internet came and even before it. The wide-ranging implications[21] of BC tech should not be discussed, however, without considerable caution to how it will influence the notion of ‘neo-liberal democracy’ as the reigning dominant ideology in the ‘western world.’ Even talk of ‘innovating capitalism’ (Bheemaiah 2017) is bound to raise some peoples’ ire. Especially leftist-leaning political thinkers ought to have started drooling as soon as they heard the word ‘distributed’ because there is a quick path to ‘redistribution’ wherever it substitutes for ‘competition’ in the social economics literature. Yet rightist-leaning political thinkers have equally as much to drool about as it empowers people to ‘become their own currency’ and in that sense to ‘live entrepreneurially’ through voluntary participation in LCs.

When one ramps up their concern with the political economy of BC societies, they realise eventually that by using cryptography, the new cryptocurrencies undermine the future possibility for governments to control the money supply of their citizens. By creating an alternative to fiat money, cryptocurrencies may change the world by themselves, even without BC tech. Yet it is the BC tech that facilitates the ‘virtual economies’ to grow in a sustainable way. BC tech thus makes it possible for cryptocurrencies to arrive and flourish as actual, widely used currencies, which is what LCs are seeking in the use of their own community-based cryptocurrency. This feature alone suggests the possibility of changing power structure in societies away from central banks and financiers towards decentralised voluntary communities of value. The sociological implications of this are not surprisingly incredibly difficult to predict and indeed requires some kind of ‘new sociological imagination’ (Fuller 2006) beyond what is currently available.

There seems to be still something significant missing in the BC ecosystem, however, rather than something crucial broken that can be fixed. Optimism in the BC ecosystem now rides on a big wave and people want to know more about how to get involved in BC tech as builders, facilitators, investors, coders, surveyors, etc. What has been missing so far in most BC journalism and even most of the academic/scholarly contributions is broader exploration into the application and relevance of BC tech to societies, their laws, economies and cultures. We may nevertheless start to investigate the growth of BC societies by tracing the rise of codified transaction infrastructures that thus create a new ‘web’ of LCs.

The proliferation of LCs will create the first example of societies based widely on ‘smart contracts,’ which have become a symbol of justice-seeking, anti-exploitative, democratic economic transactions that are automatically enforced by LC rules and regulations. Already in the mid-1990s, Nick Szabo defined ‘smart contracts’ as, “a computerized transaction protocol that executes the terms of a contract” (1994; see Tapscott and Tapscott, 2016). He calls a smart contract “a set of promises, specified in digital form, including protocols within which the parties perform on these promises.” (Szabo 1996) One of the applications of such contracts is to establish an ownership history of an asset so that potential new buyers of that asset can see its production genesis and value history. Another is to assist in supply chain management in order to improve efficiency and traceability and thus to reduce delays and errors. By distributing data from voluntary transactions across the system the social machines improves the efficiency of the human-driven system in a non-centralised way.

The over-inflated view of a need for constant decentralisation is often linked to promises of lower costs for ‘consumers’ due to the elimination of many artificial and unnecessary 3rd party (middleman) fees. This includes the siphoning of company funds into private hands, sometimes illegally, at the cost of the industry or community, which will be aimed for elimination in LCs. Instead of ‘middlemen,’ BC tech necessitates a whole lot more ‘middle people,’ in the sense of ‘mediators’ and ‘introducers’ who are not necessarily salespersons. The position of a professional ‘BC introducer’ seems to be a functional economic role in the era of BC tech and LCs, while a % of transaction costs facilitated by the LC will determine the salaries and risks of its new financial facilitators.

BC tech will also soon be brought to the forefront of global news when Palantir’s work on ‘Investigative Case Management’ (aka. surveillance) for the USA’s Homeland Security in the United States has reached the completed first stage in autumn 2017. When that happens, a lot of people are going to start caring about BC as it is being applied on a hot-button political issue in the USA. Technology entrepreneur Peter Thiel has been integrating BC into current surveillance methods and practises, which promises to fundamentally reshape the USA’s immigration and deportation programs. (More on this to come in Blockchain Sociology: Part II.)

Section 8: Preliminary Conclusion and Invitation

Why would a sociologist or social epistemologist take interest in BC tech? The answer in short is because those fields need experiments to validate their often highly theoretical and abstract ideas, i.e. to put them to the test. Digitally recorded transactions in a ‘blockchain’ can provide a broader domain for research and experimentation than anything that has been offered in the history of those fields due to the current power of computing. It is a basic question of which sociologists and social epistemologists are going to be early adopters of the technology and which will be laggards, there really isn’t any question of ‘if’ anymore with regard to eventual adoption in this case, it is simply a question of ‘when’.

We see such a shift already with the massive growth of the video game industry, that the habits and choices of players can be studied throughout the course of their time ‘plugged in.’ The same will be the case with LCs because people will be attracted to participate in them as they feed already present interests in the participants and thus provide an incentive to engage with like-minded or similarly inclined people. We thus have a potentially prolific new technological resource, the early phase of a ‘social machine’ that we can use for potential research and development in the BC idea. Our challenge in SSH is how to humanise this technology, so that we would not lose from humanity more than we gain by it (Postman’s dictum).

A major feature of BC tech is trust; if you feel you can trust a community (on-line or off-line), that it holds your best interests and personhood in mind on any given topic or activity, then it tends to be easier to ‘deal’ with them, including engaging with others in transactions of value. BC tech enables this in a new quasi-manufactured way through pre-agreed smart contracts that provide higher accountability, transparency and anonymity. Based on voluntary value transactions that are automated using agreement algorithms, BC tech has been suggested as a way to produce ‘upfront compliancy,’ which can protect parties from various risks involving other members in the LC. These include agreement violations wherein BC tech can pinpoint the source of a broken contract or shady deal from within a chain of otherwise difficult to trace transactions. In short, in agreeing to join a LC, one agrees to abide by the rules, which must come with in-house punishment for (attempted) violators or offenders; this is the cost of automated convenience that serves our decision-making capacities.

Figure 5. Why You Can’t Cheat at Bitcoin (source unknown)

Already with the new US government regime we are seeing a debate over the ‘unmasking’ of citizens by politicians and national or international ‘intelligence’ agencies. And soon we will witness a major overhaul in migration and policing matters related to immigrants with the help of BC tech. We cannot therefore endorse BC as simply roses without thorns, which is a large factor that figures into writing this short paper on BC tech and sociology. While anonymising citizens for their own protection could benefit some citizens who feel isolated, marginalised or disempowered in the current social systems they live in, it could also potentially become a weapon of control over members within LCs or over entire LCs themselves, if the wrong Genesis Block framework is patterned into the coding. It could thus lead to dehumanising people who for whatever variety of reasons aren’t able to choose their own preferred pattern of anonymity due to internal or external LC pressures, and who thus become ‘orphans’ in the new BC society.

Is BC like what tech entrepreneur and BC proponent Alex Tapscott suggests, “something that could change basically every industry in the world”?[22] The government of Canada’s Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development funded the research for the Tapscott’s recent 2017 BC Corridor report. They are currently raising the flag for major transformation in the short-term based on BC tech and are moving to back-up and stabilise this claim with research and development projects, calling for research into use cases and the drawing up of white papers. This leads me to believe BC is on the cutting-edge of public-private partnerships, flexibly scalable networks and sustainable developments as we learn about the impact of BC tech on society, economics and culture as the 21st century moves forward.


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[1] First launched under brand ‘Bitcoin’ by unknown person ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’ 03-01-2009.

[2] https://bitcoin.org/en/glossary/block-chain

[3] Berners-Lee writes of “interconnected groups of people acting as if they shared a larger intuitive brain,” defining social machines on the internet as “processes in which the people do the creative work and the machine does the administration.” (1999) Smart et al. provide an updated version: “Social Machines are Web-based socio-technical systems in which the human and technological elements play the role of participant machinery with respect to the mechanistic realisation of system level processes” (2013).

[4] A rather big assumption that deals with security, identity, justice, and other controversial issues.

[5] “If the Internet was the first native digital format for information, then blockchain is the first native digital format for value—a new medium for money. It acts as ledger of accounts, database, notary, sentry and clearing house, all by consensus. And it holds the potential to make financial markets radically more efficient, secure, inclusive and transparent.”—Alex Tapscott http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/rob-commentary/blockchain-is-a-disruption-we-simply-have-to-embrace/article29936789/

[6] “Blockchain is a foundational technology: It has the potential to create new foundations for our economic and social systems” (Iansiti and Lakhani, 2017).

[7] Jeremy Clark, Concordia University, MIT talk, 2016. https://users.encs.concordia.ca/~clark/talks/2016_edemocracy.pdf

[8] “[Blockchain] is a very important, new technology that could have implications for the way in which transactions are handled throughout the financial system.”—Janet Yellin (USA Federal Reserve Chairwoman).

[9] “A blockchain is a write-only database dispersed over a network of interconnected computers that uses cryptography (the computerized encoding and decoding of information) to create a tamperproof public record of transactions. Blockchain technology is transparent, secure and decentralised, meaning no central actor can alter the public record. In addition, financial transactions carried out on blockchains are cheaper and faster than those performed by traditional financial institutions.”—Government of Canada (“Blockchain Technology Brief,” 2016, page 1) / “A blockchain is a peer-to-peer distributed ledger forged by consensus, combined with a system for “smart contracts” and other assistive technologies. Together these can be used to build a new generation of transactional applications that establishes trust, accountability and transparency at their core, while streamlining business processes and legal constraints” (https://www.hyperledger.org/about). “A blockchain is a decentralised, online record-keeping system, or ledger, maintained by a network of computers that verify and record transactions using established cryptographic techniques.”—Mike Orcutt (“Congress Takes Blockchain 101.” https://www.technologyreview.com/s/603820/congress-takes-blockchain-101/?utm_campaign=add_this&utm_source=email&utm_medium=post. “A blockchain is a type of distributed ledger, comprised of unchangable, digitally recorded data in packages called blocks (rather like collating them on to a single sheet of paper). Each block is then ‘chained’ to the next block, using a cryptographic signature. This allows block chains to be used like a ledger, which can be shared and accessed by anyone with the appropriate permissions.” (http://www.blockchaintechnologies.com/blockchain-glossary) / Blockchain is “a magic computer that anyone can upload programs to and leave the programs to self-execute, where the current and all previous states of every program are always publicly visible, and which carries a Blockchain Technology: Principles and Applications very strong cryptoeconomically secured guarantee that programs running on the chain will continue to execute in exactly the way that the blockchain protocol specifies.”—Vitalik Buterin (Visions, Part 1: The Value of Blockchain Technology. Ethereum Blog. https://blog.ethereum.org/2015/04/13/visions-part-1the-value-of-blockchain-technology/).

[10] Don & Alex Tapscott 2017, page 4.

[11] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSP-taqLWPQ—02:40

[12] Most of the literature so far focuses on BC economies and I am not aware of any papers so far written about BC societies.

[13] As soon as I mentioned that Peter Thiel’s Palantir is building a BC for the USA’s Department of Homeland Security (more on this in Part II), she realised the seriousness of the endeavour.

[14] “Blockchain [technology] has the potential to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges.”— Ross Mauri, IBM, quoted in Jessie Willms, “Don Tapscott Announces International Blockchain Research Institute”, Bitcoin Magazine, March 17, 2017. https://bitcoinmagazine.com/articles/don-tapscott-announces-international-blockchain-research-institute/.

[15] “There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical, and there’s way too much hype,” [Brian Behlendorf] said. “But it’s a real opportunity to change the rules of the game.” Brian Behlendorf quoted in Will Knight, “The Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Shaking Up Much More Than Money.” MIT Technology Review, 2017. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/604148/the-technology-behind-bitcoin-is-shaking-up-much-more-than-money/

[16] “The term ‘blockchain technology’ means distributed ledger technology that uses a consensus of replicated, shared, and synchronized digital data that is geo-graphically spread across multiple digital systems.” (https://github.com/InstituteOfCommerce/International/wiki/Definitions:-Blockchain-&-Smart-Contract)

[17]http://www.multichain.com/blog/2015/11/avoiding-pointless-blockchain-project/ https://medium.com/badge-chain/avoiding-pointless-open-badges-related-blockchain-projects-64fb3ddc240c

[18] HT: Vytautas Kaseta (Private conversation, Vilnius, March 2017).

[19] http://www.blockchain-lab.org/

[20] “All cryptographic voting systems use a ‘bulletin board:’ an append-only broadcast channel (sometimes anonymous) … Blockchains are the best bulletin boards we have ever seen, better than purpose-build ones (esp. on equivocation).”—Jeremy Clark (“Blockchain based Voting: Potential and Limitations,” MIT talk, 2016).

[21] “Anything that would benefit from having information stored in an unchangeable database that is not owned or controlled by any single entity and yet is accessible from anywhere at any time.”—Mike Orcutt (https://www.technologyreview.com/s/537246/why-bitcoin-could-be-much-more-than-a-currency/)

[22] http://www.ottawabullion.com/the-imf-just-finished-its-first-high-level-meeting-on-blockchain/

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4 replies

  1. Excellent article, thank you, Gregory. Like you, I am surprised at the lack of papers specifically discussing Ledger Societies (compared to the volume of papers available on the tech itself). Since I’m no academic, I’ve started writing a speculative fiction describing what life might be like in a Ledger Society, which your readers may wish to follow along: https://medium.com/postcards-from-2035

  2. Excellent Gregory, thank you. It is so hard to cut through the investor hype about blockchain to find some real speculation about what a block chain society and economy might look like. One thing that has occurred to me is that the marriage of smart contracts and the Internet of Things will lead to a breakdown in the folksy political philosopher’s story about why libertarianism fails with respect to certain public goods like roads (due to negative externalities).

    Perhaps you know the one? If a toll was exacted at the end of everyone’s little piece of road, the road network as a whole would become unusable. Well. introduce smart infrastructure and smart contracts and that maybe no longer be the case! A terrifying prospect to be sure (the potential for so much to be privatized is horrendous), yet an opportunity for governments to secure new sources of revenue from business when tax evasion has proven such a big problem. Until reading about smart contracts, I could not see the point of smart infrastructure from the standpoint of helping autonomous vehicles on to the road (they should be able to drive without such infrastructure). But with smart contracts, smart infrastructure begins to make much more sense!


  1. Is Blockchain an ‘Evolutionary’ or ‘Revolutionary’ Technology, and So What If It Is?, Gregory Sandstrom, Part One « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective
  2. Is Blockchain an ‘Evolutionary’ or ‘Revolutionary’ Technology, and So What If It Is?, Gregory Sandstrom, Part Two « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective

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