The newest frontier in the world of technology is called blockchain. Blockchain may be a foreign concept to many readers, but if you’ve heard of Bitcoin or cryptocurrency, you’ve heard about blockchain. Bitcoin is usually in the news whenever its price spikes overnight, bringing fortunes to amateur investors. These get-rich-quick stories make great headlines, but Bitcoin is only part of the story. Blockchain is the foundation, or “building block,” of Bitcoin. It’s a broadly applicable piece of technology with wide-reaching implications. For a more in-depth explanation of blockchain and how it works, some introductory resources may be found here, here, and here. For our purposes, a simple analogy to explain blockchain will suffice.
Consider your checkbook. Let’s say you write a check for $100 to your neighbor, Patrick, as a graduation gift. The check contains your bank account number, the amount to deduct from your account, and the amount to credit to Patrick’s account. For the transaction to actually take place, Patrick has to take the check to the bank; the bank has to verify that the transaction is legitimate; then the bank executes the transaction.
Imagine if, instead of being taken to a bank, the check is broken up into a thousand tiny pieces, and the pieces are instantly distributed to thousands of different computers that independently verify the legitimacy of their piece of the check. Then, if each computer agrees, the transaction is executed and recorded by each computer. Patrick receives his $100. No one verifier ever possessed the whole check or knew exactly who the check originally came from. The check could never have been stolen, and the transaction was instantly verified and recorded. This is blockchain.
A revolutionary technology?
On the surface, this might not seem like a technology that will change the world. It could put some bank tellers out of a job, but it’s not as obviously revolutionary as, say, the internet was in the 1990s. So why is blockchain such a big deal?
Let’s start with transactional intermediaries (like the bank in Patrick’s example) that verify a transaction’s legitimacy. Every transaction requires some kind of verification. When you swipe your credit card, Visa or MasterCard is responsible for processing the payment. That means Visa or MasterCard has a central database that contains every customer’s financial information. If that database were to be hacked, every customer’s financial information would be at risk.
Enter blockchain. If Visa were to start using blockchain data storage, any customer’s financial information would be virtually impossible to steal, since no one computer would have an entire customer’s information—just like no single computer had the entire check in Patrick’s example. This concept is transferable to any storage of any data. Health records can be completely secure and instantly available to any physician. Financial records can be spread among all participating computers.
To put it simply, anything that can be recorded—health records, contracts, music, financial records, etc.—can be distributed to every computer in a network, making the data instantly secure and eliminating the cost and risk of intermediaries.
Smart contracts and removing human interaction
The ethical implications of blockchain appear most clearly in smart contracts, which are also known as self-executing contracts. First theorized by Nick Szabo in 1997, smart contracts are a natural result of blockchain technology. These contracts are not written on paper, but in lines of computer programming. An example will again serve as a definition:
Imagine an artist releases a new song on the internet. It is completely digital, and the code is written in terms of a smart contract utilizing blockchain technology. Built into the code of the song is a contract that recognizes how a listener is using the music. The contract may require no payment from a user just listening to the song, but it could require payment for using the song in a TV commercial or YouTube video. The smart contract identifies the usage of the song and automatically deducts the appropriate amount of money from the user. This may sound far fetched, but British musician Imogen Heap is already attempting to use smart contracts with blockchain technology.
These self-executing contracts may soon become commonplace, and they may have some important implications for Christians. The issue with these contracts is that they are so easy to use and are so good at their jobs. In terms of efficiency, there is no better way to avoid human error than to take humans out of the equation. For instance, we pay our bills automatically every month so we don’t forget to pay them.
The same idea is taken a step further by using smart contracts. Using this technology, we get a guarantee that the other party will follow through, eliminating the risk that people will be negligent or malicious. So what do we lose when we gain this security? We lose some of our freedom to err, which also means that we lose a little bit of what it means to be human.
With smart contracts governing our relationships, there is no benefit to working with a close friend instead of a complete stranger. Our built-up social capital is meaningless because we have a blockchain-backed guarantee that our agreement will automatically happen. No person is more trustworthy than a contract that has been coded in such a way that it is literally unable to act outside of the agreed-upon terms.
Transactions without trust
It is not hard to imagine a future where blockchain databases are integrated into all aspects of life. As we saw with smart contracts, interactions which are backed up by blockchain are distinctly impersonal, and there is danger in embracing technology that reduces our capacity to make mistakes. There is no reason to ever interact with a person if a transaction is accomplished via blockchain. In fact, when it’s both cheaper and more secure to use a computer, we are actually incentivized not to interact with people.
This is a troubling proposition for several reasons. When there is no interaction, there is also no trust between two people. When every piece of information is independently verifiable, there is no reason to trust anyone. While this does not imply mistrust, it does imply a complete lack of the need to trust. Trust becomes superfluous, and could even be a hindrance to exchanges. We are walking into an era where the risks inherent to dealing with people can be mitigated by using computers.
The Christian’s response
This article is not intended to be a doomsday piece. There are definitely good uses of blockchain, and those uses deserve to be celebrated. Whether the good outweighs the bad is up to the individual. Blockchain is here to stay, and it will shape our society in ways we can’t anticipate. Christians need to be prepared for these changes as they happen.
A high view of community is essential for Christians as the very fabric of relationships is redefined. As followers of Christ, our duty is to remember that we are relational creatures, made in the image of God to live in community with one another. Even if our relationships lose some of their cultural value because of technology, it is up to Christians to embrace our fellow humans because God has placed them in our lives. The gospel of Jesus Christ must dictate our view of man, regardless of the current technology. There is no substitute for fellowship, not even through blockchain.
Editor’s Note: Check out the Light Magazine issue about technology and the Christian’s response, Navigating the Digital Age.