A crash course in the history of money, the birth of Bitcoin, and blockchain technology.
- We've all heard terms like Bitcoin, blockchain, and cryptocurrency being thrown around in the past few years, but what do they mean? Consider this your crash course.
- Experts from across the spectrum of money and tech provide a history of commerce dating back tens of thousands of years, explain what blockchain and Bitcoin are and how they work, and offer insights into the differences between centralized and decentralized systems.
- Because blockchain is incredibly difficult to hack, it has massive implications for elections, banking, shipping, land ownership—any domain where corruption is rampant. While the technology may feel abstract now, programmer Brian Behlendorf compares it to explaining the concept of email to people in 1993. One day, blockchain will be a seamless part of our lives.
Is Bitcoin akin to 'digital gold'?
- In October, PayPal announced that it would begin allowing users to buy, sell, and hold cryptocurrencies.
- Other major fintech companies—Square, Fidelity, SoFi—have also recently begun investing heavily in cryptocurrencies.
- While prices are volatile, many investors believe cryptocurrencies are a relatively safe bet because blockchain technology will prove itself over the long term.
PayPal CEO Dan Schulman sees a silver lining amid the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic: It's accelerating cryptocurrency adoption at a rapid clip, potentially by years.
Speaking in front of a digital audience at the 2020 Web Summit, Schulman added that he's optimistic about the future of cryptocurrencies:
"I think that if you can create a financial system, a new and modern technology that is faster, that is less expensive, more efficient, that's good for bringing more people into the system, for inclusion, to help drive down costs, to help drive financial health for so many people. [...] So, over the long run, I'm very bullish on digital currencies of all kinds."
His bullishness might be unsurprising, considering PayPal is among the latest fintech companies to move into the cryptocurrency space. In October, PayPal announced that users would soon be able to buy, sell, and hold cryptocurrencies "directly through PayPal using their Cash or Cash Plus account." That went into effect in November, and the company plans to extend it to Venmo users in 2021.
Presentation slide from Sanja Kon's presentation on the evolution of money at 2020 Web Summit
Credit: Sanja Kon
The move came shortly after the payments company Square invested $50 million into Bitcoin, and after Fidelity announced that it was opening a Bitcoin fund into which qualified purchasers could invest (minimum investment: $100,000). Together, this institutional backing might have something to do with Bitcoin's recent surge back to near its 2017 price peak of $19,783. (Bitcoin is listed at 19,384.30 as of Dec. 3.)
Presentation slide from Sanja Kon's presentation on the evolution of money at 2020 Web Summit
Credit: Sanja Kon
But more importantly, it suggests cryptocurrencies might soon have the opportunity to prove themselves in real-world use cases. After all, skeptics have long doubted the ability of cryptocurrencies to go mainstream as a form of everyday payment. But people seem increasingly comfortable with digital payment systems.
"The entire world is going to come into digital first," Schulman said at Web Summit, adding that PayPal's services already go hand-in-hand with cryptocurrencies. "As we thought about it, digital wallets are a natural complement to digital currencies. We've got over 360 million digital wallets and we need to embrace cryptocurrencies."
Sanja Kon, CEO of global partnerships at the cryptocurrency payments processor company UTRUST, also spoke at Web Summit about the increasing adoption of digital payments:
"Physical cash is becoming more and more obsolete. And the next step in the evolution is digital currency."
Kon noted some of the inherent advantages of cryptocurrencies, namely ownership.
"For many people, this is really the main benefit of cryptocurrency: Users owning cryptocurrencies are able to control how they spend their money without dealing with any intermediary authority like a bank or a government, for example," Kon said, adding that there are no bank fees associated with cryptocurrencies, and that international transaction fees are significantly lower than wire transfers of fiat currency.
Kon said cryptocurrencies have unique growth opportunities in areas where people aren't integrated into modern banking systems:
"With cryptocurrencies and blockchain, with the use of just a smartphone and access to internet, Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies can be available to populations of people and users without access to the traditional banking system."
Bitcoin as 'digital gold'
Still, it could take years for people to start using cryptocurrencies for everyday purchases on a large scale. Despite this, many cryptocurrency advocates see digital currencies, particularly Bitcoin, as a way to store value—digital gold, essentially.
"I don't think Bitcoin is going to be used as a transactional currency anytime in the next five years," billionaire investor Mike Novogratz recently told Bloomberg. "Bitcoin is being used as a store of value. [...] "Bitcoin as a gold, as digital gold, is just going to keep going higher. More and more people are going to want it as some portion of their portfolio."
There are obvious parallels between gold and Bitcoin: Both are mined, do not degrade over time, are finite in supply, and aren't directly tied to the value of fiat currency, making them relatively invulnerable to inflation. The obvious objection is that the price of Bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies in general, is far more volatile than gold.
But for investors who believe the inherent value of cryptocurrency technology will prove itself over the long term, these price fluctuations are just bumps on the long road to the future of currency.
"It's no longer a debate if crypto is a thing, if Bitcoin is an asset, if the blockchain is going to be part of the financial infrastructure," Novogratz said. "It's not if, it's when, and so every single company has to have a plan now."
Innovative use of blockchain tech, data trusts, algorithm assessments, and cultural shifts abound.
- A study published last year by the Pew Research Center found that most American's distrust the federal government, and there's plenty of evidence to suggest that the situation has yet to improve.
- Governments have more access than ever to our private information, which creates an inherent tension between how they can use data for the public good while ensuring they aren't abusing citizens' privacy rights.
- As emerging technologies mature, it will become more evident to the public which models are the most effective ways for governments to achieve the levels of transparency they've committed to delivering.
Government transparency is a central tenet of liberal democracies. In many countries, including the United States, transparency is enshrined into the constitution and laws, such as the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act.
Nevertheless, trust in government is on the decline. A study published last year by the Pew Research Center found that most American's distrust the federal government. Recent events such as the coronavirus pandemic, bailouts, and the Black Lives Matter protests casting a shadow over the Trump 2020 presidential campaign aren't likely to have improved the situation.
However, it's important to remember that this is hardly only an American problem. The Edelman Trust Barometer measures the trust in NGOs, business, government, and media. In 2020, the Barometer showed a drop in trust across many nations, including Canada, Australia, and the UK.
While governments risk decreasing public trust through their handling of events such as the pandemic, such events also create more pressure for governments to demonstrate transparency. The virus crisis results in inquiries into fields such as public health expenditure, while the protests are prompting calls to address institutional biases.
The increasingly prevalent use of technologies such as big data and AI means that governments have more access than ever to our private information. This creates an inherent tension between how governments can use data for the public good while ensuring they aren't abusing citizens' privacy rights.
European countries have recently been wrangling with this tension, as a privacy row has been brewing over the use of virus track-and-trace applications. An extremely effective way to curb infections happens to involve surveillance of the public with unprecedented precision and scale, and who's to say what all the implications of allowing it may be? Who will gain access to this data, either legitimately or by hacking? What will they do with it? Once the pandemic ends, what happens to these access privileges?
Using emerging technologies inevitably increases the scope and scale of government data collection. However, technology can also be put to use by governments that want to demonstrate their commitment to improving transparency.
Using blockchain to secure citizens’ data
The Austrian government has recently turned to blockchain as a means of establishing transparent communications about the COVID-19 crisis, between authorities, institutions, and citizens. Communication specialist A-Trust has launched the QualiSig project, on Ignis, part of the Ardor blockchain platform.
The project will use transparent, encrypted communications visible on the blockchain, and decentralized data storage to secure data against attacks. Citizens can control the use of their own data using qualified digital signatures.
Alexander Pfeiffer, Danube University Krems researcher, and partner to A-Trust, has a high degree of confidence that blockchain can help to increase trust in governments. "The more such solutions are used by government agencies and their partners, the more likely it is that citizens will regain confidence in the operations of these government authorities," he wrote in an email. "In addition, it will also be possible to work much more efficiently and on a much higher level of mutual trust between the parties involved."
This is the second time the Austrian government has engaged Jelurida, the Swiss firm that operates Ardor, in projects designed to improve transparency. In May this year, the Austrian government announced funding for a sustainability project designed to pinpoint sources of waste heat that could be redirected back into the energy grid. The "Hot City" project is a collaboration with the Austrian Institute of Technology and plans to use the Ignis chain for providing rewards to citizens submitting data about waste heat that can be harnessed for the public good.
An outspoken advocate of using blockchain to increase transparency, Lior Yaffe is the co-founder and director of Jelurida. "For the Austrian government, funding applied blockchain technologies has been a major priority for several years," he told Big Think. "Now, the Hot City and QualiSig projects show how a public blockchain can be used to store and display specific datasets, thus increasing transparency."
Demonstrating transparency in the electoral process
The potential for using blockchain to demonstrate electoral transparency has been hotly discussed for years now. The first such experiment took place in Denmark back in 2014, when the Liberal Alliance party used blockchain for one of its local elections.
At the time, the chair of the party's IT group made a bold prediction. "Voting is the most important process in a democratic society," he said. "Here, there is no doubt that new technology will play an increasing role going forward."
However, as things stand in 2020, blockchain in elections hasn't moved forward at quite the pace many had previously predicted. Most local and national elections still take place using the same pen-and-paper process that has been in place for decades.
Nevertheless, the Indian election commission is among the latest to join the many government bodies that continue to experiment in this area.
Using transparency to combat corruption
Countries that have had problems with corruption going back generations have an especially steep mountain to climb when it comes to gaining public trust. Ukraine is one such example. As part of a bailout agreement in 2015, the International Monetary Fund demanded that the country's government do more to fight corruption.
In 2017, the Ukrainian government engaged blockchain firm Bitfury to store all of its data on the blockchain, in an attempt to demonstrate better transparency. In September that year, the justice ministry successfully used the technology for auctioning seized assets, and later transferred state property and land registries to the platform.
"We want to make the system of selling seized assets more transparent and secure," Deputy Justice Minister Serhiy Petukhov told Reuters, "so that the information there is accessible to everyone so that there aren't concerns about possible manipulation."
Creating a culture of transparency
While technology can be a useful tool for governments to demonstrate transparency, it's not the only means. Some countries, particularly those in northern Europe such as Norway and Denmark, are renowned for their culture of governmental transparency.
Canada also ranks highly in transparency from an international perspective, although its Corruption Perceptions Index score has been dropping.
It's intriguing that domestic perceptions don't always appear to align with these rankings. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis, some quarters of the Canadian academia have been highly critical of Justin Trudeau's government.
"Canada has a culture of secrecy. And it's one of the worst things about Canada," Amir Attaran, professor of law and epidemiology at University of Ottawa, told the CBC. "Our lack of transparency is a Canadian cultural trait, and it's one that hurts us. It's also part of a larger belief that the government knows best. But it doesn't."
In the same piece, Jean-Noé Landry, who works for a non-profit that advises governments on data transparency, takes a more nuanced approach. He attributes a culture with a high level of government trust as a potential pitfall when it comes to demanding transparency in a crisis such as COVID-19. As he puts it, Canadians "trust the government more in these kinds of situations, and maybe we lower our guard a bit and go along with them. [COVID-19] is not the type of thing where we should be lowering our standards."
Inside the algorithms
One government that has been almost universally lauded for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic is New Zealand's. Even before the crisis, the government there has been taking some impressive measures to demonstrate transparency. One example is its "algorithm assessment" program, launched in 2018, designed to introduce more transparency into how the government is deploying AI for its citizens.
Fourteen government agencies used a self-assessment method, underpinned by the government's own "principles for safe and effective use of data and analytics." The outcome was a report that acknowledged the need to retain human oversight over machine-led decisions and recommended using independent experts in the areas of privacy, ethics, and data expertise.
"We must prepare for the ethical challenges AI poses to our legal and political systems," stated Clare Curran, New Zealand's Minister for Digital Services, "as well as the impact AI will have on workforce planning, the wider issues of digital rights, data bias, transparency, and accountability are also important for this Government to consider."
Data trusts, a work in progress
In the UK, the Open Data Institute (ODI) has been working on several pilots to implement "data trusts" in collaboration with various government agencies, in an attempt to create more transparency. The ODI defines a data trust as a "legal structure that provides independent stewardship of data." They aim to increase access to data, along with providing confidence in the use of it.
The Institute worked on three pilots with varying degrees of success. The pilots attempted to bring transparency to food waste, illegal wildlife trade, and smart city implementation with a focus on parking data for green vehicles.
The findings from all three pilots were consolidated into a "lessons learned" document that highlighted the need to flesh out the overall concept and gain a shared understanding of what it means to all stakeholders for data trusts to become successful.
The ODI continues its work in this regard, exploring the use of data trusts and other data stewardship models.
Trust in flux
The events of 2020 so far have amounted to a perfect storm as far as testing government trust goes. Social distancing and shelter in place rules mean that there's a more significant reliance than ever on technology. However, governments need to continue to walk a tightrope of ensuring that they deploy the best technology available while demonstrating transparency.
As emerging technologies mature, it will become more evident to the public which models are the most effective ways for governments to achieve the levels of transparency they've committed to delivering.
Despite the hype, these technologies aren't relevant right now. But they could be in the future.
- The hype around blockchain technology has been sufficiently steady since its arrival. But UCLA professor Ramesh Srinivasan reveals the real potential in this relatively new technology is far from its connection to cryptocurrency.
- To tap this potential, it's necessary to move away from the individualistic intentions to which blockchain so often applies. For example, taking root in areas that have fallen victim to disaster capitalism like Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
- To overcome these hurdles, we must scrutinize the sources of these types of technology as well as those that benefit from its implementation.
This is what you need to do to keep up with today's digital progress.
- Amazon has set aside $700 million to retrain 100,000 of its employees. That's an incredible thing—a company that is already at the forefront of tech is helping its employees catch up. What does that mean for the rest of us?
- Developing digital literacy in your organization's workforce is of utmost importance. How will companies stay ahead of the competition if they don't understand how emerging technologies, like blockchain, can be implemented?
- "Stay current" should become an organizational motto; it's about the disciplined pursued of understanding how technology can change the work you're doing today.