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Blockchain: Where does the real potential lie?

Despite the hype, these technologies aren't relevant right now. But they could be in the future.

RAMESH SRINIVASAN: Blockchain technology is a technology that has garnered a lot of fascination and interest because of its ability to encrypt forms of communication by registering every sort of transaction in a publicly visible and therefore unchangeable ledger. That's more or less what blockchain technologies are. And those are the technologies upon which cryptocurrencies – there's been a lot of fascination around like bitcoin and Ethereum and so on - operate. If you ask me whether these technologies are really relevant right now I would say for the most part no. We generally see that blockchain enthusiasts are guided by value systems that don't necessarily recognize sort of the big economic issues that my book Beyond the Valley speaks about. About workers, about economic insecurity, et cetera. We see a lot of guidance by, to put it frankly, what we call techno-libertarian values. Ones that sort of see blockchain technologies as supporting individual freedoms but not necessarily the social contract that Elizabeth Warren spoke to me about that should be associated with our work, our labor as human beings, as Americans as well.

So blockchain technologies though, however, have a lot of interesting potential. If they can be sufficiently democratized where small businesses, working people, community organizations, even human rights activists are able to get over the technological hurdles, they are substantial, to implement blockchain technologies to actually support encrypted peer to peer communications where they can actually deliver on the services they provide and engage with their stakeholders in very secure and open ways. However, as of this point, the blockchain, what they describe as the blockchain space, tends to be flooded by individualistic sort of focused intentions. And we've even seen certain examples which I write about in Beyond the Valley of how blockchain sorts of hubs for development have been rooted in places that have faced the effects of disaster capitalism, as a term that Naomi Klein describes. And I'm specifically speaking about Puerto Rico, which faced a massive hurricane, Hurricane Maria, recently. And the actions taken after that horrible, horrible disaster caused by climate change were to open up Puerto Rico as sort of a deregulated, tax-free or low-tax haven for new forms of investment.

And as usual what that opens up are potential for business growth, avoiding tax payments and the social contract, but also incredibly ignorant and negligent of the realities of Puerto Rican people. And so that's very inhumane in many senses. And so we see blockchain being employed for these sorts of agendas in many cases. We even give the example in Beyond the Valley, my coauthor Adam Reese and I, of how blockchain technologies have been used between Chinese billionaires who have somewhat sketchy records and authoritarians in West Africa, in Togo for example. So we have to scrutinize, and this is true across the board with all technologies, blockchain included, who is monetizing the technology, who's guiding the technology, who's benefitting from the implementation of that technology and whose values guide the use and design and really the engagement with the technology itself. So the technology is interesting, but it's just that, an interesting technology.

  • 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.

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