“The democratisation argument is just a pretext”
Bruno Gransche, a philosopher of technology and member of the research seminar Designing a Human Future at the University of Siegen, in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, does not share the blockchain euphoria.
brandeins: The blockchain scene is saying ‘Rewrite everything!’ This is supposed to produce a decentralised, digital economy in which everyone can interact with everyone else, needing neither public authorities, such as land registry offices and central banks, nor middlemen, such as notaries, utility companies or car rental companies. Doesn’t that sound tempting?
Bruno Gransche: We are being promised that we will no longer depend on individual, outdated, possibly overstretched and perhaps even corrupt institutions. Their power to make decisions is to be distributed. The background against which such ideas are gaining influence is one in which political and economic institutions are facing a general loss of confidence. Many people are seeking new institutions or the revival of old ones they believe can offer solutions in a globalised and digital world. In that sense, trends like the blockchain hype arise for similar reasons to the current resurgence of nationalistic or rightwing populist ideologies: these compensatory movements are the response to a sense of loss of control and confidence, which is partly imagined and partly real. The promise that this will be a way of regaining control is doubtful, though, to my mind.
The blockchain promises decentralisation and democratisation. This electrified a lot of people before – in the early days of the internet. What became of that? New, powerful, monopolies like Facebook, Google and Amazon, which are largely able to elude democratic control and social responsibility. In the digital world, too, there are access restrictions, and elites emerge that skim off the profits.
The blockchain is supposed to deprive these stakeholders of their powers: online platforms like Facebook or Amazon would lose their influence – thanks to decentralisation and the security of the data against forgery. This opens up entirely new possibilities.
That may be. However, I am concerned that for many of the protagonists in this market the argument of democratisation, of liberalisation, is a just a pretext. In truth it is about creating opportunities for reaping profits. It is about creating new elites that will replace the old ones. Here too, there will be restrictions on access, because blockchain applications require an infrastructure. And they will need a lot of energy to get them up and running, as we saw with the first applications in the financial industry. Blockchains need loads of computing power. And they call for a very special know-how to design and use these technologies. What we are seeing at the moment is primarily privileged protagonists – people who know their way around the technology and who have access to the necessary infrastructure. They are only out to sell their own business models to others.
Isn’t that a very pessimistic view?
Certain competencies are rewarded while others are devalued. That is how economic change works. I see no reason why things should be different in the case of blockchain technologies.
So, should we call off the revolution?
History teaches us that in revolutions heads will roll. I am not saying the technology does not have potential, but what shape it actually takes will depend on the social and political framework. If we as a society say, “Yes, we want this transformation,” then we need to make sure that we do not accidentally, negligently or even deliberately jeopardise societal achievements which we have fought long and hard to attain. One such achievement is the fact that we elect the people who shape the transformation of society, or control them through elected authorities. This gives those who might be left behind by such a transformation a right to refuse, or at least allows them to be heard. What is to be created here is new, powerful cyber institutions. But realistically, we are still really, really bad when it comes to controlling digital institutions. At the moment, we are not even able to control companies like Facebook. That is where we need to start: developing means of control and the necessary knowhow. And making access to the infrastructure as open as possible. So that in the end it is not the people with the fastest computers who decide whose heads are going to roll.