Speculating on the Blockchain Beyond Cryptocurrencies




AMONG TODAY’S EMERGING technologies, one of the most highly promoted and eagerly anticipated is the blockchain. According to EdX’s free online course Blockchain: Understanding Its Uses and Implications, “hearing the word ‘blockchain’ is comparable to hearing the word ‘internet’ in the early 90s.” Similarly ardent buzz about blockchain permeates the pages of technology and economics publications like Wired, MIT Technology Review, The Economist, and Forbes. Although blockchain technology is generally thought of in connection with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, there are many alternatives to blockchain futurisms other than (and even antinomous to) crypto-mining. In brief, blockchain technology facilitates transactions of many different kinds by recording them in a ledger shared across a decentralized group, rather than by registering them with a third party, such as a government.

While blockchain fascination has taken off in a variety of sectors — businesses, governments, and nonprofit organizations are investing massive amounts of energy and capital in imagining and building the blockchain of the future — it has yet to take root in the cultural imaginary. Specifically, science fiction, a genre that typically delights in extrapolating the possibilities of new technologies, has been surprisingly sluggish in exploring the possibilities this new techno-scientific development could generate. Though I suspect this lag will not last long, it is odd in light of the volume of blockchain promotion that commonly features science-fiction-style imagined futures: new governance forms; revolutions in the production, circulation, consumption, and waste-processing of consumer goods; and urban infrastructures designed for ecological efficiencies and resilience — to name just a few.

What’s more, spokespeople at the bleeding edge of blockchain development directly invoke science fiction to shape their messages. In an October 2018 interview, for example, Brian Behlendorf, the executive director of Hyperledger, an open-source blockchain collaboration, remarked

I guess my personal dystopia worth fighting against was never so much “1984” or “Blade Runner” but instead the movie “Brazil,” a 1985 Terry Gilliam movie about a techno-bureaucracy run amok, where the slightest “bug” in the system can lead to tragedy and inhumanity. Blockchain technology may not save us entirely, but it’s a new kind of tool for that fight.

Statements like this demonstrate that science fiction is percolating behind the scenes of blockchain development, and they invite non-experts into the blockchain conversation by framing development in reference to shared cultural narratives.

As it stands, blockchain technology and science fiction are poised to converge, and there are a few narrative provocations engaged with — and some rather driven by — the blockchain. This article presents a selection of these literary forays just beginning to materialize. In generating this proto-archive, I have two aims. First is to introduce readers to texts that foster creative approaches to the blockchain to serve the common good. Second is to underscore the capacities of creative workers whose next blockchain science fictions might develop hypothetical use cases that could shape the development community’s concepts, the policies meant to anticipate opportunities and perils, and the general public’s attitudes toward this particular tech revolution.

Two stories stand out for combining the most in-depth technical grasp of the blockchain with captivating characters and plots: Ken Liu’s “Byzantine Empathy” (included in the formidable collection Twelve Tomorrows published by MIT Technology Review in 2018) and Karl Schroeder’s “The Baker of Mars” (included in the 2017 collection Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures from the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University).

Let’s start with Ken Liu. The title “Byzantine Empathy” clearly signals that this story is in direct conversation with blockchain development by alluding to a hypothetical scenario called the Byzantine Generals’ Problem or, more formally, Byzantine Fault Tolerance. This problem appears almost ubiquitously in writings that attempt to render the technical elements of the blockchain accessible to non-specialists wanting to know what the blockchain will be and do. The Byzantine Generals’ Problem envisions a city under siege by the Byzantine army; within the city, soldiers are grouped in discrete units, each of which is under a different general’s command, with just enough soldiers total to wage an effective attack if the effort is flawlessly coordinated. In this scenario, the military must come up with a method to encrypt correspondence among the distributed generals so they can be assured the details of the attack plan haven’t been sabotaged by intercepted messages. The blockchain development community uses this story to analogize the blockchain as an encryption technology solution that ensures the veracity of information recorded in every message so that all parties can trust the shared ledger. Notably, Liu’s title pivots from the hostile militaristic analogy to a concern with empathy and philanthropy.

But “Byzantine Empathy” is not a propaganda piece for Silicon Valley techno-optimism, nor does it trade in the cyber-libertarianism that has dominated the cryptocurrency sector of blockchain discourse. Rather, the story focuses on the complications and contradictions that arise when a new blockchain platform called Empathium disrupts governmental and non-governmental structures of philanthropic aid. The story unfolds its sophisticated picture of what one hypothetical blockchain launch might do by following two former college roommates as they struggle over the potential benefits and perils Empathium poses.

The initial description of the blockchain platform Empathium comes early in the story through the point of view of Tang Jianwen, a Chinese fintech developer who lives in Shanghai after having studied in the United States:

She had read somewhere that more than 20 percent of global financial transactions were now through various cryptocurrencies.

But the transactions she was watching onscreen were different. The offers were requests for aid or promises to provide funds; there was no consideration except the need to do something. The Empathium blockchain network matched and grouped the offers into multiparty smart contracts, and, when the conditions for performance were fulfilled, executed them.

She saw there were requests for children’s books; for fresh vegetables; for gardening tools; for contraceptives; for another doctor to come and set up shop for the long haul — and not just a volunteer to come for thirty days, parachuting in and jetting right back out, leaving everything unfinished and unfinishable […] Though she had created Empathium, she was powerless to affect its specific operation. That was the beauty of the system. No one could be in charge.

The impetus for Empathium comes in part from Tang’s experience of living in both China and the United States, and in particular, from being in the United States during a massive earthquake that devastated part of Sichuan Province. After the earthquake, she helped organize students to solicit funds for relief; later, she reflects that US culture fostered this charitable response in a way that Chinese culture did not. For Tang, the blockchain is an incorruptible mechanism for producing and channeling trust in places such as China that are at present without trustworthy structures for contributing personal wealth to alleviate others’ suffering. She sees Empathium as a form of direct democracy in that it is initially adopted by a large number of people giving relatively small amounts of capital and the donors themselves vote on which causes receive the money via the smart contracts that blockchain makes possible. Philanthropic giving is directed by the blockchain rather than by nation-state geopolitics that Tang perceives as inevitably Machiavellian. Crucially, Tang also grapples throughout the story with the fact that it is her uncommon privileges — an Ivy League education and exceptional technical acumen — which enable her to build a platform aimed at disrupting the unequal consolidation of privilege, wealth, and power.

While Tang Jianwen envisioned Empathium as revolutionizing how people living in relative safety can provide aid to the most vulnerable, Sophia Ellis, Tang’s erstwhile college roommate, believes this blockchain platform poses massive threats to geopolitical security and stability. When we meet Ellis, she is freshly resigned from a governmental foreign aid post, a position she gave up on when she concluded that her values did not align with an administration she sees as both wasting and tarnishing the United States’s philanthropic capacity. She is promptly hired as the executive director of the NGO Refugees Without Borders, a position that keeps her viable to return to the government at a later date. Ellis criticizes Tang’s ideals and the blockchain solution that puts them into practice, claiming she naïvely dismisses the political realities needed to make change in a world where nation-states still provide a fundamental policy framework. In the story, Ellis argues that, since nation-states control military force and trade, the power to negotiate aid must also reside with them.

Ellis reaches out to request Tang close down Empathium and return the business of philanthropy to properly realistic “experts.” When the request is rejected, Ellis forges a plan to manipulate the blockchain so that Refugees Without Borders can recapture the power that Tang’s platform has fragmented and more widely distributed. While the blockchain is not itself open to hacking in Liu’s story, it is also made clear that an incorruptible distributed ledger is not without vulnerabilities, ideological and otherwise — namely, of people registering their endorsements and transactions based on biased and/or falsified data. Liu captures this problem powerfully near the end of the story in an interior reflection of Tang’s: “Through Empathium, I had hoped to create a consensus of empathy, an incorruptible ledger of the heart that has overcome traitorous rationalization. But perhaps I am still too naive. Perhaps I give empathy too much credit.”

The story closes with a variety of speculations in an online forum about what the China and US governments are going to do as Empathium activity has forced their hands on a refugee crisis. Even as this ending gestures at new technologies’ susceptibility to the vagaries of their users, it is also true that, in the diegetic world, Empathium succeeds by, first, compelling a high-stakes debate over the values, policies, and objectives the blockchain was developed to enable, and second, by forcing two governments to intervene in a humanitarian crisis. Put another way, “Byzantine Empathy” takes on the gritty and granular intricacies of what a blockchain future could likely mean in the very near future. The potentials and perils that Liu’s characters outline resonate productively with the visions of the future circulated by blockchain’s media proponents and opponents. More broadly, Liu’s story invites readers to explore a detailed lived experience of a blockchain transition so they can emerge from the narrative more robustly equipped to take note of and evaluate blockchain buzz.

While Liu grounds the blockchain in a future so near it feels as if it could be just months away, Karl Schroeder’s “The Baker of Mars” pushes the blockchain to a significantly more distant future in which both extractive industries and human settlements are expanding to Mars. In this future, the blockchain has already become part of the fundamental technological fabric of life on Earth. Access to Mars, however, opens the space — and to some key characters’ minds the necessity — for imagining how the blockchain could be used to govern environmental commons: air, water, minerals, and so on. Like much science fiction, Schroeder’s story pushes readers to an alternative time and place in order to illuminate present concerns. In this case, the key opportunity is to take up what the blockchain could make newly possible in order to reconfigure the current ideologies of ecology, political economy, and governance.

Blockchain governance of the commons on Mars is pioneered by Myrna Hayward, the titular baker. One of the few people not displaced from employment by the internet of things and blockchain technologies, Myrna follows developments on Mars closely as her restaurant’s customer base is made up of prospectors whose workdays are geared to daylight in the parts of Mars where their remote bots operate. Conflict arises early when spam-program ghosts start appearing on Martian broadcast feeds from bots claiming to represent the region under speculation and telling the miners to cease. Hartney, the prospector who first shares this development with Myrna, is troubled to realize that resources such as aquifers are being devastated in the race to exploit Mars. The story follows Myrna as she dives into the technical side of these speaking regions, such as Kasei Valles, and her surprising discovery that the DAO [1] has created one ghost for every resource on Mars. Inspired by her findings, Myrna designs and proposes a blockchain solution to governing space resources that can scale up to cover a planet and beyond.

The highlights of the story take place when Myrna is invited by the UN to present her blockchain governance concept. In this meeting, the story describes with great innovation and precision what the blockchain makes possible and the challenges it puts to current ideas about how governance and the market work hand in hand. Myrna explains to those assembled:

By using a blockchain we can universalize the benefits of a commons. Firstly, the resource’s stakeholders manage it directly, using smart contracts. This is faster and more efficient than going through state actors or markets. Commons-level rules of access ensure that the resources are not depleted, and the smart contracts interlock to guarantee that the whole system fulfills its goal.

Intriguingly, the sharpest pushback against her proposal comes as a defense of the market’s efficiency. To question the market as the best and most efficient technical mechanism — if it can accurately be called a technical mechanism — for governing resources is simply beyond the capacity of many of the meeting’s attendees. As Myrna observes reactions to her proposal, she visualizes thought bubbles — including the label “communism” — above the heads of those with strong industry ties. In this and other similar passages, Schroeder uses the blockchain to identify the ideological impasses that stymie lateral thinking about ecologies and economies.

As Myrna reaches the end of her proposal session, she remarks:

This blockchain is the answer to the question of how to manage space resources; it’s the trusted arbitrator that the U.N., the individual countries, and commercial interests could never quite be. The blockchain is there to arbitrate disputes, and render judgments fairly. It can do it because it’s not owned by or beholden to anybody, and its code is transparent, unhackable. Kasei Valles and the other ghosts are literally incorruptible. She was never possible before the blockchain. Now, though, she’s our future.

Myrna’s optimism about the blockchain parallels the promotional hype the development community regularly pushes out today. Such promises of a panacea should be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. And yet, at a time when the Paris and Katowice climate conferences fail to deliver tangible infrastructures for enforcing carbon emission governance, the potential of the blockchain should also be met with rigorous interest and experimentation as at least a part of the way forward.

Liu’s and Schroeder’s stories are the most outstanding blockchain science fictions to date. Both are brilliant and captivating in narrative terms, and they articulate the blockchain with a clarity that could offer blockchain marketing teams inspiring models. In addition to these stories, there are a number of other blockchain science fiction narratives that warrant reading. (ID)entity, the second novel in P. J. Manney’s “Phoenix Horizon” series, published in 2017, incorporates the blockchain as one of its important techno-scientific elements. (ID)entity is an engaging run-and-gun future vision, depicting the blockchain as a way to maintain an accurate journalistic archive, as well as a means for recreating trust within groups that have scaled too big for more traditional means to sustain that trust. Near the end of the novel, one character suggests that history is the opposite of the blockchain, as the former is shaped by those in power and subject to revision and outright falsification while the latter is shaped transparently and democratically. (ID)entity didn’t feature more here simply to prioritize the stories with the most sustained and technically involved visions of the blockchain. Hannu Rajaniemi’s 2018 story “Unchained: A Story of Love, Loss, and Blockchain” in a blockchain issue of MIT Technology Review is openly available online, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s outstanding new novel, Red Moon (2018), touches upon the blockchain, though not as a core feature of its future, and with an eye more toward the cryptocurrency potentials for disrupting political economy.

I would be remiss if I didn’t name Rick Famuyiwa’s outstanding 2015 film Dope as one of the first stories I noticed referencing the blockchain where the protagonist, Malcolm, uses Bitcoin to conduct transactions when he is blackmailed into selling drugs, and ultimately uses the technology to defeat his blackmailer. I would feel less remiss if I didn’t mention the “Bitcoin Billionaires” romance series by Sara Forbes, yet its convergence of blockchain financial speculation with romance fantasy exemplifies how genres other than science fiction are already at work integrating the blockchain into preexisting capitalist fantasies instead of imagining alternative futures.

Finally, I’ll close with a note on Chinese science fiction. The ascending star Chen Qiufan (a.k.a. Stanley Chan) is currently working on blockchain stories; the acclaimed writer of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, Liu Cixin, has weighed in on the blockchain at major conferences like the 2018 World Blockchain Conference in Wuzhen; and the founder of 8btc News and Bytom, Liu Zhipeng (Chang Jia) is a three-time Galaxy Award–winning science fiction writer who has also become one of the most well-known blockchain spokespeople in China. The future promises to include blockchain science fiction from China as sophisticated as it is divergent from its American and European counterparts as these and other writers’ works are published and translated.

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Andrew Hageman is associate professor of English at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

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[1] Blockchain-ese for a distributed autonomous organization — a set of rules recorded on a shared blockchain ledger that is transparent and not under a centralized authority.


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