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Blockchain: Changing our social contract forever

Posted 5 Nov 2016

Catherine Mulligan, Research Fellow and Co-Director at the Imperial College Centre for Cryptocurrency Research and Engineering, writes about blockchain’s value and use for societal good

At Digital Catapult’s recent blockchain meetup, a new video called “Blockchain: Changing Everything Forever” was launched. The film is a collaboration between Digital Catapult and Furtherfield, and takes a deeper dive into the real implications of blockchain on the economy, society and life.

For me, the film was an excellent and much needed exploration of the technology – one that did not take a technological, deterministic perspective. It got me really thinking about what we want to achieve with blockchain – in particular about our social contract with one another and the broader society. It has some great insights from Elias Haase and Jaya Klara Brekke, so check it out!

Social contracts have long been the basis for how we construct society – every couple of generations, our social contracts may evolve to better reflect new social norms. For example, for our grandparents’ generation being on time was viewed as critical for someone to be ‘trusted’. To some extent this could be related back to the Industrial Revolution; if someone were late, the whole ‘machinery’ would not be able to operate until they did. With the advent of mobile phones and other digital technologies, the idea of ‘late’ has become more fluid; you can always dial into a meeting, or call someone to let them know you have missed the bus.

Blockchain, if it truly does achieve the impact that many people feel it will, represents a much more foundational challenge to our existing social contract than what ‘late’ means. It challenges what it means to be a citizen, what it means to be governed, what transparency and trust mean and most importantly how truth is assessed. These are not small issues; these are some of the largest concepts a society can grapple with. As human beings, we have struggled with these issues since the time of Plato and Aristotle.

For me, blockchain is the first truly “digital economy” technology we have experienced. It brings together economics (through transactions) and technology together in a way that society has never experienced before. Since our social contract today still rests on the industrial economic model of operation, the manner in which blockchain promises to redistribute power is not trivial.

Previous technologies allowed us to create ‘openness’ and the exchange of information. Blockchain meanwhile allows us to track and trace our interactions, economic transactions and gives us the power to disrupt aspects of our social contract that we don’t ‘like’; for example, removing the central bank as the creator of trust in our money. But what if others in society do like them? Have we thought to ask?

In my role at Imperial College, I have the privilege of meeting the next generation of engineers both from the college and other universities. While I always feel happy when I see highly intelligent and technically brilliant 20-somethings, I am left wondering occasionally if they even know what a social contract is, or if they have been trained to think about the possible social impacts of their skills. This is not a failure of the students themselves, but rather a failure of our education system to adapt fast enough to the changing world.

Some people have suggested a Developer Hippocratic oath, or even a Satoshi Oath. While these are great initiatives, it is perhaps a bit late to catch people after their training. Blockchain therefore raises a number of important issues for education. If developers are going to have such a big impact on how our society is constructed, in the creation of the mechanisms of ‘trust’ and in the assessment of what ‘truth’ is, we need to reform how we educate engineers. Philosophy, ethics and the social context of technology all need to become core parts of engineering training within universities.

More importantly however, if this technology can so fundamentally alter our social contract, this is a discussion that needs to be taken broadly across society. It cannot be left solely in the hands of young computer scientists. Old, young, men, women, CEOs and average, everyday people on the street need to be actively engaged and brought into the discussion.

This is because our social contract belongs to all of us, not just engineers.

Catherine Mulligan is Research Fellow and Co-Director at the Imperial College Centre for Cryptocurrency Research and Engineering. You can follow her on Twitter @API_Economics. Don’t forget to follow us too @DigiCatapult.