My biggest blockchain hope: Gain control of our data

In recent years, it has become fashionable to complain about the internet – it seems as if we screwed up, unable to exploit this technology to the benefit of all, are spied on by every government on earth and created Trump, Brexit and everything evil with it. While one could argue about that point of view, I see no doubt that blockchain as a technology may help us to improve current deficits and shortcomings or even provide a second chance to build the internet closer to the way it was once imagined (everyone should read the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace by John Perry Barlow from 1996 every once in a while).

With so many good resources out there to explain blockchain fundamentals, I’ll spare you my personal version of re-phrasing them. (I added a link list to the end of the article with what I recommend to read/watch).

Instead, let me start with a quote by Marc Andreessen from 2014 (!).

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Full quote: “Digital stocks. Digital equities. Digital fundraising for companies. Digital bonds. Digital contracts, digital keys, digital title, who owns what — digital title to your house, to your car. Like for example, you get a digital title on a car, attached to a digital key, where you own your car on the Bitcoin blockchain and on your smartphone. The key for opening your car and starting your car is tied to that title. And if I sell you my car, automatically you get title, and you get the key that lets you operate the car, and it’s all digital, and it’s all unique, and it can’t be cracked. You’ve got digital voting, digital contracts, digital signatures. You’ve got unique pieces of digital content. If you guys wanted to know exactly who had every piece of content you ever made, you can track that. It’s this long list. And then every aspect of financial services: insurance contracts, insurance derivatives, currency exchange, remittance – on and on and on. It gives you a chance to basically go after this very broad category of online business in a new way. And, by the way, if we had had this technology 20 years ago, we would’ve built it into the browser. E-commerce would’ve gotten built on top of this, instead of getting built on top of the credit card network. We knew we were missing this; we just didn’t know what it was.”

Years later, I still haven’t found a better summary of “my blockchain hopes” (although not on the Bitcoin blockchain, but hey, that was 2014). This is the key sentence to me:  “We knew we were missing this, and we just didn’t know what it was”.

The real innovation is not the blockchain technology as such, but that it enables us to collectively govern the generation, gathering and distribution of data without a central authority. That’s what we were missing. And that’s where we made a “mistake” or there was at least an unlucky turn of events as the internet unfolded.

Let’s stick with one of the examples by Marc Andreessen. Imagine we replace the (in it’s core still:) analog way of storing information about car ownerships with a blockchain-based one. The whole history of the car would be documented. Where it went when. Any accident it had, when maintenance took place, when it was produced, sold as a used car. And so on.

 

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Image from AdNovum/University of Zurich from a Dossier on blockchain cars

It wouldn’t be possible to start the car unless you have an un-hackable permission – a contract – with the actual owner of the car. So the car becomes virtually unstealable, and the government is relieved not only of keeping records, but also of enforcing these ownerships. Car industry, government, insurance companies, citizens may have very similar interests here, so I think this is something that may actually happen. So if we, the owners, the customers can keep the records, collaborative, public, transparent, yet (at least to the general public:) anonymous unless needed otherwise, there’s one more aspect that seems trivial at first, but may shake up entire economies (and, in extension, societies): control of the data.

Blockchain may give us “our” data back

My car on blockchain would mean that I could easily extract my data from it. How many kilometers I drove. Percentage of rides under 15 km distance. Average number of rides in a week. Cost per ride at any given point in time, including purchase, insurance and fuel cost (or energy). I could compare the data to an anonymous public of blockchain-ed cars and their data, and may find out that I shouldn’t own a car at all. Or a smaller or bigger one. City planners – or interested citizens – may access all anonymous car data to better serve our infrastructure needs. Public transport could be designed to actually help most where it is needed the most. This data exists today, too, but we did a terrible job at distributing it: Uber, Tesla, some local governments have data. I don’t.

I have always believed that one core problem of how we designed the internet was that the data generated (by behavior, for example, clicks, transactions, likes, forms etc.) remained with the application used (or company that provided the application) and not with the user. For instance, I can’t take my Amazon purchase history to another retailer. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to show Netflix the 500+ DVDs I bought on Amazon, so they get an idea about my taste right away? How is that not MY data? Amazon knows the printer I bought and can tell me for any toner if it fits or not. At every other shop, I have to enter model types by the likes of “XW-45637/z-1xdot model 2” to identify my printer. All my purchases in the past two decades, my return rates, my re-purchase rates, percentage of transactions I sent gift-wrapped to other addresses – I would love to show all these records to any online shop and get recommendations. Or even special offers as they may see how valuable of a customer I am. Or to banks to see how my credit score changes. And let’s face it: As much as I love Amazon’s customer centricity, they sometimes provide really strange recommendations, so let’s see if others could do a better job.

So imagine the data you caused on applications would not only be yours, but actually in your control. You could take all the addresses you ever used on Uber to any other service. Or feed them into a car to see if, for these rides and your extrapolated data over the next 10 years, the purchase of a car makes sense. Or maybe you could show them to any mobility provider and they could recommend services to you. Or offer you a flatrate. Imagine you could take your Runtastic data to another fitness app and continue to build your profile there. Or you could take that data to the next store for running shoes. Or to your doctor. Or your health insurance. It’s your data. You ran. Think internet of things. I don’t need my coffee machine to automatically order espresso. But I want to know how many coffees I make, and which type of machine serves my actual needs best – up to which type of business model, an owned machine, leased or shared one, or a constant delivery of coffee as a service is my most economic solution.

All this would – maybe, somehow – be possible with the technologies of today, but blockchain may be the technology that makes it reality by basically being designed for this task. It needs huge, somtimes seemingly overwhelming progress in performance, scalability and interoperability. So here’s my only “it’s-1996-all-over-again” reference: Remember when we stared at a single jpg and were fascinated how, pixel by pixel, the data was transfered and displayed on our screens? Remember how science fiction it seemed to talk about 4k-Ultra-HD video (which wasn’t invented yet) distribution over the web? Here we are with blockchain scalability and performance today. It will happen. I don’t know if it will happen on Ethereum, IOTA or a platform yet to be invented, and most probably the biggest obstacle will be interoperability of platforms. But I am convinced that the question is not if, but when – timing has always been the most difficult to predict in tech development.

The impact of gaining control of our data is hard to over-estimate. Going back to the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, what about the weary giants of flesh and steel? Won’t companies like Amazon be weary giants in light of these technologies? And if Edward Snowden thinks the anonymity of ZCash would be highly interesting – will governments let us implement cryptographic and anonymous systems on a large scale (Bitcoin and many others are, contrary to public belief, not really anonymous, and I believe therefore still “unregulated”)? If data is the new oil (always hated that analogy), what happens if all of us own the oil? If no one owns data, we all own it. Blockchain may be our chance to take control.

 

PS: My recommended reading/watching for blockchain fundamentals:

The Andreas Antonopoulos YouTube account, https://www.youtube.com/user/aantonop  is probably the best resource out there

I like this explanation by Wired https://www.wired.com/video/2017/10/blockchain-explained/

Here’s a longer read – but a good fundamental overview: https://medium.com/@micheledaliessi/how-does-the-blockchain-work-98c8cd01d2ae

Or this simple – but very useful – article by Yasa Manase:  https://medium.com/@MyanaSmlia/before-blockchain-after-blockchain-in-business-d222c6e98d48 ).

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