Each year an old university room mate comes to stay with me in San Francisco while he attends the Internet of Things (IoT) Convention in Silicon Valley. I like to tag along to see what the technoscenti are up to. Every year amid all the usual engineers and computer people looking to promote their products and services there’s an emergent dominant theme. This year the convention was twice the size of last year and it was all about blockchain.
You’ve no doubt heard of Bitcoin and other crypto currencies that use blockchain as the underlying technology. I joke that abstract data generated by complex algorithms suspended in the global electronic ether is embraced primarily by people who feel fiat paper money is just too tangible. Perhaps a better interpretation is that a growing number of investors understand that traditional monetary instruments are being abused by central authorities and can no longer be trusted. Fair enough. But does anyone really believe central banks will allow a parallel economy to exist for long before it’s all branded a black market vector only used by terrorists, drug dealers, and tax evaders? Ironically, what many individuals are reaching for in a crypto alternative is a medium of exchange and a store of value that’s even more fluid, ephemeral, and less tethered to external reality… What could possibly go wrong?
Aside from alternative currencies, blockchain is rapidly being embraced and implemented by all the usual establishment players for nominally secure transactions of all kinds. At its heart blockchain is an accounting ledger that can be used to keep track of all sorts of things from medical records to vehicle histories to personal identity. Most of us will be using blockchain in our everyday activities soon even if we don’t know it since it will be invisibly embedded in multiple processes.
My take away from several years of industry gatherings is that technological complexity is being used to solve all sorts of problems that society can’t figure out how to deal with any other way. Reforming what’s wrong with our existing institutions isn’t an option since there are too many vested interests pushing back against direct change. Yet each new innovative work-around leads to more complexity and new challenges which are then patched with additional rounds of technology and even more complexity.
We’re going to wake up one day and discover that our massive interdependent collection of highly leveraged abstractions has crashed. Putting it all back together is going to be so difficult and unpleasant that we might actually have to resort to – gasp! – primary physical activity right on the ground in front of us in order to meet our critical needs. I wonder if anyone remembers how to do real stuff anymore.