Blockchain: Poised To Transform The Order Of Human Affairs?

Kris Hansen

Since becoming ubiquitous around 2002, the Internet has brought humanity together and created a global network of information that has profoundly changed the way we live. The structure of how we consume and use information has completely changed due to technology.

Now, 14 years later, many would argue that we’re still coming to grips with this new way of living and all the moral and ethical dilemmas, as well as new possibilities, that come with it. However, technologists aren’t waiting around for that to come to its happy conclusion. The invention of blockchains, which distilled to the simplest form are essentially spreadsheets anyone in the world can view and add to but can’t edit, gives us another truly new and potentially transformative thing. While it uses the Internet to function, as its own device blockchain technology could again revolutionize how humans live and interact.Blockchain: Poised To Transform The Order Of Human Affairs?

How? Where the Internet gave us a decentralized network of information, blockchains can bring us a decentralized network of value. Because of how blockchains work—specifically, how they make trust a non-issue—they in theory resolve the trust issues that have plagued and therefore practically shaped virtually every aspect of society since its dawn. Movement of funds (and underlying influence) is forced into the light of day.

Think of when trust between people can be broken. One of your first thoughts is probably during the exchange of value. That’s why it’s not by chance that much of the early use of blockchain has been in the financial sector. The tool was invented for Bitcoin trading, but has since primarily been adapted for such uses as “smart contracts,” near-instant international bank-to-bank cash transfers and identity authentication. The design of blockchain begins with the assumption that parties can’t implicitly be trusted and it expects that bad actors will attempt to influence and corrupt the system. It is a concept entirely designed (sadly) for the reality of human interaction.

The intention of using the blockchain in the financial sector is to transfer trust from the human intermediary to a mathematical algorithm that can’t be faked. This means we could totally redesign the human-led financial system we created in our attempts to distribute value in a trustworthy way. Creating a transparent and incorruptible ledger is a first step toward bringing transparency into global markets and value exchange.

The transparent ledger concept is powerful, as is the peer-to-peer validation. Distributing the facts out in the open with all parties having a copy of the ledger also means that each party is an information peer. Money is digital, and it has been for some time—what’s different is that now money and value interaction can be truly digital and transparent.

Beyond finance, think of how much value is eaten up by bureaucracy or captured at the top of hierarchical structures everywhere in society instead of being distributed between the value creators, simply because we can’t trust each other. The Internet disintermediated information by giving everyone a voice; blockchains disintermediate value by untangling it from the problem of trust. This is technology that can break down “value fences” similar to how Internet technology concepts broke down “information fences.” This could be profound if we don’t mess it up.

Some may not fully realize the problems blockchain can solve until they grasp just how many of our ingrained societal norms are built on ensuring trust. However, if blockchains are to transform the old order of human affairs, as the Internet did, it will not be a straightforward journey. This is interesting technology, but it’s not only technology—it’s actually a collection of powerful concepts that could be used to establish new and interesting value networks.

Governments or other parties that prefer to see value “fenced in” could stifle it or use it to infringe on citizen privacy, criminals will inevitably find ways to exploit it, and governance—like Internet governance—is extremely challenging.

Whatever happens, years from now we will think back to 2016—the year blockchain hype reached fever pitch—and discuss how the network of value changed our lives.

Listen to the recent webcast on which Alex Tapscott (co-author of Blockchain Revolution) and I discussed blockchain in detail, featuring the story of how Canadian bank ATB Financial sent one of the world’s first international blockchain payments.

Kris Hansen

About Kris Hansen

Kris Hansen is senior principal, Financial Services for SAP Canada. He is focused on understanding the financial services industry and identifying new and interesting digital opportunities that create disruptive business value.