The Question of Blockchain

2 min read

Blockchain – don’t ask how, ask why
David Kernohan, Wonkhe, Dec 21, 2017

With the mainstream explosion of interest in Bitcoin in the past few months, I have been seeing many more conversations and questions in the higher ed networks I inhabit about blockchain. Interest seems to be moving beyond the innovators and people are trying to wrap their head around how blockchain works. But how is the wrong question higher ed should be asking at this point about blockchain. Instead, David Kernohan argues we should be asking "why"?

To do that, we need to understand the culture and environment blockchain has risen from. What problem was it built to solve? For blockchain, the problem is trust. As David notes:

Trusting people and entities is hard, specifically where buying and selling is involved – much harder than trusting something as cold and logical as code. Using code to manage transactions (code is law, with profound apologies to Larry Lessig) means that we can interact with things we don’t trust.

David's article does focus on why blockchain was created and he provides some good "why" context specific to higher ed.

In higher education, much of the action has been around storing learning credentials – providing a way to independently verify that person X has qualification Y in subject Z from institution A.

But along the way, David actually does a very good job of explaining how it works. Which, despite the headline, is also important to understand. I draw an analogy to the web. Not many people understand how the web works, but use it everyday. This lack of web literacy about how the web works has introduced a slew of new problems that we are now dealing with. Here I am thinking about the web literacy work of Mike Caulfield, or other attempts to understand the convoluted algorithmic ghosts in the machines of Facebook and Google, whom don't even understand what is going on themselves.

Asking why is important and does often get lost in the rush to something new and shiny. But let's keep asking how as well. In my mind, these are companion questions because, even though you or I may never use blockchain in our day to day life, there is a very good chance that it will be used on our behalf in the future.  And there is already more than enough unknown technologies running our life right now.