Thursday, October 04, 2018

Blockchain looking more and more like a ball and chain?

I was at a conference of CEOs and analysts yesterday and saw presentation after presentation on Blockchain. Then, when I chatted to those in the audience, found that not a single one:
  • Knew what it was
  • Actually used it
  • Could think of uses for it
In over 30 years in the tech industry, I’ve never know a concept so opaque that caused so much fuss. More worrying was the complete lack of awareness about its:
  • energy consumption
  • storage needs
  • bandwidth needs
  • origins in crypto-currency
I gave a talk on Blockchain in learning two years ago in Berlin, where I was pretty upbeat, outlining its structure and possible uses in learning around trusted legers for qualifications and badges. I even got married using Bitcoin on Blockchain! Yet I’ve fallen out of love with this technology. I’ve still to see a single implementation in learning that is worth the candle. In truth education and training does not want to be decentralised and democratised or disintermediated, as almost everyone in the field works in an institutions that will protect themselves to the death. Put aside payment, as one could well imagine that this will happen as the reduction of transaction costs makes commercial sense, Blockchain looks increasingly like it is largely irrelevant in the learning world.
Despite all the diagrams and explanations about blocks, hashes and distributed databases, Blockchain remains an opaque term, even, I suspect, to those shovelling out grants and research money. It is not easy to grasp and needs some level of technical knowledge to unravel. I remember Jeff Staes, standing with his back to the audience in Berlin, screaming ‘What the fuck IS Blockchain?’. His point was that if we don’t know what it is why are we so sure about its uses in education and training?
Solution looking for problem
Software fails when there is no market demand, and people start looking for problems that are already solved by simpler and cheaper solutions. Many of the e-portfolio and qualifications problems are quite simply satisfied by existing systems, where centralised storage and security is already in place, especially in these times of data regulation (more of that later). Locking these problems down in a complex and opaque distributed database, is starting to seem like overkill.
Badges are one of those ideas that I wish had worked but haven’t. Like Blockchain itself, the badges idea has run its course and demand has faltered. Lacking credibility, objectivity, transferability and motivational pull, they simply hit institutional resistance. So to depend on badges and other forms of mico-credentialism is, sadly, no longer the platform on which Blockchain solutions can flourish.
Data regulation
Decentralised databases make sense but there are serious problems in terms of data regulations. Data has, historically, been almost universally stored centrally in databases. On public blockchains, however, this data is massively replicated across the entire distributed database. One solution is to cleave off the trusted hardware for the management and privacy of transactions. Management and privacy are big issues here and I’m not convinced that those recommending Blockchain have solutions that will escape the massive potential fines that are enshrined in EU law. This is a legal minefield that may well block Blockchain projects, especially in the learning world. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. For the moment, I’d stay well clear, as the risks are too high.
Energy consumption
Bitcoin, which uses blockchain, has been estimated to use more electricity than the whole of Ireland and that consumption is rising, rapidly. The huge number of hash calculations across the distributed database gobbles up energy. As long as there is a margin in mining for bitcoin, this energy consumption will continue. One bitcoin mining facility in Russia was shut down because it defaulted on paying its vast electricity bill. In these days of sustainable growth and climate change, Blockchain has a BIG problem and it’s getting bigger.
Huge storage
Some see Blockchain as the new internet, in the sense that it will be the new form of co-operative cloud storage. But that is still a pipe dream. First, we need bigger pipes and second, way more storage. Remember that storage prices have fallen dramatically but Blockchain is a famously bloated system and still costs money to run. 
You may imagine that Blockchain is a simple, unitary piece of technology. It is not. The community is full of road-map wars and disagreements between factions. It will be some time before all of this is stable enough for real implementations.
Trust a problem
For a system that promises a trustworthy leger, Blockchain is built on the premise of ‘trust’. Yet its origins in Bitcoin and crypto-currency may well be its undoing. Few would deny that Bitcoin, in particular, is soaked in money laundering and other forms of criminal activity. Being secure and unhackable is a technical issue, gaining the trust of institutions and consumers is a psychological issue. Blockchain may never cross that Rubicon.
A chain is no stronger that its weakest link and although Blockchain is a distributed, unhackable chain, it has weak links are outwith that technical chain - in terms of opacity, complexity, regulation, energy consumption, bandwidth needs, storage needs, and trust. Software fails when it is just too damn complex to get your head around and the consequences were not thought through in terms of regulation and other demands on bandwidth, processing power and storage. There is a chance that Blockchain may sneak into be the underlying, secure technology for the entire internet, with individual private keys but it has to overcome the problems above and overturn the existing system. This, I think, is unlikely. Blockchain is starting to look less like a great solution and more like a ball and chain.

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