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[BigDataSur] blog 2/3: Digital Utopianism and Decentralisation: Is Decentralised Data Good Data?

In this second of three blog posts on the challenges of imagining ‘good data’ globally (read the first first episode here), Anna Carlson considers a particular strand of technology-driven utopianism in the Global North: the idea of radically decentralised data. She writes that its latest instantiations – exemplified by blockchain – tend to forget the dire and unequally distributed ecological impact of digital technologies.    

I was born in 1989, just a handful of years before mobile phones and laptop computers became the ubiquitous symbols of urban late modernity.  It is also the year that the terms “cybersecurity” and “hypertext markup language” (HTML) first appeared in print. In the heady, early years of the World Wide Web, the internet and the data it produced (and contained and distributed) offered a utopian vision of equitable globalisation, the promise to equalise access to knowledge, the possibility of a new kind of commons. Early adopters across the political spectrum celebrated the possibilities of decentralisation and autonomy, the opportunities for community-building and collectivity, for sharing economies outside the control of the state.

These notions of the common good mostly originate in the Global North, and their promises have never quite been fulfilled. They continue to re-emerge, however, and provide interesting food for thought in the process of imagining good (or at least, better) data practices for the future.

Blockchain is probably the most prominent technology to revive utopias of radical decentralisation. At its most basic, a blockchain is a massive peer-to-peer, decentralised technology that allows digital information to be seen and shared but not copied. Described by some as the “backbone of a new type of internet,” blockchain is basically a very complex, constantly updating, decentralised titling system. A blockchain is like a database, tied to the object or site of interest, constantly cross-checking and updating.

The technology originally emerged as a way of keeping track of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, and proponents Don and Alex Tapscott describe it as “an incorruptible digital ledger of economic transactions that can be programmed to record not just financial transactions but virtually everything of value.”  The blockchain is inherently decentralised in it cannot be controlled by any single entity, but requires constant validation and authentication from the network.

Blockchain is often represented optimistically, if vaguely, as capable of supporting new economies, free from the shackles of corporate control. In Melanie Swan’s Blockchain: Blueprint for a New Economy, she goes even further: “the potential benefits of the blockchain are more than just economic – they extend into political, humanitarian, social, and scientific domains […] For example, to counter repressive political regimes, blockchain technology can be used to enact in a decentralised cloud functions that previously needed administration… (e.g.) for organisations like WikiLeaks (where national governments prevented credit card processors from accepting donations in the sensitive Edward Snowden situation).” She goes on to describe the possibility of blockchain technology as a basis for new economies dominated by (ahem) platforms like Uber and AirBnB.

So far, so good, right? The problem is that blockchains are incredibly unwieldy and immensely energy inefficient. To use the currency bitcoin as an example, the energy required for a single transaction far exceeds the amount needed for a more traditional transfer.  This is at least in part because the system is premised on hyper-individualistic, libertarian ideals.  In a recent article on Motherboard, Christopher Malmo writes that, with prices at their current level, “it would be profitable for Bitcoin miners to burn through over 24 terawatt-hours of electricity annually as they compete to solve increasingly difficult cryptographic puzzles to “mine” more Bitcoins. That’s about as much as Nigeria, a country of 186 million people, uses in a year.” At least in part, this energy is required because, as Alex de Vries suggests: “Blockchain is inefficient tech by design, as we create trust by building a system based on distrust. If you only trust yourself and a set of rules (the software), then you have to validate everything that happens against these rules yourself. That is the life of a blockchain node.”

An interesting example of the tensions of decentralised cryptocurrencies emerged recently when The New Inquiry released their newest project, Bail Bloc. Bail Bloc is a “cryptocurrency scheme against bail,” that delivers much-needed funds to the excellent Bronx Freedom Fund in order to help provide bail fees for defendants. They outline its function as follows: “When you download the app, a small part of your computer’s unused processing power is redirected toward mining a popular cryptocurrency called Monero, which is secure, private, and untraceable. At the end of every month, we exchange the Monero for US dollars and donate the earnings to the Bronx Freedom Fund.”

On the surface, taking “unused” resources and redistributing them equitably sounds like a good idea. Unfortunately, the missing information here is that the processing power is not really “unused” – what they mean that it’s unused by you, and that using it for this cause won’t inconvenience your personal use.

But there is a slippage here that seems important to clarify.  Mining Monero requires a huge amount of electricity – much the same as the Bitcoin example above. As a result, this charity structure requires that we burn huge amounts of energy to produce a fairly minimal value, which is then redistributed. Like many such examples, it would be much easier and simpler to simply donate the money directly to the Bronx Freedom Fund.  The flip side, of course, is that electricity doesn’t feel like a scarce resource in the way that money does, so generating money out of electricity feels like generating money out of nowhere.

It is easy to see what the New Inquiry designers are appealing to: the desire to affect positive change without having to really do anything at all. And it seemed to work: in the first 24 hours of the initiative’s launch, I saw numerous friends and colleagues sharing the page with suggestions that we establish similar schemes for causes closer to home.

The sense of practically and elegantly re-distributing otherwise unused resources through the magic of technology might be appealing, but it should not come at the expense of a broader understanding of global inequalities and planetary sustainability. Decentralised technology cannot sustain “good data” if the values that are encoded in it do not account for our shared stake in the world.

The question, then, is not whether decentralised data is good data, but under what terms and conditions– and what politics of the collective (or commons) goes into shaping decentralised technology.

((to be continued. Next episode will be online on June 8th, 2018))