The social impact of new technologies

Aug 02, 2016

New technologies change the world around us. They do this by obsoleting older technologies and replacing them, or by enabling novel new products, services and systems.

When an engineer encounters a new technology for the first time, she will ask “how does it work?”. The details matter, because the most exciting possibilities will depend on the novel capabilities of the new technology, and a subtle grasp of the details is necessary to imagine what these might be. The technology should be examined, appraised and deconstructed in order to figure out precisely where it fits, where it solves problems in ways not possible before.

That’s the theory, anyway.

In practice, technology adoption interacts with funding and investment cycles. More than that, it interacts with cognitive cycles and the social process of technology evaluation. Sometimes, how a technology works or even what a technology does is not the important thing at all, because the important role being played is simply to cause people to re-evaluate the environment. When a new technology appears, perhaps the simplest and most important message it communicates to us is that things have changed, even if those things are only tangentially related to the new technology itself.

This sometimes causes strange effects. While some breakthrough technology has some core set of use cases that it was designed for, it often quickly accumulates an orbiting ring of more inventive (or less suitable, take your pick!) uses amongst the wider community. Whenever we see a technology being re-purposed for something it wasn’t intended for, what we’re seeing is a situation where some pent-up demand for change was activated by a technical breakthrough triggering a re-evaluation of possibilities. We’re seeing one such re-evaluation going on right now with “blockchain” technologies.

When Stafford Beer coined the term “the purpose of a system is what it does”, he was pointing out that we need to understand the actual use of a system and not just what it was designed or intended to do. In this sense, “blockchain” is, like Ruby on Rails or REST APIs or node.js, as much a social phenomenon as a technological one. Blockchains give us new capabilities, but more importantly they prompt an updating of our world model. We don’t figure out what to do with this new technology by looking at what it was designed for and extending that, we re-evaluate everything all at once and then see what looks possible in the new landscape. As such, when we talk about “blockchain” we are often talking about a combination of technical, social and business factors that have combined to make certain applications viable in the present.

In particular, blockchain tech has caused us to re-evaluate some dormant or under-utilised ideas from the past, notably open data, federated identity, micropayments and distributed computing, and to critically examine how we do things like APIs and registries. All of these things are possible without blockchains, but it’s arguable that blockchains make some of them easier, and even where that isn’t strictly the case, re-evaluating our implementations in the light of new technology is useful.

If this seems vague and hand-wavey to you then I congratulate you on your ability to detect this, but vagueness, hand-waving and empirical rather than logical thought is how technology adoption proceeds; the logical approach is useless here.

The case of REST APIs is instructive. The original vision of REST in Roy Fielding’s dissertation is magisterial: it’s elegant, complete and insightful, bringing several concepts together in a unified whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Most actual REST APIs… aren’t anything like this at all. In fact, most of the REST APIs that have ever been created have diverged substantially from Fielding’s vision. If we think of REST as a precise technical definition with important subtleties and consequences, this will seem to be a disappointment. But the real role of REST was to get people to think about how web APIs might work, and it certainly did that.

Similarly, XML had a whole bunch of features that addressed the complex use cases that it was designed to solve. Did anyone use them? Nope. Most of XML’s features were annoyances to developers, so much so that once we figured out that all we really needed was a machine-readable data format for the web, we mostly replaced it with JSON.

I’d go so far as to generalise this outside of software. Most modern blues doesn’t sound very much like the blues of the early 20th century, but the social role of the blues was not to teach everyone how to play the blues properly, even people who claim to be “playing the blues”. It was to make people re-think what kind of music could be made and enjoyed. Any small British town has an “Indian” restaurant that serves food which would seem rather odd to people from India, but again the purpose of “Indian food” in Britain was to expand Britain’s culinary horizons, and this really worked. Somewhere along the way, chicken tikka masala became Britain’s national dish.

So, what does this have to do with blockchains? Well, I think it means that opinions like this may be missing the point a bit:

Blockchains are overhyped. There, I said it. From Sibos to Money20/20 to cover stories of The Economist and Euromoney, everyone seems to be climbing aboard the blockchain wagon. … As a young startup, you’d think we’d be over the moon. Surely now is the time to raise a ton of money and build that high performance next generation blockchain platform we’ve already designed. What on earth are we waiting for? I’ll tell you what. We’re waiting to gain a clearer understanding of where blockchains genuinely add value in enterprise IT. You see, a large proportion of these incoming projects have nothing to do with blockchains at all.

I applaud MultiChain for their commitment to preserving their customers’ money and reputations. And as a startup with a clear technology pitch, they do need to maintain focus on “real” blockchain applications. But there’s an awful lot of people out there who are just discovering that distributed systems are possible, or that micropayments might be viable now (the last time anyone checked was 15 years ago, and things have changed!), even if they don’t strictly need blockchains to do these things. Maybe they’re really looking for CRDTs or CouchDB replication or some other vaguely similar technology, but blockchain-the-social-phenomenon is the thing that made them go looking. The movement calling itself “blockchain” may end up being mostly comprised of these people.

The truth is that we can only figure out so much about technology use cases by rational thought. Experiments, even (especially!) experiments that turn out to fail badly, are needed. Is blockchain over-hyped and are there too many blockchain projects that don’t really need to be blockchain projects? I don’t know. “Over-hyped” implies that we know how much hype is appropriate, and “too many” implies that we know the right number of projects, and “need” implies that we have an exhaustive list of valid use cases. It’s equally likely that there are organisations that need blockchains just as much as British people needed chicken tikka masala - a lot more than they realised before they had it.