By submitting our memories to the digital ledgers of blockchain, do we unintentionally compel ourselves to exist in a modern world that is not what we desired at all?
New technology has moved human experience from the invention of the wheel to the printing press. Our understanding of the world is no longer confined to one village. Every day our mutual awareness expands by unprecedented data exabytes. And our memories, our very memories of the events which shape our lives, are also changing.
Indeed, according to neurobiologist Dr. James L. McGaugh, a scholar specialized in learning and memory, technical developments right up to the introduction of the internet have made it less important for us to create permanent archives of our own memories.
Dr. McGaugh found that the existence of “emotional energy” appears to boost brain preservation, allowing us to hang on to our most meaningful memories and let go of the boring everyday clutter.
Infants are no longer subject to the horrific possibility of death by drowning, thanks to new technologies (and common decency).
And the questions about who reports the events, how they are documented, and how any evidence is lost, altered, damaged, or deleted, tend to command society’s interest.
The Immutability of Blockchain
We have lived in a world where history is documented for a long time, and human brains are wired for selective memory. Since the introduction of blockchain technologies, however, we now have a method for storing data that can not (ideally) be edited, altered, or deleted. Like book pages or an entry in a spreadsheet, evidence can not be changed in the blockchain. Records placed on a ledger are, in essence, permanent and live forever.
For me, however, the problem of data permanence isn’t the most prominent aspect of blockchain. In reality, Dr. Craig Stark, a fellow neurobiologist at the University of California, concludes, “Blockchain helps us detect if data has been updated, but we have long had data permanence. Vellum’s fine for generations. I have seen samples of DNA coding knowledge that would have helped it to last millions of years.
There is a definite distinction between oblivion and modification or distortion. I might forget a childhood teacher’s name and can’t get the details. Or, I can misremember that as “Ms. Fiddlesticks, “with the name most definitely appearing in my mind from other sites. Blockchain can help with this confusion or with altering the facts.
Yet, it’s still blockchain in its infancy. When more usage cases develop, and the system’s capacities grow beyond capturing basic transactions to track whole cultures and societies; how vigilant will we be? In fact, how much information do we want to be kept forever? So what if the information that makes its way into a blockchain is fraudulent, slanderous, or wrongly or maliciously entered?
Blockchain’s immutability may be troublesome in a society in which we have (at least in theory) “the freedom to be lost”. Indeed, an unchanging ledger of events may transform human existence in ways that today are unfathomable.
‘Progressive Decentralization’ case
When developer Arthur Camara detailed his team’s foray into blockchain coding, CryptoKitties described how the revenue model of CryptoKitties was not determined by an accurate science or using advanced prediction models, but rather by an educated guess.
When he argues in favor of ‘progressive decentralization’ (essentially, slowly shifting into decentralization rather than head-first diving), he demonstrates that immutability is profoundly appalling at a technical level.
“Immutability, the lack of writing, is at once the greatest power of the blockchain and the largest obstacle to practical acceptance. Immortal technology constraints paralyze developers: you can tinker indefinitely in a test environment, but you can’t predict real-world variables. Breakthroughs are no way to cover your eyes and hit launch. Producing breakdowns is more likely.’
According to Brave New Coin’s acting CTO, Paul Salisbury, “best practices” have evolved over the past five years, and knowledge sharing has “brightened the load on individual developers”. Yet, we’ve all seen what happens when blockchain’s immutability backfires — and how it can actually be made ‘changeable’ once again.
The birth of Ethereum Classic is the most obvious case. The DAO breach and the $50 million stolen ether opened many people’s eyes to the reality that blockchain wasn’t as permanent as they thought — at least, not when one clan could just choose to rewrite history.
Was blockchain saying “the truth”?
Joshua Ellul is the Chairman of the Malta Digital Innovation Authority (MDIA) and Director of the University of Malta’s Center for Distributed Ledger Technologies. They speak about the hack and questions from the DAO:
“If Ethereum and Ethereum Classic forked, the new Ethereum, which fork is the real truth? There are still the records of that hack. It’s more of a history correction that took place. That has raised grave concerns. Really, it is not the end-users who get to determine (in this case, at least). Ultimately the decision depends on the operators of the nodes. Are popular voices swinging over them? Therefore, the person with the most famous voice may well determine which version of the reality is written.
He also questions, “Centralized voices — even though they were perceived as egalitarian, is it the popular vote that would determine the truth? Is that the right way to go down? “Blockchain’s” reality “could be a little more accurate when seen through this prism than any other record-keeping device we’ve had up to now.
If we do not open our eyes to this critical issue, we may intentionally or unintentionally find ourselves abandoning parts of history. And the omission of data could be the quietest and most scary thing of all.
The fight for blockchain control
“The other issue,” he goes on to say, “is that of when the blockchain data is true? The longer the time goes by, the better the promise of never modifying the results. However, there could be some data in the immediate short term, because of orphaned blocks, that does not make it into the chain.
Ellul uses the Bitcoin example, with a 10 minute block time. He states, “Often, two blocks are formed simultaneously. While it’s statistically unlikely, for quite a lot of blocks, you might get these two chains operating at the same time. Which says, two realities remain for a small moment in time. Both are facts, but over time, only one fork can eventually emerge; the fork that appears is the one with the more computational power. “And for Ellul, this could have troubling implications.
“Say a country agrees not to allow purchases from a country in which they do not wish to do business. Will these actors theoretically reduce the involvement of others? It seems as if we are going into a world where most computational power writes past, at least for job proof. For proof of stake, then maybe we’re going to a world where most money holders (crypto holders) are the ones who write the story… they can’t manipulate what you write or write on your behalf, but they can choose what goes into the blocks. So, this leads to a selective omission issue.
Bad data and deletion of data
The problem of bad data entering the blockchain is to compound the problem of selective omissions or populist historical corrections. And it already has plenty. The Bitcoin blockchain has been riddled with links to child pornography. As repugnant as this might be, launch the debate about how bad data can be erased in blockchains, and you ignite a lively discussion.
Of all, this would entail granting exclusive access to input information to a central actor — carte blanche, in turn, to edit, delete, or alter — bringing with it a host of troublesome issues such as transparency, racism, surveillance, and a slew of other incompatibilities with the core qualities of blockchain.
“It doesn’t sound like a good idea to me to delete info,” comments Francesco Vivoli, Lift P2P lending platform CPTO. “Actually, I think it undermines a decentralized blockchain’s intent.”
Bitcoin promoter, trainer, and Mastering Bitcoin author Andreas Antonopoulos spoke about this topic in relation to blockchain identification.
“Nobody likes garbage,” says Anatha.io CTO Steve Glavin, “but any poor data is unavoidable for humans.”
It would appear like, at least for now, poor on-chain data aggregation is a trade-off that needs to be made if blockchain is to stay transparent and as permanent as possible.
Protect Evidence and GDPR
What are the consequences of maintaining data that can not be deleted ad infinitum on an infrastructure level? “The management of the data requires more computers, nodes, and computer hardware,” says Sidharth Sogani, founder and CEO of CREBACO, research and intelligence company. “More than that, demands for data storage are growing unbelievably. The planet’s cumulative data will double over the next few years every eight to ten hours.
And not only do we have data piled up in huge areas of physical wastelands, but anyone can add data to a blockchain as things stand. Also, if you are vigilant about the personal details you send, there is nothing to deter a third party from coding your name and address into the chain where that detail is forever stored.
There is also the GDPR issue and the “right to be forgotten,” which stipulates that individuals are entitled to request that their personal data be deleted when no longer in use — which most blockchains violate blatantly.
Again, where editing privileges are purely off the table, there is no definitive response to overcome this question. “Since real or false data will later turn out to be useful or damaging to participants and quickly de-anonymized, placing actual sensitive data on-chain poses risks,” comments EY Global Blockchain, Chief Paul Brody. “We agree the best approach is not to place critical data on-chain and instead use off-chain links.”
Ellul muses, “I’d say don’t hold any personal data in a database … I think we can direct people and educate people that it’s very important to disclose only details that you’re glad to be out there — for good. Let’s shift the burden on the customer and remind them of the value of that.
Live info and social media
This applies especially to social media platforms that step towards a blockchain-based solution. Politicians and public figures with hot heads and rapid-fire fingers will surely have to think twice before forever committing their words on-chain.
While blockchains, as Dr. Stark (and many others argue), can breach the GDPR, we already have data permanence; we may just not be aware of that. Glavin comments, “One might argue that data in legacy databases is just as timeless as data on the blockchain. But most people just don’t realize it because the deleted data is often just hidden and lost from view.
But, in fact, do businesses ever actually delete data from consumers even if they are pressured to do so by regulators? Many indications suggest it is unlikely. Organizations may also assume they erase data because they have a backup elsewhere or data logs and caches, in fact.
To some degree, we will have the potential to monitor our digital footprint, but data pieces are more difficult to delete. Most of us forget the replies we hurriedly tweeted out. A posthumous tweet appeared from early Bitcoin user Hal Finney with two basic terms, “Playing bitcoin,” as the crypto-currency world was recently struggling to solve the Mystery of the Moving Bitcoins.
“The immutability of blockchain is both awesome and somewhat troubling,” Ellul admits, “particularly if someone else attaches the data and you don’t have a way to stop them. But at the same time, while this does not intensify the issue to the same extent, one may draw similarities to devise caches. If it were present on a web page, your personal data could have been cached on many computers around the world. If you wanted to remove that data from other people’s computers, there is nothing that you can do. Does it contravene data privacy rights? Okay, nothing to be done to implement this. You can still hold copies of the results.’
How does the human experience change?
Considering that we pursue an answer to the bad data issue by deleting history and acknowledging that the freedom to be forgiven becomes nothing more than an idea… What (if anything) does that mean to society as systems progress on, as it is increasingly difficult to delete past events?
Human memory appears to be wired in a certain way on purpose. Dr. McGaugh clarified, “Selective memory is what we need. We need to note things that are (and we do) replicated and things that are (and we do) important. You needn’t mind the regular (momentary) pressure created by a shoe on your left foot. Yet if he were wounded, you would. You don’t have to remember that you walked up a staircase, but you’d have to remember that if you were injured on that staircase.
Highly Excellent Personal Autobiographical Memory (HSAM)
In the world, many individuals possess what is known as Extremely Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM). Both Dr. Stark and Dr. McGough have thoroughly documented the study of HSAMs over the last two decades.
It’s a legend that people from HSAM have the power to recall every single aspect of events. You do, however, succeed in remembering your own personal experiences. They can remember dates, times, smells, tastes, and memories of past events as fresh (and raw) as if they happened yesterday. To most of us, it sounds like a superpower. However, can’t a blessing or a curse ever leave their past?
Dr. Stark reports on the issue of persons with HSAM. He says, “Two things I can call your attention to. Next, when Jill Price next mentioned Jim McGaugh in the email that began the whole study plan, she initiated the email by saying, “I’ve got a question. I remember everything that happened to me. “For her, she was haunted by every sight, by every altercation, etc.
Second, I asked many HSAMs what they think of their ability — whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. The nearly unanimous reaction was that it’s a positive thing now. While growing up, it seemed to have been a problem to realize they were different and not easy to let things fade away.
HSAMs can not pick whether to recall the positive or the bad because their memories don’t disappear over time, unlike the rest of us. Nevertheless, Dr. Stark argues that this is not unique to them, “Remember, we all hold on to things that have happened to us, often in too much detail. There are also cases of too good a recollection being a bad thing (PTSD, depression/rumination, drug abuse, etc.).
A Best History
Dr. McGaugh comments, “William James, the influential psychologist of the 19th century, observed that forgetting is essential. He said something to the extent that if we recalled everything, we’d be as poorly off as if we didn’t remember something… The best approach seems to be only to remember our most important experiences.
This doesn’t actually mean the blockchain is a room of horror, taken from an Orwell book. It could just (if properly developed) help us to check the truth.
Dr. Stark argues, “The ability to severely mitigate the deep-fake problem is a great advantage for blockchain… We have been so good at distorting pictures, video , and audio to create things that never existed before. If all the video and audio had to be trackable to an original source, we might restore some trust that a “reality” actually existed.
We have diaries other guys keep. One could go back and re-read the information stored decades ago, barring the low-probability case that someone walked in and altered the journal. What we find is that this leads to re-experiencing events that sometimes reflect the original event (your classic reminiscence), sometimes still distort the event (the cue from the diary triggers a related but different memory), and sometimes lead to no recollection whatsoever (the event still seems alien to you). Blockchain would have prevented data from being tampered with… So, we’ve got clean data from the past, but we don’t have some odd situation where people actually remember everything.
Can blockchain compel us to live a dystopian dystopia?
In other words, are we unwittingly creating a human existence that we never wanted to behave naturally by not allowing our memories too? Can we alter man’s blockchain experience?
Jerry Chan, CEO of blockchain service provider TAAL, says, “There is no problem with data being lost permanently, in my view. Only erroneous data is not a concern because you can still pledge the fix for them. Mistakes are analogous to production.
We make mistakes as humans, and we, in effect, learn from them, evolve and develop ourselves. The rest of society does likewise. We can not delete our past, even pieces we don’t like acknowledging. Unless we could delete history so how can we stop making the same mistakes again? Vivoli takes the question on board too.
“I think we ought to be cautious… If blockchains want to serve a position that is greater than just a store value and account unit while maintaining a decentralized zone free of corporate or sovereign power, then the question of what is held on them is an ethical and moral problem, something technology alone does not fix.” Closing Memory Gedanken
Dr. McGaugh cited a quotation from William James, an American psychologist.
Following it up, I think it reads:
Given this sobering thought, there is the strong possibility that blockchain (even with its imperfections) will merely act as a fact-checker and not as a device pressuring us to forever remember mundane or painful memories.
Human beings have a propensity to arm technologies (look at social media, for instance), and even though we can not predict any perverse contortion of the early ideals of blockchain, we have not anticipated that Facebook will eventually be an enabler of election rigging, live-streamed massacres, and cyberbullying. Maybe technology evangelists are naive.
“Blockchains aren’t the problem,” Ellul unmistakably says. “The problem lies with humans. Blockchain persists if we like it or not, and at some point, we’re going to have to debate whether we really want all those details to live forever… And if not, who’s the one that gets history to write?