That Bitcoin doesn’t have a greatly useful role as anything other than a speculative tool is clear enough these days. True, it’s half a decade since I first said this and it’s not entirely proven as yet but that’s the way to be betting. It’s long been thought though that blockchain does have some uses. A permanent and unalterable register of something or other, with an inbuilt error checking system, yes, we can all imagine at least that this could be useful. That’s not though what The Times seems to think is being said:
It has been hailed by ministers as the answer to many of society’s most pressing challenges. However, a study of more than 40 projects where blockchain was supposed to make services more efficient has found a success rate of zero.
Well, yes. Except that’s not quite what the actual report itself is saying:
We documented 43 blockchain use-cases through internet searches, most of which were described with glowing claims like “operational costs… reduced up to 90%,” or with the assurance of “accurate and secure data capture and storage.” We found a proliferation of press releases, white papers, and persuasively written articles. However, we found no documentation or evidence of the results blockchain was purported to have achieved in these claims. We also did not find lessons learned or practical insights, as are available for other technologies in development. We fared no better when we reached out directly to several blockchain firms, via email, phone, and in person. Not one was willing to share data on program results, MERL processes, or adaptive management for potential scale-up. Despite all the hype about how blockchain will bring unheralded transparency to processes and operations in low-trust environments, the industry is itself opaque. From this, we determined the lack of evidence supporting value claims of blockchain in the international development space is a critical gap for potential adopters.
It’s not that there’s zero success, it’s that there’s zero public evidence of success. A different point as we’re all aware.
This also doesn’t mean that blockchain is dead nor that it has no uses. Even if we accept the Times’ version all it tells us is that these 40 attempts to apply blockchain haven’t worked. And that brings us right to the heart of the technological development process.
Start right back at the beginning. A useful number – not an accurate one but usefully of the right order of magnitude – is that on any one day (OK, let’s specify that it’s a day when the shops are open) there are a billion items for sale in Manhattan. Not one billion pieces but one billion different types of pieces. A piece being a left hand thread brass 1/2 inch screw, another being a right hand thread 1/2 inch brass screw, another being a left hand thread 1/2 inch chrome screw and so on, out to a bagel, balloon and buffoon – for there’s always a politician for sale. Take any handful of these items – hammer, nail, politician, wall – and try to do something useful with them. We’ve an entirely ghastly number of possible combinations, erm, 1 billion! or something. Maybe 1 Billion! minus (1 billion – 4)!?*
As we all know technology marches on. New things keep being invented, this number of things we’ve got which we can then combine increases over time. We also find new tasks that we’d like to perform – what might be the role of left hand thread 1/2 inch brass screws in reducing emissions from the burning of fossil fuels?
All of this together is the technological space that we’ve got to explore. The only way of doing this is a frenzied recombination of stuff to see what works. Sure, we can use a bit of logic and guile to do this. Brass and Chrome screws aren’t going to differ much – except, of course, when they do which is why people make the different types. But we can use logic to rule out some combinations, politicians and honesty say.
This being what a market economy is under the hood, the billions of us trying out new things to see what works. It’s the best and fastest way we’ve got to run through the possible combinations.
Which brings us back to blockchain. Firstly, the information we’ve got so far is that 40 of these experiments don’t work. Hmm, OK, only some billions to go then. Yes, obviously, we can use logic to make equivalences, if it doesn’t work here then it won’t there and so on. But evidence of not working at one task is not evidence of no use at all. Secondly, that this is actually the point of this market economy system. Exactly that we look at a new technology, try various combinations with extant stuff and see what works. That it doesn’t is, well, that’s the point. Sure, we’d prefer to find something that is useful because we like useful. But the point of the system of inquiry is to find out and a null result is still finding out.
Will blockchain ever be useful for something? Dunno and nor do you. But we do have this cute system to find out which is a nice thing to have, isn’t it?
*That remedial probability course is looking pretty good right now, there’s a Fibonacci in there, isn’t there? .