Why everyone should care about blockchain—even if you don’t understand it

A human (block)chain.
A human (block)chain.
Image: AP Photo/Arun Sankar K
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This article is for everyone who tries to will themselves invisible at the mention of blockchain.

Imagine you’re admitted to the hospital for an emergency surgery following a freak selfie accident while on vacation on the other side of the world. Right now, there’s no way for doctors to know your full medical history, allergies, or current medications: All that information is stored in silos that you can’t access from the outside. But what if your medical records were all connected and immediately accessible—while still being totally private?

Or imagine you’re an architect in Syria and need to flee because of civil war. Your life savings might not be accessible. Your certifications and licenses are sitting in a desk back home, and may not transfer to the country you resettle in. What if you could immutably prove your identity and qualifications? What if you could send money for free all over the world?

If you like those ideas, you should care about blockchain.

Blockchain is a technology that has the potential to disrupt many of the legacy systems and centralized industries of today. Hold off on letting your eyes gloss over: Even though you’re not a hack-happy crypto-bro, this next tech revolution needs all of us to take part at the start.

The first step to caring is understanding that blockchain is just behind-the-scenes code. That’s all. You don’t need to be the person who knows how to code for it, but you do need to know the type of systemic changes it can affect. You do need to know the industries it can disrupt. If you want the systems of the future to work for you, include yourself in blockchain.

There are many blockchain-powered systems in the works that might already be a helpful addition to your life: Credit scores that aren’t controlled by a handful of high-risk, data-breach-prone companies; credible news systems that resist censorship; efficient power grids that could lower your power bills. This isn’t incomprehensible hype: These companies are relevant, understandable, and being built by people who are not historically associated with tech.

With such great potential, we need to be more inclusive in how we talk about it, design with it, and create uses for it.

If people can’t understand, they can’t participate: As of now, much of the language about blockchain is jargon-heavy and intimidating: cryptocurrencies, ICOs, smart contracts, token sales, and mining. The more people who can understand what blockchain is at a high level, the more people who can make it better, dream up applications to new systems, and accelerate its implementation. It needs to invite broad, diverse participation and be accessible enough that non-experts can dream up potential applications—otherwise, our products and systems will continue to work well mostly for able-bodied white men.

The people who set the rules for a system have the power: It’s estimated that 93-95% of cryptocurrency assets are held by men. Why? Because technology and finance are traditionally male-dominated fields, and cryptocurrency is a mix of both domains. The current rules and methods for acquiring and using cryptocurrencies, no matter how well-intentioned the larger motivation is for their existence, are baked with the biases of their creators, and favor people like them. Part of the hype of blockchain is its decentralization and democratization potential. However, without a diverse set of people designing with it and developing it, exclusion will be built into the base of many blockchain applications.

Systems design depends on more than technology: We live in an era where humanity, technology, and large-scale systems are inextricably linked. Designers, community organizers, and organizational-behavior experts are all versed in understanding the dynamics of people and systems. What are the norms of a community? Who are all the stakeholders? What do they need? What do they value? These human-behavior questions are central to systems design and maintenance, and because blockchain is potentially a massive disrupter to our current systems, the most successful applications will incorporate insights about human behavior. In order to avoid an explosion of trashy apps, let’s get beyond the novelty of the medium, and begin to use it as a tool with a purpose. Like a camera for a photo, a hammer for a nail, or a tweezer for an eyebrow, blockchain is a tool for a system.

Include yourself in blockchain

Exclusion happens every time the hype of a new technology precedes the maturation of its actual value and applications: A new technology shows promise, the media picks up on it, most people struggle to understand what it is and why it’s relevant to them, and so they give up, leaving the tech in the hands of the tech people. This eliminates the discoveries that come when people from varied disciplines and backgrounds approach projects with their own unique lenses of life experience and expertise. We can use blockchain to reorganize banking, business, and bureaucracy, and its applications will expand exponentially if we break tech’s exclusionary habit.

If there’s anything we’ve learned from other big tech transformations, it’s that now is the time to pose the ethical questions about access, inclusion, and intention. We need a diverse set of voices critiquing not only the user experience, systems design, and code of new blockchain products, but also their biases. We need to be able to monitor the fizz before it becomes a big bubble.

So include yourself in blockchain. Start saying these words out loud, just to hear them in your voice: “I’m interested in blockchain.” Search for examples in your area of expertise that are being paired with blockchain, whether it’s “blockchain for insurance” or “blockchain for bargain shopping.”

There’s a lot more at stake than a successful selfie. Yes, there will be slips along the way, but the systems of the future will succeed if all of us stutter through and stretch to contribute.