A version of this post, with minor changes, was originally published back in January 2016 at Marketing Magazine.
My thinking on blockchains has evolved but it is clear that many of the current ideas flying around are still nonsense whilst others show a lack of awareness of the damage that could be caused by loss of privacy or an undebated transfer of power by control over the blockchain and the data it holds.
As James Smith of the Open Data Institute said in this lecture in March 2016 we risk good ideas and good uses of blockchains and other forms of distributed ledger dying in the hype cycle. We also risk wasting a lot of money on marketing ideas.
It would help us all if we were more wary of hype and helped blockchains, and other technologies, progress through the hype cycle.
Blockchain was only invented in 2008, starting off as technology to underpin the cryptocurrency bitcoin, but it’s rapidly becoming famous.
It provides a way to store information so that many people can see it, many people can keep a copy of it, and many people can add to it. It is very difficult to remove information, and this can create trust in the stored information. In the bitcoin system, for which blockchains were originally designed, anyone can access and add information to the blockchain, though other systems are more restricted
There are some voices expressing a desire, or need, for a little caution but there are many others calling for full steam ahead. Recently blockchains appeared on the front cover of global magazine The Economist with a tagline of “the trust machine” and a statement that blockchain technology ‘could transform the economy’.
Is the fame justified or are we falling for the hype machine? And what does this have to do with Beyoncé and feminism?
Fame and the hype cycle
Gartner Research have a nice visualisation called the hype cycle. It is not scientific but it neatly shows some of the stages that technologies typically go through. There is a peak of inflated expectations before we work out how to actually use something and it becomes widely adopted and productive.
The hype cycle is neat but it is not great at showing time or failure.
Time: Sometimes it can take decades for a good idea to become widely used. We’ve been hearing about internet television since the 1990s and yet it’s only recently that Netflix have managed to use the internet to launch what might be the first global television network.
Failure: The hype cycle does not show the technologies that fail and disappear. Perhaps they are replaced after years of use (so long floppy disk) or perhaps they struggle to get adopted in the first place (farewell Betamax). People might spend billions on new technology but much of it was a waste of money. This is not necessarily because the technology was a bad invention: it might simply be another solution to a problem that was already solved.
There is a third problem with the hype cycle. It can be tricky to tell if a technology is on its way to the plateau of productivity or whether it’s still on the first slope. That’s the one that leads to the peak of inflated expectations.
The blockchain institute
One way to differentiate the peak of inflated expectations from the slope of enlightenment is when people start to weed out daft ideas for a particular technology and instead focus on more useful ones. This might be tricky. It is possible to see almost any problem and think that blockchain technology will help. Working out which problems the technology can usefully help to solve requires careful thought.
If you look on twitter you will find that someone set up a Blockchain Institute. Perhaps this official-sounding institution will come up with some good ideas for the practical applications of blockchains? A quick look through its twitter mentions shows people thanking it for sharing conferences and blogs, criticising it for not crediting images, including it in conversations, connecting it with friends, and asking it questions.
After this article was first published it was even ranked #59 in an, automatically generated of course, blockchain who’s who.
But the real problem is that humans trust the code. I went to an event where someone told me the Institute had a slightly quirky take on blockchains but had interesting things to say. They asked me if I knew who was writing the tweets.
But the Blockchain Institute is a computer program. Not only that, it’s a program that tweets nonsense.
I did not write it or set it up but I can see what the program is doing. It replaces the word blockchain with Beyoncé and bitcoin with feminism.
If it sees a tweet that says “blockchain is a star because of bitcoin” it changes it to “Beyoncé is a star because of feminism”. There is no new content. The computer program does word substitution. Nothing more complex. Yet people are struggling to spot that it’s simply copying other people’s thoughts, words and ideas and — for some reason known only to its creator — adding in a bit of extra Beyoncé and feminism.
This is not a good sign. People are trusting opinions that come out of a machine without spotting that it’s a machine, thinking about the motives of the programmer or that the opinions don’t actually make any sense.
This, and the many ridiculous ideas for using the technology, are reasonable signals that blockchains are heading towards the peak of inflated expectations. People still don’t understand blockchain technology, what it might be useful for and whether it adds anything to the existing suite of technologies and organisational models for storing and sharing data. Disillusionment will surely follow.
Beyoncé and feminism are changing the world
It remains to be seen whether over time we will see blockchain technology become productive and deliver real value or whether blockchains will fail. Blockchains seem to be moving through the hype cycle faster than many other technologies but some things never escape the hype cycle and never become productive. We need to be more wary of hype. We need more research, trials and successful implementations to find out whether in this case it is justified.
In the meantime I do recommend keeping an eye on the Blockchain Institute. Whilst the technology world continues to struggle with gender balance and social media is being used to abuse and troll so many women it is useful to have regular reminders of the revolutionary impact that feminism has had on society and that Beyoncé and feminism are changing the world.
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