The presidential election of 2016 is a watershed event in American and global politics. This is true for a number of reasons. What interests me most as a technologist working with blockchain, especially Ethereum, is the mounting evidence we’ve seen through its lens that the world is becoming increasingly decentralized, and that the power of decentralizing technologies to affect current and future political outcomes — and even the internal structuring of nation states — is growing exponentially.
The simplest example is how in the past, presidential candidates came straight from the halls of official authority, where they held titles as governors, senators, congressmen, etc. This year we departed from that model, fielding a candidate more likely to be caught in a government building fending off a lawsuit than writing policy. By tapping into the prevailing disenfranchisement of Main Street, this “populist” candidate was actually able to participate in the final sprint to the finish line.
What’s more, this year we saw emerge a motley crew of foreign and non-state actors with real power to impact who becomes president. While past elections were doubtless influenced by a variety of furtive interests, those interests were probably at least mostly American. From Wikileaks to Anonymous, decentralized actors can exert surprising influence to disrupt American control over the race. A single foreign controller of a large botnet (such as in the recent DDoS attack of Internet services) can wreak enormous havoc, which, if timed correctly, can affect events at a distance. America has been reaching out for a long time to “police the world” and now the world is becoming increasingly capable of exerting some “checks and balances” directly upon the American political system.
Similarly, state actors are increasingly able to project information-based power to affect events on foreign soil. Russian and Chinese hacks are evidence of this growing phenomenon. Cyber weapons like Stuxnet have been deployed to wreak millions of dollars of physical and strategic damage in foreign programs. The mind boggles at the new, sophisticated techniques actors on our planet are developing to enable one tribe to mess with another at any distance.
Decentralization using blockchain technology will bring yet more techniques to this ever evolving dance. These tools could serve the purpose of disruption, as well as offer solutions to make outcomes fairer, more predictable, and transparent to voters and communities.
1. Governance will happen through code
When decentralized groups like rLoop form on the internet, potentially govern themselves with blockchain-based tools, such as Boardroom, and organize and deliver successful high tech projects, the power of those technologies to support, decentralized, fluid, robust, real-time decision making becomes apparent. This has profound implications for future voting systems that employ techniques like liquid democracy, quadratic voting and even wisdom/prediction markets.
While public support for blockchain-enabled decision solutions might not be enough to convince nations to upgrade from their traditional voting systems (especially if parties have a vested interest in preserving the status quo), tech companies might be able to move the needle. Already the firms that deliver and adopt decentralization have the agility to shop for domiciles and engage in jurisdictional arbitrage. Some nations will make the wise decision to welcome them.
2. National identity will diminish in importance
When nearly all the 7.4 billion citizens of this planet can establish their own blockchain-based user-centric or self-sovereign identity and a persistent, portable reputation, each of them will be able to transact or bootstrap themselves into enfranchisement in the emerging global digital economy¹.
When your blockchain-based reputation enables you to get a microloan (through EtherLoan, for example, which is one of our spoke companies) from someone on the other side of the planet and use that blockchain-based money to buy a tool upon which to start a small business, the world gets integrated and national identity becomes less relevant.
3. Legacy voting systems will be taken to task
When groups set up online voting systems designed to mirror and hold legacy political voting systems to account, Main Street and Pennsylvania Avenue will become more transparent to each other. Anyone will be able to contrast what benefits the average citizen to the policies pursued by lobbyists and politicians, and that gap could be closed by popular demand.
Self-sovereign identity and a persistent, portable reputation, in addition to other anti-spoof elements that we are working on at ConsenSys, have the potential to solve the Sybil Attack problem in which it is cheap and easy to set up fake identities on the internet. Once this is achieved, a major impediment to provably fair decentralized voting systems will have been cleared.
4. There will be incentives to expose corruption
Platforms where anyone can “bet” on the outcome of any decidable event, also called prediction markets or wisdom markets, are a powerful use case for the blockchain. For instance, Gnosis is a wisdom market built on Ethereum, where people seeking the truth in certain situations might post a “consulting fee” to surface information that might affect business or political activity.
When other wisdom seekers do the same, putting more value behind that quest for truth, people who were never before incentivized to surface such information might become “wisdom consultants”. These wisdom consultants might blow the whistle and collect that consulting fee. The worlds of accepted fact and actual truth might come closer together, and the infrastructure that supports deep, systemic corruption might fade.
The prospect of low-corruption future elections is enough to excite 99% of the world’s citizenry.
¹ We are building such a user-centered identity and reputation platform at ConsenSys. uPort is a mobile app that allows individuals to register their unique identity into the blockchain, which becomes a persistent trust anchor for all of their digital interactions. Individuals use this identity as a universal log-in for digital services and as a personal signature for digital transactions. Since all digital actions are now tied to this identifier, it earns a reputation over time. All of this information is stored in an encrypted, user-controlled environment, so it is free from reliance on legacy institutions and enables identity to represent a much richer representation of an individual.