I only heard the term “blockchain technology” for the first time this past autumn, but in the last few months, I’ve became pretty absorbed in the blockchain world. Initially I was intimidated by its descriptions, which struck me as needlessly abstruse — though, in a perfect chicken-and-egg scenario, I couldn’t be sure, since the descriptions didn’t offer an easy understanding of how it worked. What compelled me to press on in my blockchain research was the terminology surround it. I’m a long-standing advocate for open source, and blockchain’s default descriptors are “distributed” (as in “distributed ledger”) “decentralized” (as in “decentralized platform,” a tagline for at least one major blockchain development platform [1: https://www.ethereum.org/]) and “peer-to-peer” ( the crux of all things Bitcoin and blockchain). These words all spoke to my f/oss-loving heart, leading me to click on article after jargon-heavy article in an effort to wrap my head around the ‘chain. As I learned more about it, I came to understand why it’s begun to garner huge amounts of attention. I don’t like to get too starry-eyed about a new technology, but I too became a blockchain believer.
I’m in growing company. Even though the technical structure has been around since at least 2008 [2: www.bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf], when Bitcoin (which blockchain was originally developed for) was introduced to the public, blockchain-without-Bitcoin has been infrequently discussed until the past year. In January 2016, the World Economic Forum listed it as one of the foundational technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution [https://www.weforum.org/agenda/archive/fourth-industrial-revolution]; in March, the Chamber of Digital Commerce held the first-ever DC Blockchain Summit, which addressed issues of policy and regulation at the federal level. Since 2015, the number of blockchain conferences and major news stories has been snowballing. Blockchain’s status in the world of tech media has become formidable, and general-interest outlets have wasted no time in spreading the digital gospel. It’s arguably gotten to the point where blockchain mythos now overshadows its reality. It strikes me as irresponsible to write about it without first giving a few words to its image— the hype has become a fact unto itself, and any accurate reporting about it must deal with it as such.
In my Theorizing The Web talk “Block Party People: Off The Bitcoin Chain” I offer that blockchain offers tech media a unique opportunity to benefit from years of hindsight. Internet technologies in their earliest stages have historically been written in terms that designed to appeal to their developers and early adopters. In other words, those with the professional power, money, and intellectual access to take part in shaping the future of technology. This is by its very nature a narrow group, particularly where early adoption is concerned. It entails financial and cultural privilege that’s unavailable to most people.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons to target specific audiences when writing about emerging technologies. One is sheer comprehensibility: when a tool is in its earliest stages of development, layman’s terms and easily-understandable use cases have yet to materialize. As a general rule, the appropriate metaphors only emerge after a certain amount of time. But those interested in learning about new technologies in non-layman’s terms, the ones who want to pore over dense, jargon-filled texts and abstraction-heavy descriptions aren’t always professionals, and they’re not necessarily in the financial situation to become early adopters. They also don’t always fit the stereotypical image of an early adopter: sometimes they’re female, sometimes they haven’t gone to college, sometimes they live far away from a major city. Though the mainstream media has fallen in love with its (moneyed, masculine) image, the Silicon Valley techie is a very particular flavor of geek.
As one would imagine for a tool designed specifically for Bitcoin, blockchain is uniquely well-suited to streamline digital financial transactions. It can impact virtually anything that relies on Internet protocol, its applications within finance are much more apparent than for any other business sector (at least for now). In line with this, those most heavily invested in blockchain aren’t exactly the Occupy Wall Street crowd. One major blockchain initiative is called The Hyperledger Project [3: https://www.hyperledger.org]. It’s an open source, cross-industry effort to develop an open standard for blockchain. The Hyperledger Project is spearheaded by the Linux Foundation and IBM; partners include J.P. Morgan, Wells Fargo, Hitachi and Intel, along with a number of other large companies and V.C.-backed startups. Though it’s not the only blockchain research and development initiative, the Hyperledger Project is emblematic of the general scope of interest in blockchain. It’s fair to say that the financial industry and corporate world is very well-represented in this world.
I don’t want to suggest that this group should divest its interest in blockchain. Far from it: we need that type of power to develop broad-scale research. However, I do believe it’s critical that groups more representative of the average citizen — the person who’s not in a position of power at a global financial institution, large tech company or well-funded startup — become a part of the blockchain conversation. Those individuals may have different ideas about the technical protocols that become standard for blockchain over the coming decades. We’re a more tech-savvy society than ever before, and opening up the discussion to as many people as possible now, when the technology is still in its infancy, can work to ensure that it helps as many people as possible in the future. A big part of that starting that conversation relies on how blockchain is being presented to the public.
In simple terms, my work on blockchain has been guided by a desire to include more diverse audiences in the subject. As I was developing my research, though, I began to get cold feet. In the midst of fleshing out my clarion call for blockchain reporting to value inclusivity, I realized that I’d be treading in all sorts of dangerous territory. On one hand, there’s a lot of antagonism in the Bitcoin community about the use of blockchain without Bitcoin. Suggesting uses of blockchain not only outside of cryptocurrency, but for non-finance-related, socially equitable causes is a far cry from the freewheeling anarcho-capitalist ends championed by certain Bitcoin enthusiasts. I have no interest in inciting the wrath of cryptocurrency community, but my perspective on this is undeniably at odds with large parts of it. On another hand, I’m not a blockchain developer, and despite spending months reading about it, writing about it (including reporting on the DC Summit for a major Bitcoin news source [4: https://www.coindesk.com/dc-blockchain-summit-2016/]) and generally immersing myself in all things blockchain, I still doubted whether I was qualified to offer a real opinion on it.
I’m aware of Impostor Syndrome [5: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome] but I still couldn’t help but wonder if I’d ventured too far into forbidden territory with my blockchain investigations. I worried that I’d be called out as having a naive understanding of technology and business and would walk away from the whole project having done damage to my credit as a researcher. In fact, throughout the course of the work, I frequently thought that I should just give this project up.The irony of this isn’t lost on me: as I was trying to offer encouragement for those who may not think of themselves as having power and influence in the tech world, I was losing confidence in myself. I became the very person I was trying to write for.
Of course, I didn’t quit — if I had, you wouldn’t be reading this. Part of my motivation to keep going was in realizing that by giving up, I’d be turning my back on the ideals. I’ve made some peace with the reality that I may not fully understand what I’m talking about. The fact of the matter is that such a risk is always there, no matter how far you advance in a research-based career. That’s true even for those writing the code. Fear of appearing naive or ill-suited to offer a perspective on technology is toxic, and I would argue that it’s a small part of why the community isn’t more diverse.
The title of the panel I’m on is “Hack The Planet,” which I thought was odd at first, since my talk doesn’t directly relate to hacking. In a way, though, what’s kept me going throughout my work on blockchain are what I think of as hacker values: curiosity, playfulness, and a tolerance for risk. So it’s in the spirit of hacking that I’m doing this work, and that I encourage others to take an open mind about it. It’s not always easy, but I think that in the long run, it’s for the best.
Emma Stamm is a writer, web developer and PhD candidate at Virginia Tech. You can find her online at www.o-culus.com and @turing_tests.
 This is Ethereum: https://www.ethereum.org/
 This is based on the 2008 publication of Satoshi Nakamoto’s white paper describing Bitcoin, which is generally recognized as the beginning of Bitcoin/blockchain. www.bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf