Blockchain Excitement Is Hype with a Heart

Distributed ledger technology offers hopes for a Silicon Valley do-over

This hasn’t been the best year for Silicon Valley. After almost two decades of innovation and success, the tech sector is no longer the belle of the ball. People are wondering if they want to dial back their tech engagement and the sheer size of individuals’ digital footprint has raised questions about user control of data.

There is, of course, one exception to this 2018 grumpiness: blockchain. While the Bitcoin rollercoaster has led many to question its value as a currency (rather than an asset), its underlying technology is being incorporated everywhere you look. The goals for this almost decade-old tech are lofty indeed. Revamping the global payments and currency system is table stakes; I am reading a book that thinks it’s a distinct possibility that human woes including office politics and mass genocide could be solved through a distributed ledger.

It’s easy to sound the hyperbole alarm. If you’re so inclined, I’ll join you in the eye roll. Human nature doesn’t get changed so easily. But underneath the big talk, there is a very real sincerity. Nobody appreciates the failings of the internet and its tech culture more acutely than the true believers.

Blockchain’s decentralization, encryption and hardwiring of good behavior offers the chance to replace, or at least upgrade, large portions of the web. In the process, there is at least a chance it will fix many of the failings of the existing system, including a lack of privacy and the vast concentration of data and wealth in a handful of companies.

Blockchain won’t solve all the world’s ills. But it can, to grab a well-trodden phrase, make the world a better place. And that’s a goal to applaud. If Silicon Valley hadn’t embraced this goal in the 1990s, we wouldn’t have any number of tangible benefits in our lives today, from Google Maps to free video calls that let my daughter repeatedly scream “banana” at her grandparents in Ireland.

To be sure, there’s no shortage of practical possibilities for the blockchain that could make money today. But at a time when the failings of tech are inescapable, it’s heartening to know there’s at least one sector where you can still dream big.