How the Blockchain Can Avoid the Perils of Futurism

Is the blockchain community too focused on futurism? In this opinion piece one developer argues the answer is yes.

AccessTimeIconMay 7, 2016 at 4:00 p.m. UTC
Updated Mar 6, 2023 at 3:38 p.m. UTC

Martin Hagelstrom is a bitcoin enthusiast, project executive and consultant working on IT projects at IBM.

In this opinion piece, Hagelstrom speaks out against what he argues is the pervasiveness of futurist thinking in the blockchain industry, reasoning that practical solutions are currently a greater need.

We have all heard how bitcoin will make it possible for driverless Ubers to fill their gas tanks, visit mechanics and pay for service without any need of human interventions.

It all sounds possible, but let’s be honest, it does not feel like something that will happen in the near future.

Today, there aren't even driverless cars on highways outside Silicon Valley, so to be fair, the car-to-pump transaction is not the blockchain community's biggest challenge, no matter how exciting or headline-grabbing it may be.

Don’t get me wrong, I don't mean that this won't happen, but that does not make something a good use case that should be implemented today, or that it should dominate popular discussion.

As a community, we have to be careful to avoid over-emphasizing futurism. Bitcoin and blockchain can solve problems today, but instead of reminding the public of these examples, we often fall back on far-off ideas to state our case and reinforce our arguments.

Again, I am not saying we should stop innovating, or that such thinking is necessary for innovation. But, on the contrary, we need to use this technology to find clever ways to solve today's problems for today's users.

I'm just saying, there will likely be more than a few big innovations between now and the time when your smart pet feeding device is ordering its own refills on Amazon or OpenBaazar.

Embracing practicality

But what can we achieve today?

Probably a much less fancy scenario. Today’s most brilliant Internet of Things device is Amazon Dash, a Wi-Fi connected device that re-orders products. Is it as fancy as a smart refrigerator? Of course not, but it works and it solves a problem.

Maybe we can create a solution that allows users to send money to their children that can only be used for buying gas or inside the school premises. Or maybe we build a vending machines that donates 5% of its revenue to a smart energy meter in Africa to keep a school's lights on.

How about building a company that could charge per item produced? It could even have a revenue sharing model combining multi-sig technology so that it receives its cut only when the item produced is sold.

Probably, these are all lame ideas. But at least they might be possible today with the right team and the right product.

Who knows? Maybe someone will read these ideas and come up with much better ones.

Cart before the horse

By watching a few 30-year-old science fiction movies, we should realize one thing – People are terrible making predictions about technology.

The reason is that we base those predictions on the context that we have today. When we try and plan for 10 years from now, we are assuming that we will be using smartphones as we know them. Do you remember how smartphones looked 10 years ago? Most people still called them cell phones.

Because of this, it is really hard to convince a board of directors or a VC to invest money on a new product if they don’t see a return on their investment. So, telling them about how combining smart contracts with Internet of Things won't get you more than an invite to visit them again in two years.

With blockchain technology, a connected device can now securely record information or act based on a condition encoded in a smart contract.

This is a very simple and powerful foundation that could lead to products in many industries outside the financial services. Working with the people in those industries and understanding their problems would be a great starting point.

SpaceX is awesome, and we need companies to build innovations that really blow our minds. But as much we would love to have cheap space travel, it makes more sense solve today's transportation issues.

With smart contracts now running on the blockchain, we should expect the same kind of gradual innovations. But, let's go for the yellow cabs first and only then think about space traveling.

Follow Martin Hagelstrom on Twitter.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer

Retro sci-fi image via Shutterstock


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