Blockchain & The New American Dream

Last week, Internet pioneer, Vint Cerf together with David Nordfors invited a community of approximately sixty thinkers and doers to hack unemployment in Washington D.C.

Participants from innovation, government, industry, academia, art, and more came together to imagine ‘The New American Dream’ as part of the i4j Innovation for Jobs Leadership Forum.

There are many reasons we are what we’ve become. But, our mission as leaders at i4j is to change us now and bring forward ‘an innovation economy where people work with the people they like for the benefit of the people they do not know, providing for the people they love.’  In essence, we are tasked with making The New American Dream, a reality.

George Minardos is one of my spectacular colleagues at i4j. George is deeply committed to developing ways that people can engage in meaningful work. George and I are both also deeply involved in blockchain businesses and care passionately about how blockchain can help people earn a better living in more satisfying ways.

Blockchain is one of those rare technologies that has the potential to have the greatest impact on a people-centred economy.  In fact, I feel that we are at one of those times in technological, economic and social history where the sky isn’t the limit, nor the moon. We have the chance to reach for the stars.   

In light of the importance of blockchain to the summit agenda, George and I ran a workshop about how blockchain can help people earn a better living in more satisfying ways.  It is always a treat to attend the i4j workshops but the depth and breadth of leaders and participants makes choosing from among the workshop options difficult. This year, I got lucky; recruiting for our workshop became a whole lot easier when, suddenly appearing at our table, like Gandalf the Wizard, was Vint Cerf.

“The internet is a reflection of our society and that mirror is going to be reflecting what we see. If we do not like what we see in that mirror the problem is not to fix the mirror, we have to fix society.”Vint Cerf

For those who don’t know, Vint Cerf is widely recognized as one of the fathers of the Internet, sharing this title with TCP/IP co-inventor Bob Kahn. He is the mastermind of interplanetary communications and much, much more. A wizard? Yes, absolutely. But even more importantly, Vint represents the best of humanity. He embodies the informal friendliness and lack of hierarchy that the i4j leadership forum strives for.  He’s the richness in i4j that represents each and every one of my i4j colleagues sitting around the table trying to figure out how to make this world a better place.

Vint started questioning our table by using an example of a book that was right in front of him. ‘I have this book that I bought’. ‘I want to say that it’s mine (assuming all prior validity of chain of ownership and within the context of a private permissioned blockchain). How do I do that? How do I get the purchase transaction ‘into’ the blockchain. This simple question set the ball rolling and there we were sitting side by side, George, me and a rich variety of 10 others with a hero of  the entire tech world figuring out how something like a chain of blocks can make the ‘human economy’ flourish.

The book was a good place to start. Although we assumed a general level of knowledge around the table, I do use the book example to help people understand what a blockchain is. A blockchain is like a book. Blocks in the chain are like pages in a book. The book is really just a chain of pages. Each page of the book contains a story (text in the book) and information about itself. For example, on each page there is usually the title of the book and sometimes the chapter number or title. At the bottom is usually the page number which tells you where you are in the book.  Similarly in a blockchain block, each block has two things: a) the contents of the block and b) a ‘header’ which contains the data about the block.  This is usually technical information about the block like a reference to the previous block and a fingerprint (hash) of the data contained in this block, among other things. The hash is important for ordering, just like page numbers in a book.

Vint’s next questions focused on what happens when you change a blockchain mid-flight. What happens when a private chain is at risk because someone rented a load of CPU and took over the chain?  Does Google’s new Quantum chip pose a threat to the integrity of a private-permissioned chain? What about data distribution? What about the perceived problem of timestamps and internal consistency?

All these questions highlighted both the very solution that blockchain solves as well as the unfulfilled standards that require a multi stakeholder governance model to set. Moreover, these questions represented Vint’s hopes and worries; his hopes for the internet to remain open and for it to continue facilitating ongoing ‘permissionless innovation’. His questions also betrayed his worry, namely that the complexity of blockchains can present weird foozles with unpredictable effects.

Vint brought us to a point where we collectively acknowledged the necessity for a multi stakeholder model to establish governance of  a private permissioned chain. Presently, there are no standards specifying who is, or should be writing to these private permissioned blockchains.  We need a group to inform, establish and create standards. This is something that the Global Legal Blockchain Consortium is doing and this is precisely the problem we’re solving in the legal industry.

Our conversations will certainly continue at i4j, and the Global Legal Blockchain Consortium. It will be of prime importance next week on Oct. 30 and 31 at the MIT Legal Forum on AI & Blockchain, which is co-organized by Integra Ledger and the Global Legal Blockchain Consortium.

Vint is the most generous of spirits in the tech world that I’ve never met. I didn’t need to reinforce his conclusion about the importance of protocols and policy. He is co-creator of the most popular network protocol in the world – the TCP/IP protocol suite. He’s also the one who served as chairman of the board of ICANN from 2000 to 2007. In 1999, he was a member of the ICANN Board of Directors. Vint knows better than anyone on this celestial ball how important it is to establish protocols and administer policy around those protocols.

As I reflect on the workshop, I felt a bit like Bilbo Baggins asking Gandalf – ‘Can I help you?’ and Gandalf responding in kind, ‘That remains to be seen’ but Vint’s words were ‘show your work’.  In true generosity of spirit, he helped everyone around the table to understand that showing your work involves starting with a super-simple example of a book and following it all the way to the end.

What happened at that workshop will forever remain with me.  The co-father of the internet reminded us to live up to the standards that he set. The standards of excellence, integrity and the utmost commitment to simply being able to explain what on earth you’re doing and why it matters.

I’m inspired, awed, humbled and hoping that Vint and all my i4j friends might be a bit less sceptical toward blockchain after all.


George Minardos, Vint Cerf, Amy ter Haar

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s