More thoughts about blockchain (I'm sorry)

I've been thinking about blockchain recently. I am, like most people, not convinced by blockchain yet I seem to have accidentally found myself having to defend it (the technology that is not its current uses, there's no defending NFTs).

I did a 5 minute non-serious talk last week at a dev conference where I suggested that blockchain tech could be used to manage the transactions within a local microgrid (basically peer-to-peer local electricity sharing). From the little I know about blockchain, this is definitely a feasible use-case for the tech, but it's obviously not the only solution. Yes, you could easily track the transactions with a database, some APIs, all the usual stuff, blockchain is not required to make this work.

But the twitter people's arguments got me thinking about why people get so up in arms whenever someone suggests blockchain as a solution to something. Yeh crypto and NFTs gave it a bad start but surely people can see past those things by now and can start to understand what it's actually about and why it's interesting...?

The conclusion I came to is that we live in the wrong place to appreciate how much of a game-changer blockchain could be. Take my electricity microgrid as an example - I live in the UK where we have a massive amount of power infrastructure that was built by the government nearly 100 years ago. We have power stations, pylons, cables, standard fixtures, standard voltages etc etc. We have similar levels of sophistication for all of our essential utilities - power, water, roads, communications networks... OK not all (any?) government run but they are supported and controlled with government policies, and access to all of those things are not in question for the majority of the residents of this country.

Imagine you live in a country that has a less mature(!) economic and political structure. Whatever you say about the UK government cutting taxes to benefit their mates and awarding covid contracts to their own companies, there are places out there that are way more corrupt than we can even imagine. Or perhaps you don't live somewhere with a dodgy government, you live somewhere that's not had the years of industrialisation we have had, and basic stuff like power and water are not reliable and easily accessible.

When I was researching the talk I read a story, I can't find the link now, about a guy somewhere in Africa, I think Rwanda. He was just a normal guy, office job, commutes to work on the bus like many of us do (or did in the before-times), buys an overly-expensive take-away lunch when he forgets his sandwich. But his house doesn't have electricity, none of the houses where he lives does. There is a guy down the road with solar panels though. So every day before work he goes round to his house and drops his phone off with the guy to get it charged, so he can pick it up when he gets home and use it that evening to videocall his mum, do online shopping (no reliable electricity but they do have Amazon), watch TV etc etc.

This is where we are perhaps blind to the possibilities that blockchain can offer - decentralised, unhackable (so far) transactions that don't have to rely on a government or other central body. That doesn't have to trust a central body to host the database and the APIs that run the network.
Because we have that here - not that I trust a Tory as far as I could throw one - but when we're talking about keeping the very basics of modern life going we can trust that these will not fail. You know that if this electricity crisis really hits the fan the government will bail us out somehow and we will all still have power. This is not true for everywhere in the world, so they need a different approach.

Blockchain may still not be the solution to anything, but it turns out what makes me angry is not people arguing against the blockchain - it's people knee-jerk reacting to an idea just because it contains the B word. It may all be a dead-end and blockchain disappears up its own arse next year and we all move on to slagging off something else, but right now it definitely has hints of the old "the internet, it'll never catch on" vibe from 30-odd years ago.

“The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.”