I gave this introduction at the Microwave Unconference 2018, 27 October 2018, at the School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong: Microwave Unconference: Blockchain and the Creative Industries
In the 1980s and 1990s the Internet was a very confusing thing. Same with the Blockchain now. A blockchain is a chain of transactions. A blockchain is a distributed architecture. A blockchain is a tool for decentralizing the Internet itself. A blockchain is an open distributed ledger. It is a transparent database that is shared and synchronized across a network and spread across multiple sites and geographies. A blockchain is a transformational technology.
The Blockchain was born as the digital scaffolding for cryptocurrency transactions, like Bitcoin and Etherium, but its potential reaches much further than cryptovaluta. In 2008, a paper was published under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, titled: ‘Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System’. This paper expressed the aim of creating a stateless virtual currency, not controlled by any bank or government, and laid the foundation from which cryptocurrency was developed. However, around 2013 Blockchain technology was decoupled from Bitcoin. Cryptocurrency units were inscribed with additional information and transformed into tokens that would represent any kind of object or digital content.
The block, the key concept of the block chain, is, after all, a list of records connected in a chain and secured by cryptography. It contains transaction data, a “hash pointer” (a data structure pointing to the place where information is stored) as a link to a previous block, and a timestamp (a process of securely keeping track of the creation and modification time of a document). Decoupled from Bitcoin, blockchains could be repurposed as devices to verify property rights, or track products as they change hands throughout the chain – without middle men.
Every sector can adopt a blockchain to move value or information among a multitude of parties, without the need for a mediator, leading to efficiency, transparency and security. Blockchains can lend transparency to any industry or type of digital behavior involving a database or transactions. The blockchain is a trust protocol. Trust achieved by cryptography, collaboration and code. A trust of proof. Through blockchains we can evaluate what is history, what are facts, and what is truth.
To many, however, the functionality of blockchains will remain in the unknown, just as most of us don’t know how the Internet works. We might never really understand the processes of smart contracts or cryptography – just like we are unaware of technological processes such as how 4G technology works, or how silicon is processed to produce central processing units in our use of smartphones.
But blockchain will be a “backstage” to many changing technologies. A blockchain is a generic building element changing technologies that will impact the way we learn, educate, manage, consume, trade, govern, communicate, and create. Any transaction, product life cycle, workflow, supply chain, or creative platform or process, could, in theory, use blockchains. Blockchains are set to transform how we go about our daily lives: From how we register our property rights, to how we vote.
We need to reconfigure collaboration as a creative force. The world is revolving from our interdependence and connections: transfers, transactions, and exchanges. This not only goes for the world of financial transactions. It goes for every other sector and part of our everyday lives. If we talk about Blockchain as more than technology: as also culture, mentality, belief system, and imaginary – the “real value” glue of our interdependence, connections and exchanges – then what can blockchain technology do for collaboration as a creative force, both between artists and creatives, but also between artists and audiences – or citizens?
Perhaps a role of the arts is to challenge and seek out opportunities in the dysfunctions of the Blockchain. If we visit some of the concerns raised against blockchains, we can point at it’s immutable record, by which cryptography ensures that data that has received a sufficient level of validation can never be replaced or reversed, which conflicts with the “Right to Erasure” of the General Data Protection Regulation in the EU. Then, decentralization does not automatically means equal for all, with “whales” in the blockchain community owning a large part of the assets who can destabilize and devalue values if selling out a large portion of their currency at the same time, leaving it necessary to ask: how decentralized are blockchains actually? The speed of transactions with for example Bitcoin and Etherium is limited in terms of the number of transactions they can handle in a given time frame sometimes resulting in a traffic jam. And Blockchain literacy and user experience are issues to be dealt with, as understanding smart contracts etc. is not easy. Perhaps most critically is the problem of transactions requiring massive consumption of energy. Iceland uses more electricity for mining bitcoin than it does in powering its households – and we can only just begin to imagine what excellerating efforts of mining and minting will mean to our eco balance in the very near future. However how do these problems simultaneously announce opportunities or ‘creative cracks’ for artists and creatives?
For the Microwave Unconference we will focus on how blockchains may be announcing profound changes for the arts and creative industries.
Conventional contracts can be replaced by smart contracts, which are computer protocols intended to digitally facilitate, verify, or enforce the negotiation or performance of a contract. These can help artists and creatives manage digital rights and allocate revenue shares to contributors of creative processes. Attaching a smart contract to a song an artist uploads can divide the revenue according to the terms the contract stipulates. It can allow for micrometering or micromonetizing, so that snippets of creative work (e.g. seconds of a song) can become available for a particular price. You can distribute your work in a decentralized way. And you may allow for ongoing commissions of your work through the smart contract automation.
Traditional ideas of copyright can be replaced by unique cryptographic ID’s, a type of public-key cryptography. These can secure ownership transparency and verify creative works in the blockchain. This means ownership can be traced, and creative content can be securely shared. It enables records of who have been granted access rights to creative works – and it facilitates that works can be priced dynamically. This opens up for a new kind of archive for art, a distributed one. Cryptography also ensures immutable records, that data which has received a sufficient level of validation in the blockchain, can never be replaced or reversed.
Then, digital ledgers, which are databases that are consensually shared and synchronized across networks spread across multiple sites, can allow all participants of the blockchain-powered creative process to have access to exactly the same ledger records whereby they can track, trace or audit prior transactions of the work.
Blockchain introduces a new level of synchronization and real-time data transparency. In real-time, you can monitor where your project is at, and how it is being used. Platforms built on blockchain technology may allow you to access behavioral analytics real-time and see who is watching your content and understand what works, when and where on a piece of content. This level of data transparency can be valuable to help creators produce better content. Blockchain announces a new creative economy, and a new creative ecosystem. If the world of the arts has always been an industry – which arguably it has – Blockchain could bring artists at the center of it.
Blockchain will be a catalyst to change digital media – possibly pointing at the next technological evolution. Questions of relevance to our discussion today are: How will these and more mechanisms of blockchain technology evolve a mentality around artistic and creative production, and what impact will this have on the creative landscape – and our society at large? That is, how will blockchains also impact off-chain issues? How will creative use and invention in blockchains impact how society will change? Of course, crucial legal concerns with data privacy, cyber security and competition laws, Blockchain literacy, and not least energy consumption, remain to be dealt with.
The Microwave Unconference 2018 presents speakers who are creative forces and artistic lighthouses in the Blockchain ecosystem of the creative landscape today: Patrice Poujol, Annie Zhang, Ilya Li, Jack Cheng, Ho Fung, Maurice Benayoun, and Tobias Klein.
Let’s explore deeper the impact of Blockchain on the creative ecosystem as more than technology: as also culture, mentality, belief system, and imaginary. Let’s discuss how this announces new roles for artists, creators – and audiences – to impact the wider spheres of how society will – or might – change.
Introduction and presentations:
Following panel discussion:
Image: Maurice Benyoun and Tobias Klein, The Brain Factory (2017), Microwave Festival 2018