The great dream, and the betrayal, of Blockchain: lessons from Grad School

The great dream, and the betrayal, of Blockchain: lessons from Grad School
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

During my graduate studies at UMass Amherst in 2017, distributed computing was a hot topic. Blockchain technology, in particular, held immense promise for the future. Ethereum was supposed to be next big thing, Solidity the programming language of choice. I was skeptical, but one must seriously consider the most outlandish ideas for some potential or other. I enrolled in a series of Distributed Application Programming (DAP) courses. My aim was to gain a solid academic foundation in this rapidly evolving field.

Diving into the Details

These courses provided a deep dive into the inner workings of distributed computing. We explored various data structures, programming languages, and the inherent challenges of coordinating tasks across a distributed network. We also examined the complex “proof-of-work” schemes that underpin some blockchain implementations.

As part of the coursework, we brainstormed numerous potential applications for distributed computing and blockchain technology. Our enthusiastic discussions yielded dozens of use cases across various domains.

However, upon closer examination, we discovered a critical flaw in our approach. Many of the proposed use cases didn’t actually require blockchain technology. In fact, removing the blockchain element often resulted in a more efficient and streamlined solution. In the end, it was quite challenging, if not impossible for the entire class of graduate students in one of the most reputable institutions in the country, to come up with ONE legitimate use case that would be improved by the use of blockchains and cryptocurrency. Well, that’s not strictly true. There were multiple great ideas that were not strictly legal and there was a massive potential in skirting financial regulation. Besides that, we didn’t get tvery far.

The Trust Factor

The core limitation of blockchain technology emerged as a central theme. Blockchain thrives in environments with a complete lack of trust between participants. However, in most real-world scenarios, some level of trust already exists. In such cases, the use of a trusted intermediary could often achieve the same results without the complexities of blockchain. Our exploration revealed that technology alone cannot solve the fundamental human challenge of trust.

Beyond Legitimate Applications

Sadly, the only use cases where blockchain seemed truly beneficial were those facilitating the movement of capital outside legal frameworks. This realization felt disheartening. At a time when advancements in machine learning and computer vision were burgeoning, my focus had shifted to a technology with limited practical applications.

The Future of Distributed Systems

While blockchain may have limitations, the concept of distributed computing holds promise in other forms. Decentralized social media platforms like Mastodon offer an alternative vision. Unlike traditional platforms, Mastodon distributes ownership of computational resources among its users. Intrigued by this approach, I joined a Mastodon instance in early 2017 and continue to explore the potential of such distributed structures. I’m still a proponent in the ‘open web’ concept, and believe it should be the users who should own the computational resources. The centralizing tendencies exist due to the massive economies of scale, but they rarely align with user interest.


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