A Technological tour de force
I live in the Silicon Valley part of Hyderabad and keep getting nuggets of what is going on in the computer field, through neighbours in the condominium where I stay, and visitors. Last week, there was a discussion on blockchain technology and how it is the latest mythology circulating around. My use of metaphor was not liked, as the general perception is that I live more in the world of myths these days. The other day, I irked a visitor by telling him that Samba was the son of Shri Krishna, who brought an end to his lineage. My visitor thought the only Samba was the one sitting atop the boulder in the film, Sholay, who answered the question, “Kitne aadmi the (How many were they)?”
Keeping aside the matter of how much is myth and how much brass tacks, there is no doubt that blockchain is the most transformative technology of our times. The first thing I learnt was that blockchain is not Bitcoin, but that Bitcoin is impossible without the blockchain. Secondly, blockchain is a software technology; it is easy, but most cumbersome when applied. You need enormous computer power to validate a transaction on blockchain and if turns mainstream, it would have significant economic consequences. It is unlikely to happen in the immediate future, except as a revolution against the established order of the world. A “who will allow it versus who will be able to stop it” question is staring at us!
I dug deep and came to know about Ethereum, a decentralized blockchain platform. But more than the platform, what attracted my attention was its co-creator, Vitalik Buterin, who was born in Russia in 1994, and came to Canada when his computer scientist father immigrated there in the hubbub of Y2K. As goes the legend on the Internet, Buterin learnt about Bitcoin from his father, at the age of 17. He dropped out of the University of Waterloo in 2014, travelled extensively, interacting with other computer scientists and created Ethereum and, in 2018, received an honorary doctorate from the University of Basel.
The general perception of blockchain is Bitcoin. The general perception of Bitcoin is stealth money, which is beyond tax nets and flows across the world without attracting attention to the transactions made. Both perceptions are only partially true. Blockchain is a technology and when used to handle money, becomes Bitcoin. And blockchain is more about integrity than confidentiality. Once used for anything, be it in supply chains, healthcare, real estate, media or energy, it brings authenticity in every business transaction. When used in governance, for revenue records, citizen identity, taxes, and voting, it rules out any opportunity for corruption. Basically, blockchain hits the operating structure of power. So, the question blockchain faces is not who will stop it, but who will allow it.
I read a quote attributed to Vitalik Buterin on the Internet. Buterin says, “Whereas most technologies tend to automate workers on the periphery doing menial tasks, blockchains automate away the centre. Instead of putting the taxi driver out of a job, blockchain puts Uber out of a job and lets the taxi drivers work with the customer directly.” It is, indeed, a very big statement and points toward the great war already going on between the technology forces who want to control the way this world runs, and the forces that are running it right now. As the history of mankind testifies, technology has always prevailed. The way millions of people live, becomes the way of life. The way big businesses operate, becomes a business practice. And this brings me to the need, the most urgent need, of finding a middle path between this and that.
The middle path is mentioned in the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita; it has been celebrated by the Buddha and the philosophers of ancient Greece. Shri Krishna tells Arjuna:
नात्यश्नतस्तु योगोऽस्ति न चैकान्तमनश्नत: |
न चाति स्वप्नशीलस्य जाग्रतो नैव चार्जुन || (Verse 6.16)
But there is no yoga for one who eats in excess, nor for one who does not eat at all, nor for one who habitually oversleeps, nor for one who always keeps awake, O Arjuna.
Thus, the mean or the middle way between the two extremes, one, of excess and the other, of deficiency, is considered right and called the golden mean. Gautama Buddha made his religion a path between the extremes of religious asceticism and worldly self-indulgence. In the Greek temple of Delphi, “nothing in excess” is engraved. Later, Aristotle explained that every virtue in its extreme is, indeed, a vice.
So, courage is a virtue, but if taken to excess, it would become recklessness. In deficiency, courage turns into cowardice. A virtuous, reasonable, and measured person can become indulgent and an addict by a deficiency of restrain and a fanatic by its excess. If the truth is stretched to its extreme, it can become either self-deprecating, or boastful, arrogant, and proud.
Coming back to blockchain technology, it is inevitable that at some point of time, it will take over the way the world works, and will be unstoppable. Raymond “Ray” Kurzweil (b. 1948) believes that the singularity will occur by approximately 2045. What is seen is the proverbial writing on the wall that the blockchain revolution is coming, and that it will wash away many structures — legal, regulatory, governance, business practices, and even societal. Imagine the elections if you can cast your vote using your mobile phone! Your health records are meticulously and correctly archived. And business transactions are, perforce, authentic. Though it would be a mistake to rush headlong into the blockchain innovation without understanding how it is likely to take hold, a bigger, or rather, fatal, mistake would be to keep ignoring it.
The message is to start living authentically. Don’t waste your energy in having multiple versions of yourself, as nothing would be hidden anymore. Why stand embarrassed in the future? Decide on the purpose of your life and organize all your activities around that. Any activity, even thoughts, that deviate you from your life purpose, must be nipped in the bud. And while you do that in your personal life, professional life, and civil life, as the blockchain technology matures, you will see it as a convenience and efficiency enhancer.
Today, it has become a norm to get medicines delivered at home, sourced from the manufacturer, all taxes paid. If the diagnostic tests done are all blockchained, how much savings and accuracy in the treatment, would it bring to the patients receiving it? It would make the doctors who prescribe them, accountable. When all seeds are blockchained, agriculture will be transformed. All academic records, extra-curricular activities, conduct in society, once blockchained, will directly bring employment, as money always needs people to multiply itself.
What would Dr. Kalam say about blockchain? When he departed in 2015, it was still considered as fiction. Maybe he would say, “Buddy, this is not a ‘disruptive’ technology that would attack the traditional business model. Blockchain is a ‘foundational’ technology; it will remove the rug from beneath the people who are standing tall and glorified today, collapsing structures like buildings during an earthquake.” So, what do we do? Live simple, lean, and with integrity. A hut in the garden never fears an earthquake, nor is a person harmed in a financial crisis, who has always been giving more than he is taking.”
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