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Blockchain: Quantum Leap Forward or Digital Snake Oil?

Evangelists describe it as a thrilling and versatile foundation that will revolutionise everything from finance to governance. But is it really the radical new paradigm its adherents claim?

Blockchain, the technology on which Bitcoin is based, has gone mainstream. Until recently a subject confined to tech blogs and Reddit pages, it is earning huge amounts of column inches and airtime. Stories abound of Bitcoin millionaires and multimillion-dollar ICOs (Initial Coin Offerings). New cryptocurrencies are launched every week. People who don’t entirely understand what they’re buying are rushing to purchase Bitcoin for fear of missing out. And then there are the Bitcoin Cassandras, who say they’ve seen this sort of frenzy many times before and warn of impending bust even as new investors stampede towards this digital gold rush.

But what is blockchain anyway? Think of it as a digital ledger that records transactions in an immutable way for all to see. Or, as the Bank of England puts it: ‘A technology that allows people who don’t know each other to trust a shared record of events.’ That’s a phraseology that underplays just how exciting and transformational many think blockchain technology is.

Blockchain evangelists say cryptocurrencies are just the start of its usefulness and that the fate of Bitcoin is beside the point. They urge us to think of blockchain today in similar terms to the internet in 1995 – a thrilling and versatile technology that will revolutionise everything, sweeping away centralised authorities and finally delivering on the anti-establishment ideals of the early web. Startups have emerged in every sector – from finance to food sourcing to corruption-proof voting systems – aiming to displace incumbents with new blockchain-based models.

So is blockchain the revolutionary new paradigm its adherents claim, or just an elegant solution in search of a problem? With the movement’s grand claims for the future, overheated rhetoric and tendency to inspire major leaps of faith, is it assuming aspects of a cultish religion? Does blockchain really have the potential to do away with the system of centralised governments and corporations its biggest fans so distrust, or will it just be co-opted by them? And with the cryptocurrency network now consuming more power than some countries, is blockchain headed for a showdown with environmentalists?



Kamal Ahmed

Journalist, author and former BBC News Editorial Director

Journalist who has been Editorial Director of BBC News and BBC Economics Editor. He has also held senior roles at The Telegraph Group, The Observer and The Guardian. He recently co-founded The News Movement, a start-up dedicated to tackling misinformation. He is the author of The Life and Times of a Very British Man.

Jamie Bartlett

Author and expert on the politics of the internet. The Missing Cryptoqueen is his latest book

Author and expert on the politics of the internet. He is Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, a collaboration between the University of Sussex and the think tank Demos. He is the author of The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld, Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World, and The People vs Tech. He presented the BBC series ‘Secrets of Silicon Valley’ and in 2019 he wrote and presented the hit BBC podcast series ‘The Missing Cryptoqueen’, which exposed the biggest ever cryptocurrency scandal. He has also turned the story into a book, which will be published in June 2022.

Primavera De Filippi

Blockchain expert

Expert on the legal challenges and opportunities of blockchain technologies, focusing on their potential for new models of government and participatory decision-making. She is a permanent researcher at the National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris, and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. She is the author of Blockchain and the Law.

Vit Jedlička

President of the micronation Liberland

Founder and first elected president of the Free Republic of Liberland, located between Croatia and Serbia on the west bank of the Danube river. The country aims to be the first to base its government structure on blockchain technology and to be the freest jurisdiction on the planet. Jedlicka is a founding member of the Czech Libertarian Free Citizens Party.

David Gerard

Journalist who focuses on cryptocurrency

Author of the news blog and book Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain: Bitcoin, Blockchain, Ethereum & Smart Contracts, which was described by the New York Times as ‘a sober riposte to all the upbeat forecasts about cryptocurrency’. He has worked in information technology for 20 years as a system administrator, and was previously an award-winning music journalist.