Inspiring trust is one of the key challenges in the digital revolution. Blockchain can provide a strong foundation for online reputation management and help restore confidence on a global level, but this must be done carefully. The stakes are high, as are the rewards.

One of the key trends for 2018 is In Transparency We Trust. Identified by Fjord - part of Accenture Interactive, the trend focuses on the rise of blockchain and its impact on mutual trust. There’s a challenge to get people to understand the technology and, on top of that, they’ll need encouragement to trust it. It’s up to us to show how blockchain will positively impact transparency and re-install trust among businesses, public services, consumers and employees.  

This Insight provides a practical explanation of this trend and its meaning. We examine how blockchain will ensure trust in organizations in the long run, and how it will, despite the challenges ahead, radically change the future.

Few things in life are as precious as trust. It is part of the bedrock of society, governing decision-making processes from social interactions to business deals and everything in between. For most of us, it is so fundamental as to become instinctual. When we step into a taxi, we trust that the driver will safely take us where we need to go. When we purchase a gift online, we trust the retailer who receives our money will deliver it to us. When we visit the doctor, we trust they are well-equipped to act in the best interest of our health. And when we read the news, we trust that our favorite publications are wholly committed to the truth.

But how much do we really know about the world around us? How much can we know? In the increasingly digital landscape of the 21st century, how do we reliably separate fact from fiction? Our instincts can be deceived, and the anonymity of the internet makes it easier than ever to use the tools of deception against us. On the other hand, constant vigilance is impossible – undesirable, even. Our society relies on trust to keep moving, digital age or not.

Centralized third parties have stepped into the online arena to meet this demand, offering reputation and trust management services to businesses and individuals. At the same time, attacks on these trust systems have become more sophisticated, and recent developments have demonstrated that these institutions are far from invulnerable.

To reclaim lost trust and safeguard the stability of our global economy and society, a new solution is needed. Blockchain can provide what we are looking for. While still vulnerable to Sybil attacks, the technology removes many of the vulnerabilities inherent in the current generation of trust systems. But it is not a silver bullet, and the questions it raises have far-reaching implications.

Entering a New Era of Trust

Blockchain technology has many potential use cases, ranging from small, pragmatic applications to global paradigm shifts. So far, a large part of the conversation has focused on financial services. And indeed, blockchain has much to offer in this field. Improved transaction speeds, lower costs and increased transparency are all valuable improvements over the status quo.

But the need for trust isn’t limited to finance. Public services, online retail and peer-to-peer trading all rely on reputation and trust. The same goes for healthcare, education and transportation. All these sectors stand to benefit from blockchain solutions, as do the people who rely on them.

By collecting various sources of information in an immutable historical database and verifying their authenticity through consensus, blockchain provides a robust and versatile approach to trust and reputation management. Instead of relying on a single source of data, users will have access to a far more comprehensive picture – one that is authenticated not by a single third party, but by a network of peers that is more resistant to tampering and malicious influence.

Technical Limitations Notwithstanding

For all their versatility, computers can’t tell the difference between virtual reality and offline reality. The information they receive from the outside world is just that: information. They cannot distinguish between good or bad, between benevolence and harm. And because we don’t have identification chips embedded under our skin, well-crafted fake identities can still fool even our most intelligent systems.

This is an important limitation to be aware of. Blockchain is not impervious to attack. As of yet, there is no stable defense against Sybil attacks. Proof-of-work requirements can be used to make the cost of these attacks prohibitively high, but a determined attacker still has options to poison the system with false consensus.

The machine cannot be bribed. It cannot be threatened. And it cannot tell lies for its own benefit or the detriment of others

That said, the distributed, public nature of blockchain technology makes it an important step in the right direction. With blockchain, no single party owns or dominates the network outright. Its value lies in its decentralized nature. It removes the need for centralized third parties and thereby eliminates the many flaws and vulnerabilities they carry. The machine cannot be bribed. It cannot be threatened. And it cannot tell lies for its own benefit or the detriment of others.

Not Your Average IT Project

Blockchain technology is here and can be implemented today. Even large-scale projects are feasible from a technical standpoint. But we must tread carefully, because this is not just another IT project. By implementing blockchain as a trusted platform, businesses and governments will enter a shadowy landscape where the digital world and the social world interact. There are opportunities for immense economic and societal improvements, but the social implications can also be damaging if they are not handled accurately and deliberately.

On today’s social media networks, a small indiscretion can haunt users for years. As the saying goes, the internet is forever. But our current system offers something that blockchain will not: plausible deniability. If a potential employer discovers negative information about you on the internet and brings it up during a job interview, you still have a chance to object. With some effort, online sources can even be expunged, clearing past mistakes from your digital record.

Not so with blockchain. The database is designed to be a tamper-proof historical record. If consensus is achieved, that information essentially becomes the truth forever.

This illustrates why it is imperative that the trust systems of the future are not simply approached from a technical implementation perspective, but from the viewpoint of social science as well. We must build trust systems that care about their users, that offer a balanced view of reality and protect participants from undue harm. The duty of care involved goes far beyond simply implementing new technology and reaping the rewards.

With blockchain, we find ourselves well outside the confines of traditional IT projects. There are many new dimensions involved. Some of them will require completely new institutions and approaches in order for us to reconcile them with the needs and interests of society.

Preparing for the Inevitable

When computers first came onto the scene, it took a while for them to gain widespread momentum. But as soon as the technology hit a certain level of maturity and market saturation, something magical happened: the internet appeared. It wasn’t born overnight, of course. It developed over time, first in fits and starts, then in leaps and bounds. And despite its detractors, it proved to be unstoppable.

The internet transformed our world on a fundamental level. How we do business, how we consume information, even how we interact socially have been forever changed. Now, blockchain is preparing to do the same, ushering in the next phase of digital evolution.

Already, we are taking the first steps toward a programmable economy. Blockchain-based DNS services likewise already exist, and whitepapers paint the technology as a potential cornerstone of Web 3.0. Cryptocurrencies are traded the world over and traditional financial institutions are embracing the opportunities that blockchain has to offer.

This is not to say that the world will change overnight. We’re still in the early phases of adoption and implementation. It may well take a decade for blockchain to mature, but it will change our world as radically as TCP/IP before it. There are many questions we still need to answer, many challenges to tackle – and the time to do so is now.

Image: In Transparency We Trust

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