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July 1, 2016

Will blockchain kill culture?

Peter Brantley [@naypinya] has posted an important and succinct warning about the effect blockchain technology may have on culture: by making the mechanism of trust cheap, transparent, and more reliable, blockchain could destroy the ambiguity that culture needs in order to thrive. Peter’s post is clearly thought and powerfully put.

Pardon me while I agree with him, including about blockchain’s positive promise.

Culture is the ultimate analog phenomenon, even when it’s communicated digitally, for it is only culture to the extent to which people—we—make it our own. We understand our lives and our world through culture. If we can’t appropriate it, re-express it, and re-use it, culture simply dies.

As Peter says, blockchain could perfect the system of tracking and control, leading us further into the tragic error of thinking that ideas and culture are property. Property has boundaries and borders that can be precisely demarcated and can be defended. Culture by definition does not. Blockchain technology can further the illusion that culture is property.

While blockchain will have a positive, transformative effect on systems where trust is valuable and expensive, it almost inevitably will also be used to impose restrictions on the appropriation of culture that lets culture thrive. If so, I expect we’ll see the same sort of response that we’ve already seen to the Internet’s inherent transparency—the transparency that has simultaneously made it the liberator of culture and the surveillor’s wet dream: We will route around it with some degree of success. And we will—I hope— continue to encourage an ethos of sharing in which creators explicitly exempt their works from the system of copyright totalitarianism.

The license you adopt will be your uniform in the coming culture wars. It already is.

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