Blockchain Ethics

Project Topics: sociotechnical interfaces

My primary project proposition is to study the necessary, useful, and potential ways public blockchains couple to more traditional institutions. I’d like to explore some of the following questions:

  1. What can and can’t be done with a ‘pure’ blockchain? Given some sort of idealized blockchain floating disparate from other major social institutions, what is it good for? You can exchange information, but when is that useful without knowing identities. Can a market be generated without coupling to physical or financial institutions? I honest don’t know if such a thing is increadibly powerful or completely useless and would like to find a way to reason about it.
  2. What major sociotechnical institutions are necessary for bitcoin to function. What abilities and failure modes does this open up?
  3. What further institutions are necessary for the standard imagined uses of blockchains and cryptocurrencies?
  4. What other traditional institutions might we couple future blockchains to and what would this allow or prevent them from doing?
  • An interesting specific sub-question: How do we negotiate new social contracts over blockchain or sociotechnical systems that do not violate the properties we want out of our public blockchain?
  • Another interesting related/sub-question: we usually conceive of blockchain keys/pseudonyms as individuals. This need not be the case. What does it look like when pseudonyms or groups of pseudonyms refer to groups or institutions?

Another topic of interest less related to blockchain. Privacy is currently often framed in terms of data and data privacy; however, I’d argue that this is a flawed conception as technology develops. With increases in amounts of collected data, better algorithms, and more research on humans, we are seeing the ability to infer what is often though of as private data from things which are not considered private. As extreme cases, look at some of the work on diagnosing psychological conditions from unstructured speech samples or diagnosing various medical conditions from videos of people. Public, or at least not carefully guarded data, such as a short video recording of a person might in the future be able to reveal very personal information. Thus, it seems to me that we need conceptions of privacy as process and ability rather than purely data. Figuring out both philosophically and pragmatically how to conceptualize and implement these notions is a pressing question.

Also only tenuously related to blockchain or ethics, I have several research problems related to cryptography (specifically in the area of delegation algorithms and zero-knowledge protocols). Feel free to ask me about them, but I don’t feel like typing it up right now.

Finally, an art project. There is a Mary-Kate and Ashly music video “Gimme Pizza” about a group of children ordering a pizza and putting a large variety of unconventional toppings on it, some of questionable culinary desirability such as fish-sticks and whipped-cream. The song is structured primarily as [declaration of food item] followed by “put it on the pizza”. I propose a parody song “Gimme Crypto” where we amass a long list of proposed things to put on the blockchain, ideally with citation and of varying sensibility. My housemate who works in distributed manufacturing and the maker movement can likely provide a sizeable list of things that need not go on a blockchain but keep being proposed.


The questions are good, it seems to me but maybe too big? You need to narrow down to a question you can manage. No?

Any one or two of the sub-bullets seems like a reasonable scope to try to explore in a semester. I agree, taken as a whole it is closer to a research agenda than a project proposal. I also have the convenience of merely sitting in on this class, so my proposals are more general statements of research interest in case anyone wants to chat or is inspired, rather than something I intend to do any time in the near future.