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A Vision for Our Blockchain-Enabled Future: Bolstered Trust & Conflict-Free Diamonds

At What’s Now: San Francisco, Brian Behlendorf kicked off the night by apologizing for the role he played in developing cookies and web-tracking in the early days of the Internet. The current executive director of Hyperledger Project, an open source blockchain platform started by the Linux Foundation last year, Behlendorf has done stints in the Obama White House, the World Economic Forum, and growth-equity found Mithril Capital Management. He sees a number of parallels between our current moment in the early days of blockchain technology and the Internet in the 1990s. He highlighted decentralization as a key feature of both.

With blockchain, even if you don’t trust an individual actor to manage a system—say, the supply chain of diamonds—you can trust all of the actors working together through distributed ledgers and smart contracts. Behlendorf even suggested that blockchain technology could have helped avert, or at least mitigate, the housing crisis of 2009.

Behlendorf pointed out land titles in emerging markets as another potential use case of blockchain technology. Perhaps counterintuitively, it’s easier to plunder digitized databases of land titles in emerging markets than it is to wipe out a paper trail. Blockchain could help solve this problem by providing un-erasable and publicly searchable records not under the control of a single entity. In an age of decreasing national trust in institutions, from banks to government, blockchain removes the onus of trust from any particular institution.

Behlendorf stressed that it’s important that we more fully understanding the implications of this relatively young technology (he also gave sage advice about inquiring into the bitcoin holdings of anyone on a stage enthusiastically extolling the virtues of bitcoin and blockchain, and divulged that he personally holds a very small amount of the cryptocurrency). We haven’t yet witnessed the full life cycle of these currencies.

“Currencies are consensual hallucinations,” Behlendorf said, and thus bitcoin—like the U.S. dollar—is worth whatever we collectively decide it’s worth. Behlendorf also emphasized the fact that the value of a network is proportional to the number of participants in the network.

“In these kinds of systems, all technical details are policy details,” Behlendorf said. He’s optimistic that the people currently shaping bitcoin and blockchain will minimize unintended consequences (like cookies) that will shape our technology, economy, and society for decades to come.