Since the media storm around the birth of Silk Road and its eventual takedown, Bitcoin has made its way into the popular consciousness. Even luddites are now vaguely aware of its existence, though usually tied to the idea of unsavoury characters buying guns, drugs or worse from the darkest recesses of the web.
What has received less attention – outside of tech circles, at least – is the totally revolutionary technology that underpins it, known as the blockchain. Without getting too technical, it's like a giant public ledger in which every Bitcoin transaction is recorded; but instead of it being held by one central authority, it's distributed among thousands of individual computer nodes, so the chance of faking any of the information in it – claiming you have a thousand Bitcoins when your account is empty, say, or spending the exact same coin twice – is effectively zero.
Though it was first created for digital currency exchange, the blockchain's core concept of a decentralised, free-to-access, unchangeable public record can be adapted for a whole host of other services. (We're still in the early days, but thinkers within the movement have already mapped out a fair few of them.)
It was at a meet up for Bitcoin users that I discovered some of these uses through Janina Lowisz, AKA "Blockchain Girl", a 24-year-old management student billed as the first "World Citizen On the Blockchain". A few months back she became the proud owner of the first ever decentralised, cryptographically signed proof of existence, in a ceremony that was live-streamed across the web. Since then she has become not just a poster girl for these crypto-IDs, but an advocate for a hardline libertarian future where private contracts and distributed information replace more and more of what are now public functions.
I met up with her in the Vape Lab, Shoreditch's hybrid Bitcoin-hub-cum-e-cig-cafe, to talk about passports, marriage contracts and the death of the nation state.
VICE: Hi Janina. First things first: what exactly is a Blockchain ID, and how does it work?
Well, Bitnation [a group promoting decentralised governance] launched the BlockchainID pilot project last year in October. It's a private passport service that can validate people's existence using freely available tools that we have today. You can look up the exact steps to make one in the YouTube video, but basically it proves concretely that someone existed at a certain time and place, as verified by another certain group of people.
I feel very honoured by it. And also I feel like now it's my responsibility to promote the blockchain and everything else you can do with it.
I heard it was invented by a guy called Chris. Didn't he want to be the first to have one?
Well, I think the creators wanted someone who wasn't already involved in the area before, to show that a person without any technical background can become a blockchain citizen – that it can be done everywhere and by anyone. And also, of course, my background is libertarian, so I grasped the philosophical basis of everything even without special knowledge of the technology.
So what exactly can you use the passport for today?
At the moment, the ID is more of an addition that you can use for things like online verification. But it can be used by stateless people – that's important – and there's a plan to develop the process in future and make it more simple for them to get one. Or if people want to declare themselves as a world citizen and not just whatever nationality they happened to be born as, this is a good way to express that view.
Also, as it's a pilot scheme for a private passport service, it shows private solutions are capable of lots of the same functions as centralised government. There are so many things that government currently does that can actually be done in a voluntary and decentralised way; there's really no need for central governance services – people can just pay for whatever services they want.
Okay, I see. So what do you think that future would be like if people relied on government less and paid for everything themselves?
It would be great! Even now there are libertarian groups emerging everywhere – you can increasingly see that nation states are a model of the past. They all have high debts, and even those that are seen as working well have huge debt, it's just low in comparison to all of the others. Everyone is struggling! I really can't think of a good government anywhere. So, over time, people are becoming more and more aware of that and starting to look for other voluntary solutions.
You mean the blockchain is taking us towards the death of the nation state?Maybe not just yet, but the technology allows for a lot of new possibilities for replacing what the state provides – like, one option would be to offer government services in packages so people can pay for whatever services they're going to use. That's how government should work: instead of paying taxes that get wasted on things you don't even want, this way you can have a free choice and see exactly where your money is going.
I gather there's lots of other stuff you could use the blockchain for, too. I heard about some people getting married through it – what's the deal there?
Yes, that was the first pilot project that Bitnation did. It means there's a smart contract: unlike traditional marriage, you're not bound for life, but can choose how long – five years, 10 years, 15 – and then you have to renew it or it automatically ends.
The advantage of that is that people aren't committing to it forever, so if one person in the marriage causes trouble, the other one doesn't get punished for the decision to leave them. Often after a divorce the man needs to pay for the woman, but it could be the woman's fault! With a smart contract, no one can exploit the other one once the marriage ends.
And you could marry someone you might not like that much...
Well, personally I would only marry on the blockchain. Traditional marriage is a big risk – it can destroy people's lives.
So are we all going to be using this technology a lot more from now on?
I think it will take a long time for people to use things like blockchain marriage as long as traditional options have other benefits, like tax breaks, for example. But as a libertarian, I don't think one should make important life decisions based on what the state has to say about it.
Agreed. Anything else to add?
Sure, if you're interested you should look up the BlockchainID on Github and see all the Bitnation projects, like land registry, marriages and many other things that will be possible in future.
More stuff like this: