Luis de Sousa Design Informatics Project May 2018
Contents As its name suggests, the project Blockchain Physicality looks at ways of explaining blockchain through a physical interaction aiming at a wider audience that may not be familiarised with the notion. Due to its complex software-based nature, it can be quite difficult to understand the concept, so this project attempts to explain the basics of a blockchain transaction in the form of a common morning routine: the breakfast.
Context 3 Opportunity to Develop
Design 7 Reflection 11 Sources 12
Video Link: https://vimeo.com/269008128
What is blockchain?
Although blockchain might still sound like an abstract idea to some, it has been speculated to potentially impact people’s lives in the same way as the internet did and still does—it is now considered to be the equivalent to what the internet was in 19932. With its ever growing unchangeable record list and decentralised nature, blockchain is set to provide full transparency in transactions, where one can understand and trace back a good’s origin and full history, thus preventing any form of corruption in the process, without the need to any form of middlemen. Despite its promises and revolutionary changes, the general public is not yet familiarised with the concept, and in fact the majority of people may never even heard of it. If something can be supposedly so impactful, and has the potential to dramatically change our lives and social structures, how can we be made more aware of it?
Wikipedia says: “A blockchain, originally block chain, is a continuously growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using cryptography. Each block typically contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block, a timestamp and transaction data. By design, a blockchain is inherently resistant to modification of the data. It is “an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way”. For use as a distributed ledger, a blockchain is typically managed by a peer-to-peer network collectively adhering to a protocol for inter-node communication and validating new blocks. Once recorded, the data in any given block cannot be altered retroactively without the alteration of all subsequent blocks, which requires collusion of the network majority.”1
It doesn’t really make it any clearer 3
Bitcoin visualisation by Bitbonkers While I was already acquainted with concept, I had never thought of it in a physical or visual way. Upon investigation, I quickly understood that most existing visualisations of blockchain are rather abstract, and therefore not exactly explanatory. Furthermore, they all relate to Bitcoin, which only adds up to the common confusion that blockchain is Bitcoin, and vice-versa. In fact, such confusion is further exacerbated when one sees the many Bitcoin-related issues on the news, especially with its mining process that not only consumes too much energy, but also allows for large mining farms, which ultimately result in too large a data control for its decentralised nature.
Bitcoin visualisation by Daily Blockchain
The California Sunday Magazine makes a piece on a new eco-friendly Cryptocurrency
Opportunity to Develop How can people be made aware that blockchain is not Bitcoin, but also understand the essence of the former, and the reasons that make it such an unique technology? I started developing early concepts that could somehow explain it.
Blockchain the Internet?
Based on one of the Bitcoin visualisations, I developed the idea of creating a type of marble run where one compares a transaction to a marble. The marble is placed at a starting point and, as run through the tracks’ different stages, the transaction is placed on the blockchain and rendered complete. The main problem with this type of visualisation is that it is not only complex to physical build in order to work, but also that the complexity of the technology has components too difficult to explain using a single marble.
A second idea was conceptualised to make people understand what life could hypothetically look like in a context where blockchain becomes a fully implemented reality. I thought of creating a type of monopoly game that uses cryptocurrency as the trading coinage. The similarity of my concept with other ideas already online, albeit not yet fully developed, made me reconsider.
From a perspective of privacy and ownership, the internet is the most unsafe place in the world, where as soon as we upload something, we can longer control where it might end. If the internet becomes ‘blockchained’, would that mean that people could finally have an effective control of data, one where origin could always be determined? Simultaneously, how could that affect the alleged “freedom” of the web? 5
Blockchain in the future
If blockchain is at the level of the internet in the early 1990â€™s, where people could not grasp its full potential, it could mean that it may be quite a few years until we start understanding how this technology could actually change lives. On the other hand, the internet was seen as a promise for real connection, where users were part of a much larger community. Issues such as privacy, data protection, ownership, and many others were not fully considered at the time. In comparison to the contemporary early days of blockchain, can we be looking at it from a still somewhat naive perspective? Twenty-five years after the creation of the World Wide Web, the majority of internet users still do not know how it works, yet they use without too many reservations and believe they understand its basic principles and advantages. If that is the case, is it more important for people to know exactly how blockchain works, or how it might change their lives instead?
The aforementioned points made me aware that, instead of focusing my work to attempt to explain the functionality of blockchain, I should rather focus on real-life contexts, especially in association AI or IoT technologies.
In order to make people understand how their lives can change with this technology, I needed to reveal its attributes in regards to current practices, such as money/payments, identity, and supply chain, and how these would be affected.
Another key aspect at stake is the consideration that blockchain is by definition inflexible as a system. This gains relevance when considering that blockchain is a construct that does not accept humanâ€™s intuitive sense of flexibility. This relation between flexibility and inflexibility led me to appraise scenarios in which this technology may eventually work against us. For example, I started imagining a person with certain ethical values, and whenever she was about to go against them, a created device would not allow it to happen. In order to illustrate this idea, I developed a narrative where a person that only consumes locally-produced goods, could not put her toaster to work unless her bread was baked locally. Similar exercises could equally by used to explain other systems, such as finance or health, rather than only supply chain contexts. Though impactful, it became apparent that through these narratives I was separating fundamental elements of blockchain that are connected by nature. Furthermore, I was developing the design ideas in a direction that could only explain a partial aspect of blockchain that was truncated and focusing mainly on its limitations, without ever showing its advantages.
Breakfast in the blockchain This situation made me consider that before drawing scenarios with devices working in the blockchain context, I needed to explain the fundamental aspects that make it so unique and relevant. I built on the toaster idea and used it as an analogy to explain a blockchain transaction through breakfast. I decided to focus my exercise on the explanation of four basic elements of blockchainâ€”record (block), cryptography, mining, and decentralisationâ€”and on designing the experience of breakfast as a translation of the way a blockchain transaction works. 8
To cook breakfast different elements and appliances are required. Without any of them, breakfast is not complete and the same happens with blockchain. In this story, the toaster represents the record (block), the pan symbolises cryptography, the blender does the mining, and all of the devices assembled together represent decentralisation.
To initiate the transaction, one starts toasting the bread, followed by frying an egg on the pan. This pan then takes a picture of the unique shape of the egg frying, and uses its pixels to generate a hash code. The hash code is sent to the blender that, while blending the smoothie performs the mining, and validates the transaction, and then places it in the blockchain. At that stage, all the devices are made aware that the transaction was completed, thus representing the decentralisation. Finally the toaster comes out with the transaction and hash code information burnt on it, thus symbolising the block.
Initiates the transaction. Once the transaction is validated in the blockchain, the toast comes out in the form of the record (block).
Takes a picture of what is bring cooked and generates a hash code using the imageâ€™s pixels.
Validates the CRYPTOpanâ€™s hash code and places it on the blockchain.
Every appliance knows and validates what the others are doing.
Reflection I enjoyed the project as it allowed to focus on a topic on which I developed a growing interest on, over the course of this program. My interest in blockchain does not necessarily come from a financial perspective, but rather from how this technology can have a profound impact in our lives. In order to understand some of its implications, it requires a certain level of speculation that I believe I was able to develop throughout this project. What satisfies me the most is that such a complex technology could somehow be translated into something as mundane as breakfast, which I would have never considered in the beginning of this project. One key question that remains is that both myself and the audience during my presentation were rather familiar with the concept. I wonder how understandable my design idea might actually be for a wider audience, in which most members may have never heard of blockchain before. While I tried to explain the interaction to people unfamiliarised with the concept, I saw that they still struggled to understand it. However, when standing in front of the created physical artefact, I believe the outcome can be different. It is something I will keep on testing now that the prototype is complete. Looking back, the complexity of the many different components involved in the preparation of the prototype left me with very little time to experiment with different prototyping experiments. This would have allowed me to refine the experience even further in order to reinforce the assurance that anyone could translate the actions in the breakfast to the conceptual world of blockchain. Finally, in regards to future steps in this design process, I will proceed with this topic in my dissertation, during which I envision revisiting the idea of human flexibility versus blockchainâ€™s inflexibility, applied to the context of climate change and our (in)efficiency to deal and cope with the implications around the topic.
Sources 1 - En.wikipedia.org. (2018). Blockchain. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blockchain [Accessed 11 May 2018]. 2 - YouTube. (2018). Why Blockchain Matters More Than You Think!. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=sDNN0uH2Z3o [Accessed 11 May 2018]. Bitbonkers.com. (2018). Bitbonkers. [online] Available at: https://bitbonkers.com [Accessed 11 May 2018]. DataLion. (2018). Visualizing the Blockchain: The 7 most beautiful Bitcoin visualizations - DataLion. [online] Available at: https://datalion.com/visualizing-blockchain-7-beautiful-informative-bitcoin-visualizations/ [Accessed 11 May 2018]. The California Sunday Magazine. (2018). Bitcoin’s Inconvenient Truth. [online] Available at: https://story.californiasunday.com/bitcoins-inconvenient-truth [Accessed 11 May 2018]. YouTube. (2018). Blockchain Expert Explains One Concept in 5 Levels of Difficulty | WIRED. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hYip_Vuv8J0 [Accessed 11 May 2018]. Hruska, J. (2018). One Bitcoin group now controls 51% of total mining power, threatening entire currency’s safety - ExtremeTech. [online] ExtremeTech. Available at: https://www.extremetech.com/extreme/184427-one-bitcoingroup-now-controls-51-of-total-mining-power-threatening-entire-currencys-safety [Accessed 11 May 2018].
BlockChain Breakfast Project Report