From the invention of the wheel to the printing press, new technology has changed the human experience. Our comprehension of the world is no longer limited to a village. Our collective knowledge grows by inconceivable exabytes of data every day. And our memories, our very recollections of the events that shape our lives, are changing too.
In fact, according to neurobiologist Dr. James L. McGaugh, a researcher specializing in learning and memory, technological advancements right up to the advent of the internet have made it less necessary for humans to construct lasting records of our own memories.
Dr. McGaugh found that the presence of “emotional arousal” appears to enhance the storage of memories, helping us to hold on to our most important experiences and let go of the mundane daily clutter. He wrote:
“It is said that, before writing was available to keep records of important events, such as a wedding or granting of land, a child was selected to observe an event and then thrown into a river so that the child would subsequently have a lifelong memory of the event.”
Thanks to new inventions (and common decency) infants are no longer subject to the traumatic possibility of death by drowning.
Yet the questions of who is recording the events, how they are being recorded, and whether any information is being omitted, distorted, destroyed or removed, continue to command society’s attention.
We’ve long been living in a world in which history is documented and human brains are wired to have selective memory. However, with the advent of blockchain technology, we now have a tool to record data that (ideally) cannot be edited, tampered with, or removed. Unlike the pages of a book or an entry in a database, data in the blockchain cannot be altered. In effect, records stored on a blockchain are immutable and live forever.
The question of data permanence for many, though, isn’t blockchain’s most salient feature. In fact, fellow neurobiologist at the University of California, Dr. Craig Stark argues, “Blockchain lets us detect if data has been changed, but we’ve had data permanence for a long time. Vellum is good for thousands of years. I’ve seen examples of coding information in DNA that would let it last millions of years.
There’s a real difference between forgetting and altering or distorting. I may forget the name of a childhood teacher and simply not be able to retrieve the information. Or, I might mis-remember it as “Ms. Fiddlesticks”, with that name most likely coming from other sources in my memory. Blockchain will, of course, help with this misinformation or alteration of the information.”
Yet, blockchain is still in its infancy. As more use cases evolve and the technology’s capabilities expand beyond recording simple transactions to documenting entire cultures and societies; how cautious should we be? How much information do we actually want to be stored forever? And what happens if the information that finds its way onto a blockchain is false, slanderous, or entered in error or malice?
Blockchain’s immutability could be problematic in a world in which we have (in theory, at least) “the right to be forgotten.” An immutable record of events could, in fact, change the human experience in ways that are unfathomable today.
The case for ‘Progressive Decentralization’
When CryptoKitties developer Arthur Camara detailed his team’s foray into blockchain coding he described how the CryptoKitties revenue model was not determined through an exact science, or using advanced prediction models, but rather by an educated guess. He admitted:
“Immutability is awesome and scary. We easily could have chosen wrong, and since you can’t change something once you add it to the blockchain, that would have been cat-astrophic.”
As he argues the case for ‘progressive decentralization’ (essentially, transitioning gently into decentralization rather than diving in headfirst), he explains that immutability is deeply frightening at a technical level.
“Immutability, the inability to be edited, is at once the blockchain’s greatest strength and its largest barrier to meaningful adoption. The pressures of immortal code paralyze developers: you can tinker in a test environment forever, but there will always be real-world variables you can’t anticipate. Covering your eyes and hitting launch is no way to make breakthroughs. It’s more likely to produce breakdowns.”
According to acting CTO of Brave New Coin, Paul Salisbury, “best practices” have evolved over the last five years and knowledge sharing has “lightened the load on individual developers.” Yet, we’ve all seen what happens when blockchain’s immutability backfires — and how, in effect, it can be rendered ‘mutable’ again.
The most obvious case is the birth of Ethereum Classic. The DAO hack and the $50 million of stolen ether opened many people’s eyes to the fact that blockchain wasn’t as immutable as they thought — at least, not when one clan could simply choose to rewrite history.
Does blockchain tell the “real truth”?
Joshua Ellul is Chairman of the Malta Digital Innovation Authority (MDIA) and Director of the Center for Distributed Ledger Technologies at the University of Malta. He speaks of the DAO hack and questions:
“When Ethereum and Ethereum Classic forked, which fork is the real truth, the real Ethereum? The records of that hack are still there, it’s more of a correction of history that took place. This raised serious concerns. Really, it’s not the end users that get to decide (at least in this case). Ultimately the decision is dependent upon the node operators. Are they swayed by popular voices? So, it could well be the person with the most popular voice who decides which version of truth is written.”
He further ponders, “Centralized voices — even if it was seen as democratic, is it the popular vote that should be defining truth? Is that the right path to be going down?” When viewed through this lens, blockchain’s “truth” could be little more reliable than any other record keeping tool we’ve had to date.
“Some people think that the data in a blockchain is the absolute truth, that’s not the case,” Ellul insists.
“The data in the blockchain is guaranteed to be as good as its input. It’s the same “garbage in, garbage out” principle that applies and that’s one thing we need to make sure that we disambiguate.”
If we don’t open our eyes to this critical issue, we may find ourselves intentionally or unintentionally leaving out parts of history. And data omission could be the most silent and scariest thing of all.
The blockchain power struggle
“The other issue,” he continues, “is that of when is the data on the blockchain truthful? The longer time goes by, the stronger the guarantee that data will never change. However, in the immediate short term, there could be some data that does not make it on to the chain, because of orphaned blocks.”
Ellul uses the example of Bitcoin, with a block time of ten minutes. He says, “Sometimes there are two blocks that are created at the same time. Even though it’s statistically improbable, you could have these two chains working at the same time for quite a number of blocks. That means, for a slight moment in time, there are two truths. Both are correct truths, but only one fork will actually emerge over time; the fork that emerges is the one that has the most computational power.” And, for Ellul, this could have troublesome implications.
“Say a country decides they will not accept transactions from a country that they do not want to do business with. Could such actors potentially minimize others from participating? It seems like we’re moving to a reality where the majority of computational power writes history, at least for Proof of Work. For Proof of Stake then perhaps we are moving to a reality where the majority of money holders (crypto holders) will be the ones who write the history… They cannot manipulate what you write or write on behalf of you; but they can choose what goes into the blocks. So this leads to a problem of selective omission.”
Bad data, and data removal
Compounding the problem of selective omission or populist corrections of history is the problem of bad data entering the blockchain. And, plenty of it already has. The Bitcoin blockchain is has been spiked with links to child pornography. As repugnant as this may be, start the conversation of whether bad data in blockchains should be deleted and you spark a fiery debate.
After all, this would mean giving a central actor selective rights to input information — carte blanche, in effect, to edit, remove, or alter — bringing with it a host of problematic issues such as trust, bias, censorship, and a slew of other incompatibilities with blockchain’s core qualities.
“Removing data doesn’t sound like a good idea to me,” comments Francesco Vivoli, CPTO of Raise P2P lending platform. “I personally believe it defeats the purpose of a public blockchain.”
Bitcoin advocate, educator, and author of Mastering Bitcoin Andreas Antonopoulos spoke about this problem in relation to identity on the blockchain. He warned:
“People have a very simplistic view of identity. I am actually terrified of the implications of digital identity because I think people will take shortcuts… If we transfer identity to the digital world where views are inflexible, we actually end up with a construct that does not resemble the social construct of identity but is a terrifying fascist copy of it.”
“No one likes clutter,” states Steve Glavin, CTO of Anatha.io, “but with humans, some bad data is inevitable.”
It seems that, for now at least, bad data accumulation on-chain is a trade-off that has to be made if blockchain is to remain decentralized and as immutable as possible.
Data storage and the GDPR
What are the implications, on an infrastructure level, of storing data that cannot be removed ad infinitum? “More servers, nodes and electronic equipment are required to maintain that data,” explains Sidharth Sogani, founder and CEO of CREBACO, a research and intelligence firm. “More than that, there are data storage needs that will increase incredibly. The total data on the planet will double itself in every eight to ten hours in the coming few years.”
So not only do we have data piling up in vast swathes of digital wastelands but, as things stand, anyone can upload data to a blockchain. Even if you are careful about the sensitive information you give out, there’s nothing stopping a third-party from coding your name and address into the chain where that information resides forever.
There’s also the issue of the GDPR and the “right to be forgotten” that stipulates that individuals have the right to request that their personal data be deleted when no longer in use — which most blockchains blatantly violate.
Here again, there is as yet no definitive answer as to how to circumvent this problem if editing rights are strictly off the table. “Putting actual sensitive data on-chain poses risks because, true or false, that data may later turn out to be sensitive or harmful to participants and easily de-anonymized,” comments EY Global Blockchain Leader Paul Brody. “We believe the best practice is not to put sensitive data on-chain and to use only off-chain links.”
Ellul muses, “I would say don’t store any personal data in a blockchain… I think we should be directing people and educating people that it’s very important to only disclose data that you are happy with being out there — for good. I think we should shift the onus onto the consumer and educate them about the importance of this.”
Data permanence and social media
This is particularly applicable to social media platforms moving toward a blockchain-based solution. Politicians and public figures with hot heads and rapidfire fingers will surely have to think twice before committing their words on-chain forever.
Although blockchains may violate the GDPR, as Dr. Stark (and many others argue), we already have data permanence; we may just not be aware of it. Glavin comments, “One could make the argument that data in legacy databases is just as immortal as blockchain data. But most people just don’t realize it, since the deleted data is often just removed from view and archived.”
So, in practice, do companies really ever delete consumers’ data even if forced to by regulators? Many indications suggest that it’s unlikely. Companies may even think they’re deleting data when in reality they have a backup somewhere, or data logs, and caches.
We may have the ability to control our digital footprint to some extent, yet fragments of data are harder to remove. Most of us forget replies that we tweeted out in haste. But when the cryptocurrency community was recently desperate to solve the Mystery of the Moving Bitcoins, a posthumous tweet emerged from early Bitcoin user Hal Finney with two simple words “Running bitcoin.”
“Blockchain’s immutability is both great and slightly worrying,” Ellul concedes, “especially if someone else adds your data and you have no way of stopping them. But at the same time, though this does not amplify the problem to the same level, one can draw parallels to caches on computers. Your personal data could have been cached on many computers around the world if it was present on a web page. If you wanted to remove that data from other people’s computers, there’s nothing you can do. Does that go against data protection rights? Well, there’s nothing that can be done to enforce this. Copies of data can always be kept.”
How does this change the human experience?
Assuming that we find a solution to the bad data problem without rewriting history and accepting that the right to be forgotten is little more than an illusion… What (if anything) will this mean for humanity as applications advance and it becomes harder to erase the events of the past?
Some say that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. So perhaps blockchain’s data permanence could be good for society. Keeping events fresh and undistorted in our minds, perhaps? As an example, we should never become desensitized to the horrific details of genocide or war over time. Hitler’s Mein Kampf was banned in Germany for many decades. When its copyright lapsed in 2016, his haunting autobiographical manifesto was republished. This led to concern from some Jewish groups in Germany who argued that it could rekindle ethnic and religious hatred, and even cause new acts of violence. We learn from the past: But do we learn not to repeat our mistakes, or are we destined to repeat them on rediscovery?
It seems that human memory is wired a certain way on purpose. Dr. McGaugh explained, “What we need is selective memory. We need to remember things that are repeated (and we do) and things that are important (and we do). You don’t need to remember the daily (momentary) pressure on your left foot generated by a shoe. But you would if it were injured. You don’t need to remember that you stepped on a stairway but you would need to remember if you injured yourself on that stairway.”
Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM) individuals
There are a handful of people on the planet that possess what is known as Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM). The study of HSAMs has been extensively documented by both Dr. Stark and Dr. McGough over the last two decades.
It is a myth that HSAM individuals have the ability to remember every single detail of events. However, they do excel in remembering their own personal experiences. They can recall dates, times, smells, tastes, and memories of events from years ago as fresh (and raw) as if they had happened yesterday. It sounds like a superpower to most of us. Yet, is never being able to escape their past a blessing or a curse?
Dr. Stark remarks on the subject of HSAM individuals. He says, “I can bring your attention to two things. First, when Jill Price first identified herself to Jim McGaugh in the email that started that whole research program, she began the email by saying “I have a problem. I remember everything that ever happened to me.” For her, remembering every sight, every altercation, etc. haunted her…
Second, I asked a good number of HSAMs what they think about their ability — whether it’s a good or a bad thing. The near universal reply was that it’s a good thing… now. While growing up, realizing they were different and not being as easy to let things fade away seemed to have been an issue.”
HSAMs can’t select if they remember the good or the bad and, unlike the rest of us, their memories don’t fade over time. Yet, Dr. Stark argues that this isn’t entirely unique to them, “Keep in mind, we all hold onto things that have happened to us, often in too much detail. There are plenty of examples of memory being too good being a bad thing (PTSD, depression/rumination, drug addiction, etc.).”
A supreme memory
“Our brains, remarkable as they are, could not begin to contain and give equal weight to our every moment of life.”
— J. Glore, scientist and researcher, in 1987
Dr. McGaugh comments, “The influential 19th century psychologist William James noted that forgetting is essential. He said something to the effect that if we remembered everything we would be as badly off as if we remembered nothing… Selectively remembering our more important experiences seems to be the best strategy.“
That doesn’t necessarily mean that blockchain will become a nightmare chamber lifted from an Orwell novel. It could simply (if developed correctly) allow us to verify facts.
Dr. Stark argues, “One big advantage to blockchain… is the ability to severely mitigate the deep-fake problem. We’ve gotten so good at distorting images, video, and audio that we can create things that never existed. If all video and audio needed to be trackable to an original source, we could regain some confidence that there really is a “truth”.
We have diaries that some people keep. Barring the low-probability event that someone came in and altered the diary, one could go back and re-read the information stored decades before. What we find is that this leads to re-experiencing events that at times reflective of the original event (your classic reminiscing), at times still a distortion of the event (the cue from the diary triggers a related, but different memory), and at times lead to no recollection at all (the event still seems foreign to you). Blockchain would have prevented tampering with the data… So, we have clean data from the past, but we don’t have some odd situation in which humans actually remember everything.”
Will blockchain force us to live a dystopian future?
In other words, are we unwittingly creating a human existence that we never wanted by not allowing our memories to behave naturally? Are we going to change the human experience with blockchain?
Jerry Chan, CEO of blockchain service provider TAAL, says “In my view, there is no problem with records being committed permanently. Even incorrect data is not a problem when the correction for them can also be committed. It is akin to making mistakes.
We as humans make mistakes, and we in turn learn from them, grow and improve ourselves. So does society as a whole. We cannot erase our history, even parts of it that we don’t like to admit. If we could erase history, then how would we prevent ourselves from making the same mistakes again?”
Vivoli considers the question too. “I believe we have to be careful… If blockchains are to fulfill a role bigger than just as a store value and unit of account while remaining a neutral zone free of corporate or sovereign control, then the topic of what gets stored on them becomes an ethical and moral problem, something technology alone isn’t going to solve.”
Closing thoughts on memory
Dr. McGaugh referenced a quote from American psychologist William James. Tracking it down, I find that it reads:
“Selection is the very keel on which our mental ship is built. If we remembered everything, we should on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing.”
Despite that sobering thought, there remains the strong possibility that blockchain (even with its imperfections) will simply act as a fact-checker, and not an instrument that forces us to recall mundane or painful memories on a permanent basis.
Humans have a tendency to weaponize technology (look at social media, for an example) and even if we cannot foresee every twisted contortion of blockchain’s early values, nor did we imagine that Facebook would ultimately be an enabler of election rigging, live streamed atrocities, and cyber bullying. Perhaps the evangelists of technology are simply naive.
“Blockchains are not the problem,” Ellul states unequivocally. “Humans are the problem. Blockchain exists whether we like it or not and, at some point, we are going to have to have the debate of whether we really want all that data living forever… And if not, who is it that gets to write history?”