Blockchain’s Promise of a Trustless System Is False, Wired Author Argues

An opinion piece published by American online magazine Wired on Feb. 6 has leveled criticisms at the promise of new blockchain-based architectures of trust. The article’s central argument is that trust is not eliminated, but rather displaced, in blockchain systems — principally from institutions and social conventions onto technology.

The article’s author, Bruce Schneier, alleges that this techno-maximalism overlooks both the residual trust in tech systems whose governance remains irreducibly human, as well as the frequent — and often opaque — fallibility of the technology itself.

Schneier’s take on trust is that it can be broken down into four elements — the first two being social in nature (morals and reputation), the third institutional — regulations and law — and the last vested in security systems — whether mechanical, technological, or audit systems and forensics.

In his article, Schneier omits permissioned blockchains and tackles only public blockchains. These, he argues, both aim to explicitly displace institutional and social trust onto technology, and, moreover, to inadvertently conceal those social elements of trust that nonetheless remain.

In regards to technology, Schneier claims that protocols, cryptography, software etc. “often [represent] single points of failure” — as when a crypto exchange or wallet is hacked, or a smart contract code is bugged. Given the fact that the average layman cannot audit the complex and thus largely opaque code for himself, these antitrust blockchain systems paradoxically demand an absolute trust from their users, he argues.

Schneier further claims that there is always a residual need for an outside system of governance for issues that cannot be resolved through technology alone — i.e. when hard-forking a blockchain, or making other protocol changes. This, he contends, necessarily preserves a human, hybrid socio-technical — and therefore trust-based — element.

The author also focuses on the inevitable role of reputation in determining the platforms and tools that people use to interface with the technology — i.e. which wallet or exchange they use. People and companies, he suggests, will always trust and evaluate systems on social grounds:

“For example, some [supply-chain] companies don’t trust the IBM/Maersk system because it’s not their blockchain. Irrational? Maybe, but that’s how trust works. It can’t be replaced by algorithms and protocols. It’s much more social than that.”

Schneier lastly points to the degree of centralization that plagues mining-based blockchains — in which hardware-rich actors dominate the sphere — thus compromising the purportedly distributed nature of the system.

A new report published today has indicated that Bitcoin (BTC) mining has become increasingly decentralized over the past five years, fostering a competitive marketplace which in turn makes the largest cryptocurrency less vulnerable to attack.

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