Blockchain for social good by The Magma Collective

Jaya Klara Brekke, co-founder of the The Magma Collective, held the keynote Blockchain for social good by The Magma Collective. She took this opportunity to talk about the project CoBox, funded through the NGI LEDGER program by the European Commission whose objective is to develop 32 human-centric ventures using blockchain and other decentralized technologies.

CoBox for decentralization and social welfare

The Magma Collective’s mission is to provide the infrastructure for a peer-to-peer cooperative cloud which would enable small organizations, cooperatives, freelancers and SMEs to easily set up a cloud infrastructure between themselves. They do this through CoBox, their collaborative cloud solution. In the past few years, more and more people have become aware of negative impact of centralized cloud infrastructures both in terms of surveillance business models that centralize the control of data and value produced in data infrastructures. There is a huge monopolization as a result of network effects. CoBox aims to be a broader movement to decentralize the Internet in a sense and give back control to people and communities of their own personal data. The goal is also to take advantage of the European regulatory landscape of the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) acting for more privacy and aware technologies. Lastly, there is rarely the scope for any competition to develop in this sector as many startups, for instance, get bought out by the big technology giants.

Blockchain for social good gathers different aspects. The goal is to launch projects that aim for broader societal benefit rather than narrow business interests. This can take the shape of public sector applications or  third sector applications which enable citizens and non-citizens to take benefit out of these new innovations. New technology and innovation spaces are popping up across cities all over Europe which prioritize communities. Accelerators, funding schemes and policy programs are being created, like the European Commission’s NGI Ledger program. These types of more formal initiatives tend to be around the Sustainable Development Goals and include financial innovation, supply chain transparency, identity and vulnerable populations, energy and environment, human rights, health and wellness, education and culture.

“That is distinct from the Wild West speculative developments and heavy industry that we’ve seen in recent years that tend towards speculation and not much else.” 

socialIt is important to rethink the way that we run our cities and manage data by focusing on the public and social good first and foremost. That how it is possible to link blockchain and social aspects. The Magna Collective emphasizes the history of blockchain DLT which comes from peer-to-peer and the hacker culture that is all about engaging with technologies in a manner that empowers people and favors social good. A good example would be the energy sector, there is a broader need right now to transform how we manage energy and the possibility of producing and consuming in a way of balancing a network. The Magma Collective is working on decentralization through DLT in a governance level of privacy. There are a lot of scopes within blockchain and disciplines of technologies that are going the wrong direction (e.g.: surveillance-based business models). We’re facing some huge technological changes in going into the future, for instance machine learning technology continues to increase in importance. How we manage our relations to these technologies and how to take control over decisions? There are already sorts of credit scoring which are an example of impacts on our lives. Nonetheless, there is good news for startups and SMEs operating in Europe: policymakers are really on there side at the moment because Europe is really trying to develop a homegrown technology innovation space. Europe is seeing new models for technology innovation that maybe look quite different from the US model that tends towards big monopolies. The European Commission is encouraging this trend but  there are difficulties with big funding programs and their practical management; also for new startups. It is also about creating new social and cultural practices transforming people interactions and use of devices. CoBox is for a more pluralist approaches to technology.

Social good thanks to DLT and blockchain technologies

To create a social key-recovery system and cultural practices around technology, some of the people in The Magma Collective were developing a project called Dark Crystal: different sets of friends are spread out in different places and each of them have a piece of your private key. These new interactions mirror normal human interactions as we know them before technology. Cryptography precedes technology and by these centuries, people have come up with new ways of sharing and creating secrets that only some can decode. There are all kinds of people creating free digital technology.

Finally, it encourages new anti-monopolistic ideas by encouraging technological and industrial diversity that allows different ways of living, producing and consuming, a future where people coexist and are able to understand, communicate and determine their own tools that affect their lives on a day-to-day basis. The Magma Collective focuses on distribution and wishes to empower people to be able to challenge higher powers governments.

Moreover, Impact Week places great focus on the environment. Bitcoin mining is criticized because of its power consumption and its ecological footprint. There are serious environmental challenges with computational technologies. There are also some interesting new possibilities that come out of blockchain and distributed ledger technologies, which act for social good, like new types of energy production and distribution, prosumer approaches to energy that are possible using DLT. GDPR will also help encourage approaches that really emphasize data minimization and deletion which could help data centers. The massive data sensors are underpinning huge digital economies and innovation in machine learning. That are good examples of technologies such as blockchain which act in favor of social good.

Get everyone involved in data control for social good

For anyone who wants to be part of a broader positive technological direction and wants to get involved in things like blockchain for social good, it’s important to understand that when it comes to network technologies, there is not a privileged position to address these technologies from. People should pay attention to how these technologies affect their lives and be informed about how technologies like algorithms are operating in the background. This is fortunately becoming more and more mainstream consciousness. The impact of technology on society is in the headlines now. For the Magma Collective, it is important to push for decentralization of governance, open source and hardware, the ability to read the code in an open source repository because it allows others who are trying to fight for your rights within the digital space to do so.

“It is important to explain to the general public what technologies can do even if they are novice and also about subjects such as DLT and peer-to-peer culture.”

People who are close to policymakers might also be close to engineers and mathematicians to, at least, understand and cooperate for the public good.

There is a push to have organizations to basically manage how personal data is dealt and to be GDPR compliant. It is easy for large companies and organizations but not for smaller organizations and cooperatives, SMEs, freelancers who don’t necessarily have an expert in-house that can deal with GDPR or all technical aspects of privacy. CoBox hopes to enable a platform layer where people can offer data officer services to smaller organizations to make sure that they’re following the law and more than just protecting people’s privacy, but to help organizations make the most of the data as well. It is obviously quite ambitious to set a different social and cultural attitude around how data is managed and taken advantage of, it involves a lot of training.

Independent technology spaces around Europe and a lot of projects are being set up like DLT4EU, a new accelerator program. The goal is to connect startups and innovators with “challenge owners”. That includes city municipal governments, large NGOs, etc. which have a set of needs that they need covered and they’re trying to match that up with innovators and startups that are trying to address those needs.

Jaya  recommended Decentralization off the  shelf seven Maxims, to see what are the main challenges to decentralized technologies at the moment and what can be done about them. It’s a neat report about decentralized.

 

Q&A

How are we supposed to avoid running into big enterprises?

We have internet and supercomputer computing power in our pockets due to 50 years of investment by big business and governments and scale economy. Everybody talks about this decentralization, etc., but it still needs to be run on real hardware, consuming real resources and about a scale economy. It will never be sustainable.

There are lots of different ways of looking at the understanding this world. The dream of the network has always been a kind of scale that doesn’t involve centralized control. Now, we are in the third wave of trying to reimplement that dream after several rounds of centralization. The early ideas of the Internet was this form of decentralization, this form of scaling by adding more and more nodes in a horizontal manner. And then, we’ve seen wave after wave of centralizing the control of these infrastructures by different means. I think right now, the focus for these or what people have understood is that this isn’t just a technological problem. It’s also an organizational and economic problem. I think that was what got people excited initially when Bitcoin was invented. It was this idea that here’s the potential to maybe solve the question of economic centralization and organizational centralization as well. I’m not saying that huge investment isn’t new, investment is definitely needed but new types of funding models are needed and there is experimentation happening on that front, both by the community itself. You know, ICOs (Initial Coin Offering) were essentially kind of fundraising and finance experiment that just went wrong. We have these new types of initiatives from the side of the government, too, when it comes to different levels of state funding.

If people keep full control over their own data, only sharing with the ones they want and they protect it with their own private keys, wouldn’t that solve the issue of GDPR?

This is what we’re trying to do in CoBox. We’re building on that, basically using kind of the cryptography key technology to arrange a kind of distributed ledger in the sense, it does solve the problem of GDPR to some degree. There are some specific challenges that we’re working on and that has to do with deletion. When you’re storing data across a distributed network like in CoBox, the data will be storage encrypted. But the fact that it can potentially be decrypted and the fact this data does stay on other people’s computers is still an issue. So like the question of how to delete it entirely is still a bit of an issue. In terms of compliance, it’s a gray zone because you could say that you can destroy the keys, which means that the data can never be decrypted. But, yes, we’re still trying to understand exactly how that sets in terms of compliance.

The European Commission is doing more to promote the I.T. sector in the eurozone. We see that funding usually goes to the largest companies that have little to no ethical nor inclusive goals.

This is a problem. But I think it’s important to realize that within big organization like the European Commission, you’ve got lots of different players and a diversity of agendas at play. There are people within the European Commission that are trying to push for less large centralized solutions and really try to push for investing in generating a real ecosystem of innovation across Europe. As I mentioned earlier, this DLT4EU accelerator program is one example. The NGI Ledger program is another example. There is definitely a growing willingness and interest to create a vibrant innovation ecosystem across Europe that isn’t just like the big industry players. Hopefully we’ll see more of that. There is the application process of applying to the European Commission grants that are really designed for the big players. I know there are people that are struggling to try to change that but it’s a process. We hope that the European Commission will be able to kind of cater a new process that’s less heavy. When people apply for European grants, many times, it really takes someone with significant experience in applying to these types of grants and very large institutional or corporate backing to do so. And easier access to grants, even if they’re smaller grants, would be very helpful. I think there is a tendency towards that direction, less reporting, more innovation. And Blockchain for social good is part of that.

What about the academic world?

Universities are a whole other sector that needs radical transformation. That’s a challenge for an industry that really values open source. I’m at Durham University but I’m in the geography department. So the work that I do there is more social, political and geopolitical research around technology innovations rather than R&D if that makes sense. My experience with the university so far has been not too much of a hassle on that front. But I can imagine people in computer sciences departments face some other challenges. I wish that I was outside of the European or outside of the academic framework, so that would maybe makes it easier.

About the speaker

Jaya Klara Brekke is assistant professor at Durham University and creative producer specialised in the political economy of blockchain for social good and consensus protocols, focusing on questions of politics and power in distributed systems. She is a founding member of the Magma Collective.