I recently read that the core way to imagine blockchain is a distributed and transparent ledger or database of transactions. Sure, that applies. But even that phrasing can be difficult to process for an audience that’s still understanding the value of those ledgers or databases and how they might benefit wider segments of the population outside finance or currency. In a way, it’s not enough of a descriptor even though there’s beauty in that simplicity. The concept of blockchain (and by extension cryptocurrency) is both full of seemingly unending promise and fraught with complex challenges, which, of course, is also what makes it so exciting for enthusiasts who believe in its guiding principles and see a real future for more peer-to-peer-based interactions.
At a high level, some of the principles include:
Decentralized institutions that provide more visibility into how they conduct their business and how any exchanges – monetary or otherwise – are potentially available for examination and scrutiny (aka keeping larger entities more accountable)
A “trustless” technology that means it’s driven by algorithmic logic and measurable computational processes to better signal verification and authenticity to the public and users
A permanence and immutability of content and processes to ensure no bad actors or well-heeled individuals can uniquely disrupt or have an out-sized influence
To many proponents of blockchain technology – and there are plenty of helpful explainers out there like this one or this one – it represents how the internet could and should function and incorporates many of the lessons learned during more than 20 years of the web’s now-ubiquitous existence in the world. It’s meant to redefine what it means to own your data and your identity and how any of it appears across the connected environments we live in. There are ramifications for sectors like healthcare, voting and economics (imagine better tracking throughout a supply chain) but also for other areas around content/rights issues, access to information and even societal pillars like journalism. It’s creating new paradigms and new business models that will likely affect some part of your life in the near future.
That brings me to why I joined Civil as a co-founder and head of journalism operations in late 2017 – a company dedicated to building a sustainable marketplace for journalism. We’re working with experts from all sides of this blockchain dimension and journalism to best connect the legacy and history of reporting with the future of how to monetize, verify and distribute quality information at scale. It’s an area that fascinates me on a daily basis as I’ve spent 25 years at this intersection of news and technology going back to the mid-1990s and writing my graduate thesis on how the internet affecting freedom of the press in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. Since then I had the chance to work as a business and technology reporter at places like the Vancouver Sun, CNN, CBS News, ABC News and later worked at Google for six years helping build a global team called the Google News Lab.
Today, at Civil, we’re working to instantiate new newsrooms within our Civil marketplace through our $1M First Fleet fund grant and simultaneously onboarding some existing publishers as well (we’ve now signed up dozens of journalists who will be part of our launch in the spring). Simultaneously, our product and engineering team is working closely with our funding partner, ConsenSys, which is the venture studio arm of Ethereum – the second-largest cryptocurrency in the world – since beyond Bitcoin it also offers a chance to build distributed apps or programs with it that integrate blockchain functionality into tools and services and sites (like Civil). There’s a lot going on in this space and we’ve been fortunate to get some press through the likes of the Columbia Journalism Review and elsewhere as we prepare to go to market. If you want to get a flavor of the user experience in consuming news on Civil you can check out a recent post from our of our lead designers about credibility indicators but it will have a familiar feel to some in terms of accessing content through the web or an app. It’s everything we can infuse into the news experience through blockchain and build on top of it through features, engagement, and governance that’s really the value added. In fact, many people are going to be increasingly interacting with blockchain technology without even realizing it as it begins to underpin many services and products with a user experience built on top of it (as Civil is to news, there are others out there looking at similar models for recording artists, insurance agents, medical professionals and more).
Stepping back for a minute, as someone who was in college when the web really took off I’m having a kind of technological deja vu as the momentum around blockchain and all it offers gathers more steam on an international scale. Is it a panacea to solve the world’s ills? No, but it has important elements that can tackle many of the painful and vulnerable areas of where technology perhaps is weakest or doesn’t fully represent the needs and interests of the people. From Civil’s point of view, we see it as a chance for journalism to thrive without being dependent on advertisers (Civil is ad-free), billionaire deep pockets or the whims or any big institution. In essence, it’s about news run by the people for the people.
Sometimes when I write or speak about Civil and blockchain I find people’s eyes either lighting up or glossing over depending on what I’ve said. Either way it often sparks more questions or other ways to imagine what it might do. I hope this serves as a jumping off point for discovering more and that’s really the best thing people can do today – ask questions, do some reading, search around to see what’s out there. I encourage you to immerse yourself in something that feels strange and new because it likely won’t for much longer. We’re all learning and trying to determine the best way forward at a rapid pace through healthy debate and discussion. And isn’t how most of the ideal solutions get created – through informed consensus?
ABOUT DANIEL SIEBERG
Daniel Sieberg is co-founder and head of journalism operations for Civil, which is a cutting-edge new startup that couples decentralized news content with the blockchain architecture and cryptocurrency. Sieberg was previously co-founder of the News Lab at Google and a senior marketing executive there for six years; he also served often as official Google spokesperson. Daniel’s first book, The Digital Diet, is about a healthy approach to consuming technology.
As a technology keynote speaker and futurist, Daniel travels the globe speaking to companies and organizations about artificial intelligence, blockchain, digital trends and future tech life. He generally finds a way to weave in his book since the research crosses several avenues of technology, business, and society. He’s just as comfortable talking about the value of backend analytics as he is about the future of connectedness on mobile devices or the social behavior of raid parties in MMOs.
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