Category Archives: Technology

The International Relations of Blockchain

The soaring earnings and dramatic fall of Bitcoin late last to early this year has catapulted the very nascent technology of blockchain to the forefront of news media. It has been met with polarizing speculation from the public and various news outlets, but John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight — a comedy news show, articulated the topic quite well:

While the show touched lightly on Blockchain – the backbone technology of Bitcoin, a digital currency – as a technology, the show’s main example of blockchain was its use as a cryptocurrency. The reality is that blockchain technology has far reaching implications and is the key reason why companies across an array of industries are pouring into its research and development.

To dive a little deeper into blockchain, IBM’s Think Academy put together a three and a half minute video succinctly describing the technology’s main advantages:

  1. Transparent transactions
  2. Decentralized ledger
  3. Increased security

These three components, from a telecommunications/information technology standpoint, fundamentally harden the security of information systems in the following ways:

  1. Decentralized Ledger
    As the IBM video points out, blockchain relies on a network of computers across the globe that contribute (or mine) “blocks” of information and attach it together in a sequential chain. Think of it kind of like the game of “snake” on an old-school Nokia phone (I really hope that doesn’t date me…) and the snake itself is comprised of the very same blocks of information linked together. Each block has an “index number”, which puts the blocks in order and when a new block is produced, it is added to the front of the chain. This is why the technology is called what it is – “block-chain”  – or blockchain.What does this have to do with a ledger?

    Along with an index number, each block has other pieces of information in it. It can have information that includes, for example, the timestamp, sales amount, and item of a transaction that took place when a block was created. Such a block becomes the equivalent to a digital receipt or invoice that, chained together, evolves into a digital ledger.

    Why decentralize a ledger?

    Each computer on the blockchain network keeps a local copy of the blockchain. As each block gets added to the chain, the same block gets added to every single chain across all computers in the blockchain network. With each computer on the blockchain network updated in real time, the blockchain network effectively becomes a super redundant chain of information that is nearly impossible to manipulate.

    How so?


  2. Increased Security
    Blockchain has a series of quality control mechanisms that keep it from becoming manipulated. One feature is that every block has a full history of every block that came before it. If, for example, transaction information were included in previous blocks, that history is also written in the latest block that’s added to the chain. If someone were to try to game the system by trying to produce a block that has different or conflicting historical data (or a different historical blockchain), that block is rejected as the majority of devices with matching blockchains would override that fallacious block. This feature, in conjunction with a handful of other security mechanisms and designs, makes the ledger, in a sense, immutable: “unchanging over time or unable to be changed.” This immutability ensures accuracy and trust of data that’s included in the blockchain.What makes this significant?
  3. Transparent Transactions
    With an immutable and decentralized blockchain ledger, transactions, currency serial numbers, or any type of record the ledger contains can be considered trusted and accurate. Since anyone can confirm a blockchain history, the blockchain (if public, which most are) can be considered transparent. This transparency of the blockchain helps prevent censure, corruption, or fraud.

With these three features of blockchain, the IBM video concludes, “blockchain will do for business as the internet did for communication.” As catchy as the conclusion is, it falls considerably short on the potential of blockchain technology improving other industries and the public sector. A slew of use cases for blockchain technology have been proposed for the medical industry, census, and a whole slew of other sectors, but of interest is its potential for international relations and governance.

New Voting Systems
For the last decade and a half, attempts at introducing technology in the electoral process has been historically marred with skepticism and failure. With the magnum opus that is the Russia probe investigation, it is a tough sell to introduce new technology in the electoral process.

Blockchain’s capability as a decentralized ledger is not just limited to a sales or currency capacity. Ledgers can be kept for all kinds of things, including votes. For example, a block that is generated can include the unique index number of the block, the timestamp of its generation, the vote recording of a specific candidate, and an encrypted unique identifier of an eligible voter. With the immutability and decentralization of a blockchain voting ledger, the final result can be considered accurate and trusted with verification being able to occur in milliseconds.

A number of proposals and pilots have already been rolled out. In Sierra Leone, populous districts and cities have used a blockchain voting system to audit election results. The efficacy of blockchain’s use for transparent and fair elections is still pending study, but certainly the use case, application, and execution of a blockchain voting system is well under way.

International Agreements with Teeth
There is plenty of debate in the world of international relations on the efficacy of international agreements and/or sanctions, but one of its biggest criticisms is the lack of “teeth”. Whether it’s related to a climate accord or sanctions, there is a dearth in mechanisms that can actually impose the terms of an international agreement without the explicit and active participation of all governments in uniform agreement. However, an international banking (wire) mechanism that sits on a blockchain network might solve that problem.

Ethereum is a blockchain technology that is programmable. Unlike it’s cousin Bitcoin, Ethereum doesn’t keep a record of serial numbers, inventory information, or casual data. Ethereum’s blocks contain code known as “smart contracts” that execute a process if certain conditions are met. A bank wiring system on an Ethereum blockchain platform can provide the necessary components of a trusted international platform: decentralized, programmable to automate governance and enforcement, and transparent to prevent fraud at the digital layer.

For example, in the wake of the Russian ex-pat assassinations in London, the UK is flirting with a range of economic sanctions to leverage, but it is already agreed this is difficult to enforce. However, if Europe’s WMD agreements were to be codified into a hypothetical “Euro-zone blockchain banking network”, it could be possible that sanction conditions be programmed into the network and enforce its governance when requirements are met. In this case, the discovery of a nerve agent would automate the enforcement of economic sanctions on those determined to be involved in the assassination.

However, there should be no confusion that the blockchain is just a potential tool of enforcement. Its “teeth” are only as strong as what is coded into it.  That is determined at the treaty or bill negotiation table.

Bridge the Digital Gap of the Developing World
Rural areas in the developing world are notoriously “underbanked” where there are too few or no banking facilities. This missing basic necessity effectively shuts out these communities from participating in the world economy. Underbanking exacerbates poverty by time lost due to travel for trade/transactions or the high cost of urban-to-rural middlemen. 

Blockchain as a cryptocurrency, like Bitcoin, can provide direct-to-consumer interaction on the world stage. Mobile wallets – think of bank accounts attached to your smart phone – can provide a direct avenue of exchange to the most rural of communities with the use of a smart phone and a USB. Through cryptocurrency, rural communities can become more competitive in the world marketplace.

Cryptocurrencies have also been proven to be in high demand in developing countries with volatile market places and currency. Countries like Venezuela, Greece, and Turkey have all seen a dramatic rise in the demand of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. The reason for the demand is that it is used to mitigate risk if a currency is experiencing hyperinflation. While cryptocurrencies are also known for their volatile value, it can often be less volatile than the currency of a local country experiencing financial crisis and more readily available than more stable currencies — especially for those in the rural communities.

…Cool Your Jets…
There are numerous other possibilities that blockchain technology can help improve or revolutionize international relations, but it is important to remember that the technology is very, very new. It is safe to say that the technology is here to stay, but how to use it is a completely different matter. There are too few experts, proven use cases, and general products for the technology to be whole sale adopted just yet. It is also an open debate which version or maturation of the technology will become wildly adopted.

All that being said, the serious considerations being brought by industries and the public sectors alike should give the international relations/affairs enthusiasts to take serious notice.

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The Leaderless Need Leaders, and Leaders Need the Leaderless

What started as the “Arab Spring” has transitioned and transformed – like seasons– to the “American Autumn”, and now perhaps something else entirely. Countless pundits, experts, and academics have opined on what it is, whether it is good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, or something unique or a continuation of the past. But every article, blog, TV plug, or radio interview seem unable to explain this global protest phenomenon with certainty and in its entirety. It may be because that participants in these movements are experimenting with new ways to organize, though they may not be aware of it themselves. But for these movements to be successful, they will need a little help from their friends (pun intended)—practitioners in the field of conflict.

What mainstream media did cover about these new social movements is the seemingly unorganized demonstration over a very palpable frustration. Such movements in the past, though having participants from a large number of “unaffiliated”, had activists that were part of formally structured and hierarchical organizations to provide a voice for the voiceless and organize their communities to become active, in which they would articulate demands through various communication mediums.

Social media and mobile telephony – unlike communication tools in the past like TV/Radio, cassette tapes, and, yes, the internet (we are that old) – in new social movements has for the most part freed the rigid categories of producer and consumer of media and information.  The past required formally structured organizations and/or groups with clear roles and strategies to get the information out for consumption to the public, but today anybody can be a producer and consumer of information. This loosens (though does not dismiss) the need for formal organizations to provide a voice for the voiceless.

The leaderless Occupy movements that are taking place around the world is this theory manifested. Individual active participants in the movement become the producer, interpreter, filter, and consumer of information, and exchange ideas – in an antiquated Athenian democracy sort of way – to come up with the demands they want to protest for. However, articulating and deciding how a proper economic system should function is a lot harder than demanding the ouster of a leader like their Arab counterparts.

Demanding a leader to step down is not nuanced, nor is it subject to statistics, figures, or theory. It is clear and emotional enough to bring many groups together. In fact, demanding a leader to step down requires less (not none) organizational or community development to drive it in comparison to more abstract concepts such as economic policy or system design. However, even in cases were the demands were clear, like the case in Tunisia and Egypt, the less formally organized students – in comparison to their elite or Islamist counterparts –lost out to the quick turnaround in elections that followed.

What this means for the conflict community is that now, more than ever, community and organizational development through techniques and/or skills in facilitation, dialogue, and problem solving in conflict practice are needed. The advantage of formal organizations is that the leaders formulate and articulate demands, but in leaderless movements that is just moot. With proper training in dialogue and conflict management, participants of leaderless movements can remain “leaderless”, while making adequate progress in formulating and articulating demands.

I do not suggest that remaining leaderless is better than being formally organized or vice versa, but perhaps they reinforce each other in a truly positive direction. In other words, the unaffiliated – usually the common denizen – have been unable to contribute, and has caused societies to simply take down one leader for a formally organized other. Therefore, the leaderless need leaders, and leaders need the leaderless.

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Digital Governance

On a june weekend I took part in a class workshop lead by TechChange, an organization that is dedicated to utilizing information and communication technology for positive social change. The workshop familiarized students, including myself, with various technological tools that are currently being used to support various weakened institutions around the world, such as crisis response & management, health response, education, and governance to name a few.

Two technological tools that we got to acquire hands on experience was FrontlineSMS and CrowdMap, which helped facilitate communication and information during election monitoring and medical emergency simulations. The tools utilize SMS (text messaging) – the predominant source of communication in even the most remote and/or underdeveloped regions of the world – and leveraging them to aid in some kind of monitoring or crisis management capacity.

Aside from monitoring tools, new innovative uses of ICT technology are helping to leverage and/or support governance in regions where it has been primarily absent. Tools like FrontlineSMS:Legal and the Internet Bar Organization’s Internet Silk Road Initiative help extend the reach of formal state legal institutions to the remotest of areas. This is particularly useful in places like the remote mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan’s northwest frontier where formal state penetration is limited. When disputes arise, citizens residing in these areas can call or text their dispute to a legal authority connected to this “mlegal” technology, which can help facilitate various legal needs such as discovery, facilitation, or representation just to name a few. Furthermore, these projects can also work with informal justice systems that may have greater legitimacy in a region. In the case of Afghanistan, working with Jirgas can provide greater legitimacy, collaboration, and enforcement on legal decisions made by formal and informal judges and juries.

However, questions do arise on how one monitors and maintains the enforcement of decisions made on legal disputes. In remote regions, monitoring is very difficult and having adequate witnesses may pose a problem in remote locations. In the case of Afghanistan, if state institutions are so remote, enforcement will require greater cooperation from jirgas – a community of tribal elders that specifically addresses disputes in the community. This can pose a problem as jirgas are not monitored and may become privy to dubious dealings. In other words, there is no regulatory system or body to help maintain the jirgas honesty.

Also, the technologies that were supposed to aid and support governance seemed limited to institutions. While institutions are important, they cannot function correctly without having a strong civil society. Aisha Ghaus-Pasha presents an excellent case on the role of civil society and how it promotes “good governance like transparency, effectiveness, openness,
responsiveness, and accountability.” (page 3) Therefore, it would be very interesting to see how technology can aid in the strengthening of civil society and create better relations and cooperation between civil society and formal state institutions.

The overall experience of being part of the TechChange workshop was quite eye-opening. It brought me face-to-face to many technologies that are simply daring to create change. Obviously, technology is not the answer to social woes and the organization makes no case that it does. However, they do argue that technology can certainly help and that it is simply daring to create positive social change as best it can through feedback and trial and error.

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