Anticipating Blockchain: Identity, Power and DLT

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Oxford Internet Institute


'Blockchain' or 'distributed ledger technology' (DLT) is best known for the decentralised virtual currency, Bitcoin. But DLT is now being adopted experimentally in ever more contexts: governmental and activist as well as commercial. I propose to investigate selected emergent non-commercial or quasi-commercial DLT projects and the associated discourses and practices, combining qualitative and quantitative methods.
'Anticipating Blockchain' refers to the widespread assumption that DLT will soon have major social, economic and political impacts. Many claim it has disruptive potential to subvert power hierarchies via decentralised, peer-to-peer structures (Tapscott 2016;Economist 2016). Sceptics argue that it offers no solution to perennial problems of governance and accountability (Lehdonvirta 2016).
Bitcoin itself is indelibly associated with the darknet and crime, but also increasingly mainstream, accepted by major traders and regulators. Actors embracing other DLT applications now include advocacy, activist and creative/cultural organisations and networks, as well as states and the United Nations. The emergent UN project ID2020 proposes to assign a 'self-sovereign' biometric digital identity to every human child by 2030, using DLT to control the data. Here anticipation mixes with both futurist hope and dread. Other emergent projects, in fields such as benefits payments, medical records, performance rights, and farm-to-fork food chains, seek the benefits of transparency, efficiency and freedom from centralised power, but if they succeed, their actual impacts may well be unanticipated.
This project will assess the potential of DLT to widen digital participation, strengthen democracy, development and human rights. Critical social science has a vital role to play in unearthing the ideological assumptions surrounding blockchain as it unfolds, anticipating its value for marginalized groups, and its uses as a weapon of surveillance and control against the powerless in the name of transparency and big data.
Exploring these contradictory tendencies between empowerment and control, this research will deploy ethnographic modes of inquiry, integrating quantitative and qualitative methods, to achieve a dynamic analysis of the epistemological, ontological and human contexts in which blockchains go to work. I aim to devise a generalizable framework for assessing the value of such projects for marginalised and non-commercial groups, drawing on my previous work with refugees and on OU/CReSC Cultural Value projects.
My interest in DLT was sparked by an invitation (based on my research on digital connectivity with young Syrian refugees) to contribute to a panel discussion at the ID2020 Summit at the UN (New York, May 2016). ID2020 proposes to use DLT to provide a universal legal identity including birth registration (UN Sustainable Development Goal 16.9). My previous research had alerted to me to the way the benefits of digital connectivity for vulnerable groups are matched by risks of surveillance and Margie Cheesman, January 2017 2 repression. DLT may well be no different. Research is needed to judiciously assess its potential impacts using innovative, mixed, culturally sensitive methods.
ID2020 gave birth to other DLT projects of great interest for my work. RCUK-funded New Economic Models in the Digital Economy (NEMODE) propose a project, Digital Identity for the Identityless (Di4i), to develop 'in the wild' DLT identity solutions for homeless people, ex-offenders, migrants and refugees, in UK, Greece and Kenya, and a study on GovCoin, the Department of Work and Pension's partner trialling DLT for benefit payments. Rebooting the Web of Trust, a design workshop, is developing privacy tools for blockchain users. Like ID2020, this is a commercially sponsored non-profit, with proclaimed pro-social aims. These projects, as well as independently emerging DLT initiatives, are key research sites.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/R501037/1 01/10/2017 31/03/2021
1923565 Studentship ES/R501037/1 01/10/2017 31/03/2021 Margaret Cheesman