An interesting meme popped up in my digital world this week. In it, a young father made an elegant point of arguing that some older books, shows, and other media, indeed deserve disclaimers explaining how the content might offend. Not because people today are overly sensitive or want to obfuscate history, but rather the exact opposite.
Ponder this for a minute: For the first time in human history, everything created remains accessible forever. <Gulp> Right now, you can watch Johnny Cash sing to puppets on the original Muppet show surrounded by confederate flags. You can download books and movies with characters drawn in ways that were demeaning, but culturally acceptable in their time. You can easily find pictures and materials on thousands of places named after people who did both terrible and wonderful things. Our digitized history cannot be cut into neat, ideal squares of “good” and “bad” for today’s culture. But the point is – with the technology we now have at our disposal, everything will truly be accessible forever. And that means each new generation will re-discover media, cultural artifacts, and ideas, outside of their original context, over and over again.
So how do we give context in a digital world that feels ephemeral but actually lives on forever?
I don’t think anyone really wants to see us in an era of banning and canceling everything that offends, but how do we give context and explanation to our collective history? Furthermore, how do we continue to be able to add on or evolve today’s explanations for tomorrow as our history and culture continue to change? If we don’t want to erase things from our past, but actually explain them so we don’t forget our own history, how to we metaphorically add an “explanatory plaque” to every piece of our digital history?
Believe it or not, technology has an answer to this challenge. It’s called blockchain.
You have probably heard people talk about cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, and maybe NFTs, and other bits of technology that are exploring new ways of transacting value and establishing ownership. In other words, these technologies are attempting to reform “money.” However, the element of these emerging technologies that I think is the most useful concept is called blockchain.
The blockchain concept is basically this: Whenever something is purchased, traded, or given, via a cryptocurrency system, the record of each exchange is permanently “attached” to the item. The entire history of every event in which an item is involved is continually updated via a permanent, unassailable, attached record.
As a metaphor, imagine a 20-dollar bill in your wallet having a chip woven into it that kept track of everywhere that dollar went, what it was used for, where it was created, who created it, and so on. Now imagine everything that $20 dollar bill bought also had a virtual string tied to it so all the things that bill interacted with could also be understood in context of that piece of paper.
Finally, and most interesting to me, is the idea that ownership can have new and different meaning. For example, if I make a piece of art, like a music video, I can put that music video up for sale via a cryptocurrency. Then, that piece of art can be bought and sold a zillion times over the next hundred years, and the blockchain record can have a digital rule embedded that will send me a percentage of each sale every single time it’s sold forever. But, that’s not all. Blockchain data (often referred to as metadata) can include ANY form of information, permanently, that is relevant to the thing being traded. That means information like previous owner(s), lawsuits, historical context, changes in legal status, previous sale amounts, beneficiaries of resale, and on and on.
Another metaphor that can help us wrap our minds around these blockchain metadata concepts is to think of today’s real estate listings. If you look up any home around town through Zillow or other real estate websites, there is often a treasure trove of historical information attached to each property that gives an incredible amount of context to the questions a buyer might have about the history of the property, the buildings on it, and the surrounding area.
And so we’re back to the disclaimers that are starting to pop up more often in front of the digital content we watch, read, or listen to. Those messages are just a low-tech form of metadata that gives context to the media we are about to watch. In the coming years, we’ll start to see interesting and powerful data attached to just about every digital thing there is.