Universities can not afford to buy blockchain mania (opinion)


A week ago, Inside Higher Ed and "Inside Digital Learning" published the essay "What Every College Leader Should Know About Blockchain", by Daniel Pianko, CEO of the University Ventures investment company. [19659002] One of the first commentators of the article, DavidT, complained: "I still do not know what the blockchain is."

Let's calm down David's demons by describing some of the key features of this much-admired technology. with understanding comes sadness: there is really nothing there. At the top and, for example, it makes no sense to use blockchains to memorize credentials, as Pianko does by quoting the University of Nicosia. ?) other blockchain proposals.

There are indeed many job opportunities for employees with blockchain skills, as Pianko has pointed out, but it would be a mistake to conclude that we in higher education should build programs to satisfy the need of if workers. If investment firms in the Netherlands in the early 1630s exerted pressure on the University of Leiden (founded some 50 years earlier) to produce more skilled tulip agronomists, it would have been a serious mistake to adhere to this pressure. Yes, in the tulip markets there has been a lot of financial unrest, but it would have been foolish for an institution with long-term intentions to get caught up in that chaos.

So, what's a blockchain, really?

Suppose that a group of parties on the Internet wants to build a sequence of data blocks over time, satisfying some interesting properties:

  • immutability: once a block is accepted by the participants, it can not be changed – the story does not change;
  • consensus: all honest participants should agree on what the valid blocks are.

A use of this structure would be like a shared ledger of data transactions, possibly of various kinds, between the parties. Unchanging would prevent a wrongdoer from altering a past transaction that he now regrets having performed. In the meantime, the consent keeps all the parts synchronized on what is the current status of all the data exchanged.

With a specialized consent algorithm, the ledger may contain records on all valid transactions with amounts of some new tokens, where "valid" means that tokens move only when the particular individuals who own them authorize those movements – this is a cryptocurrency, like Bitcoin, Etherium or Dogecoin.

Transactions here can be associated with particular individuals, or "proprietary" tokens and their authorized validated movements, using a nice piece of modern cryptography called a digital signature. To make such signatures, each party must first generate a pair of keys (such as passwords): a public key that show everyone and a private key whose secrecy must jealously guard. A digital signature on an electronic document is therefore a bit of additional data attached to the document, which can only be produced by the owner of a particular private key, but in a way that can be verified by anyone else who works with the corresponding public key.

This mechanism is the means by which the participants have a certain identity – as the owner of a particular key pair – in such shared mixed books. It is sometimes considered advantageous that it is difficult to associate a particular public key owner with a particular person or entity in the real world (this is the only measure Bitcoin is anonymous, in fact), whereas in other cases it would be good to have a solid way of creating such an association, which would later be known as a public key infrastructure, or PKI.

It is actually quite easy to construct a structure as described above, on the condition that all participants trust a central authority – called a trusted third party, or TTP. In this case, the parties could send transactions to the TTP, which guaranteed that they were consistent with the past behavior and published a block, signed with its universally reliable public key. This is what a central bank basically does by controlling the money supply and overseeing its national banking system.

Informatics wary of central control have instead designed various ways to obtain immutability and consent without third parties of trust; only then will we call the shared public accounting resulting as a blockchain.

For example, the Bitcoin blockchain rewards participants for executing a very large amount of meaningless work in order to produce valid blocks of transactions that everyone on the network will recognize – – this strategy is called proof of work. It allows the consent algorithm to avoid conflicts even without a TTP, but at the cost of providing an incentive for the global Bitcoin network to consume more electricity than the nation of Austria at the time of writing this article.

Implications for Ed superior

What's happening in Nicosia? For the credentials of the University of Nicosia, which are apparently on some blockchain, to carry any weight with the public, the public key of the university should be recognized and considered as associated with that entity of the real world : there should at least be that part of a PKI in place. Why then does not the university simply sign digital copies of its diplomas, or the more refined credentials that Pianko mentions and gives them to graduates?

Graduates could e-mail these signed electronic documents to potential employers, for example, who would be able to verify them using that bit of PKI.

Similar problems occur in the proposed applications of blockchain on many domains, where a reliable PKI is difficult to construct, and if one exists, it would allow much simpler solutions than a blockchain.

Notice also that in Nicosia it was not at all necessary for the public ledger of credentials to be produced without a TTP. They themselves, or the Cypriot Ministry of Education, are the authorities that the public should trust their credentials.

In the United States, a & # 39; accreditation agency of the university, or the federal Department of education, would be an appropriate TTP [19659002] Those who proselytize for blockchain applications want to imply that consent without a TTP is always better – "single point of failure" is the phrase often used to describe the problem according to the specific authorities in the current agreement. But in many circumstances it is quite appropriate to want an adult in the room.

For example, suppose that the dream of cryptocurrency enthusiasts had been realized before 2007 and that we had all used Bitcoin rather than the good old fiat dollar. In that case, the US Federal Reserve would not have been able to use the so-called quantitative easing and we may have had a second Great Depression rather than the first major recession. I'm not a fan of monetary policies that benefit hedge fund managers, but I do not even like the prospect of Hoovervilles growing again.

Most of the blockchain-trained graduates that Pianko wants us to produce would work in the area now called "Fintech." But it is important to realize that the enthusiasm of the financial services industries for blockchains and cryptocurrencies is not a techno-utopian vision: it is a neoliberal utopia in which the government is excluded from the power on the financial system by the code on which is based on its technology tracks. Do we want to offer our graduates and the scholarship of our faculty to achieve this purpose?

I was optimistic about the end result of the blockchain bubble. I thought it would soon break out, leaving us all a little poorer (with the exception of some of the most charismatic charlatans, who would be much richer), but at least we would have to understand public-key cryptography and the value of a good PKI.

Over time, however, I am becoming more pessimistic: I am afraid to put more of our economy – and also our educational systems – "on the blockchain" hardwires a neoliberal view of the extremist world in the very code of our society. And of course, the code is law.

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