What's wrong with the decentralized technology space: reflections on Laura Kalbag's AraCon talk

What's wrong with the decentralized technology space: reflections on Laura Kalbag's AraCon talk

I'm always pleased when blockchain conferences give space to people from the user experience and design world.

Day 1 of AraCon featured an inspiring presentation by British designer Laura Kalbag. She is the author of Accessibility For Everyone published at A Book Apart. Though I have yet to read her book, A Book Apart publishes some of the foundational literature in user experience for the Web by world-leading experts. As a former UX guy, I own many of them.

Her talk People Might Actually Use This addresses product design and user experience at a high level. It provided a sobering view of everything which is wrong with the decentralized technology space (although one could argue these issues also exist in technology at large). If anything, it forces one to take a step back and look at the broader motives and aspirations of our industry.

Disclaimer: I was not at the event but watched the livestream.

She begins by making some assertions about technology.

  1. Today's technology forms much of our social and labor infrastructure – technology is interwoven in all aspects of our society.
  2. Current mainstream technology has the business model of surveillance capitalism – people's information and data is being mined and exploited for financial gain.
  3. Technology inherits the biases of its creators – people's views are embedded into whatever they build.
  4. Technology has a huge impact on society and democracy – case and point: the increasing influence social media has on political elections.
  5. These are systemic issues.

It's worth stressing the importance of the last point. Technology itself does not form a remedy for problems which arise from these assertions. In other words, technology does not solve human issues. I firmly agree with this point.

She addresses five high-level problems in the decentralized technology space. Thought we mostly agree here, they are worth dissecting.

Diversity

Although diversity and inclusivity has improved greatly in recent years, the blockchain space remains very homogenous. For instance, most of the people who attended AraCon are in knowledge work, are likely college-educated, and have the ability to travel with relative ease. The unbanked, the fish farmer, the Venezuelan single mom – all these people for whom we say blockchain will be life-changing – when is the last time we saw any of them at a conference or listened to their needs?

The priority of making money over doing things for people

There is no doubt that our industry is filled with well-intentioned people who have genuinely good aspirations for the world. And there is certainly those for whom the goal is financial gain. As a community, we need to be mindful of this and make sure good intentions don't get corrupted.

As she accurately points out, funding has tremendous influence on what we build. Funding is the seed in the fruit that is a product. And a rotten seed spoils the fruit. (credit to Laura for that analogy)

Environmental problems

We should question what we are building and assess if the value created is greater than the potential harm. We continuously tell ourselves and others that blockchain will bring positive change to World. We have yet to see any real inquiry into the potential negative side effects of blockchain.

Elitism

Is decentralization really decentralizing power? I've asked myself this question since my early days in Bitcoin. I tend to think that blockchain shifts power to a new elite. However, as I mentioned to Laura in a tweet, there is nothing inherently wrong with the concept elitism. We want society to be lead by smart people with influence. The problem is when elites abuse power and oppress others. This comes back to human vs. structural problems.

The development of style over substance

The culture of being first to market with the best product is toxic in an ecosystem which strives to do good. It's worth noticing the sheer quantity of announcements proclaiming success and achievement versus their actual impact. Going back in the Epicenter archives, in would certainly be reveling to follow up with every project, partnership or milestone announcement and see what came out of them.

This post only captures part of her talk. She gives practical advice on how one can approach product design in a way that attempts to avoid these problems. It’s worth watching in full.

Laura Kalbag: People Might Actually Use This at AraCon 2019
Author

Sebastien Couture

Host at Epicenter, a podcast which explores the current state and potential future of the blockchain and cryptocurrency industry.

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