My Take on Web3 and THAT Letter

Anyone following the current Web3/cryptocurrency/NFT debate will know that last week 26 computer scientists, software engineers and technologists ‘penned’ a letter to various U.S. Congressional leaders warning them of the risks of a “technology that is not built for purpose and will remain forever unsuitable as a foundation for large-scale economic activity”.

The letter urged the recipients to “resist pressure from digital asset industry financiers, lobbyists, and boosters” and to take an approach that ensures “the technology is deployed in genuine service to the needs of ordinary citizens”.

This is quite an explosive claim and one that has, not unexpectedly, drawn the fire (and the ire) of the Web3 diehards. Some of the less inflammatory comments include:

  • Their professional work has nothing to do with cryptocurrencies, blockchain or finance so so I’m not seeing why they’re a signatory.
  • They don’t even have real tech experts they are a joke. Much like… who claims to be a “software engineer” but is spreading an insane amount of disinformation.
  • Many liars like you… making “assumptions” and “guesses” on something you just don’t understand at all.
  • … doesn’t want us all to know what a clown they are.
  • Why don’t you setup a debate and make your points with crypto community.. instead of blatantly spreading half-truths about crypto and their use cases. It’s such a shame that instead of becoming a topic of discussion, you guys want to turn it into us vs them.

Whilst I don’t claim to have the tech credentials of the group who signed this letter, as a former software engineer and software architect with some experience of permissioned blockchains (in a previous life I worked with Hyperledger Fabric) as well as a healthy interest in “responsible tech”, I do feel duty-bound to weigh in here.

First off I absolutely applaud the intent of this letter. I especially agree with “Not all innovation is unqualifiedly good; not everything that we can build should be built”. As a long time advocate (and practitioner) of teaching ethics as part of technology courses I truly believe that all technologists should at least have a basic understanding of value-sensitive design when building new products and services; especially those that have a large software component (and what doesn’t these days).

I also agree with the statement that a blockchain based Web3 is very much a “solution in search of a problem”. To understand why this is the case consider the origins of Bitcoin, still the dominant and arguably most successful use of blockchain to date. Bitcoin was launched in 2008 at the height of the financial crisis with the intent of being “a purely peer-to-peer version of electronic cash [that] would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution”. In other words, the use case for Bitcoin was to do away with banks and other financial institutions. Given the historical context of the time this may have seemed like a ‘good thing’ however the underlying intent was really to remove the trust that those failing institutions were meant to provide by encoding it in software instead. But is throwing tech at what is basically human and/or systemic failure a good thing and ever going to work out well? As Bruce Schneier (one of the signatories to the letter) says “What blockchain does is shift some of the trust in people and institutions to trust in technology. You need to trust the cryptography, the protocols, the software, the computers and the network”.

Put another way, is building (or trying to) systems that negate the need for trust in human interactions the correct and ethical thing to do? When we try to use technology to patch-up business, regulatory and societal problems then surely our moral compass has become seriously damaged. Yes, it’s a problem but I am not convinced the solution is a read-only, immutable ledger with smart contracts having the final say in what can and cannot be added to the ledger. Maybe the greed and immoral behaviour of the banks is what should really be addressed?

Web3 is sometimes erroneously referred to as the “new Internet” when it is, at best, an iteration of the current Internets application layer adding features such as immutability, decentralisation and smart contracts into the mix. Web3 advocates claim this will lead to a new nirvana that will finally allow content creators to break free from the chains of the Web 2.0 social networks allowing everyone to be recompensed for their work and their art in tokens or cryptocurrencies. For those less enthusiastic, Web3 is a techno-libertarians wet dream which will be no more decentralised, community-driven, secure, and private than anything else that is VC funded.

Whilst it is now de facto the case that Webs 1 and 2 are more or less entirely controlled by a few gatekeeper companies (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix et al) we need to ask who owns or builds the infrastructure that Web3 will depend on and how are these current gatekeepers somehow suddenly going to disappear? Someone still has to build the servers and the chips that go in them, the routers, firewalls and networks that allow the servers to talk to each other and write and operate the software that glues all this hardware together. Is all of this is just going to disappear in Web3 or become open source? No, like it or not, it is going to continue to be controlled by the same large corporations. In addition we are also going to get the new Web3 corporations that are being formed right now by the likes of Jack DorseyBalaji SrinavasanPeter Thiel and Marc Andreessen who are all pumping their millions into this utopianist scheme. They are seeking to control and own Web3, just as they came to own its predecessors and don’t really care who is going to get hurt in the process.

The notion that in Web 3, users and builders alike can earn money and make a good living is pure fantasy. Sure, there are a few well publicised cases of people selling art work as NFTs but these are either established artists who have large followings already or part of elaborate whitewashing schemes that help the already-rich and well-connected (mostly white male collectors collecting other white men) to profit, thus serving as nothing more than a speculative finance instrument that will ultimately crash and burn like all other Ponzi schemes.

We should all be concerned when a small (relatively speaking) group of people are dictating what our society will be like without the majority either understanding or, even worse, caring? A bit like some of the side effects of the web, we’ll only realise when it’s too late (yes, I’m looking at you Facebook/Meta).

But, back to that letter. Although I agree wholeheartedly with its intent what I doubt is the ability of those who it has been sent to in actually being able to do anything about the problem. The letter implores the (US) leaders to “take a truly responsible approach to technological innovation” but is this really going to cut the mustard? After all these same leaders cannot even control guns in their own country so what chance is there in controlling a technology that I imagine most have little or no understanding of?

Further, even if something could be done in the US what chance for the rest of the world? After all, blockchains are hardly just a US phenomenon. The tech hegemony enjoyed by the US is ending and the likes of China and Russia are equally capable of building blockchains. Whilst I agree that we do indeed need to “act now” to protect ourselves this needs to be at a global, not just a US, level. Responsible technologists all over the world need to be highlighting the negative impacts of permissionless blockchains and not just guiding their leaders in how to deal with them but explaining to everyone else what the potential downsides of such technology could be.

In 1939 the scientist Albert Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt warning him of a different technology issue, that of nuclear fission and the fact that Germany may be working on a new weapon that utilised this, the atom bomb. This letter led to the US creating the Manhattan Project which resulted in it developing its own bomb. As we now know the final result of that letter was not great in that it led to the US detonating two such bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.

In 1939 when Einstein wrote his letter the US had both the power and the money to go it alone in addressing that particular issue. In today’s interconnected world where America’s power is on the wane that is no longer possible. What is needed instead is a global initiative whereby new technologies that could fundamentally reshape our world in a negative way are thoroughly vetted and assessed before they are released on its unsuspecting citizens for it is they, not the VC’s who can afford to splash their billions on these high-risk ventures, who will be the ultimate losers.

So what would I actually do? Three things.

  1. Tech leaders around the world should lobby their political representatives on the potential dangers of Web3 if left to market forces and technologists to design and build.
  2. Everyone needs to educate themselves on at least the basics of this technology as well as the benefits and the dangers.
  3. Education institutions at all levels should instigate basic ethics programmes that teach young people the critical thinking skills needed to understand the potential impacts of technology on their lives to help them decide if that is the kind of world they want to grow up in.

Am I being idealistic? Maybe. At least though what this letter, and hopefully others like it, will do is open up the discussion which we all need to have if we want to have some influence on the the way this life-changing technology will affect us and our children.

How could blockchain drive a more responsible approach to engaging with the arts?

Image Courtesy of Tran Mai Khanh
Image Courtesy of Tran Mai Khanh

This is the transcript of a talk I gave at the 2018 Colloquium on Responsibility in Arts, Heritage, Non-profit and Social Marketing at the University of Birmingham Business School  on 17th September 2018.

Good morning everyone. My name is Peter Cripps and I work as a Software Architect for IBM in its Blockchain Division.

As a Software Architect my role is to help IBM’s clients understand blockchain and to architect systems built on this exciting new technology.

My normal world is that of finance, commerce and government computer systems that we all interact with on a day to day basis. In this talk however I’d like to discuss something a little bit different from my day to day role. I would like to explore with you how blockchain could be used to build a trust based system for the arts world that I believe could lead to a more responsible way for both creators and consumers of art to interact and transact to the mutual benefit of all parties.

First however let’s return to the role of the Software Architect and explain how two significant architectures have got us to where we are today (showing that the humble Software Architect really can change the world).

Architects take existing components and…

Seth on Architects
Seth on Architects

This is one of my favourite definitions of what architects do. Although Seth was talking about architects in the construction industry, it’s a definition that very aptly applies to Software Architects as well. By way of illustration here are two famous examples of how architects took some existing components and assembled them in very interesting ways.

1989: Tim Berners-Lee invents the World Wide Web

Tim Berners Lee and the World Wide Web
Tim Berners Lee and the World Wide Web

The genius of Tim Berners-Lee, when he invented the World Wide Web in 1989, was that he brought together three arcane technologies (hypertext, mark-up languages and Internet communication protocols) in a way no one had thought of before and literally transformed the world by democratising information. Recently however, as Berners Lee discusses in an interview in Vanity Fair, the web has begun to reveal its dark underside with issues of trust, privacy and so called fake news dominating much of the headlines over the past two years.

Interestingly, another invention some 20 years later, promises to address some of the problems now being faced by a society that is increasingly dependent on the technology of the web.

2008: Satoshi Nakamoto invents Bitcoin

Satoshi Nakamoto and Bitcoin
Satoshi Nakamoto and Bitcoin

Satoshi Nakamoto’s paper Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, that introduced the world to Bitcoin in 2009, also used three existing ideas (distributed databases, cryptography and proof-of-work) to show how a peer-to-peer version of electronic cash would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution. His genius idea, in a generalised form, was a platform that creates a new basis of trust for business transactions that could ultimately lead to a simplification and acceleration of the economy. We call this blockchain. Could blockchain, the technology that underpins Bitcoin, be the next great enabling technology that not only changes the world (again) but also puts back some of the trust in a the World Wide Web?

Blockchain: Snake oil or a miracle cure?

Miracle Cure or Snake Oil?
Miracle Cure or Snake Oil?

Depending on your point of view, and personal agenda, blockchain either promises to be a game changing technology that will help address such issues such as the world’s refugee crisis and the management of health supply chains or is the most over-hyped, terrifying and foolish technology ever. Like any new technology we need to be very careful to separate the hype from the reality.

What is blockchain?

Setting aside the hype, blockchain, at its core, is all about trust. It provides a mechanism that allows parties over the internet, who not only don’t trust each other but may not even know each other, to exchange ‘assets’ in a secure and traceable way. These assets can be anything from physical items like cars and diamonds or intangible ones such as music or financial instruments.

Here’s a definition of what a blockchain is.

An append-only, distributed system of record (a ledger) shared across a business network that provides transaction visibility to all involved participants.

Let’s break this down:

  1. A blockchain is ‘append only’. That means once you’ve added a record (a block) to it you cannot remove it.
  2. A blockchain is ‘distributed’ which means the ledger, or record book, is not just sitting in one computer or data centre but is typically spread around several.
  3. A ‘system of record’ means that, at its heart, a blockchain is a record book describing the state of some asset. For example that a car with a given VIN is owned by me.
  4. A blockchain is ‘shared’ which means all participants get their own copy, kept up to date and synchronised with all other copies.
  5. Because it’s shared all participants have ‘visibility’ of the records or transactions of everyone else (if you want them to).

A business blockchain network has four characteristics…

Business blockchains can be characterised as having these properties:


All parties in the network have to agree that a transaction is valid and that it can be added as a new block on the ledger. Gaining such agreement is referred to as consensus and various ways of reaching such consensus are available. One such consensus technique, which is used by the Bitcoin blockchain is referred to as proof-of-work. In Bitcoin proof-of-work is referred to as mining which is a highly compute intensive process as miners must compete to solve a mathematically complex problem to earn new coins. Because of its complexity, mining uses large amounts of computing power. In 2015 it was estimated that the Bitcoin mining network consumed about the same amount of energy as the whole of Ireland!

Happily, however, not all blockchain networks suffer from this problem as they do all not use proof-of-work as a consensus mechanism. Hyperledger, an open source software project owned and operated by the Linux Foundation , provides several different technologies that do not require proof-of-work as a consensus mechanism and so have vastly reduced energy requirements. Hyperledger was formed by over 20 founding companies in December 2015. Hyperledger blockchains are finding favour in the worlds of commerce, government and even the arts! Further, because Hyperledger is an open source project, anyone with access to the right skillset can build and operate their own blockchain network.


This means that once you add a new block onto the ledger, it cannot be removed. It’s there for ever and a day. If you do need to change something then you must add a new record saying what that change is. The state of an asset on a blockchain is then the sum of all blocks that refer to asset.


Because you can never remove a block from the ledger you can always trace back in time the history of assets being described on the ledger and therefore determine, for example, where it originated or how ownership has changed over time.


The shared ledger is the place that all participants agree stores ‘the truth’. Because the ledgers records cannot be removed and everyone has agreed them being recorded on there, that is the final source of truth.

… with smart contracts controlling who does what

Another facet of blockchain is the so called ‘smart contract’. Smart contracts are pieces of code that autonomously run on the blockchain, in response to some event, without the interference of a human being. Smart contracts change the state of the blockchain and are responsible for adding new blocks to the chain. In a smart contract the computer code is law and, provided all parties have agreed in advance the validity of that code, once it has run changes to the blockchain cannot be undone but become immutable. The blockchain therefore acts as a source of permanent knowledge about the state of an asset and allows the provenance of any asset to be understood. This is a fundamental difference between a blockchain and an ordinary database. Once a record is entered it cannot be removed.

Some blockchain examples

Finally, for this quick tour of blockchain, let’s take a look at a couple of industry examples that IBM has been working on with its clients.

The first is a new company called Everledger which aims to record on a blockchain the provenance of high value assets, such as diamonds. This allows people to know where assets have come from and how ownership has changed over time avoiding fraud and issues around so called ‘blood diamonds’ which can be used to finance terrorism and other illegal activities.

The second example is the IBM Food Trust Network, a consortium made up of food manufacturers, processors, distributors, retailers and others that allow for food to be tracked from ‘farm to fork’. This allows, for example, the origin of a particular food to be quickly determined in the case of a contamination or outbreak of disease and for only effected items to be taken out the supply chain.

What issues can blockchain address in the arts world?

In the book Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain various of the contributors discuss how blockchain could be used to create new funding models for the arts by the “renegotiation of the economic and social value of art” as well as helping artists “to engage with new kinds of audiences, patrons and participants.” (For another view of blockchain and the arts see the documentary The Blockchain and Us).

I also believe blockchain could help tackle some of the current problems around trust and lack of privacy on the web as well as address issues around the accumulation of large amounts of user generated content at virtually no cost to the owners in what the American computer scientist Jaron Lanier calls “siren-servers” .

Let’s consider two aspects of the art world that blockchain could address:


As a creator how do I know people are using my art work legitimately? As a consumer how do I know the creator of the art work is who they say they are and the art work is authentic?


As a creator how do I get the best price for my art work? As a consumer how do I know I am not paying too much for an art work?

Challenges/issues of the global art market (and how blockchain could address them)

Let’s drill down a bit more into what some of these issues are and how a blockchain network could begin to address them. Here’s a list of nine key issues that various players in the world of arts say impacts the multi-billion pound art market and which blockchain could help address in the ways I suggest.

Art Issues
To be clear, not all of these issues will be addressed by technology alone. As with any system that is introduced it needs not only the buy-in of the existing players but also a sometimes radical change in the underlying business model that the current system has developed. ArtChain is one such company that is looking to use blockchain to address some of these issues. Another is the online photography community YouPic.

Introducing YouPic Blockchain

YouPic is an online community for photographers which allows photographers to not only share their images but also receive payment. YouPic is in the process of implementing a blockchain that allows photographers to retain more control over their images. For example:

  1. Copyright attribution.
  2. Image tracking and copyright tools.
  3. Smart contracts for licensing

Every image has a unique fingerprint so when you look up the fingerprint or a version of the image it points out all of the licensing information the creator has listed.

The platform could, for example, search the web to identify illicit uses of images and if identified contact the creator to notify them of a potential copyright breach.

You could also use smart contracts to manage you images automatically, e.g. receive payments in different currencies, or maybe you want to distribute payment to other contributors or just file a claim if your image is used without your consent.



ArtLedger is a sandbox I am developing for exploring some of these ideas. It’s open source and available on GitHub. I have a very rudimentary proof of concept running in the IBM Cloud that allows you to interact with a blockchain network with some of these actors.

I’m encouraging people to go onto my GitHub project, take a look at the code and the instructions for getting it working and have a play with the live system. I will be adapting it over time to add more functions and see how the issues in the previous stage could be addressed as well as exploring funding models for how such a network could become established and grow.


So, to summarise:

  • Blockchains can provide a system that engenders trust through the combined attributes of: Consensus; Immutability; Provenance; Finality.
  • Consortiums of engaged participants should build networks where all benefit.
  • Many such networks are at the early stages of development. It is still early days for the technology but results are promising and, for the right use cases, systems based on blockchain have the promise of another step change in driving the economy in a fairer and more just way.
  • For the arts world blockchain holds the promise of engaging with new kinds of audiences, patrons and participants and maybe even the creation of new funding models.

What is Blockchain Good For?

Photo by Hitesh Choudhary on Unsplash

The genius of Tim Berners-Lee when he invented the World Wide Web back in 1989 was that he brought together three arcane technologies (hypertext, markup languages and internet communication protocols) in a way no one had thought of before and literally transformed the world.  Could blockchain do the same thing?  Satoshi Nakamoto in his paper that introduced the world to bitcoins 20 years later in 2009 also used three existing ideas (distributed databases, public key or asymetric cryptography and proof-of-work) to show how a peer-to-peer version of electronic cash would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution.

Depending on your point of view, and personal agenda, blockchain the technology that underpins Bitcoin, either promises to do no less than solve the world’s refugee crisis and transform the management of health supply chains or is the most over-hyped, terrifying and foolish technology since Google Glass or MySpace.  Like any new technology we need to be very careful to separate the hype from the reality.

The documentary The Blockchain and Us made by Manuel Stagars in 2017 interviews software developers, cryptologists, researchers, entrepreneurs, consultants, VCs, authors, politicians, and futurists from around the world and poses a number of questions such as:  How can the blockchain benefit the economies of nations?  How will it change society?  What does it  mean for each of us?  The intent of the film is not to explain the technology but to give views on the it and encourage a conversation about its potential wider implications.

Since I have begun to focus my architecture efforts on blockchain I often get asked the question that is the title of this blog post.  According to Gartner blockchain has gone through the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ and is now sliding down into the ‘trough of disillusionment’.  The answer to the question, as is the case for most new technologies, will be it’s “good for” some things but not everything.

As a technologist it pains me to say this but in the business world technology itself is not usually the answer to anything on its own.  As the Venture Capitalist Jimmy Song said at Consensus earlier this year*, “When you have a technology in search of a use, you end up with the crap that we see out there in the enterprise today.” Harsh words indeed but probably true.

Instead, what is needed is the business and organisational change that drives new business models in which technology is, if required, slotted in at the right time and place.  Business people talk about the return on investment of tech and the fact that technology often gobbles up staff time and money, without giving enough back.  Blockchain runs the risk of gobbling up too much time and money if the right considerations are not given to its use and applicability to business.

If we are to ensure blockchain has a valid business use and gets embedded into the technology stack that businesses use then we need to ensure the right questions get asked when considering its use.  As a start in doing this you could do worse than consider this set of questions from the US Department for Homeland Security.


Many blockchain projects are still at the proof of technology stage although there are some notable exceptions.  The IBM Food Trust is a collaborative network of growers, processors, wholesalers, distributors, manufacturers, retailers and others enhancing visibility and accountability in each step of the food supply chain whilst the recently announced TradeLens aims to apply blockchain to the world’s global supply chain.  Both of these solutions are built on top of the open source Hyperledger Fabric blockchain platform which is one of the projects under the umbrella of the Linux Foundation.

What these and other successful blockchain systems are showing is actually that another question should be tagged onto the flowchart above (probably it should be the first question).  This would be something like: “Are you willing to be part of a collaborative business network to share information on a needs to know basis?”  The thing about permissioned networks like Hyperledger Fabric is that people don’t need to trust everyone on the network but they do need to agree who will be a part of it.  Successful blockchain business networks are proving to be the ones whose participants understand this and are willing to collaborate.

* As discovered in the post Firms need business model change, not blockchain.