Why Blockchain Technology is Empowering Women
The author is an alumnus of the 2018 Atlantic Dialogues Emerging Leaders program
Tech industries, despite leading the charge for change in many areas of modern life, have traditionally been one of the worst industries for gender equality. But now, it looks like technology itself could finally start to break down some of the barriers to entry and alter the socio-economic landscape beyond recognition. It could put women and under-represented minorities on the financial and technological map.
So, what is blockchain, and why does it matter?
You would probably have had to be living under a rock, or off grid in the wild not to have heard of bitcoin. But for those who have managed to miss it, bitcoin is the first decentralized digital currency. It functions without a central bank or other third-party intermediary, using a peer-to-peer computer network instead. Blockchain is the technology underpinning bitcoin and all cryptocurrencies.
Put simply, blockchain is the database shared across the peer-to-peer computer network. Each computer can enter information to the blockchain, and none can alter it. This creates a ledger of time-stamped blocks of immutable data points. Because they are distributed across a global network, they are highly resilient, resisting corruption and data loss.
While this maysound very high-tech, and implementation is still in its early stages, the principles behind it are both simple and elegant. They also have far-reaching implications. If we have an immutable public ledger that no-one can retrospectively alter, for example, we have a high degree of trust without the need for a third party. There is therefore no need for a centralized institution with a server controlling transactions and banks to act as middle men, because contracts and escrow are handled through the blockchain.
The real value of blockchain isn’t in the technology
We can talk about the technical aspects of blockchain all day. We can use all the buzz words that do more to obscure the benefits for the average person than explain them. We can say decentralized instead of peer-to-peer, talk about a distributed ledger rather than a shared public record, about it being verifiable, immutable, tamper-proof, and transparent instead of trustworthy and secure. And we can argue the pros and cons of anonymity and encryption methods all day without really touching on the real strength of blockchain.
The value of any blockchain is in its users and uses, because data only becomes information when it has value, and value is assigned by people. Without people who want to store data, the blockchain database remains idle and empty; without people who want to exchange and use that data, it remains a series of unexploited connections between computers. It is only with an engaged and active user community that a blockchain can be useful. But with such a community, its power is potentially immense.
Under the hood, blockchain isn’t a single invention, it’s the combination of several protocols, some of them long-established, others still in development. But the way they are combined has the potential to drive major societal change.
In terms of conventional financial services, around two thirds of the world’s population currently have accounts, but only 53 percent use them regularly. Typically, the populations without accounts or with dormant accounts are women, minorities, unemployed, or otherwise disadvantaged groups in prosperous communities, or poorer communities which rely heavily on a cash economy.
If the blockchain provides a way to conduct secure financial transactions outside the confines of traditional banking, it has the potential to reach the 42 percent of women, the 224 million Chinese, or the 370 million Indians with dormant bank accounts.
Why collective intelligence encourages personal empowerment
Collective intelligence plays a huge role in blockchain technology development. Many blockchain projects are developed on open source platforms where anyone can get involved and contribute. The requirements to join and contribute to the blockchain are the same for everyone. Good code is good code regardless of who supplies it.
And women seem to be more prone at creating blockchain solutions that sync with corporate social responsibility, community, and the sharing economy directly. As a matter of fact, a feminist movement has arisen from the ranks of the blockchain space by creating a hashtag #satoshiisfemale to spread the message of blockchain and female empowerment in developing states.
Similarly, anyone can maintain a node to contribute to the security of the network. Transactions are made through wallets, with no mention of gender, color, religion, sexuality, nationality, or any other potentially divisive or discriminatory factor. In fact, the blockchain doesn’t care who owns what, or what’s inside the wallets or data packets. It simply registers that an exchange has taken place and records the details designated by the users.
It’s this very agnosticism about user information while adhering to agreed protocols to track transaction events and amounts that is creating such a seismic shift in attitude in the tech industries, and hopefully in the wider social fabric of our very existence.
Because for once, progress is value-driven. Contributions are measured on quality, removed for gender, race, or any other political issue. Equality is baked in to the peer-to-peer system, and barrier to entry and use are significantly lower than in traditional financial markets. Inclusion is the name of the game – with every blockchain racing to reach critical mass and encourage mass adoption.
As Nyla Rodgers of Mama Hope says, “For the first time in history we can infuse values like generosity, equality and goodness into our currencies.”
These values offer to put mastery of their personal data back into the hands of individuals. The crucial economic resource of our time is data, and today, individual data is captured in silos owned by private corporations. It is used and resold without the consumer being aware of the use made of it, for commercial purposes and even in recent cases for the manipulation of public opinion.
Using blockchain technology, social platforms such as Facebook or Twitter could be decentralized. Global data would be anonymized and resold, but each user could decrypt his personal data thanks to his private key. Alternatively, users could make micro payments to use services they now consider free but actually pay for with their consumer data. Some services even try to put the control, sale, and use of the user’s date under the users’ control and create a revenue sharing model around it. Not only can open source platforms encourage entire communities of innovators to get involved, collaborate, and through collaboration shine as individuals, but the user platforms being created are often designed to return power to the individual.
Why empowering individuals can reinvent socio-economic models
Individuals who were previously disenfranchised or disadvantaged are instead empowered to participate both in the creation of new technology and the socio-economic landscape in which it operates. Completing the virtuous cycle, these new participants bring diversity to the collective intelligence and disruption to the socio-economic landscape. With new people and new experience come new needs to be met, and different expectations.
Because blockchain technology solves the problem of trust between individuals and removes the need for a third-party guarantor, it also allows the creation of new types of governance and relationships based on the transparency of interactions. Disenfranchised and marginalized individuals are more likely to be attracted to these novel methodologies. As with any societal change, care must be taken to guard against abuse while giving leeway for vital experimentation that could have major benefits for humanity.
In the economic sphere, by allowing individuals to create shared communities of interest (i.e. Open Value Networks), blockchains help renew an economic democracy. They allow transformation of top-down distribution models from a single producer to consumers into a network of small producers/consumers. This can help decentralize other industries, from energy production to agriculture; from automotive to telecoms. Decentralization helps product traceability and strengthens producer and consumer responsibility.
In the societal realm, to be of any long-term effect, the re-appropriation of power by individuals must be accompanied by an increase in the level of consciousness and collective intelligence. As in anything, with power comes responsibility.
To be clear: blockchain is not a panacea. Nor can it alter social norms. It can, however, serve as a transformative tool. It can boost women’s economic opportunities and encourage engagement. It can encourage the economically dormant to participate in places where they have rights but lack the infrastructure to realize them. Only when sufficient numbers of the economically marginalized are engaged and empowered can real progress be made on the political front.