The pursuit for social justice necessarily involves people from all walks of life, especially those who belong to marginalized communities. However, in a tech space dominated by straight, white men, an outwardly diverse gathering of individuals is not the norm – even if social good is a collective goal among the broader blockchain and cryptocurrency crowd. The terms "social justice," "representation," and "blockchain technology" are generally not uttered in the same breath.
Enter the Blockchain for Social Justice Workshop. Nestled in a cozy, classroom-sized corner of General Assembly's San Francisco campus, the gathering was characterized by one word: diversity. In terms of audience members and panelists alike, the room was full of women, people of color, and folks from various educational, professional, and economic backgrounds. Core to the workshop's discussion was unraveling the complementary nature of blockchain technology and the concept of social justice.
The night began with a presentation by Daisy Ozim, director of Blockchain for Social Justice, an organization that investigates this unlikely pair. She highlighted the various facets of the technology that make blockchain-based social justice solutions a worthy pursuit: decentralization, distribution, anonymity, and interoperability. These are all hallmarks of blockchain, to be sure, but under a social justice lens, the words have different meanings.
To break it down:
- Decentralization (as applied to finance) empowers economically disadvantaged families to build their own wealth through cryptocurrency investments, without the need for middlemen like banks and lenders that may not provide them with financial services they can afford or, worse yet, may even take advantage of them. Further, cryptocurrency investments could help tackle generational poverty, as the accompanying education and resources would be passed down.
- The distributed nature of blockchain pairs well with the community focus of social justice movements. Organizers share resources, such as educational content and labor, much like developers open source their code so that others can adapt or build upon their ideas. In both cases, everybody adds to and relies upon a common pot of resources.
- Anonymity goes hand in hand with the fight against government-sponsored surveillance, especially of marginalized groups. Electronic benefit transfer card transactions, for example, can be used to track people's movements. The transparent-yet-anonymous nature of public ledgers could help prevent such surveillance of vulnerable communities.
- Interoperability enables separate communities to communicate and share resources with each other. This facet is similar to the distributed nature of both blockchain and social justice, but the difference here is that the technology's potential for interoperability almost cultivates a shared "language" (through education and resources) that disparate groups can use to collaborate. With a shared social justice-oriented blockchain platform, for instance, two movements like Black Lives Matter and Free the Nipple could work together toward a common goal (maybe in supporting black women, as the intersections of identity are important).
After Ozim's presentation, the panelists mentioned a few social justice-oriented projects that make use of these qualities of blockchain technology. From the ecojustice side, for example, there is Nori, "a blockchain-based marketplace for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere," according to the company's website. On the content creation side, there is Po.et, which, by establishing a "decentralized protocol for content ownership," has the potential to signal-boost traditionally underrepresented voices in publishing.
Other projects not mentioned range from promoting renewable energy use and re-engineering the process of charitable giving to providing a token for the LGBTQ+ community and creating a platform to enable a universal basic income.
In light of blockchain technology's role in social justice causes, Ozim emphasized that the technology is not a panacea for the problems that marginalized communities face. There are various pitfalls associated with blockchain, such as greed, environmental degradation (through excessive mining, for example), job elimination through automation, and even the possibility of increased surveillance (many projects require users to provide access to their personal data).
At a practical level, blockchain-based social justice solutions could go awry despite people's good intentions. We have seen this sort of effect in both US environmental policy and the country's infamous War on Drugs. Additionally, as a hypothetical example, a blockchain record of human genetic DNA could be misused and appropriated for discriminatory practices in employment and healthcare (have you seen the movie Gattaca?). There is a balance to strike in these sorts of projects to mitigate the possible consequences.
All the potential drawbacks aside, panelist Jomari Peterson, founder of P2P payment and lending network The Digital Reserve, P.B.C., noted that a key characteristic in the overlap of blockchain and social justice comes from the ability to create a better world. The sheer number of token economies that exist, especially those that center around underrepresented communities, demonstrates individuals' shared commitment to shepherd in a new and fairer "order," so to speak.
This ability to cultivate new economies based on equitable governance structures offers a way to restructure incentive systems that, as they currently exist, do not benefit marginalized groups. A token-based economy that truly values its participants and their good behavior not only encourages stewardship at the community level but also within society at large.
Another workshop panelist, Chelsea Rustrum, believes these alternative paradigms have a personal effect in addition to their societal impact. "As we remap our systems, we need to remap ourselves," she noted.
At the end of the day, if onlookers outside the blockchain space can see the positive effects of cryptocurrency on underrepresented communities, then perhaps that positivity could be translated to policies and economic practices across the board.