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For People To Trust Blockchains, We Need Good Storytelling




Cherie Aimée provides tools to bring trust to a trustless system. But is trustlessness in blockchains a good or viable goal?

On April 10, 2010, Cherie Aimée was rushed to the hospital for chronic shortness of breath. Within minutes of reaching the emergency room, Aimée had flatlined: Her heart had stopped, she was unresponsive for 90 minutes, and CPR did not work.

But Aimée survived. For four months she lived on life support. "I had no heartbeat," Aimée said during her keynote at Decentralized 2018, "but what kept me alive was a modern, innovative technology." A Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) sustained Aimée for about five years until she was able to get a heart transplant.

Aimée's talk raises the question: Do we need trust to achieve mass adoption of a trustless system? This initial query prompts other related questions: Do we want a trustless system? Is a trustless system even possible? Can human societies or technologies operate without trust?

The point of Aimée's story about her near-death experience is that although she didn't have to trust the LVAD technology for it to work, she did have to trust that it would work in order to adopt it. And it was, she says, very nerve-wracking to spend five years with the LVAD inside her, particularly when there was a recall of the device about two and a half years in. It was only through education, and a fuller picture of the ecosystem that created the technology, that Aimée's fears were alleviated.

Aimée's target audience is tech companies involved in developing products based on blockchain technology. She emphasizes that blockchain has the capacity to revolutionize the world, but if people don't know about it or don't trust it, it will fail. Because other companies may be hesitant to adopt blockchain technology, blockchain tech companies need to educate them on the whole ecosystem and build up trust: "[I]f we want blockchain to get to mass adoption, what are we going to do to address companies' biggest fear, which is the loss of control?"

Trust and Adoption

Aimée doesn't use the word "storytelling" in her talk, but that's a big part of what she's driving at. Storytelling builds trust. People seeing how the technology works and how it can be used builds trust. Telling stories about the ecosystem that fostered the technology builds trust.

A good story is a strategic business tool, but it's also an integral part of human social fabric: Humans need stories for social cohesion, flourishing, and trust. Neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak comments on the neurobiology involved in storytelling:

"As social creatures, we depend on others for our survival and happiness. A decade ago, my lab discovered that a neurochemical called oxytocin is a key 'it's safe to approach others' signal in the brain. Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others' emotions. Empathy is important for social creatures because it allows us to understand how others are likely to react to a situation, including those with whom we work."

Zak's team found that character-driven stories consistently cause oxytocin synthesis. Stories create empathy, which leads to trust. People – and companies – are afraid of what they don't know. The adoption of blockchain technology may need the narratives of the people whose work, passion, and philosophies go into the development and application of blockchains.

Stories function as a type of social currency because they create a social bond by inscribing trust in a person or communal body. Financial historian Niall Ferguson calls money "trust inscribed": "[M]oney is a matter of belief, even faith: belief in the person paying us; belief in the person issuing the money he uses or the institution that honours his cheques or transfers."

Cryptocurrency is money that has no backing apart from the value assigned to it by the community. It has value because the community that's adopted it believes that it has value, and so it functions that way in the real world. The adoption of fiat currency relies on trust in government backing; cryptocurrency relies on trust in the validity of community-assigned value. In this sense, even the development of a "trustless" system requires a level of trust for people to adopt it.

Stories are similar: They cultivate empathy, which is its own kind of currency. Empathy is a basic, but oft-neglected currency in a world where distance and difference so easily create fear of the "the other." In a globalized society, empathy is crucial because our sense of the number of communities that comprise this one world has expanded. The many communities of the globe are now connected.

But this global connection doesn't come with trust automatically. That's where empathetic storytelling comes in. Storytelling invites people to let go of a "fight or flight" mentality when encountering something new or different. Stories invite people to imagine what the world might look like if we could trust everyone – or what it might look like if we didn't need trust to ensure an honest, just, and ethical society.

Blockchain technology has the potential to revolutionize the world. But we'll need some good storytellers along the way.

Let's just hope the storytellers are trustworthy…


Rebekah Devine

Rebekah is a copy editor for ETHNews. She holds an M.Litt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts from the University of St Andrews and an M.A. in Biblical Exegesis from Wheaton College. Her interests include Mesopotamian history, James Baldwin, and the study of how food intersects with memory, identity, and meaning-making.

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