Exploring Value Sensitive Design for Blockchain Development

Exploring Value Sensitive Design for Blockchain Development

It’s motivated by the potential impact that blockchain technologies might have in society especially regarding human values and the conflicts that might arise because there are some values that are favoured by these technologies. So the objective is to define a set of guidelines so it’s possible to make blockchains better support human values.

Blockchains have their roots in Bitcoin that was an initiative by Nakamoto to develop digital money with the special contribution that this was a completely decentralized project. So no one was responsible for keeping track of every Bitcoin.

There was no central entity with that power. This was done through a distributed ledger that everyone helped maintaining because everyone had a copy of that ledger and this, in combination with incentives system, made it possible, by incentivizing proper behaviour, to have such a system. A reliable one without requiring a centralized mechanism to keep track of the Bitcoin transactions.

This is extended in second-generation blockchains, like Ethereum, in the sense that these actions are not just currency transactions but are transactions about a shared computer that is also run by every node, and, like a distributed ledger previously mentioned, so there’s the guarantee, also through incentives, that these shared computers are executing in the same way on every node and that it’s possible to develop programs to be executed in this shared computer that are called smart contracts that it can be trust that will be executed in the same way in every one of the nodes.

So you can have confidence that they will be executed if they are programmed to do so. For instance, it’s possible to develop and scroll payment mechanism without requiring a third party that acts as an intermediary. Overall, this has a big potential because it changes the way people and organizations might build trust among them and also might drive shifting control of money, law and government.

This is also seen as a menace by many of the current intermediaries. This can even, in the longer-term, suppose a shift in the way that humans and machines interact in our society, especially that they can do that autonomously and for instance we might see some day self-driving cars that get paid and use the income to pay their energy consumption and repairs in a completely autonomous way.

Based on the potential impact of these technologies, it’s important to confront the values that blockchain technologies favour, like especially autonomy privacy and trust, against other values, especially human values. To do so, from the beginning and through the whole design process of blockchains and blockchain applications, we are going to explore Value Sensitive Design.

The approach is first to identify the stakeholders participating in different blockchain ecosystems, analyze the benefits and hurts for each of them and map these to the corresponding values It could be the set of predefined ones like those by Friedman but also others like wealth distribution that we consider relevant in this particular case.

Then, to detect the value tensions that we can identify between values and stakeholders and contribute some set of mitigation guidelines. In the paper, there is all this information detailed, because we have identified the following stakeholders and, for each of them, the benefits, harms and values.

We have identified miners, core developers, entrepreneurs, investors, the users (the final users of block chains and blockchain applications, especially), exchanges (where you can change between fiat currencies and cryptocurrencies), key personalities and celebrities (that also use their influence in order to favour certain communities, blockchain communities or initiatives) and regulators (also very relevant because, in many cases,
these are intermediaries in many of the ecosystems where blockchain may have some impact).

So, based on the analysis of all these stakeholders, the benefits, harms and values, for each of them, we have prepared a set of guidelines to help us analyze different blockchain applications. We have applied these to a particular case, an empirical investigation that we have carried out of the application that is called EthicHub.

That is an application that tries to help farmers in, especially, developing countries to get funding for their projects. And also to attract people in more developed countries so they can use these as a mechanism to fund their initiatives that also get some revenue, based on the return of their investments, that usually is bigger that than that they can obtain through traditional banking in their countries.

So here the idea is that everyone benefits from these transactions of money and we have here blockchain as a mechanism to help build trust between the different stakeholders participating, that we have identified as: entrepreneurs, investors, users and regulators, that are indirect in this particular case. And values that we have identified: human welfare, as we mentioned before, but also trust, autonomy, accountability, environmental sustainability and wealth distribution.

The preliminary conclusions are that there are some potential value tensions that we should address, especially in the previous situation, but also in general. That there are some trade-offs between the different competing values, especially with those that are favoured by blockchain technologies, and that, from these, we can provide some guidelines. For instance regarding privacy and how to encrypt or hash all personal data that goes into the blockchain.

The future work focuses on additional empirical investigations, and, from that additional studies, to develop the whole set of value tensions and guidelines that help blockchain developments better take into account human values.