This section gathers a selection of experts’ comments in regard to where blockchain might fit into the picture, if it fits at all. Some entrepreneurs who define Web3 as a packaging of the metaverse plus blockchain and NFTs are doing so to promote the monetization of emerging spaces and the creation of new business opportunities.
Experts fell into three camps on this:
- Blockchain is orthogonal or not related or a nonstarter when it comes to the metaverse.
- Blockchain is important to the future of internet transactions of all sorts, including those enabled by the metaverse.
- The impact of blockchain is an unknown.
Those contending ideas are represented in the back-and-forth found in the following collection of remarks.
Steve Wilson, founder at Lockstep Consulting and a VP and principal analyst at Constellation Research focused on digital identity and privacy, said, “The identification of blockchain as being intrinsic to metaverse is frankly bizarre. I think it is based on a mythological status that is way out of line with actual blockchain experience. The blockchain-will-change-the-world set have never really grasped how mundane it is. Blockchain was carefully designed to solve one very dry problem – double-spending – without an umpire. The ‘consensus’ reached by a blockchain is very limited; it cannot be easily extrapolated to governance or voting, let alone whole-of-democracy as some writers lazily guessed. Double-spending for e-cash is easily solved with an umpire, but e-cash diehards reject central banks, digital mints and the like. So blockchain is very political; it chooses a solution pattern that is entirely politically motivated. That’s fine – I grok that everything is political at some level. But to think that this technology can be abstracted from the very simple problem space of electronic money to shift the power balance on a bigger stage is just wishful thinking.
“‘Self-sovereign identity’ is another notion (and little more than a notion) that comes into play here. Blockchain and identity are a heady mix, but it misses the essential aspect of identity being relational. A blockchain crowdsources decision-making about the order of events; there is nothing much in the nature of identity that can be crowdsourced, and even if a blockchain can play a part (such as letting people spawn and self-publish a unique decentralised identifier – DID) this is a tiny part of the problem space. These ideas are fueled by false intuitions and supercharged by carefully selected political words like ‘sovereignty.’ Identity is actually not the sort of thing that anyone can be sovereign over. Identity is how I am known. It’s an uncomfortable truth but for the most part, identity is created not by us but by those who know us, name us, credential us. Identity is not the sort of thing that can be ‘owned’ by individuals, much less controlled.”
Mike Liebhold, distinguished fellow, retired, at the Institute for the Future, wrote, “Currently, while blockchains are publicly visible indelible ledgers, all of the attached software, services and human practices tied to them are as vulnerable as any other digital systems. But by 2040 – based on current developments at Hyperledger.org and elsewhere – many properly engineered, reliable and trustworthy blockchain services will be widely used.”
A researcher expert in automated decision-making and its societal impact commented, “I feel like we’re trapped in an endless, rapid and recursive hype cycle. Most of the hype about the metaverse, Web3, blockchain and etc. is not new, and the associated movements – take NFTs for an example – are falling apart as quickly as they emerge.”
Barry Chudakov, founder and principal at Sertain Research, said, “Blockchain constitutes a new underlying framework, a new order. We think of that new order in terms of digital currencies (that are based on blockchain technologies) or newer encryption methods that use the blockchain to create greater security. Possibly lost in the fervid discussions of whether bitcoin will take over state-sponsored currency – or whether bitcoin and dogecoin are losing early backers – are the larger implications of blockchain technology itself. When a third-party commercial enterprise like blockchain creates a new way to value money, various dependent orders are challenged:
- National borders
- National currencies
- National trading regulations
- International trading regulations
- National and international privacy regulations
- Regulatory oversight
- Public record keeping.
“As Frontiers in Blockchain described it:
According to some, as a record keeping technology, blockchains could be truly revolutionary. They could reconfigure power away from nation states and traditional elites and redistribute it. … The central questions then become … does blockchain technology offer a viable trusted alternative to state-backed record keeping? To whom is power redistributed in a world of blockchain record keeping and what kind of socio-political power dynamics may this configure?
“Passwords are an old, word-based tool that is a relic of the alphabetic order. Newer technologies, including blockchain, will likely supplant passwords as soon as this year. What is this telling us?
- We are moving from the alphabetic order to a new, non-word-based order.
- We understand words; our understanding of newer technologies is less – much less.
- Not fully understanding the basis of newer technologies, we are effectively blind to their larger implications.
“Record-keeping was first manual, then became digital. But blockchain uses a distributed record-keeping system called a ledger that keeps track of changes to assets within the chain. Unlike a bank or financial accounting system, the ledger isn’t centralized, but is distributed to all the computers in the chain. This changes the way transactions are initiated, processed, authorized, recorded and reported.
“Changes in business models and business processes may impact back-office activities such as international and corporate accounting, financial reporting and tax preparation. Kevin Kelly, writing in Wired, may have had the best notion of the value of the blockchain: ‘Blockchain has been looking for a job, and ensuring the integrity of an open mirror world might be what it was born to do.’”
Marjory S. Blumenthal, senior fellow and director of the Technology and International Affairs Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, responded, “Although blockchain is often discussed as a basis of Web3, which itself is a cousin of or alternate frame to metaverses, its role is as an enabling technology – and metaverses will have many. Blockchain is cast as an enabler of decentralization and an antidote to monolithic control of a metaverse. The historic tension between centralization and decentralization in information infrastructure will likely evolve in multiple waves and with multiple mixes of technology over the next couple of decades (and beyond).”
Toby Shulruff, senior technology safety specialist at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said, “The promise of blockchain and Web3 is based in the power of tools like cryptocurrencies, smart contracts and decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) to decentralize the financial, legal and governance realms in order to counter the consolidation of power by governments and corporations. However, the underlying infrastructure of these systems is becoming increasingly centralized, and up to this point blockchain has been driven by the priorities of a narrow set of actors. Particularly when based on proof of work, blockchain also comes with substantial energy and environmental costs. If Web3 is to benefit more people in more ways, like all digital technology it will need to become more environmentally sustainable, and, equally importantly, become more accessible and accountable to those with the most to lose from failure.”
Brad Templeton, chair emeritus at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and director at the Foresight Institute, responded, “I see blockchains as mostly orthogonal. They are about trust (or lack of it) and transactions. They could allow applications in this metaverse to be more peer to peer, which has value, but they allow that everywhere, not just in what you would call a metaverse.”
Glenn Edens, Internet Hall of Fame member and professor of practice at the School of Global Management at Arizona State University, wrote, “Your final question was about the blockchain, and while related to the metaverse, it is orthogonal. If you were to tell me that wasting electricity on a global scale creates value, I would suggest you were crazy – and that might still be correct. The blockchain is simply a database, yes, a more transparent database; however, all of the visions of a grand new decentralized world (and by implication a ‘better’ world) are largely false. The current systems are highly centralized, run by the same old rules of commerce, economic benefit-driven governance and systems to favor large investment returns. One could have implemented the blockchain in many ways, and the move from proof of work to proof of stake is a necessary path, driven by the previous bad design decisions. Couple this waste with an industry where the culture drives the ‘crypto bros’ to not use their real names and you have a recipe for a potential disaster. While we don’t know the real numbers, it would appear that fraud and theft are no less a problem in the crypto world than they are in the real world. Another recent development is the crypto-custodian as a new business model and investment opportunity – didn’t we used to call those ‘banks’? I’d suggest while we’ve transferred a lot of wealth, we actually haven’t made any progress for humanity, yet.”
Thomas G. Dietterich, co-founder and chief scientist at BigML, commented, “You ask about blockchain. Surely you are joking. Cryptocurrencies are today’s tulips.”
William Lehr, an economist and tech industry consultant who was previously associate director of the MIT Research Program on Internet and Telecoms Convergence, said, “Blockchain is important for lots of reasons. See Lehr (2021) on smart contracts. Blockchain is inextricably bound to multiple other technologies and market/political developments that could take us in multiple directions that ultimately have little to do with blockchain. It is certainly a shiny new technology with lots of disruptive potential.”
Mei Lin Fung, chair of People-Centered Internet, wrote, “Blockchain will be very, very important, providing the provenance for digital footprints that is required for science, regulation, oversight, etc., basically all the functions we have in the real world that our eyes, ears and senses provide to authenticate our perceptions, in conjunction with interactions with other people, institutions and networks.”
Andrew Tutt, an expert in law and author of “An FDA for Algorithms,” wrote, “Blockchains are here to stay, I have no doubt about that, and they may prove to be the most convenient way to determine ownership over virtual assets in the future. But decentralized blockchain technology is not necessary to the development of the metaverse. Traditional notions of sovereignty and traditional legal systems and tools will at least continue to play a prominent role in the metaverse no matter how it develops.”
Mark Johnson, a technology adviser, administrator and consultant, wrote, “Blockchain (as a distributed ledger, not currency) will find a place for recording transactions where provenance is important. Medical records, education transcripts and scientific data may be examples. It’s possible that blockchain could offer an aid to combating disinformation by making it easier to trace disinformation to its source. Lowering computational overhead will be required or it will be environmentally impossible to sustain.”
Simeon Yates, director of the Centre for Digital Humanities and Social Science at the University of Liverpool, UK, said, “Unless they find a way to make blockchain use far less energy, we need to regulate it out of existence to meet our climate change goals. It is a libertarian’s dream tech, but it is in fact a potentially serious threat to democratic accountability in our economic and social lives. There are good reasons for central banks, centralised accounts for process and transaction records – it makes visible all the actions that can have huge social impact. Blockchain does not free us from the constraints of central banks and regulators – it frees the powerful who can afford to use it from such constraints.”
Vint Cerf, Internet Hall of Fame member and vice president at Google, wrote, “Blockchain is oversold, but the visibility properties are useful. There are other ways to implement immutable objects, so that particular method does not have a monopoly. To be useful, blockchain applications need a lot of surrounding software. The blockchain is a record of transactions, but it does not contain that which was transacted – think NFTs, for example. Even if the transaction involves, e.g., an executable contract, the contract object is not itself in the chain – so it needs its own protection, just as coins in cryptocurrency are not in the chain but in a wallet which, by the way, has been the area of greatest vulnerability. There remain scaling issues associated with blockchains – how many transactions can be managed per unit of time. They must remember the entire chain forever for certain kinds of transactions – such as real estate ownership, stock ownership – until sold, which could be decades later.”
Stephan Adelson, president of Adelson Consulting Services, an expert in the internet and public health, responded, “Regarding blockchain, the idea that ‘what happens on the internet is forever’ becomes even more true. The current thinking that Web3 will be ‘of the people and for the people’ is linked to the idea of blockchain as ‘decentralized’ – but I do not believe this will be the case. There is already a huge battle by the biggest financial interests for their piece of control. Blockchain will help solve long-lasting problems when computers become more ‘quantum.’ In regards to the bitcoin protocol and the financial implementation of blockchain and cryptocurrencies, I suspect something like the U.S. Federal Reserve will likely emerge to regulate it. There is too much money involved for some opportunistic entity to not succeed in getting a share – all it would take is a series of events like the Great Depression and control would be fought for and won. Also, the use of blockchain for illicit activities and the possibility that there would be multiple regulations by various global and local jurisdictions will be fodder to ensure some group or groups will find ways to gain control of a large share of the value.”
Peter H. Hellmonds, founder/owner of Arete Publica, a public affairs consultancy, responded, “Blockchain is still very much in its infancy today, but the possible positive influences on our lives are manifold. From verifying financial transactions to documenting shipping of goods to certifying the origins of diamonds or other minerals used in international trade, I can imagine that blockchain’s everyday uses will soon surpass the uses as a means for cryptocurrencies.”
Olivier Crépin-Leblond, founding board member of the European Dialogue on Internet Governance and board member for the European At-Large Organisation at ICANN, wrote, “Blockchain is still very experimental. I would like to think that it will allow for real decentralised organisations to emerge. I would like to think that traditional top-down firms will be replaced by bottom-up, distributed firms where integrative management is practised as a norm. But bottom-up has its limits, and it is not in the immediate interests of the people at the top of the current firms to allow or to promote anything that will weaken their current power. It must be demonstrated that a bottom-up, massively distributed firm that uses blockchain to balance its control structure is vastly more efficient and successful than a traditional top-down structure. Attempts so far have been unsuccessful, but that doesn’t mean that future attempts will be unsuccessful. You just need one winning model to revolutionise the way we operate.”
James Gannon, a health care policy expert whose focus is on emerging tech, consultant for Novartis and PharmaLedger, responded, “Blockchain is a technical concept rather than a religion, its use will increase (I work full time on blockchain in health care for the world’s largest health care company) but I feel the religious and social aspects will minimize and we will see it in the same way we speak about DNS or TCP/IP.”
Deirdre Williams, an independent internet governance consultant, said, “Blockchain as a guarantee of a type of “truth” is a very useful mechanism. It could, for example, allow for disaggregation to specific local sources in a supply chain and so add value for small producers. Blockchain as cryptocurrency represents a risk with an unacceptably high possibility of disaster, and another mechanism with the potential to divide rather than to bring together.”
Michael M.J. Fischer, professor of anthropology and science and technology studies at MIT and lecturer in the department of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School, said, “The promise of blockchain is as decentralized anonymized exchange systems that are secured only through registers of transactions. The worries are that: 1) these will contribute to the further destruction of regulatory governance in favor of criminal and authoritarian activities; and 2) with current technologies of cryptocurrency mining, it is terribly energy expensive and ecologically destructive. Relatively carefully controlled ‘sandbox’ experiments are being pursued, and we can see if better solutions can be found.”
Melissa Sassi, global head of IBM Hyper Protect Accelerator, wrote, “We are still quite behind in seeing the many benefits and advantages of blockchain. I would absolutely love to see more blockchain applications come to fruition, as decentralized checks and balances are definitely needed when it comes to health care, the supply chain, our food supply and other industries. I would also love to see there be more checks and balances on fiat currency, as many governments continue to print money like it’s going out of style, giving rise to the need for a people-centered currency that reduces the amount of corruption and nefarious actions in the world. Blockchain has the power of bringing a people-centered approach and transparency to the world. I’m excited to see what role bitcoin continues to play when it comes to disrupting the world of fiat currency and our evolution through the history of money, the economy and traditional power structures.”
Frank Kaufmann, president of the Twelve Gates Foundation, said, “Blockchain seems to be the only promising structure I can see presently that provides even a slim hope of re-introducing individual freedom in a world poisoned and sickened by the capacity to surveille. Unfortunately, blockchain already seems to have been infiltrated by power-greed addicts, and may prove insufficient to provide freedom-seeking people with the hope of a dignified life with freedom, property, privacy and dignity. If power-greed addicts succeed to corrupt and infiltrate blockchain technology, a replace for blockchain will take its place.”
Paul Brigner, head of U.S. policy and strategic advocacy at Electric Coin Company (which seeks to support technology that provides the public with access to a fair and open currency), responded, “Regarding blockchain, I expect to see decentralized finance based on a plurality of interconnected blockchains to have a significant impact on the global financial ecosystem by 2040. I also expect that the predominant blockchains of today, namely bitcoin and ethereum, will lose market share to blockchains that have incorporated privacy protecting technologies (e.g., zk-SNARKs).”
Mark Nottingham, senior principal engineer at Fastly and a longtime leader in the Internet Engineering Task Force with expertise in internet and web standards, commented, “While there are some potentially useful applications of blockchain, they are a footnote compared to the scam culture that it supports today and will likely continue to support failing regulation that reins it in.”
Guenther Goerz, professor emeritus of AI at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany, commented, “Ecologically sustainable implementations of blockchain may be useful for contracts, but bitcoin and similar so-called currencies are void; they have no utilitarian value but are an extreme form of exchange value without any real basis. It’s another attempt to turn the world economy into a giant casino where the profits are privatized and the losses socialized.”
Micheal Kleeman, a senior fellow at the University of California, San Diego, who previously worked for Boston Consulting and Sprint, responded, “Blockchain has many different applications but in this context the ability to have validated transactions without central authentication will enable more global activities, and perhaps more criminal activities.”
Laurence Lannom, vice president at the Corporation for National Research Initiatives, wrote, “Blockchain is just another technology whose applications are hard to foresee. The current optimistic view that it can generate trust independent of any human activity, that one can trust the technology even if one can’t trust the people, is, however, misplaced. In the end, trust is a human reaction to experience, and this is especially true in the case of a technology that very few of its potential users understand at a basic level.”
Lee Warren McKnight, professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, responded, “While blockchain is not a panacea, and creating new permanent records/immutable data trails has obvious downsides, AND there are many falling victim to crypto scammers and rug pulls today and there will be more tomorrow, blockchain does offer significant hope for data privacy and security enhancements, and self-sovereign data and identity management by design, which could – but only if we are fortunate, and law and policy helps – prevent the worst-case meta-scenario from unfolding in 2040.”
Bob Frankston, internet and software-innovation pioneer, wrote, “Asking about blockchain in the context of a metaverse is a big red flag that puts them in the category of NBG – Next Big Thing. Blockchain is an interesting technology that has become an answer without a question. What does it have to do with shared visualization? If anything, the idea of everything in the world being on the same blockchain is a dystopian idea at odds which a fundamentally distributed reality. Is a transaction on Mars going to be tied to the one blockchain? The danger is the financial disruption of virtual gold bugs.”
Dmitri Williams, associate professor of technology and society at the University of Southern California, said, “Blockchain is pretty interesting in that it may allow for less friction and possibly (not certainly) decentralization, which would be a good thing to free up creativity and break us from purely capitalist structures.”
John L. King, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, responded, “Blockchain might be useful for particular kinds of contracting, but these will be low-level activities and have significant impact mainly in the aggregate. Most blockchain effects will be outside the realm of cryptocurrencies.”
John Sniadowski, a systems architect based in the United Kingdom, wrote, “It is unclear in my mind how blockchain is going to pan out in the longer term as each of its various instantiations have significant weaknesses in regard to resource consumption, security and regulatory governance. It undoubtedly has many potential benefits to society, but repressive governments will balk at its deployment because of the problems of legislation. Of course, some countries will likely use it to further monitor their citizens by building in back doors for transaction surveillance, and they won’t require democratic consent because consent is actively suppressed. Thus, oppressive countries will implement blockchain technologies far faster than democratic societies and thus apply catch-up pressures to those who wish to have technologies that enhance their democratic rights and daily life experiences.”
Matt Moore, a knowledge management entrepreneur with Innotecture, based in Australia, said, “Blockchain makes a great supplement to roulette tables. I remain less than convinced about the power of distributed ledgers.”
A veteran principal engineer who has worked at several major tech companies said, “First off, blockchain and its applications are likely to have little or no role in any of this. Right now, they are contributing to the overall sense of hype and solutions in search of a problem in a way that is fundamentally not helpful, as it tends to suck all the oxygen out of the room on any discussion of the practical applications of what you’re calling the metaverse. Little to none of the challenges in making the idea of the metaverse a reality are improved or enabled exclusively through blockchain and its friends.”
Charles Anaman, founder of waaliwireless.co, based in Ghana, wrote, “Until energy is available to all members of the internet-connected nations, there cannot be an equitable redistribution of wealth in a meaningful way that can undo the damage of the many invasions of the last 800 years that have shaped the globe. Blockchain technologies that cannot reset the ledger value to all members to enable constant collaboration while also decapitating any entity’s ability to hoard resources or assets are crucial. Access to information and cultural inclusion is not possible until the above listed requirements are met.”
Antoine Vergne, co-director of Missions Publique, an organization working to include the voices of all citizens in global policy, wrote, “I can imagine the metaverse as a seamless, global, decentralized, interchain financial system. Blockchains will be central to this. But for this they need to solve the question of governance, which is still very much in its infancy.”
Yvette Wohn, associate professor in informatics at New Jersey Institute of Technology and director of the Social Interaction Lab, wrote, “Blockchain will make virtual assets more valuable. Many people currently think of virtual items as being ephemeral or something that is not a physical asset or ‘property’ (e.g., do people list virtual items in their will?), but blockchain will make ownership of digital assets meaningful.”
James Hughes, bioethicist, sociologist and executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, wrote, “Blockchain will play a role in the virtual Internet of Things, and could create new economic opportunities for creators.”
Gary Marchionini, dean of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, responded, “Blockchain as a distributed ledger with the possibility of anonymity can be highly beneficial to information sharing and management. The proof of work implementations a la bitcoin are severely evil and wasteful of resources.”
An expert in large-scale systems and networks commented, “Blockchain strikes me as basically a bunch of baloney. I see it as overblown marketing hype that does not solve a real problem. I write this as a technical expert who has an admiration and appreciation of the beautiful mathematics that underpin it (Sybil-resistant distributed consensus, cryptographic proofs of work, non-interactive zero knowledge proofs, oh my).”
Gary Arlen, principal at Arlen Communications, responded, “Blockchain is SUCH a work in progress that its evolution in coming years is difficult to predict. It has implications beyond the current cryptocurrency focus, which itself is a cauldron of creepiness. Let’s see how the movement toward CBDC (Central Bank Digital Currency) evolves to create some types of fiat monies that are stable and trustworthy.”
Cathy Cavanaugh, chief technology officer at the University of Florida Lastinger Center for Learning, said, “Blockchain could ease access to technology and virtual spaces by providing a secure and durable virtual identity for everyone.”
Greg Sherwin, a leader in digital experimentation with Singularity University, wrote, “By 2040, the growth of quantum computing will have broken public key cryptography and rendering all of today’s crypto assets and NFTs as ‘public domain.’ So blockchain needs to be radically redefined by then to be relevant.”
Jonathan Kolber, author of “A Celebration Society,” wrote, “The blockchain MAY serve to provide a kind of rigorous ‘quality control’ for VR experiences, making such hacking rare or impossible by providing an un-hackable ‘proof of reality.’ In my view, this will require a quantum-hacking defense such as Quantum Origin’s new product.”
Kelly Quinn, clinical associate professor of communication at the University of Illinois-Chicago, responded, “Blockchain will develop some important applications in the (very near!) future, especially in areas where ownership and provenance are critical. Domains such as real estate, the arts and even food and wine present opportunities to use this technology in important ways to establish ownership chains and provide validation of origin.”
Amali De Silva-Mitchell, futurist and founder of the UN IGF Dynamic Coalition on Data-Driven Health Technologies, wrote, “The problems with blockchain are the high energy costs it incurs and concerns that it no longer be a secure option once emerging technologies like quantum computing are perfected. It will remain a useful option for some time yet, as it is one of the best available solutions in many cases in our current supply chain age.”
Ray Schroeder, expert in technology-enhanced learning and senior fellow at the University of Illinois-Springfield, said, “Blockchain will robustly roll out in the coming few years. It enables distributed sharing and transacting most effectively with numbers, non-fungible tokens, and other less-animated images than the metaverse. The accounting and ledgering of a wide array of items will provide secure and instant transactions and records. It is a far different technology from the metaverse.”
Eugene H. Spafford, internet pioneer and professor of computing sciences at Purdue, wrote, “Blockchain is overhyped right now. There is only a very small set of uses where it provides any advantages over centralized systems. Its speed and environmental impact do not make it attractive.”
Tamarah Singh, a global business manager expert in technology-led innovation based in Singapore, responded, “A globally integrated system needs to be interoperable and trust-driven. Blockchain has a role to play in this. However, the interoperability of chains will need to be designed to not introduce points of failure (of trust and beyond) into the system. Given how much of the metaverse is being designed for commercial gain at present, it would take an exceptionally well-funded, reasonably revolutionary thinker-doer to create the platform from which a true metaverse could exist, though, debatably, Android is an example of how something like this could evolve.”
An expert in the evolution of knowledge creation at a time of accelerating technological change responded, “We need to get beyond this ridiculous phase of the blockchain hype cycle and start to develop the really useful applications of distributed and decentralized records and not get distracted by financial speculation, money laundering, and opportunism. Blockchain has a lot of potential, but it is not in NFTs and fill-in-the-blank-coin fake money.”
A program manager for privacy and public affairs at one of the world’s top five tech companies said, “Permissionless public blockchains are problematic regardless of whether they are based on proof of work or proof of stake. I assume that some form of government regulation will emerge to manage these problems.”
An expert in cyber policy and platform regulation wrote, “I don’t really understand what the blockchain has to do with this. Is the question about identity authentication (which matters just as much in non-metaverse uses)? Or is it about artificial scarcity of digital assets, so maybe you value access to particular metaverse locations because they have the only copy of the metaverse Mona Lisa or whatever? I certainly hope we don’t go on that direction. Deliberately forfeiting the value of non-rivalrous digital goods would undo so much of what is good about the Internet.”