IEEE Blockchain Podcast Series: Episode 11
A Conversation with Victoria Lemieux
Associate Professor and Blockchain@UBC Cluster Lead,
University of British Columbia
Listen to Episode 11 (MP3, 31 MB)
Part of the IEEE Blockchain Podcast Series
Brian Walker: Welcome to the IEEE Blockchain Podcast series, an IEEE Digital Studio Production. This podcast series entitled Research Notes in Blockchain is hosted by Quinn DuPont, former assistant professor at the University College Dublin School of Business and founder of Alumni, a Web3 startup with the mission of putting the university diplomas on blockchain. Quinn is also the author of “Cryptocurrencies and Blockchains”. In this episode Victoria Lemieux, associate professor of Archival Science and lead of the blockchain research cluster at the University of British Columbia discusses her research focus on risk to the availability of trustworthy records, in particular blockchain.
Quinn DuPont: Thanks, Vicky, for joining us here today. I really wanted to speak with you in particular, because you've got, I think, one of the more sophisticated accounts of trust as it pertains to blockchain. And I've been enjoying your forthcoming book tremendously and, so, I thought maybe the first place to start would be if could you give me a little bit of a sense of what trust just kind of is generally and, particularly, maybe why this is important for the Internet in general and blockchain in particular.
Victoria Lemieux: Right. Well, wow, big questions. So, you know, trust is an incredibly diversely described and conceptualized concept. So, you know, even slippery sometimes. But, basically, in my book that you reference I have surveyed a wide, vast amount of literature and Russell Hardin's core conceptualization of trust as, you know, basically, the trust-- the person who is trusting or the entity doing the trusting, somehow the entity or the person they're placing their trust in, encapsulating their interest. So, trust as encapsulated interest. This conceptualization of trust really forms the foundation for my conceptualization of trust. And I-- unlike Hardin, I think it is scalable to a social level. So, he talks about it in terms of individuals. And he’s sort of skeptical about it being scalable to-- at the social level to, like, governments. But I think it is scalable. And I describe why in the book. And I also-- he has-- he wrote in 2004, well before really a lot of the research on the Internet and trust in the Internet. And. of course, you know, we know the problems of trust and the Internet. We see that all the time with, you know, hackers and people pretending to be someone else. You know. And--
Quinn DuPont: On the Internet nobody knows you're a dog.
Victoria Lemieux: Yes. I wasn't going to mention that that, that meme, but that's always the go-to meme. And the fact that as information takes digital form it is much more manipulatable, which is really something I've really focused on in my book.
Quinn DuPont: What does that mean, to encapsulate interest?
Victoria Lemieux: Right. So, what that basically means is that as Hardin describes it, is that what is in the interest of the person being-- in whom you might be placing your trust is also in your interest. So, they're basically thinking about what your interests are. So, there's a cognitive process going on. They are understanding, “Hey, you have interests.” And they're able to think about your interests and think about them in relation to their own interests and your interests align. So, it's kind of like we see in the blockchain space where incentives are aligning. You know, our interests are somehow made to align, usually by consensus mechanisms. The way that consensus mechanisms work. So, there's a nice symmetry here. Hardin’s process is very cognitive and other theorists really talk about the affective dimensions of trust, that there's an emotional dimension. Like, when we feel betrayed, like, you feel angry, you feel ashamed. And, so, I don't deny that there are these other dimensions. I don't ascribe to the view that trust is a purely cognitive process. I think there are other things going on. Again, I described that in the book, but what I’ve really then target is when we're deciding whether or not to trust that other person, you know, making a decision about whether we think we're going to put ourselves at some risk, because trust involves some risk, it means that we're going to make ourselves vulnerable in some way to the risk of being betrayed by that other party. Like, maybe their interests aren't really aligned with my interests. Maybe this technology isn't really going to, you know, do what it says and I'm going to be manipulated. So, you have to make some kind of an assessment based on information, knowledge, you gain about how trustworthy, how trustworthy-- how worthy of that is that other party of you placing your trust, making yourself vulnerable. And, so, some philosophers, they'll debate whether or not, you know, that's a process that, you know, we're naturally trusting and we-- you know, we take it information. We really stop trusting only when there's an overwhelming amount of information that the other party isn't trustworthy. Some say it's more cognitive and we are thinking about it and then we-- when we trust, we bring that trusted party into sort of like our whole cognitive frame and they sort of become a part of us in a way, an extension-- a cognitive extension of ourselves. So, there's variations on this theme. But, you know, at some level, I argue that there's this assessment that's going on. There is a cognitive process, but it's filtered through emotions and ideology and cognitive biases and so on. But, at the core, it's epistemic in that it involves knowledge and knowledge involves the formation of beliefs. And, so, it's the epistemic nature of trust that I really focus in on the book. And when we have an epistemic basis of trust and we need knowledge, we need to think about, “Well, wait, I'm making an assessment about this party I'm trusting based on knowledge and information I'm receiving. How trustworthy is that information?” And, so, then we have to go through the same process with the information, the evidence that we're using to make an assessment about whether the other party is trustworthy or not. And that's where I think blockchain comes in. I think that it's the ledger. The ledger gives us a basis for believing that the information we're basing an assessment of whether we're going to transact with that other party is trustworthy. And, so, it gives us that confidence that we can transact, we can place our trust in that other party. And trust is extremely important for economic transactions as many theorists, economists-- Kenneth Arrow, for example, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, has written about-- and collective social action. So, where we don't have trust, we can't have complex economic and social interactions and we can't coordinate our actions, we can't solve global climate change, for example, because we can't coordinate, because we don't trust. And our incentives aren't aligned. And we can't form trusting relationships without this epistemic foundation. And in a world in which we have the Internet and digital information, where information has become much less trustworthy in itself, and we don't have a firm grasp on how we can determine whether the information we're getting is trustworthy, we have a problem with trust, which is the problem, I argue, that blockchain promises-- I'm not saying it necessarily delivers. In the book, I talk about some of the complicating factors, but blockchain promises that trust in information that we need for broader social and economic trust.
Quinn DuPont: So, Russell Hardin's really concerned with a social dimension of trust and specifically this epistemic one that you point out. But what I hear is interesting is you're pointing to that there's a shift to the sociotechnical here, where there's these systems in place that offer opportunities to-- well, I don't know how to put it. I mean, how would you say? What is the blockchain doing there? I guess, obviously, it has to do something with the fact that we've got records and that we can verify them, and we can be sure that they're accurate and some way that fits into the social part. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Victoria Lemieux: Yeah, so, again, I talk about in the book-- and I don't write at great length in my forthcoming book, but I have written at greater length in a previously published, edited volume on designing for trust in decentralized systems. And I talk about their-- the idea of blockchains not as these technical artifacts that are outside of us, not even as sociotechnical systems. Again, which, you know, have social dimensions, but are kind of outside of us. But I draw on, you know, sort of Bruno Latour and, you know, similar ontological perspectives where the social actors and technical actors or actants are ontologically equivalent and they're all networked. They're all-- they have networked relationships. And they all interact and influence each other. And, so, what I basically am saying is that blockchain is a complex system where you have a social layer, or social actants; you have an information layer or information actants; and you have a technical layer of technical actants. And we think about technology usually as these technical components, but what I'm saying is that they're only one layer or one-- I think, if you're talking about systems theory and complex systems theory, one subsystem that it interacts with all of these other subsystems. And, so, the original theory was three layers, then working collaboratively with colleagues from multiple disciplines, including yourself, and workshopping this idea, it emerged-- a more complex and nuanced theory emerged where there's a social subsystem, informational subsystem, technical subsystem, and a governance subsystem. And the goal of this complex system is, ultimately, trust social trust, not technical trust.
Quinn DuPont: Right.
Victoria Lemieux: So, what does this mean? It means that the technology doesn't live outside of us. It's not sort of this object, this artifact. It is something that-- and this is why I think the concept of the ecosystem is so important in the blockchain space. It is something that we work together collaboratively, as human beings and technology working together, to create this informational reality, this epistemic reality, which-- and drawing on various theorists mostly from sort of linguistic theory that we sort of bring our social reality into existence. So, this epistemic reality breathes life into our ontological reality. And it can transform it. So, we're part of-- like, we're part of and we co-create this ecosystem through technology and through the information that is the ledger that is created from blockchain technology.
Quinn DuPont: Yeah.
Victoria Lemieux: It's a very mind-warping way to look at blockchain, I think, when you're used to looking at it as a technical artifact.
Quinn DuPont: Yeah, and this transformation you speak of, I think, this is one of the really kind of interesting things about blockchain. And this is a lot of where its power lies, but it's also-- it cuts both ways, because I often think of blockchain as kind of a behavioral technology, right? And many people have picked up on there's this concept of cryptoeconomics. I've spoken with, on this podcast before, Shermin Voshmgir and Michael Zargham, who’ve both written on cryptoeconomics. And they point out-- and they, too, agree with you and say, “It's a complex system.” But, as such, this brings us-- gives us tremendous power to be able to modify people's behaviors, you know, aligning incentives and so on and so forth.
Victoria Lemieux: Hm-mm.
Quinn DuPont: There's risks here, aren't there?
Victoria Lemieux: Absolutely. You know, we-- so, ethical design really has to come into it, because when you're entering into the design of blockchain systems you are really manipulating with one of the core fabrics of society and of human existence: trust. And thinking about how trust maybe is broken in the context of what you're designing that system and how you can repair trust, is extremely delicate. And it can be subverted. It can be subverted to your own interest. So, there are many opportunities for capture of platforms and people and so on. So, I agree with you. There are definite risks. Here's the other side of the coin though, that in complex systems-- and we know this even from not even complex systems, just from technology design, that complex systems evolve in ways that are sometimes not necessarily predicted by their designers. Complex systems theory comes-- you a lot of it coming from looking at more naturalistic types of ecosystems, not designed ecosystems. But we know from technology design that people appropriate technology and use it in ways that the designers never even thought of all the time. And, so, much so more the case for a complex system, which is not just a static artifact that people might use and appropriate and creatively apply and in ways that were not intended. But it's also a complex system meant to evolve. And it doesn't necessarily evolve in a linear, predictable fashion. So, that's the interesting part of this. And we have to keep track of that, and we have to observe how it's evolving and the effect that it's having as well, which I think we're so early days in this technology and in thinking about this technology that we haven't nearly developed the mechanisms or even the intellectual architecture for thinking about it and clearly enough and how we might tackle that problem. I think that's something we'll have to observe in the future.
Quinn DuPont: Yeah. And you mentioned the word “capture” here, which I think is a really salient one. And I'm pretty sure most people, when they think of contemporary platforms today on the Internet, they worry about these issues of capture; Google, and Facebook, and so on, and so forth, capturing your information, using it in different ways we might not have considered or wanted. And that's, I think, a lot of the push behind what sometimes gets called, very contemporarily, Web3 or the metaverse.
Victoria Lemieux: Hm-mm.
Quinn DuPont: And, so, maybe, we-- just to finish up here, do you have any thoughts on how trust might be part of the future when it comes to like Web3 or metaverse?
Victoria Lemieux: Yeah, I mean, if it's going to succeed at all, there needs to be thought put into trust. It just-- if we want positive social outcomes, we want to be able to encourage economic transactions and social coordination, we're going to have to think about trust. If we don't think about trust and there isn't trust and we have to kind of build in mechanisms to somehow signal more trust or to control the behavior of parties that might not be trustworthy, there are huge transaction costs. And this is what has been found by economists: Where there's less trust, the transaction costs rise. And, so, if we want this to succeed without huge transaction costs, then we have to think about that. But going back into this question of capture, I think that's a lot of the thinking that is behind also discussions about interoperability. It's about making sure that there isn't platform capture, that people can move fluidly between these various ecosystems, and these protocols that are not interoperable at this point in time. But I also talk about going back to this notion of a socio-informational-technical system. It's not just the protocols at the consensus level that need to be interoperable; it's the semantics, the syntactics of the ledger, the ledgers themselves. And it's also social interoperability, because I talk about the governance of these ecosystems, not just consensus or algorithmic governance that might be baked into the consensus mechanisms, but how-- who are the core developers? How are decisions made about changes to the code base? What happens when there's disagreement within the community? You know, how are forks handled? How are ledger splits incorporated back into the epistemic fold of the ledger? I think we have to think about interoperability and trust at all of these different layers and get them to work in a way that doesn't involve capture and doesn't create social and epistemic fragmentation in society, because these communities, these ecosystems, these blockchain ecosystems, right now operate as very, very separate, and distinct communities, not just technologies, but communities. There are people-- if you're a Bitcoiner, you're a Bitcoiner. And if you're involved in Ethereum, you're involved in Ethereum. There are very distinct social norms and values and governance practices. And, so, if we want to avoid having this kind of fragmentation, which isn't even-- it goes beyond just, like, economic capture on social media platforms, but to, like, real social fragmentation, we have got to think about trust, and we've got to think about interoperability and how these platforms will navigate and interact with each other.
Quinn DuPont: So, we've got some tough work ahead. For anyone that's interested in learning a little bit more about your past research, but also your forthcoming book, where would someone go to find out more information?
Victoria Lemieux: So, well, you can search me up on Google Scholar. The book that I mentioned on the three-layer model is published by Springer. So, you can find that book on Springer. It's edited with my colleague Chen Fung, who's in the engineering department at UBC, my colleague here at blockchain at UBC. And then my forthcoming book will be out in around May, I think, April or May. And it's Cambridge University Press. And it's called “Searching for Trust”. And you can search that up.
Quinn DuPont: That's wonderful. Alright, thank you very much. I look forward to seeing the book on the shelves.
Victoria Lemieux: Thanks so much, Quinn. It's been great to talk to you. And I'm a great admirer of your work as well and we need to reverse roles so I can talk to you about your work.
Quinn DuPont: Absolutely. Alright. Thank you.
Victoria Lemieux: Okay, take care.
Brian Walker: Thank you for listening to our interview with Victoria Lemieux. To find out more about the IEEE Blockchain Initiative, please visit our web portal at blockchain.ieee.org