I’ve concluded that we Earthlings are in a race between self-destruction and human ingenuity.
On the one hand, we have what I’ll call the “forces of darkness” (okay, probably more accurately described as the forces of human cupidity and stupidity)–rejection of lifesaving vaccines, denial of climate change, what’s-in-it-for-me political corruption, belief in wack-a-doodle conspiracies, and the massive amounts of propaganda and fake news that reinforce our divisions into warring tribes.
On the other hand, there are all sorts of promising efforts to address these threats to humane (and human )civilization. I’ve posted about some of them. The question, of course, is: will humanity descend into a destructive and possibly terminal dark age before these corrective measures can take effect?
Scientific and technological efforts to combat pandemics and the worst effects of climate change will either prove themselves effective or not. Misinformation, disinformation and propaganda will actually be much more difficult to defeat, and as a mountain of research has shown, the result of our current information environment has been a massive loss of trust–in government, in the media, and in a wide variety of social institutions.
There are a number of efforts underway to combat misinformation and propaganda, to sift the wheat from the chaff–to distinguish what is factual from what is Foxified–so that citizens and future historians (assuming we make it to a future) can have confidence in the veracity of the information they rely upon.
One of those efforts is using blockchain technology to confirm that accuracy. Starling Lab, a nonprofit academic research center, is using blockchain’s decentralized ledgers to help preserve historical data of importance to humanity. The goal is to restore integrity both to asserted facts and to the internet itself.
Jonathan Dotan is the founder of Starling.
The ultimate goal, says Dotan, is to help curb misinformation at a time when images are often used out of context to advance political and ideological agendas. But doing so requires more than building tech to facilitate the authentication and the storage of data. Starling is also creating an interface that allows third-party experts—lawyers, historians, forensic analysts, journalists, and more—to offer context and clarity about an image or video, creating what Dotan calls “a distributed form of consensus.”
“Capture, store, and verify—that’s critical in our minds to help create a proper chain of custody,” he says. And unlike other organizations that are working on similar ways to attach metadata to images, Starling, which operates between USC and Stanford, is academic, not-for-profit, and entirely open source. Its system doesn’t require a centralized entity to put a stamp of truth on any content.
Starling’s system can also be used to document the historical record in real time. In a Reuters pilot, the news service’s photographers used the lab’s technology to certify images of the 2020 presidential transition, even as its legitimacy was under attack. Starling has also built prototypes with Syrian human rights organization Hala Systems, which has been exploring how to use the lab’s so-called image provenance technology in court to present evidence of war crimes. Starling and Hala are currently working to encrypt, authenticate, and preserve social media content from Telegram and TikTok that documents the war in Ukraine.
The initial project–and the largest–involves downloading and preserving the USC Shoah Foundation’s Holocaust archive.
Stephen Smith, the foundation’s executive director, says this is particularly important at a time when disinformation campaigns seek to downplay the greatest horrors of our shared past. “The competition over history is very real,” he warns.
No kidding. (Ask teachers in Tennessee...)
My techie son has explained blockchain to me. Several times. I still don’t understand it, but I’m willing to believe that the technology builds trust. With Bitcoin, for example, every transaction is recorded on a ledger that’s shared among several “distributed nodes.” The sheer number of copies of the ledger make it hard to change or manipulate.
Blockchain’s uses aren’t limited to finance.
With the Starling Framework, Dotan is applying the same basic idea to storing information. “The idea is that end users could host a critical piece of data—be it a testimony of genocide or record of transaction,” he says. “The end result is that, paradoxically, the more that you spread out information and provide computation in a distributed fashion, the more trusted it could be.”
Dotan has started hiring and partnering with experts across disciplines, including law, journalism, and human rights. The goal is to ensure that important information is accurate, and becomes part of the historical record, from Syria and Ukraine to Washington, DC.
The linked article has much more detail on the social and technical challenges involved.It’s long, but worth your time to read. It gives me hope at the same time as it gently reminds me that I have no idea how today’s technology works….