Though Blockchain has been touted as the answer to everything, a study of 43 solutions advanced in the international development sector has found exactly no evidence of success.
Three practitioners including erstwhile blockchain enthusiast John Burg, a Fellow at the US Agency for International Development (USAID), looked at instances of the distributed crypto ledger being used in a wide range of situations by NGOs, contractors and agencies. But they drew a complete blank.
"We found a proliferation of press releases, white papers, and persuasively written articles," Burg et al wrote on Thursday. "However, we found no documentation or evidence of the results blockchain was purported to have achieved in these claims. We also did not find lessons learned or practical insights, as are available for other technologies in development."
Blockchain vendors were keen to puff the merits of the technology, but when the three asked for proof of success in the field, it all went very quiet.
IBM struggles to sign up shipping carriers to blockchain supply chain platform – reportsREAD MORE
"We fared no better when we reached out directly to several blockchain firms, via email, phone, and in person. Not one was willing to share data on program results, MERL [monitoring, evaluation, research and learning] processes, or adaptive management for potential scale-up. Despite all the hype about how blockchain will bring unheralded transparency to processes and operations in low-trust environments, the industry is itself opaque."
Burg was an enthusiastic advocate for blockchain until recently – as he explained in this Medium post.
"Blockchain is like a loom that can weave together multiple strands of separate things... into an integrated fabric where you can see what the data means and adjust resources in response," he swooned.
Blockchain has been wildly mis-sold, but underneath it is a database with performance and scalability issues and a lot of baggage. Any claim made for blockchain could be made for databases, or simply publishing contractual or transactional data gathered in another form.
Its adoption by non-technical advocates is faith-based, with vendors' and consultants' claims being taken at face value, as Eddie Hughes MP (Con, Walsall North) cheerfully confessed to the FT recently.
"I'm just a Brummie bloke who kept hearing about blockchain, read a bit about it, and thought: this is interesting stuff. So I came up with this idea: blockchain for Bloxwich," said Hughes.
As with every bubble, whether it's Tulip Mania or the Californian Gold Rush, most investors lose their shirts while a fortune is being made by associated services – the advisors and marketeers can bank their cash, even if there's no gold in the river.
For example, Fujitsu offers fast-track consulting services starting at £9,900 to tell you if blockchain is appropriate for your project (that's something we can confidently tell you for nothing: no, it isn't).
And the magic B-word enabled doomed tech quango Digital Catapult to conduct a Houdini-like escape.
Now that's magic.
A modest proposal
Perhaps technology consultancy and marketing should be as tightly regulated as financial consultancy, where mis-selling can (in theory) lead to a lifetime ban from the industry, something the US Securities and Exchange Commission can do for people who violate securities law, like Michael Milken.
Surely if you hype "blockchain" or "artificial intelligence" (this report details a 95 per cent failure rate at Monsanto) and it was never going to work well, surely that's indistinguishable from fraud. A graduated series of penalties ranging from a five-year ban to a lifetime ban could then be imposed. ®