The technology-wielding world now stands before a choice: whether or not to put decision-making in the hands of technology. And supposing it happens, how far should it be reliable? Here we’re talking about decisions to make a code snippet as per criteria fed into it minus human intervention of any form. Let’s unravel what it took to have allowed the code to decide.
The problem arises because of the ways in which technology mediates individuals. In other words, individuals interact with each other in ways defined by technology. New technology lets individuals interact in an unprecedented manner, while also confining them to interact within the bounds of “the specific way that the technology allows.” To sum up, technology can be considered a coercive force that restricts individuals’ activities.
According to the original proponent of the theory ‘Code is Law’ Lawrence Lessig, every era has been historically dominated by a regime that has imposed regulations to curb the liberty of the generation in many ways.
“Ours is the age of cyberspace,” writes Lessig, “It, too, has a regulator. This regulator, too, threatens liberty. But so obsessed are we with the idea that liberty means ‘freedom from government’ that we don’t even see the regulation in this new space. We, therefore, don’t see the threat to liberty that this regulation presents.”
Lessig explains that the regulator in this instance is code. The very code that constitutes the software and operated the hardware makes cyberspace into what they are. It protects privacy, censors speech, monitors activities, determines access rights, and more importantly decides who needs to be shown what.
Blockchain reserves the potential to become a powerful regulator – not of liberties of individuals per se, but that of utilities and business operations. The smart contracts feature is regarded as the greatest potential of blockchain technology.
Smart contracts make it achievable to set rules defining conditions for executing pre-defined contracts automatically. Simply stated, owing to the nature of the blockchain that prevents itself from being hacked or faked, the code of Smart Contracts in blockchain has a coercive force. Blockchain makes it possible to build an “absolute law” that cannot be forged or violated.
Support for Code-is-Law
As our interactions are increasingly governed by software, we likewise rely on technology as a means to directly enforce rules. Indeed, in contrast to traditional legalities, which merely state what people shall or shall not do, technical rules determine what people can or cannot do in the first place – stopping them before it is committed.
This eliminates the need for any third-party enforcement authority to intervene after the fact, to exact penalties from those who infringed the law. Software ultimately ends up stipulating what can or cannot be done in a specific online setup, more frequently than the applicable law, and possibly also much more effectively.
Relying on technology-driven tools and code-based rules as a means to regulate society brings about a variety of benefits. These benefits mostly relate to the ability to automate the law and to enforce rules and regulations a priori, i.e. before the fact. Yet, regulation by code also comes with important drawbacks that might ultimately disrupt some of the basic tenets of the law.
Codes can be hacked. And that is a primary postulate of coding. So, for an instrument that eliminates the need for human intervention and hence is deemed incorruptible, can with extremely powerful methods be cracked. Also, not every individual will necessarily have faith in code-governed systems.
It will perhaps be a slow and steady shift towards the implementation of Code-is-Law. With appropriate security measures, it will be achievable given the benefits that are to be derived from them.