'On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog' is the caption for a memorable cartoon drawn by Peter Steiner, of the New Yorker. It was first published in July 1993 and has since become the most reproduced cartoon for the weekly magazine, earning Steiner considerable royalties.

The general public’s increasing interest in the internet was the cartoon’s backdrop and it satirised the internet’s then pervasive anonymity – people could only judge you by the words you wrote, rather than by your appearance or accent.

Surveillance capitalism

Thirty years later, anonymity and privacy are challenged by surveillance capitalism (a term promoted by social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff in her 2019 book of the same name).

The big tech platforms have transformed advertising by deducing patterns in the behaviours of the masses so as to predict and nudge the behaviour of individuals. Zuboff also identifies opaque synergies between the tech platforms and the approval of many governments in having populations monitored in ways which are largely obscure and unnoticed.

Despite our desire for privacy, public recognition strokes most egos. Twitter introduced its free 'blue tick' verified badge scheme in June 2009, to prevent impersonators misrepresenting themselves as well-known personalities. Recently, Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk announced that such verification would now require a monthly subscription.

Some believe it is time to completely rethink how privacy and recognition should be balanced on the internet.

Audit logs

Vitalik Buterin is famed in the cryptocurrency community as a co-founder of ethereum, now a foundational technology for the blockchains which irreproachably record audit logs of digital transactions.

He regularly writes on the societal, political and economic possibilities of cryptocurrencies and blockchains. His book Proof of Stake, published earlier this year, contains an insightful and thoughtful collection of his writings since 2014.

Last January Dr Buterin published his essay, Soulbound, (which is included in his book) and then followed up in May with a co-authored paper, Decentralised Society.

He proposes a new application of blockchain technology in which achievements could be unambiguously and irrefutably recognised. In contrast to digital assets such as 'non-fungible tokens' (NFTs) which can be bought, sold and traded, Dr Buterin proposes 'soul tokens' which can only ever be given and thereafter never traded, thus becoming inseparable from their owner.

If NFTs typically represent items of art, what could soul tokens represent? In summary, a digital CV of anything which marks points in our lives and given to us by counterparties.

Social achievements are a natural fit: club and society memberships, proof of attendance at big sports and cultural occasions, proof of participation in events and competitions, and proof of visiting noteworthy venues, including tourist attractions, museums and galleries, restaurants and bars.

A further category is official credentials such as birth and marriage certificates, academic achievements, employment history, health records, tax returns, passports, licences and permits – and yes, records of brushes with the law such as court appearances. In principle our life history could be irrefutably captured by soul tokens.

Programmable privacy

Soul tokens could have programmable privacy in a similar way that ethereum already supports programmable contracts for cryptocurrencies.

Dr Buterin suggests that a soul token could distinguish between the right to access and read its contents, to modify and update its contents and to use its contents for profit, including for advertising purposes. Individuals having a similar soul token could also form multi-authorisation groups – for example, members of the same club forming multi-signature approvals.

Dr Buterin’s motivations for soul tokens appear humanist, so as to define individuals not by their wealth nor by what they have purchased (such as NFTs), but rather by what they have actually accomplished and done.

Dr Buterin’s programmable contracts in ethereum already facilitate decentralised and autonomous organisations, in which individuals abide by societal decisions resulting from fair, transparent and robust voting. He has a particular interest in applying soul tokens to further strengthen democratic governance, such as preventing nefarious wealthy individuals from dominating the votes of others.

Soul tokens are technically feasible, and a number of researchers and startups worldwide are now actively engineering the software. But could soul tokens ever become socially acceptable and/or mandated by governments?

'Mandatory but not compulsory'

The controversies over our national Public Services Card, with the inclusion of biometric data, illustrate an Irish 'mandatory but not compulsory' circumlocution. We may welcome the efficiencies of new technology but frequently are wary of the actual intent of bureaucrats and political leadership.

Soul tokens will probably first appear in uncontroversial social settings, such as proof of membership of internet groups or of attendance at events such as technology conferences. As adoption matures, they may appear in cultural settings as digital badges for supporters and fans at sports, concerts and other performances.

But for the technology to ever become transformative to society at large, it must prove its stability and robustness over time avoiding the catastrophic collapses of trust that cryptocurrencies have suffered in the last 12 months. 

This article first appeared in The Irish Times on November 10, 2022.

Author: Dr Chris Horn, former president of Engineers Ireland, is the co-founder, CEO and chairman of IONA Technologies, industry expert on Irish technology development, trends, and business. As an honorary doctor of science from Trinity College Dublin and former TCD lecturer in computer science, Dr Horn is at the forefront of the Irish high-tech debate.