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the good information project

Do you really understand what NFTs and the blockchain are? Here's an A-Z of tech terms

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AMONG THE MANY things society has had to adapt to throughout the modern age is the constantly changing lexicon of digital discourse.

As applications, technologies and softwares go in and out of use in the space of mere years, the language we use is quickly replaced by vaguely impenetrable terminology. Even for the most engaged among us, it can be hard to tell your data from your metadata and know what it means to be non-fungible. 

This month, The Good Information Project is focusing on the new digital age and what the latest developments in tech will mean for Ireland and the EU. To help you understand exactly what is being discussed, we’ve put together an A-Z of the terms that could define the next ten years.

Algorithms

At the heart of the modern internet experience are algorithms: equations devised by tech companies such as Meta, Google, Amazon and Spotify designed to put content in front of your face in the hopes that you engage with it — whether by clicking on it, watching it, or paying for it.

Algorithms tend to prioritise engagement, which many believe has led to the advent of misinformation and decontextualised information as users receive content that confirms their own beliefs and biases, rather than presenting a true reflection of the facts. 

Blockchain

Blockchains are the cornerstone of the new digital era. A blockchain is a network of computers storing data pertaining to any number of things, such as financial transactions, land and title records, medical data, etc. These networks of computers validating and storing transactions are designed to render centralised record-keeping systems obsolete. 

Individuals who maintain blockchains are rewarded with cryptocurrency native to the blockchain they work with.  

Cryptocurrency

Units of a cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin, are an asset that can be used in much the same way as fiat currency. They can be used to purchase goods and services, they can be held as investments and they can be exchanged for other currencies and cryptocurrencies. As an unregulated instrument of value, cryptocurrencies could potentially shift power from traditional financial institutions and central banks globally. Where that power would go is up for debate. 

It is presently estimated that around half a million Irish people own some form of cryptocurrency.


The Explainer / SoundCloud

Decentralisation

The purported philosophical argument made by proponents of Web3 is that the web as it currently exists is too centralised, with too much power in the hands of the biggest tech firms.

Notionally, the blockchain could be used to decentralise online services so that more peer-to-peer transactions are possible, cutting out a perceived middle-man and allowing users to remain in control of their own data and their online lives.

It could also be used by smart entrepreneurs to simply re-centralise power in their own hands, as the torch simply passes from the giants of Web2.0 to the giants of Web3.0.

Environmental impacts

For a brief, naive moment, it might seem on the face of things that moving more of the world into the digital space would be good for the environment, reducing the need for production in the physical world. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Reliance upon the digital world, blockchains, cryptocurrencies and the like requires an enormous amount of energy. As things stand, data centres in Ireland use as much energy as the entire rural population. That is only going to increase, with €7 billion set to be invested in Irish data centres over the next four years, a doubling of the current investment.

city-bank-network-hub-switches-data-link-cables Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Facial recognition

As the digital world intertwines more closely with the physical world, the use of human biometric data is becoming more commonplace. Facial and fingerprint IDs to access smart devices is now the norm, and it seems inevitable that the technology will only become more widespread.

According to a recent poll conducted by Ireland Thinks on behalf of The Good Information Project, just over half of Irish people don’t trust any organisation to use facial recognition data.

GDPR

By now, we’ve probably all had a chance to become used to GDPR — even if we aren’t entirely sure what it entails. Still, GDPR as a principle is a lynchpin of the EU’s approach towards curtailing the power of digital forces to amass, harvest and profit from reams of user data. Brought into force four years ago, GDPR put tighter restrictions on data controllers (such as private companies), allows the public to access any of their personal data, and enshrined a right to be forgot and have their private data destroyed. 

Recently, WhatsApp have been permitted to challenge in court a €225 million fine for breach of GDPR.

Hard to regulate 

The idea behind the blockchain is that it is, for the most part, self-regulating. Because a network of computers is needed to verify each transaction, things like ownership and identity are confirmed by a consensus along the network of computers. The responsibility for verification being spread across a network of nodes makes it hard for the state to get in there and impose a different kind of order on it. 

Ireland

So how is Ireland preparing for the coming digital decade? Earlier this month, the Government published The Digital Ireland Framework – a detailed blueprint containing Ireland’s ambitions over the coming years. 

Goals include moving 90% of all public services online by 2030, improving basic digital literacy to 80% from 56%, and having 90% of SMEs at “basic digital intensity” by the end of the decade.

Jack Dorsey

Founder of Twitter Jack Dorsey is, along with Elon Musk, a major player in the tech world who is openly sceptical about what Web3.0 represents. Disputing the idea of Web3 as a decentralised, fully democratised idea, Dorsey last year tweeted: “You don’t own ‘web3.’ The VCs [venture capitalists] and their LPs [limited partners - the people who supply venture capitalists with funding] do. It will never escape their incentives. It’s ultimately a centralised entity with a different label. Know what you’re getting into.”

Musk, more bluntly, said that Web3 “sounds like bullshit.”

Killer app

Historically, a killer app refers to an application of such great value or popularity that it virtually assures the success of the technology with which it is associated. A current example might include VisiCalc – the first ever spreadsheet programme, which spurred the success of personal and professional computing. Developers all over the world are currently involved in a quiet race to develop the killer app for Web3.0.

Learning

Advocates of machine-learning tout such advances as beneficial for the end-user (us). Effective machine learning by search engines and apps that we use could, hypothetically, make it easier for users to find whatever it is they’re looking for online and lead more efficient lives.

The trade-off, of course, is that the more these services know about you, well, the more they know about you. Machine learning can only be achieved through the absorption of reams of data. This raises issues of privacy, and not everyone is comfortable being so closely surveilled. 

Metaverse

The metaverse is a not an especially new idea, and even in its most modern iteration, it’s little more than The Sims crossed with virtual reality. The purpose of the metaverse is to allow more of societal interaction to take place online – job interviews, conferences, social occasions. Whether it takes off will depend entirely on whether or not the public accepts it, and the jury is squarely out.

Meta / YouTube

NFTs 

Non-fungible tokens can be poorly understood even among those who do understand them, because to many, they seem like a bad idea. A non-fungible token is a digital asset, for example, an image of an ape that you could use as your profile picture on a social media website. If that doesn’t really make sense to you, I’m afraid that there isn’t all that much more to it.

Owning an NFT is like owning a piece of art, in that it’s not really about the work itself, but about the idea that it is an original – and instead of the artists’ signature in the corner, you can prove your ownership with a unique code that only you own. 

shutterstock_1932205373 Shutterstock / Rokas Tenys Shutterstock / Rokas Tenys / Rokas Tenys

Is it possible for anyone to simply right-click and ‘Save Image’ on photos sold as NFTs? Yes, it is. But it’s not about the image, it’s about the code. NFTs have brought the paradox of value into the digital age.

OpenSea

OpenSea is perhaps the leading mainstream marketplace for NFTs — making it a regular target for hackers. Last week, €1.7 million worth of NFTs were stolen from OpenSea users before being returned. The company is currently estimated to be worth $13.3 billion dollars.

Permissionlessness

While it may not be the most technical term, permissionlessness is one that will probably still sound quite strange to a mass audience.

Right now, the web functions in such a way that you seek permission from some authority – a company or a government – for almost every interaction you undertake. Often this involves accepting cookies, signing up, memberships, subscriptions, entering your email address and a password and other details about your life. In a permissionless web, notionally at least, identities will be tied to a blockchain and integrated in such a way that your online presence is an automatic extension of your own self.

Regulation 

Earlier this year, the European Parliament passed the Digital Services Act – an attempt to rein in some of the unchecked behaviour of big tech firms. Among the provisions of the act are requirements for social media companies to be more transparent about their algorithms and assume more responsibility for the content published on their platforms. 

The DSA will also seek to put in place mechanisms whereby major tech firms can be audited and held accountable for their algorithmic decisions. 

Semantic web

The “original” Web3.0.

At the outset of the internet, data was communicated in such a way that it was meaningful to humans. The ‘semantic web’ refers to an iteration of the internet wherein data is made meaningful to machines, allowing webpages to essentially function as intelligent servants. Tim Berners-Lee himself referred to the semantic web as Web 3.0, but it never took off. 

Trustlessness

See permissionlessness.

Web3 sells itself as ‘trustless’ which is a way of describing the direct, peer-to-peer nature of future online transactions. Instead of ‘trusting’ a third party app to verify your identity or manage the exchange of money or an asset, this would be handled by the blockchain algorithm and encryption.

Universal speech translation

One of Meta’s primary projects as part of its headlong leap into the new web is a real-life version of the Babel fish from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. That is to say, communication software that can immediately translate any language to any other. 

“The ability to communicate with anyone in any language — that’s a superpower people have dreamed of forever, and AI is going to deliver that within our lifetimes,” said Mark Zuckerberg earlier this month.

Virtual real estate

Virtual reality is another area of tech that has promised much but delivered – well, not as much since the turn of the millennium. Proponents of the metaverse are hoping investment, both financial and emotional, can be driven by virtual real estate — spending actual, non-Sims money on digital architecture, outfits, and even “land” (Minecraft-esque tracts of digital space) will entice investors and users to virtual reality. 

Wariness

The Central Bank of Ireland does not regulate cryptocurrency, and says that cryptocurrencies do not meet the criteria for legal tender. Because of large price fluctuations, it cannot be considered a store of value. Its instability also makes it an unreliable medium of exchange.    

There is still a very firm wariness around these latest disruptions to the current monetary system. The overwhelming majority of businesses do not accept cryptocurrency and virtually nobody takes their salary in cryptocurrency.

You

While the internet now seems like inevitable infrastructure, the advances of Web 3.0 will ultimately be either buoyed or constrained by public participation in them. Tech companies rise and fall with the changes they make to their user experience, and if they fumble the ball on their latest ambitions, the public simply won’t want to use the blockchain, or the metaverse, or whatever else is planned. Ultimately, advances in the digital space will depend on societal consensus. 

Zuckerberg

A man who needs no introduction. The founder and CEO of Facebook is one of the key figures leading the charge into the new digital age. Mark Zuckerberg has gone so far as to change the name of his company to Meta and released a simulation video of himself inside the Metaverse. So far, nobody has shaped the 21st Century’s digital landscape more than Zuckerberg himself. Whether his role as chief architect of the future survives the next decade remains to be seen. 

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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