The fragility of decentralised trustless socio-technical systems


The blockchain technology promises to transform finance, money and even governments. However, analyses of blockchain applicability and robustness typically focus on isolated systems whose actors contribute mainly by running the consensus algorithm. Here, we highlight the importance of considering trustless platforms within the broader ecosystem that includes social and communication networks. As an example, we analyse the flash-crash observed on 21st June 2017 in the Ethereum platform and show that a major phenomenon of social coordination led to a catastrophic cascade of events across several interconnected systems. We propose the concept of “emergent centralisation” to describe situations where a single system becomes critically important for the functioning of the whole ecosystem, and argue that such situations are likely to become more and more frequent in interconnected socio-technical systems. We anticipate that the systemic approach we propose will have implications for future assessments of trustless systems and call for the attention of policy-makers on the fragility of our interconnected and rapidly changing world.

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