Blockchain-washing is the new AI-washing, apparently

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ITEM: A company called Primalbase is launching blockchain-enabled shared workspaces. Which doesn’t mean what you might think it means.

When Primalbase recently sent out a press release announcing that “UK’s first blockchain-enabled shared workspace launches in London to turn renting into an investment”, the Financial Times’ Jemima Kelly was curious as to how one went about blockchain-enabling a shared workspace, so she went to take a look at said workspace in London.

The workspace – which isn’t due to open until early next month – was still being finished at the time, but the closest thing she saw to anything related to distributed ledger technology related was this:

The techiest thing seemed to be the following, as explained to us by CEO Ralph Manheim, who was giving us the tour:

“Here will be a huge whiteboard, which happens to be red. This is the future! We want to encourage people to solve blockchain problems and to bring developers together.”

The redboard, apparently, will be written on in white. The future is bright; the future is red and white.

So … it’s not so much a “blockchain-enabled shared workspace” so much as a “regular workspace where people can think of ways to figure out how to blockchain it, or indeed anything else they think needs blockchaining”.

However, as FT’s Kelly explains, the Primalbase office is blockchain-enabled in the sense that the company is funded by its own cryptocurrency tokens issued through an ICO. There are 1,000 token holders who paid 3 Bitcoins per Primalbase token (PBT) and now have a lifetime membership that enables them to use any of the company’s shared workspaces in London, Amsterdam and Berlin, as well as upcoming workspaces planned for New York City and Singapore, and any other Primalbase workspaces that open in the future.

(If you’re wondering where the business model is in this – given that the PBT token holders have essentially paid 3 BTC (around $7,500 on the day of the ICO) in advance and in full for hot-desk workspace they can use forever, and Primalbase can only sell so many of these – the FT report says Primalbase is banking on two other revenue streams: (1) blockchain conferences and workshops, and (2) renting extra workspace to regular tenants as long as they’re emerging tech start-ups.)

So basically, FT concludes, Primalbase is more or less a standard commercial property firm with ICO funding. Which is fine as far as it goes, except that it’s using blockchain as a marketing gimmick – and in an arguably misleading way. I suppose it’s possible they didn’t intend to mislead anyone with the term “blockchain-enabled shared workspace”, but as far as I know, most companies don’t use the term “blockchain-enabled” as a way to describe their ICO funding.

Indeed, as Jemima Kelly writes, the term “blockchain-enabled shared workspace” conjured up a much different vision:

We were curious to see what a blockchain-enabled workspace might look and feel like. Were our movements to be tracked on a tamper-proof ledger? Were we to be granted access via a smart-contract-enabled electronic key? Would our identities be checked against the biometric data we had stored on a chain of blocks? It was all rather exciting.

Which would be far cooler than a lifetime membership to a standard hot-desk workspace firm. Perhaps some of Primalbase’s tenants will develop the very apps to make the company truly blockchain-based. If nothing else, it’s not as though real estate companies aren’t looking at distributed ledger technology as a way to make commercial leasing transactions more efficient and transparent (see this 2017 Deloitte paper [PDF] for details).

In any case, from here it looks like the latest example of a start-up slapping a hot biztech buzzword on its product or service to cash in on the hype. We’ve seen this with “green”, “smart” and most recently “AI”. Last year saw the rise of “AI-washing” where it seemed like everyone wanted you to think their product was “AI-powered” when in reality it just made use of algorithms to remember which settings you prefer or whatever.

Now it’s blockchain’s turn, apparently. So while Primalbase may not have exactly invented blockchain-enabled shared workspaces (yet), it may well be on the vanguard of blockchain-washing.

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