All over town, the parking meters are disappearing. Drivers now pay at a central machine, or with an app. It’s so convenient I sometimes forget to pay entirely—and then suffer the much higher price of a parking ticket. The last time that happened, I wondered: Why can’t my car pay for its own parking automatically?
Or imagine this: My car, which is already mostly a computer, enters an agreement to lease time from a parking lot, which is managed by another computer. It “signs” this contract just by entering the lot and occupying a parking space. In exchange, the car transfers a small amount of Bitcoin, the currency of choice for computers, into the parking lot’s wallet.
With computers handling the entire process, I’d never even be able to forget to pay for parking. The only way to fail would be for my car to run out of Bitcoin, in which case the parking lot has easy recourse: Because my car’s ignition is managed by a computer, the parking lot could just shut my vehicle down.
Scenarios like this are possible when blockchain—the digital transaction record originally invented to validate Bitcoin transactions—gets used for purposes beyond payment. In certain circles, the technology has been hailed for its potential to usher in a new era of services that are less reliant on intermediaries like businesses and nation-states. But its boosters often overlook that the opposite is equally possible: Blockchain could further consolidate the centralized power of corporations and governments instead.