Blockchain-based application at a governmental level: disruption or illusion? The case of Estonia

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Blockchain technology enables new kinds of decentralized systems. Thus, it has often been advocated as a “disruptive” technology that could have the potentiality of reshaping political, economic, and social relations, “solving” problems like corruption, power centralization, and distrust toward politi- cal institutions. Blockchain has been gradually gaining attention beyond finance and is thus applied by a range of different actors. This includes local, regional, and national governments interested in the potentiality of experimenting with blockchain-supported governance. This article contributes to identifying blockchain as a contested socio-political object prone to contradictory political imaginaries regarding its potentialities, particularly when applied to policy. The article explores some of the most praised of blockchain’s affordances (e.g., decentralization and transparency) in the context of Estonia, one of the most cited examples of blockchain governmental applications. Estonia has received inter- national attention as the alleged first national infrastructure integrating blockchain. However, so far, few have asked: what kind of blockchain-based tools have been built by the Estonian government in practice and why? And to what extent do blockchain-based governmental applications reflect the orig- inal promises of disruption of the crypto-community? This article draws on a qualitative approach to explore several blockchain-based socio-technical objects to identify the narratives that have emerged in Estonia. The research shows clear contrasting views between stakeholders and technical experts from inside and outside the institutional sphere. The conflict revolves around two different social imag- inaries associated with permissioned vs. public blockchains. The paper concludes with an analysis of the profound political implications of each vision.