The chaos around the mistaken announcement of La La Land as winner of Best Picture will surely make the 2017 Oscars go down as one of the most embarrassing events in the history of the Academy. Let's examine whether the problem could have been prevented using a blockchain - a distributed database that can contain encrypted data and code.

If you’re at all interested in cinema, you’ve probably heard about the kerfuffle at the recent American Academy Awards ceremony. The award for “best picture,” the bestowing of which is the main event, was, at first, mistakenly given to the wrong movie. For a few minutes, everyone in the audience thought the winner was “La La Land.” After a few minutes of impassioned speeches from that film's creators, one of the producers took the mic and said “We lost, by the way.” And he was right. The real winner was “Moonlight.”

The awards show, which had seemed to be almost over, was extended for several more minutes, as explanations were given, and the “Moonlight” producers took the stage and gave their own speeches. The resulting chaos will surely make the 2017 Oscars go down as one of the most embarrassing events in the history of the Academy.

Below, I’m going to make an argument that this year’s problem could have been prevented using a blockchain. That is, a distributed database that can contain encrypted data and code.

What went wrong with the Best Picture announcement

people watching movie_3.jpgHere’s the current setup. After the votes are tabulated by an accounting firm, the results are printed on two cards, each placed in an envelope. The envelopes are kept in boxes on opposite sides of the stage. Two on-site monitors (from the accounting firm) have the results memorized, but they are not permitted to disclose them unless there’s an issue. These monitors are also responsible for handing one of those envelopes to the presenters. The presenters (in this fatal case, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway) don’t know who the winners are until they open the envelope.

This year, one of the monitors responsible for handing off the final envelope was distracted by the sight of Emma Stone backstage. Instead of handing Beatty the envelope for Best Picture, he handed him the backup envelope for Best Actress, an award that had already been announced (and won by Stone). Beatty, finding the wrong card in the envelope, hesitated. Dunaway, thinking Beatty was just trying to create suspense, saw the words “La La Land” (the movie in which Stone had given her winning performance) on the card, and wrongly surmised that that movie must be the winner. She read “La La Land,” into the microphone, and the chaos began.

The firm responsible for the vote tabulation and the envelopes has announced that they’re going to address the problem like so: Next year, they’ll send two different people to hand the envelopes to the actors. In other words, they’re acting as if the problem came about due to human error.

The Oscars need a process update

But that’s obviously not true. The problem is systemic. The Oscars have been going on for almost 100 years; it’s time for a process update. Let’s discuss how modern technology in general, and blockchain specifically, can make the counting and presenting more reliable.

First of all, as any technologist knows, no system should have a single point of failure. What if Beatty had received the correct card, but misread it? What if the new on-site monitors memorize the wrong information, or forget it? What if the wrong information was printed on the cards?

The votes should be tabulated and stored in a blockchain. Which is to say, the responsibility should be shared between a large group of semi-anonymous devices, each of which would store its own copy of both the voting process itself (including any records indicating where the votes came from), and the final tabulation. So instead of two envelopes on either side of a stage, the results would be stored on thousands of computers, all over the planet.

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Could the winners leak before the ceremony?

But what about confidentiality and suspense? Does a blockchain solution mean that the results will be knowable before the awards ceremony?

Of course not. The data will be encrypted. Only a user with the right key can decrypt it. That decryption can be done by the presenter (perhaps using a special USB thumb drive, or fingerprint-based activation). And then, once the suspense is over, the key can be released to the public, so that anyone who is interested can verify the results independently.

More importantly, though, a blockchain can validate, not just the final data, but the entire process by which the data was compiled. After all, under the current system, how do we know when the winners were decided? How do we know that there wasn’t a counting mistake, or that some bad actor (so to speak) didn't interfere with the tabulation process at an early point? We don’t.

But modern data security is all about looking at a situation and asking: What has changed?

A potential blockchain solution

Let's assume a blockchain-based solution. Throughout the vote collection and tabulation process, snapshots of the voting database are taken (by various machines, at various locations), and all those snapshots are shared with all the other machines. Any discrepancies are ironed out organically, as the various nodes along the chain check each other’s work, “voting” among themselves on the validity of each new piece of information. If, at any point in the process, the new data is not consistent with all the snapshots that have already become part of the chain, then a flag is raised.

And since a blockchain can contain code, the tabulation itself takes place within the chain. In other words, the academy members’ votes are counted by all the nodes, together, and the result is decided by consensus. All data relating to how this calculation was done is also stored by the entire chain. So, once the data is decrypted, anyone who disagrees with the results, anyone who suspects foul play, can do their own diligence, walking through the process step by step, to see exactly how the winner was decided.

Blockchain beyond the movies

The reliability and flexibility of blockchain technology gives it many applications. Most of them, let’s be honest, are a bit more vital than helping movie stars save face. And the suspense of the paper envelopes isn't going away. It's good theater. But there's artistic integrity, and there's data integrity.

The latter also comes into play when blockchains are used (for example) to transmit and validate financial data (such as Bitcoin transactions), to store and execute digital contracts, and to verify chain of custody for pharmaceutical transactions.

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Michael Bennett Cohn

Michael Bennett Cohn was head of digital product and revenue operations at Condé Nast, where he created the company's first dynamic system for digital audience cross-pollination. At a traditional boutique ad agency, he founded and ran the digital media buying team, during which time he planned and executed the digital ad campaign that launched the first Amazon Kindle. At Federated Media, where he was the first head of east coast operations, he developed and managed conversational marketing campaigns for top clients including Dell, American Express, and Kraft. He also has a master's degree in cinema-television from the University of Southern California. He lives in Brooklyn.

Michael Bennett Cohn