Blockchain Metaphor

Dr. Jamie Schwandt
Jul 22, 2018 · 7 min read

Blockchain technology is a confusing concept to wrap your mind around. Our ability to understand what it means is like finding the right container of words to unpack. Since thinking is like object manipulation and ideas are like objects that can be formed in different ways, let’s see if we can grasp blockchain via a metaphor.

I recently had an epiphany. I have been trying to find a good metaphor to explain blockchain. I woke up this morning still half a sleep and a thought entered my mind.

Blockchain is like our pattern of thought. To understand this, we must first make a mental map. It’s like a blind man using a cane to navigate an unknown room. Like the blind man, let’s use a metaphorical cane to reach out and touch the idea of blockchain. See Figure 1 for an overview of the metaphorical cane.

Figure 1. Metaphorical Cane created by Dr. Schwandt via Plectica.com

Network

Figure 2. Database via Reuters.com

The best explanation I found in attempting to grasp the concept of blockchain was written by Maryanne Murray in A Reuters Visual Guide: Blockchain Explained.

Murray describes blockchain as a database shared across networks. Figure 2 is an illustration of her idea. Just as blockchain requires a network, our pattern of thought requires a functioning brain and open mind.

Replicated Data Storage

Computers (or nodes) in the blockchain communicate and spread across the internet. Similarly, our thoughts are like neurons communicating with one another at junctions called synapses. Both the blockchain and our pattern of thought are like a replicated data storage.

Rubik’s Cube or Play-Doh

Figure 3. Brain Rubik’s Cube via Thisiswhyimbroke.com

Within the blockchain, data changes over time. An example of this can be understood through Bitcoin or Ethereum transactions. Likewise, thoughts in our mind change the more we think and manipulate them. As illustrated in Figure 3. Our thoughts are like a Rubik’s Cube or Play-Doh.

Information or Object

Figure 4. The Record via Reuters.com

The record is information within the blockchain. It can be viewed as a node within a block. According to Murray, the record lists the details. For example, it would include a digital signature from each party in a trade.

There are a few interesting ways we can view the record when likening it to our pattern of thought. One way is to use Murray’s visual interpretation of the record as seen in Figure 4. Here we are able to visualize the record as a nodes within a network. To me, this could be interpreted as a connected thoughts or ideas in our mind.

Using the images provided in Murray’s visual guide, we can see how to focus on one individual record (or thought) in the blockchain (our mind). See Figure 5 for an illustration of this idea.

Figure 5. Unpacking an Individual Thought via Reuters.com and Plectica.com

Another intriguing way to look at this is through a interesting virtual reality (VR) app. I recently downloaded this app — called Blockchain 3D and VR Explorer. Here we can view the blockchain (or pattern of thought) in a creative way. See Figure 6.

Figure 6. Blockchain 3D and VR via http://blockchain3d.info/

Container

Figure 7. Neuron via Wikipedia.org

Murray describes the block as a bundle of records. Once records have been accepted in the network, they are then added to the block. The block is like a container and in the container we find the record (or information). The container stores and transfers information. Similarly, a neuron is like a container. It is a nerve cell transmitting information through electrical and chemical signals.

Chain Link

Figure 8. Chain vs Train(s) of Thought created by Dr. Schwandt via Plectica.com

Once the records have been accepted and added to the block, they are then added to the chain; hence, block-chain. Likewise, the blockchain is like our train of thought or line of reasoning. This is the way in which we reach a conclusion. Figure 8 provides an interesting way to see the chain compared to different train(s) of thought.

Proof of Work

Figure 9. Hash Code via Reuters.com

For the blockchain, Proof of Work allows the network to accept a block as legitimate. According to Murray, each block contains a unique code called a hash. Furthermore, it also contains the hash of the previous block in the chain.

This is what makes the blockchain so powerful because once a record has been added to the chain it is extremely difficult to change. The network is consistently checking each hash to ensure legitimacy.

Murray describes a hash code as a way to keep records safe. The code is extremely difficult to change as it is created via a math function using digital information to generate a long string of numbers.

If a hacker attempts to change the hash it will break the chain. Thus, not allowing the chain to continue. This makes it nearly impossible to manipulate or create false information.

This is similar to how we use the scientific method — the method for systematic observation, measurement, experiment, and the formulation (or testing) and modification of a hypothesis. Simply put, it’s how we test ideas — or our proof of work.

Failed Test

Figure 10. Breaking the Chain via Reuters.com

When a rogue node (or a hacker) attempts to change the hash code, the chain will break. The block will not be accepted; thus, it will not allow bad information to proceed. This is like failing an exam or failing a standardized test. If you fail a test, you might fail to get accepted into college.

Consensus

When a block is accepted by the network (reaching a consensus) it is then added to the chain. Likewise, we go through life seeing things through a lens called a mental model. The lens is filled with our bias and preconceived notions. To clear the “bias fog” from our lens, we must learn to see things for how they really are.

Bayesian inference is a good way to look at this. Essentially, we take our prior belief + current facts = revised belief. The key here is to keep doing this until we reach a consensus; thus, keep revising your belief (keep revising your mental model).

This is basically saying: our thoughts are outputs matching (through pattern recognition) the function of our inputs (i.e. y = f(x) or y is a function of x).

Genesis

In the blockchain, information is time-stamped and can be traced to a point of origin. This will ensure we are avoiding a blood diamond scenario — a term used for a diamond mined in a war zone and sold to finance an insurgency or an invading army’s war efforts.

Likewise, every thought or idea can be traced back to one single epiphany — or the moment the thought manifested in your mind (i.e. my epiphany for this metaphor).

No Central Authority

Finally, the blockchain is a decentralized digital ledger. Meaning, there is no central authority and no single point of failure. When a hacker steals personal data from a large corporation (such as Target) they have access to millions of individual data points because the information is stored on one central network.

Conversely, in a decentralized network, there is no need for a centralized network (or server). A hacker would have to attack each individual node to steal the same amount of data or information.

Another way to look at this is through the peer-to-peer ride-sharing transportation company Uber. Uber allows people to connect with drivers seamlessly. However, Uber is still a centralized network controlling and maintaining centralized access to all data and information.

A decentralized version of Uber would be “Uber without Uber” allowing each individual person to seamlessly link up with a driver without the driver losing a portion of their fee to Uber. Look at what Waze is trying to accomplish if you seek to learn more about this idea.

So how does this compare to our pattern of thought? You might be thinking… doesn’t our brain serve as a central authority? The answer is no.

Our brain operates like a complex adaptive system. There is no “Brain Queen” dictating for us to take step 1, then step 2, and so on. We choose what to do with the thoughts that randomly enter our mind.

Lastly, if thoughts become things, then we can manifest those things by simply choosing which thoughts to act on.

Hopefully this metaphor helped you gain a better understanding of blockchain. I encourage you to toss around some ideas and create your own metaphor for blockchain. Have fun taking apart the ideas and putting them back together.

Just remember: ideas are like objects — words are like containers — forming the words is like shaping containers — containers are used to transfer the objects (ideas) — and speaking or communicating (i.e this blog) is like a vehicle used to transfer the containers filled with ideas.

Dr. Jamie Schwandt

Written by

Dr. Schwandt (Ed.D.) is an American author, L6S master black belt, and red teamer.

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