Why Control of Your Data Matters
It is nearly impossible to convince the average consumer why a new technology matters until it directly solves a problem for them. Marc Andreessen famously wrote “Why Bitcoin Matters” in The New York Times more than two years ago. This piece resonated with investors and was a catalyst for over $1B of venture capital investment in the space. But for the average consumer in the U.S., it is still unclear why Bitcoin matters because Bitcoin products don’t directly solve any problems for average consumers right now.
The discussion should be reframed to address not why Bitcoin matters, but why control of data on the web matters. Control of data and power is a concept that anyone can relate to today. Consumers’ desire to take back power from companies and governments is ultimately why decentralized consensus mechanisms (the Bitcoin blockchain being the most robust currently) will matter to the masses.
Control of Data on the Internet Today
In the 1990s, the original spirit of the Internet was to build open, decentralized products and protocols like TCP/IP and SMTP emerged from the early Internet pioneers. But starting in the late 1990’s, centralized solutions emerged from companies like Google, Amazon Apple and Facebook. Today’s web is extremely centralized, to the dismay of many of the early Internet pioneers that built the web and enabled the companies to be built.
Up until recently, the centralized web has worked great for most consumers. It’s becoming clear though that the existing power structure on the web causes several practical problems for people. Those problems include data theft, financial and societal exclusion, geopolitical conflict, and unreliability.
Enter Apple vs. the FBI
The Apple vs. the FBI battle that recently emerged has been the most widely discussed consumer technology story of 2016. I believe it represents a pivotal moment in how consumers think about the control of data and power on the web. Regardless of what the court rules here, the cat is out of the bag — when you use iOS, you’re either giving Apple or the U.S. government control of your data. This is just the tip of the iceberg and I simply can’t foresee a world where trust for institutions in the U.S. increases.
Decentralized Consensus Mechanisms Shift Power Constructs on the Web
This is where I’d normally dive into how the Bitcoin blockchain utilizes public-key cryptography to allow consumers to control their own data and a proof-of-work system to create the most robust decentralized consensus mechanism. That doesn’t mean much to most people though.
The important thing to realize is that decentralized consensus mechanisms (e.g., the Bitcoin blockchain and Ethereum blockchain) change the construction of power in the world by allowing people to store data and use computing resources without handing over control of data to any other person, company or government. This is the revolutionary aspect of blockchain technology.
Here are some ways digital money, the first application of blockchain technology, is already empowering people:
What Will It Take for Blockchain Technology to Reach the Mainstream?
The issue with the use cases above is that, for the most part, they don’t currently appeal to mainstream U.S. consumers. So what will it take for this technology to reach the mainstream?
Decentralized consensus technology will reach the mainstream when products are built that both empower consumers to take control of their own data and also offer users great UXs. Empowering consumers to access and control their own data is what blockchain technology uniquely enables — the problem is that right now there is a major tradeoff between UI/UX and data privacy and security. The centralized companies in the space generally don’t offer the data privacy benefits but do offer great UXs. And the protocol level innovations do offer data privacy and security but don’t offer great UXs.
The services that find the right combination of a great UI/UX and decentralization will empower people around the world to take control of their own data and the world will be a better place as a result. Only then will mainstream consumers in the U.S. realize why Bitcoin and blockchain technology matter.