There’s this hopelessly geeky new technology. It’s too hard to understand and use. How could it ever break the mass market? Yet developers are excited, venture capital is pouring in, and industry players are taking note. Something big might be happening.
That is exactly how the Web looked back in 1994 — right before it exploded. Two decades later, it’s beginning to feel like we might be at a similar liminal moment. Our new contender for the Next Big Thing is the blockchain — the baffling yet alluring innovation that underlies the Bitcoin digital currency.
Wait a minute and I’ll explain exactly how the blockchain works. (Or at least try.) For now, think of it as a way of transferring a digital message from one party to another, where both parties can count on the integrity of the message, even when they don’t trust, or even know, each other. Right now, these messages are mostly virtual cash. But they could be any kind of information.
On an Internet where your inbox is besieged with spam, your credit card number’s about to be poached, and you can’t possibly remember all your passwords, this could be extremely useful. But it could be even more.
There is a contingent on today’s Internet—a minority, perhaps, but influential—who believe that the industry took a wrong turn over the past decade. That an Internet dominated by a few big companies is an unhealthy one. That the centralized-computing paradigm—of privately owned data silos housed in giant server farms that harvest our personal data in order to sell ads—is one that needs to change.
The entrepreneurs, coders and crypto experts leading the blockchain charge — I shall call them blockchainiacs, because they need a name — see this new technology as an antidote, and they are hopped up on dizzying visions of a disrupted future. (One sure sign that this technology has achieved geek-cred critical mass: The tech publisher O’Reilly just announced a new conference on the topic.)
Listen, for instance, to Mike Hearn, a U.K.-based Bitcoin developer who used to work at Google and now gives talks imagining a future economy driven by something called the TradeNet — a kind of giant automated marketplace, a crypto-secure mashup of Yelp, Craigslist, Uber, and eBay. Here’s Hearn describing how a young woman in this future might hail a ride:
Jen goes to her computer [or phone] and says, I’m here, I want to go into the city. And it goes out onto this network and posts a request for bids. And the message that’s posted says, “Here I am, here’s where I want to go, give me your best offer.” And all the different taxis out there, they actually start making offers: I can do it for this price, I can do it for that price. Behind the scenes, Jen’s computer looks at what’s available and figures out what the best offer really is.
The car Jen hires, in turn, makes deals for road space with other cars, depending on her hurry level. All these cars, of course, drive themselves. But more than that, they’re autonomous business entities — they own themselves. If they prosper, they have “children,” by commissioning more vehicles; if they don’t, Hearn says, “they can’t recharge their batteries, and they die.”
You will not be shocked to hear that a full-on TradeNet is not even remotely visible on the tech horizon, although tiny parts of it may be beginning to emerge. Hearn admits TradeNet is an “experimental concept” and jokes, “We’ll easily have this nailed, like, 50 years from now.” The key to implementing such a system is, you guessed it, the blockchain—a distributed method of tracking and transferring assets online without need of a trusted third party (such as a bank). Today, there is only one blockchain-based system that has been widely used in the field — Bitcoin itself. And despite its embrace by enthusiasts for several years, it remains punishingly complex for the uninitiated to use.
Still, letting yourself get giddily far ahead of reality may be a requirement for participation in the blockchain revolution. Some blockchainiacs imagine a relatively modest insurrection—just overturning the global financial system, cutting costs and speeding up commerce, killing off the banks and credit-card giants along the way. Others see a broader revolution that also engulfs the entire universe of telecommunications—elbowing out interlopers such as the NSA and Facebook, restoring privacy to our communications and autonomy to our interactions. For the hardcore blockchainiacs, even that’s not enough; they expect to dissolve governments, rewire daily life, and pour civil society a whole new foundation made of math.
You probably know that Bitcoin is a digital-only currency backed not by a commodity like gold, or by a government or central bank, but rather by cryptography. The blockchain is the ingenious scheme that makes Bitcoin work. Invented by Satoshi Nakamoto—the mysterious, possibly pseudonymous inventor who whipped up Bitcoin and then vanished—it’s a solution to an old game-theory chestnut called the Byzantine Generals’ Problem. Say you’ve got a bunch of officers planning an attack, communicating by messenger, and one or more might be traitors; how do the loyal leaders eliminate sabotage and make sure they’re all on the same, correct page?
This problem turns out to resemble the challenges of reliably exchanging assets on a network while resisting fraud. Solving it is how Bitcoin cures the biggest e-money headaches: counterfeiting, double spending, and reliance on an authoritative central server (which can always fail, or turn traitorous).
In a world where every computer is a copying machine, if you want computers to store your cash without placing your trust in some institution, then somehow you have to prevent people from going down to their figurative basements and copying that money like any other file. Here’s how the blockchain does that.
You know what a ledger is, right? Debits and credits; who got what from whom, when. Think of the blockchain as a shared ledger — one that records every transaction back to the very beginning of Bitcoin, or whatever else it is you might be using the blockchain to track. (That initial-transaction moment of creation is known, with a scriptural flourish, as “the Genesis Block.”) Every bitcoin user has a personal copy of the entire blockchain ledger. Every time some bitcoin changes hands, the deal is recorded in the blockchain, every copy of which gets a little bit lengthier. Each of these additions is verified by cryptographic problem-solvers — the “miners” who are rewarded in bitcoin for their efforts.
So: As one leading blockchainiac puts it, the blockchain is a ledger that anyone can add things to but no one can remove anything from. In other words, when you’re using a blockchain, every new transaction carries with it an unforgeable record of the entire history of the currency and all previous transactions — like a kind of financial DNA. Crazy, huh?
To make sense of all this, you have to distinguish carefully between Bitcoin and the blockchain (an effort that, I fear, will prove as futile as trying to differentiate between the Internet and the Web). You can — as has been widely suggested — think of Bitcoin as a single application, the blockchain as the whole platform. Bitcoin is a browser, or email; the blockchain is the underlying protocol, like HTTP or TCP/IP. (For a fuller explanation of how it all works, this post is a good place to begin.)
At root, the blockchain is all about replacing the servers that power today’s online world with computing power and storage that we all share. Every network requires what programmers call a “single source of truth” — the authority that says, “this is real,” “this user is who she claims to be,” “this transaction occurred.” To date, we have depended on servers run by corporations and governments to provide our single sources of truth. Even the Internet itself uses a handful of root servers to make the domain-name system work.
The blockchain turns the entire network into its source of truth. It’s a mechanism for us to collectively confer legitimacy on one another. That’s why it appeals to the same people who fell in love with the Internet and the Web 20 years ago: No individual or company owns it, and anyone can participate in it.
Blockchainiacs expect that this innovation will detonate a big bang of new, secure, decentralized services and markets — not replacing today’s Internet but extending its reach and capabilities. Critics, of whom there are multitudes, argue that it could usher in an Ayn-Randian nightmare of inequality and property rights uber alles. The deflationary ideology encoded in the design of projects like Bitcoin — which permanently caps the money supply — makes progressive economists gag. No need to get too worked up, however; technical skeptics predict that the technology will collapse in a heap of impracticality long before we get anywhere close to these dire futures, anyway.
But let’s just say, for now — for fun! — that Bitcoin doesn’t fall prey to hordes of black-hat hackers. Or prove to have some fatal mathematical flaw at its cryptographic heart. Or run afoul of the governments of the world as they protect their rights of coinage.
Let’s say the blockchain becomes the latest Bengali typhoon to reshape our lives. What could we look forward to in a blockchain world? What might we actually do there?
When pressed, proponents list ideas such as “fraud-free voting systems, digital rights management systems, new types of air miles or freebies, and festival coins for buying drinks.” But there are many competing versions of a blockchained future. Here are three scenarios, in order of escalating unlikelihood, for the triumph of the blockchainiacs — along with the projects and companies that are trying to make them real.
Disrupt the banks! — distributed finance
In the nearest term, blockchain developers have trained their sights on the finance industry. And why not? Since the banking crisis of 2007–8, it is widely detested, and its fat margins are tempting targets.
Yet we need not limit ourselves to plain old digital cash. The natural next steps are Bitcoin-like stocks and bonds, and even digital derivatives. Of course the conventional versions of these financial instruments are already at least partially digital today; we track them and buy and sell them online. What difference does a blockchain make? It renders transactions unique and accountable — and that could let us remove their remaining tethers to our existing terrestrial financial system.
Who would want that? Plenty of people, judging by the bubbling startup scene surrounding these ideas. What some might see as just the latest scheme to make the financial system even more complex and impossible for normal people to understand, others view as our best hope to wrest power from too-big-to-fail banks — and to claw back the two or three percent tax Visa and Mastercard levy on every transaction they process. This is why there’s so much talk of the blockchain as a “Napster for finance,” humbling the big financial institutions the way digital music has beggared music publishers.
In this brave new financial world, the blockchain backs not only currency but agreements to do things with that e-cash — “smart contracts” that enforce themselves, by performing transactions when certain conditions are met, or through hardware interfaces to Internet-of-Things style devices. The most-repeated example of this is a car that “knows” when you miss a payment on it and — oh joy! — won’t start till you pony up.
Entrepreneurs have chosen between two different routes toward a blockchain-based financial system: building on Bitcoin itself, or using Bitcoin-style principles as the foundation for an entirely new financial-software ecosystem.
One effort that’s squarely inside the Bitcoin camp, and that has rallied a number of core Bitcoin developers to its cause, is a startup called Blockstream. With $21 million backing from investors that include Reid Hoffman and Khosla Ventures, Blockstream is betting it can stretch and mutate Bitcoin itself, leveraging the momentum of the most popular digital currency.
Right now it’s difficult to make changes to the way Bitcoin works: Since the currency is already in wide use, many different parties have to agree on any new wrinkle. If you want to experiment, you have to start a new currency, an “altcoin,” with a new blockchain — but then you have to find users for your new-money playground, and you risk landing in the shadier nether-regions of the altcoin world. As these Bitcoin knockoffs have multiplied, they have too often suckered and fleeced their investors (which Blockstream CEO Austin Hill is fond of pointing out in interviews).
Blockstream sidesteps these problems by using a technique it calls “pegged sidechains.” Essentially, you create a new blockchain with its own sandbox and rules. You are not playing directly with bitcoins, but you can move them in and out of your new alternate universe; the standard-issue bitcoins back the money circulating on your sidechain. Blockstream is structured as a for-profit company that intends to build and support sidechains as an open-source platform; its backers cite the Mozilla Corporation, which sponsors Firefox and associated projects, as their model.
The technical details that make sidechains work are intricate; there’s a white paper you can read for more. (In the land of the blockchain, behind every startup there’s a white paper.) Right now, though, that’s all there is: as one of Blockstream’s developers explained in a recent interview on Reddit, “We’re already working on a testing prototype, but it’s hard to tell when those will be ready. For a fully operational sidechain it’s even harder to tell.”
The other approach to building a blockchain-based finance world is to leave Bitcoin behind and start your own blockchains from scratch. That’s what a college-dropout entrepreneur named Vitalik Buterin is doing. Last summer — not long after turning 20 — he launched Ethereum, a Switzerland-based nonprofit; an online auction raised about $15 million (in bitcoin, of course, so hang an asterisk on that sum) by selling 60 million units of “ether.”
But wait, don’t click yet! Ethereum’s vision — a new Internet organized around programmable blockchains instead of servers — is awfully complex, and one does not simply build such a thing overnight. The strategy here is for Ethereum to build the tools programmers need to make the blockchain power everything. Buterin’s idea list includes crop insurance, gambling, reputation systems, decentralized social networks — “and perhaps maybe even Skynet.”
Ethereum is equal parts fascinating and kooky; some observers fear that the Skynet joke masks a deeper political danger, while others just see it as an over-ambitious, boil-the-ocean project that will founder on the rocks of implementation. As Bitcoin lead developer Gavin Andresen wrote on his blog, “I suspect they’re trying to do too much — ‘complexity is the enemy of security’ — and will end up either radically reducing the scope of what they’re trying to do or will get tired of playing whack-a-mole with security and DoS [denial-of-service] vulnerabilities.”
Another well-funded effort that’s working outside the Bitcoin tent is Ripple Labs, a San Francisco startup that’s building a digital currency-based platform for banking services. Ripple began life as an altcoin named OpenCoin and has evolved into a protocol for transactions that operates a little more loosely, and quickly, than Bitcoin. (Bitcoin transactions can take as long as ten minutes to be verified; Ripple promises to take just seconds.) In the short term Ripple’s developers see it powering international remittances, moving money around the world cheaply and quickly. Down the road, its creators envision more innovative applications — such as a system for the music business that rolls together artists’ rights management and royalty payments, with a blockchain securing the complex ownership data to automate all of the who’s-owed-what.
Micropayments! The concept predates the Web, yet the reality remains elusive. Meanwhile, though, crowdfunding a la Kickstarter has become commonplace. There’s a blockchain for that, too: Mike Hearn, the TradeNet visionary, has spearheaded it in the form of the Lighthouse Project, which lets you run a crowdfunding campaign (using bitcoins, of course) on your own, instead of through an intermediary such as Kickstarter. Lighthouse isn’t yet available, but Hearn describes it as “virtually done.” He sees the open-source software not only as a means for individuals and organizations to raise funds, but also as a prototype for how citizens of the future could support public goods and services — without all the messy governments and taxes such efforts currently require.
Not that anyone expects said governments to roll over so easily. Every dream of ousting the incumbent money regime faces the very real possibility that the disruptees will put up a nasty fight. Which is why projects to reform finance inevitably mutate into schemes to reinvent wider swaths of our social and informational system — beginning online.
Redeem the Net! — distributed data and identity
There’s a whole tribe of blockchainiacs who see their new technology as the key to fixing deep-rooted problems that have plagued our online lives for decades. In this view, the Internet’s founders made a key error at its inception: When they laid the network’s foundations, they failed to include a reliable system for personal identity, which could in turn serve as the basis of a payment economy. Into this void leapt the privately owned social networks of our era — Facebook, Twitter and company — which have happily offered their services as guarantors of our digital identities, as long as they get all our data.
What if, when we wanted to be sure of who we were dealing with, we relied instead on distributed computing power and the magic of crypto? Today a host of small companies and projects are jockeying to usher pieces of this world into existence. A lot of the efforts focus on Twitter rather than Facebook — probably because it’s much easier to clone a network that delivers brief messages than one that serves as the hub for all things social.
These new crypto-Twitters eliminate the middleman central server that every large-scale social service today requires. They don’t store the content of messages themselves in the blockchain ledger — that wouldn’t work, since each user would end up storing the entire global database of messages. Instead, the blockchain verifies all the contributors’ identities, their relationships to the messages under their names, and the integrity of the messages.
Twister, an open source project led by a developer in Brazil named Miguel Freitas, is one such effort, announced a year ago. Designed to encrypt private posts safely against NSA snoops and repressive governments, and to authenticate public posts using a blockchain to verify authorship, Twister is still in early development. Freitas says he’s already seen a flurry of interest from users in China.
Trsst is a similar anti-censorship project that aims to provide tools for “secure blogging on the open web,” for both private and public posting, using encryption and a novel blockchain-inspired scheme for guaranteeing the integrity of a blog’s posts (called, naturally, “the blogchain”). Michael Powers launched Trsst in 2013 with a $65,000 Kickstarter and shipped an alpha version of the software last year; he says he’s now working on rebooting the project with a new focus on mobile users.
Then there’s the Alexandria Project, which you could think of as a kind of tamper-resistant seal for tweets. A technical-proof-of-concept effort from a company called Blocktech, it promises to provide “a ledger for an unalterable record of history.” Its tools will “preserve the integrity of the historical record” by helping users create collections of tweets that are cryptographically “sealed” to ensure that they haven’t been edited.
As Bitcoin’s Andresen suggested about Ethereum, many of these projects will vanish into the, er, ether long before they reach that threshold. Security flaws will stymie them; usability problems will cripple them; they will sink in the mire of large-scale software development. Even those projects that persevere and prosper will need to prove their utility. Why go to all this extra trouble to do stuff online? Sure, you could use the Alexandria software to, say, document all the tweets surrounding a big protest that a government might wish to pretend never happened. But for most everyday purposes, blockchain techniques might be overkill.
Then again, there are still tons of public and private needs that the Internet has failed to serve. For instance, Thor Muller, a writer-entrepreneur who has written lucidly about the distributed-ledger concept at the heart of Bitcoin, imagines the benefits of applying the blockchain to the records of public court proceedings — liberating them from the antiquated storage methods the U.S. still relies on, and making them widely and reliably available. “It’s not going to happen at the level of the federal government any time soon,” Muller says. “But maybe with the state courts you could leapfrog all that.”
Crypto-utopia, yo! — distributed everything
The blockchain could swap out our existing financial and information systems, but the most ardent blockchainiacs go further: they foresee what Ethereum’s Stephan Tual calls a “decentralization singularity.”
In this scenario, the irresistible power of crypto-fueled disintermediation dissolves and rebuilds our whole society. “Decentralized autonomous organizations” emerge, cryptographically hatched and blockchain-fueled, and replace today’s companies and enterprises. Governments can’t tax transactions they can’t see; so maybe they’ll just vanish, as they do in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Those government services we might actually want and need? Well, we can always use the blockchain to crowdsource them.
This is where the decentralization hand-waving really gets frenetic. But the ideas can also be unsettlingly cool, in a William Gibson-ish sort of way. Of course, whether this libertarian fever-dream looks enticing or terrifying to you — whether your reaction is “Why can’t we have that now?” or “What are they thinking?” — will probably depend on where your pre-blockchain-era political sympathies lay.
Ethereum’s creators, for example, foresee a world in which autonomous blockchain-based entities pick up where governments and corporations have failed and lead us into a glorious future. The people behind the Scotland-based Maidsafe are similarly thinking big: They aim to rebuild the whole Net along peer-to-peer lines. Under their scheme, we all store our data, encrypted of course, on one another’s machines; we all share our processing power; and we pay one another for the privilege. The server farms will fall fallow, and the Internet will get back its inter-ness. (Maidsafe, to be clear, does not use a blockchain, but its encrypt-and-decentralize approach makes it a fellow traveler with the blockchainiacs.)*
The hurdles these visions would have to overcome are those any blockchain-decentralization scenario faces: the challenge of finding people to begin using and moving their own assets into new, unproven systems; the “discovery problem” — figuring out how users of anonymous, crypto-secured networks can find one another to transact business; and the fear that all this crypto-secured, anonymous-transaction-based tech will simply power illegal enterprises and antisocial activities.
So is the blockchain really 1994 all over again — or just frothy over-investment in harebrained technodreams? One warning sign: Many of the most ardent blockchainiacs are venture capitalists. One hopeful sign, for believers: Crowdfunding, which didn’t exist in the ’90s, can fuel a thousand experiments, and many entrepreneurs are using digital cash itself to propel new ideas.
Still, the near future will more likely be prosaic than revolutionary. That’s the prediction of Tim Swanson, author of Great Chain of Numbers: A Guide to Smart Contracts, Smart Property, and Trustless Asset Management, a thorough e-book surveying the post-Bitcoin financial landscape. “Most of the actual use cases, especially with blockchains in general, will be very mundane and will be related to proof of existence, so things like notary services” or audit trails for asset trades, Swanson recently wrote.
A blockchain-powered economy is most likely to take root far away from the U.S., many observers believe — either in the developing world, where there’s less of a reliable financial system in place, or in places where property rules and contract law have shaky foundations (think Russia or China). Wherever it starts to take off, it will face the twin hurdles of complexity overload and government pushback.
The blockchain literature is packed with graduate dissertations from the Rube Goldberg school of systems design — ideas that not only borrow from Bitcoin but also patch together big hunks of Bittorrent, Tor, and other concepts in a desperate effort to attain distributed autonomy. Meanwhile, the record of Net history shows, over and over again, how reliably we users run screaming from hard things and default to convenience.
As a commenter named “Johnbr” argued in response to a VC’s description of the blockchain “application stack,” “Actual people aren’t Byzantine general thought-experiments”:
The reason one keeps stuff in a central database is not just for trust and value, but also because large-scale applications that don’t use a central database model are exponentially harder to get right, and keep properly synchronized, to be able to do valuable work in a timeframe that humans find acceptable.
That all makes plenty of sense. But the profoundest objection to the blockchain-powered future I’ve heard is not technical but philosophical. It comes from Maciej Ceglowski, the writer-developer and founder of Pinboard. Earlier this year, in a dazzling talk titled “Our Comrade the Electron,” Ceglowski lamented that “we’ve centralized the bejesus out of the Internet.”
I wanted to know what Ceglowski thought of Our Friend the Blockchain. Did it raise his hopes of reversing that situation? Could it move the digital world down an alternate road of privacy, peer-to-peer empowerment, and freedom?
He emailed me with a depressing but persuasive reply: It’s the wrong fight on the wrong turf.
“There is a tendency in computer-land to seek technical solutions to political problems,” Ceglowski says. “In my opinion, the focus on the blockchain (and related ideas) falls into that misguided category. The idea that we should look to algorithms and technology to reclaim our freedoms is fundamentally undemocratic. It presupposes a technical elite who would ‘fix the Internet’ for everyone else. While I can see how this appeals to romantic ideas of hacking the system, I see it as a dangerous trend at worst, and a distraction at best.
“We are terrible at predicting the social outcomes of technological innovation. There’s no reason Bitcoin-like distributed systems would be immune from that rule. I say let’s wise up and actually fight this battle on the level where it belongs.”
Ceglowski’s argument is surely worth braking for as we race down the blockchain road. A world in which math secures all our property, communications and identities looks cool. Maybe it will solve some of our problems. It might even be better than what we have now.
The question to ask is, do these blockchain-based enhancements of our technologies end up giving us more freedom and initiative? Or will a world of “distributed autonomous organizations,” empowered financial algorithms and bots that own themselves only hem in our human sphere of control?
It could be exciting to sit back and watch the future drive itself. But it might be smart to keep our eyes on the road and our hands on the wheel.
*Sentence added 1/23/15 to make clear that Maidsafe is not a blockchain-based project.