While the term ‘blockchain’ has definitely made its way into popular consciousness during the past few years, its actual meaning still remains a mystery for many. What does the buzzword actually stand for and why does it get so much attention? Its technology and future prospects are often explained by enigmatic expressions like ‘smart contracts’, ‘miners’ or ‘cryptocurrencies’. Let’s forget about all of these confusing words for a minute. In order to understand the basic concept of the chain, we first have to take a scroll down memory lane.
An Independent Cyberspace
In 1996, John Perry Barlow wrote a manifesto called ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’, in which he addresses the ‘Governments of the Industrial World’. According to Barlow, these institutions of the old world would no longer hold any power in Cyberspace. “We are forming our own Social Contract. This governance will arise according to the conditions of our world, not yours. Our world is different,” he writes vividly.
With these words, seemingly cited from a sci-fi novel, Barlow imagined the future of the internet as a decentralised and self-governed collective of computers. His ideology was built upon a trust between independent strangers, computer users interacting with each other without any interference. This idea of a free and elusive ‘Cyberspace’ echoed through Bill Clinton’s famous response to China’s wishes to regulate the internet in 1998: “Good luck. That’s sort of like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.”
Changing the system
More than twenty years later, however, our trust in fellow internet users is not what Barlow imagined it to be. While we do send cat videos and silly animated GIFs across the globe instantly, we are more hesitant when sharing copies of our ID through today’s Cyberspace. We rather rely on third parties that store and regulate our personal records (accounts of properties, copyrights, transactions) in databases that are maintained in single locations. We often forget that our dependence on these middlemen and databases comes with a price. Our personal information can actually be deleted, added, changed or even stolen, because they are stored in centralised systems and controlled by trusted go-betweens. A major change in this centralised system of trust might be just around the corner — or rather, around the block — bringing the internet back to Barlow’s utopian vision.
Which brings us to another buzzword: Bitcoin. This crypto-based e-money was created and introduced by the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto in 2009 and was soon recognised as a potential game changer for the financial industry. The Bitcoin network is the first and most famous application of blockchain, as its technology could potentially allow for easy, cheap and transparent transfers of different kinds of value. This value can have the shape of an asset, like Bitcoin, but this electronic equivalent for cash is just the tip of the iceberg: endless new possibilities of decentralised transactions are now on the horizon.
So, what is this blockchain?
Simply put, the blockchain stores a public collection of accounts on who owns what and who transacts what across a network of computers. In theory, it may involve the ownership and transaction of any kind of information: digital money, documents, images, audio-files or even videos. Over time, the history of transactions gets locked in ‘blocks’ of data, creating an unforgettable record of all the movements ever made across a network. Every block of information in this network is secured and connected through cryptographic algorithms, that provide every record with an unique identity. Like fingerprints.
In ordinary human language: imagine your digital medical record. Every time you visit or call your doctor, an entry is made. These entries form ‘blocks’ of information that are timestamped; in these blocks we can see the time and date of the creation of every new entry. The blockchain technology makes sure that these blocks (which contain records of your diagnosis, treatments and personal information) cannot be modified retroactively. Every entry builds upon the previous one, making them inter-dependable and immutable: like a chain. If the doctor decides to share or modify details of your personal information, the algorithms will immediately identify these inauthentic changes. You, as a user of the network, will know when your information has been tampered with.
What happens in the chain, stays in the chain
The content of the blockchain can be, depending on the design and implementation, public to all (like the internet) or only to a few parties (like an intranet). Again, imagine your digital medical record. In this case, only the doctor, who has a private key, and the patient, who has the other, can access the information. The trail of entries made always remains intact. Everyone in the network, no matter how many people involved, can verify the order in which the entries are made. Checking the chain is like reading tree rings or examining fossils; the blocks show us records of time.
But why has the blockchain the potential to be more trustworthy than the systems we already use? This question brings us back to Barlow and his idea of a decentralised Cyberspace. The technology of the blockchain was expressly (and ideologically) designed to work without needing a ‘trusted’ third party, even if it involves sensitive information. In order to protect this information, every user has to come to an agreement on the content of potential new transactions, before they can be added to the chain. All the transactions are published on a public ledger file, that is distributed across the world via a network of computers. This transparency of transactions makes it extremely hard to ‘double-spend’ a Bitcoin, for example. Hackers would have to hack every single machine.
A new (and smart) kid on the block
While the concept of a decentralised network is not that new, think of the beginning days of internet, the technology behind blockchain is constantly evolving. In 2015, a second generation of blockchains appeared, with Ethereum as its most significant player. These developments opened up new possibilities for ‘smart contracts’ to expand. While these words might sound creepy together, think about the bureaucracy of your current insurance company. The hours you have spent on the phone, waiting for some headset-wearing student to pick up, who will (if you are lucky) eventually transfer your money back through a bank. This can take weeks. The blockchain can automatically and directly refund your claims, based on smart contracts that can execute themselves. If your flight is cancelled, for instance, you will automatically get your money back. Decisions are no longer based on subjective protocols but on ‘if-this-than-that’-instructions (a.k.a. algorithms).
The blockchain revolution
A world that is based on algorithmic decision-making might fill your head with dystopian future images, in which humans no longer hold any agency. In the decentralised realm of the blockchain, however, every participant is equally responsible. Anyone can join the community and be part of a revolution that could, for instance, provide access to financial services for people all over the world. Or create digital currencies which will not be available for trading outside the refugee world, in order to support entrepreneurship opportunities for people that have to start over. The transparent nature of the blockchain can restore our confidence in non-profit organisations, as it allows us to follow our donations. Or its decentralised system can lead to quicker distributions in response to, for instance, time-sensitive disasters.
We are still at the ground floor of the enormous enigma that the blockchain is. We might feel a bit lost, a state of confusion that brings us back to the beginning days of ‘Cyberspace’. Back then, it was hard to predict what the influence of the little green numbers on our first computer screens would eventually be on our daily lives and identities. Since the blockchain could potentially deal with the entire fabric of our civilisation (from our births to our deaths, from our personal relationships to our political views), we believe that this system could trigger the reorganisation of our whole society. Much like the internet once did. Since we are still at the dawn of this technological change, it might be wise to reread Barlow’s manifesto and to mindfully dream of decentralised internet once again: “May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.”