The blockchain technology is experiencing its “golden age”: A mythical era, in which everything is possible, all achievable, all profitable. It is a common destiny in the field of innovations. But the initial enthusiasm must be accompanied by a certain amount of pragmatism sooner or later.
Let’s start from the terminology. As Adrianne Jeffries notes in a lucid article in The Verge, the term “blockchain” still suffers from an unresolved ambiguity: the definitions are many, each one concentrates on some aspects and in some cases they “adapt” to the context to be more appealing.
I had already collected some of these definitions, even trying to give it my own. Speaking of “protocol of trust” as Don Tapscott is evidently a claim, while more precise descriptions capture, as we said, only a part of the story. For example, Mike Orcutt, curator of ChainLetter, MIT’s newsletter on the subject, gives this definition:
A blockchain is essentially a shared accounting ledger that uses cryptography and a network of computers to track assets and secure the ledger from tampering.
It seems to me a good image but some may dispute the lack of mention of the disintermediation.
One of the reasons for this fundamental ambiguity is the fact that blockchain is more than a technology, is a “confederation” of technologies, algorithms, data structures, mathematical functions: Internet, P2P networks, databases, hash functions, asymmetrical cryptography, consent mechanisms, Merkle trees and so on.
If you go back to the story starting from 2008, when the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto spread the white paper that enshrined the birth of Bitcoin, you can see how the idea of the cryptocurrencies and blockchain went into the context of the cypherpunk movement, which he made the battle for privacy and anonymity a cornerstone against the nascent great digital brother. This creative but anarchic and unstructured atmosphere still affects the world of blockchains today.
Another factor that creates misunderstandings is the association — however natural — between blockchain and cryptocurrency. In the public imagination the two things are tightly united. The bad reputation, deserved or not, of the bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies hidden the potential of blockchain technologies.
A major disambiguation source is the (missing) distinction between public (permissionless) and private (permissioned) blockchains.
Here we have a clear bifurcation, a fork considering that we are on the subject: experts beginning to affirm that private blockchains are not blockchain. Maybe they are not just a shared database under another name but, being necessarily controlled by someone who determines the nature and privileges of access, are seen as Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLT); no miners, no proof of work, simplified consensus mechanism reserved for particular validating nodes. And the trust in these nodes is necessary within a business network, despite the trustless feature in public blockchains.
This terminological differentiation could be a good option but in other contexts there is the distinction between public and private DLTs…
It’s not over. The same key characteristics of the blockchains can be questioned.
Decentralization, even of public ones, can be a disputable point: the creators and the community of developers that revolves around a blockchain have a power greater than that of a simple user. Not to mention the “ government” blockchain / cryptocurrencies, like the Venezuelan “petro” managed by a government that is not a shining example of democracy.
The guarantee of anonymity (of a public blockchain) is seen as a dogma, more by beginners than by real experts; It is known that in the public blockchains we speak of “ pseudo-anonymity”, since the traces that a user leaves just outside the “protected” environment can be used to trace his identity more or less easily.
We could go on.
There are also other problems related to definitions. We are on the verge of regulatory tightening in the sector by many countries: There is already the risk that the rules are different from state to state, which is not the best for a decentralized system distributed globally. If everyone adopts different definitions there would be chaos. And since we mentioned the issue of trans-nationality, the data that is stored in a blockchain should be subject to different laws concerning the processing of data: how will it be regulated?
Creating a globally accepted definition must be a goal supported by the same block-supporters, perhaps by forcing their anarcho-capitalist or techno-socialist nature.
In Verge’s article, it is recalled that the International Organization for Standardization is working on a standard definition that could come to light at least within 18 months. It could be a turning point and an opportunity for clarity.