Is a Blockchain a Blockchain if it Isn’t?

Anyone who has heard of Bitcoin knows that it is built on a mechanism called The Blockchain. Most of us who follow the topic are also aware that Bitcoin and the blockchain were unveiled—together—in a whitepaper by a mysterious developer, under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto.

That was eight years ago. Bitcoin is still the granddaddy of all blockchain-based networks, and most of the others deal with alternate payment coins of one type or another. Since Bitcoin is king, the others are collectively referred to as ‘Altcoins’.

But the blockchain can power so much more than coins and payments. And so—as you might expect—investors are paying lots of attention to blockchain startups or blockchain integration into existing services. Not just for payments, but for everything under the sun.

Think of Bitcoin as a product and the blockchain as a clever network architecture that enables Bitcoin and a great many future products and institutions to do more things—or to do these things better, cheaper, more robust and more blockchain-01secure than products and institutions built upon legacy architectures.

When blockchain developers talk about permissionless, peer-to-peer ledgers, or decentralized trust, or mining and “the halving event”, eyes glaze over. That’s not surprising. These things refer to advantages and minutiae in abstract ways, using a lexicon of the art. But—for many—they don’t sum up the benefits or provide a simple listing of products that can be improved, and how they will be better.

I am often asked “What can the Blockchain be used for—other than digital currency?” It may surprise some readers to learn that the blockchain is already redefining the way we do banking and accounting, voting, land deeds and property registration, health care proxies, genetic research, copyright & patents, ticket sales, and many proof-of-work platforms. All of these things existed in the past, but they are about to serve society better because of the blockchain. And this impromptu list barely scratches the surface.

I address the question of non-coin blockchain applications in other articles. But today, I will focus on a subtle but important tangent. I call it “A blockchain in name only”

Question: Can a blockchain be a blockchain if it is controlled by the issuing authority? That is, can we admire the purpose and utility, if it was released in a fashion that is not open-source, fully distributed—and permissionless to all users and data originators?

A Wild Duck Answer (Unmask Charlatans):
Many of the blockchains gaining attention from users and investors are “blockchains” in name only. So, what makes a blockchain a blockchain?

Everyone knows that it entails distributed storage of a transaction ledger. But this fact alone could be handled by a geographically redundant, cloud storage service. The really beneficial magic relies on other traits. Each one applies to Bitcoin, which is the original blockchain implementation:

blockchain_logo▪Open-source
▪Fully distributed among all users.
▪ Any user can also be a node to the ledger
▪Permissionless to all users and data originators
▪Access from anywhere data is generated or analyzed

A blockchain designed and used within Santander Bank, the US Post Office, or even MasterCard might be a nifty tool to increase internal redundancy or immunity from hackers. These potential benefits over the legacy mechanism are barely worth mentioning. But if a blockchain pretender lacks the golden facets listed above, then it lacks the critical and noteworthy benefits that make it a hot topic at the dinner table and in the boardroom of VCs that understand what they are investing in.

Some venture financiers realize this, of course. But, I wonder how many Wall Street pundits stay laser-focused on what makes a blockchain special, and know how to ascertain which ventures have a leg up in their implementations.

Perhaps more interesting and insipid is that even for users and investors who are versed in this radical and significant new methodology—and even for me—there is a subtle bias to assume a need for some overseer; a nexus; a trusted party. permissioned-vs-permissionlessAfter all, doesn’t there have to be someone who authenticates a transaction, guarantees redemption, or at least someone who enforces a level playing field?

That bias comes from our tendency to revert to a comfort zone. We are comfortable with certain trusted institutions and we feel assured when they validate or guarantee a process that involves value or financial risk, especially when dealing with strangers. A reputable intermediary is one solution to the problem of trust. It’s natural to look for one.

So, back to the question. True or False?…

In a complex value exchange with strangers and at a distance, there must be someone or some institution who authenticates a transaction, guarantees redemption, or at least enforces the rules of engagement (a contract arbiter).

Absolutely False!

No one sits at the middle of a blockchain transaction, nor does any institution guarantee the value exchange. Instead, trust is conveyed by math and by the number of eyeballs. Each transaction is personal and validation is crowd-sourced. More importantly, with a dispersed, permissionless and popular blockchain, transactions are more provably accurate, more robust, and more immune from hacking or government interference.

What about the protections that are commonly associated with a bank-brokered transaction? (For example: right of rescission, right to return a product and get a refund, a shipping guaranty, etc). These can be built into a blockchain transaction. That’s what the Cryptocurrency Standards Association is working on right now. Their standards and practices are completely voluntary. Any missing protection that might be expected by one party or the other is easily revealed during the exchange set up.

For complex or high value transactions, some of the added protections involve a trusted authority. blockchain-02But not the transaction itself. (Ah-hah!). These outside authorities only become involved (and only tax the system), when there is a dispute.

Sure! The architecture must be continuously tested and verified—and Yes: Mechanisms facilitating updates and scalability need organizational protocol—perhaps even a hierarchy. Bitcoin is a great example of this. With ongoing growing pains, we are still figuring out how to manage disputes among the small percentage of users who seek to guide network evolution.

But, without a network that is fully distributed among its users as well as permissionless, open-source and readily accessible, a blockchain becomes a blockchain in name only. It bestows few benefits to its creator, none to its users—certainly none of the dramatic perks that have generated media buzz from the day Satoshi hit the headlines.

Related:

Ellery Davies is co-chair of The Cryptocurrency Standards Association,
host & MC for The Bitcoin Event and editor at A Wild Duck.

Bitcoin Pundicy: Recent Wrap-Up

Students: The list at bottom is your homework handout. Choose three. Refute
Ellery’s position (total length about equal to the original article). Cite references.

AWildDuck is my primary soap box. Here, I have the luxury of pontificating on whatever screams for a pithy opinion with sarcastic spin. But, regular readers know that I was recently named most viewed Bitcoin writer at Quora…

Quora is not a typical Blog. Both questions and the numerous answers form the basis of a crowd-sourced popularity contest. Readers can direct questions to specific experts or armchair analysts. The reader voting algorithm leads to the emergence of some very knowledgeable answers, even among laypersons and ‘armchair’ experts.

During the past few weeks, Quora readers asked me a litany of queries about Bitcoin and the blockchain, and so I am sharing selected Q&A. Although a pundit, I resist an urge to be verbose or bombastic. My answers are not the shortest, but they are compact. Answers may contain metaphors, but they explain across a broad audience and with the fewest words.

Check out an answer to a question that you know the least about. (For example, do you know what the coming ‘halving event’ is about?). I would be interested in your opinion.


Ellery Davies is co-chair of Cryptocurrency Standards Association. He hosted
The Bitcoin Event and moderates the largest LinkedIN cryptocurrency group.

What is a Blockchain?

This short post is not about Bitcoin. It’s about a new method of organizing and arbitrating communications that is at the heart of Bitcoin.

We hear a lot about the blockchain. We also hear a lot of misconceptions about its purpose and benefits. Some have said that it represents a threat to banks or to governments. Nonsense! It is time for a simple, non-political, and non-economic definition…

What is a Blockchain?

A blockchain is a distributed approach to bookkeeping. Because it opens and distributes the ledger among all participants, it offers an empowering, efficient and trusted way for disparate parties to reach consensus. It is “empowering”, because conclusions built on a blockchain can be constructed in a way that is inherently fair, transparent and resistant to manipulation.

This is why blockchain-backed systems are generating excitement. Implemented as distributed and permissionless, they take uncertainty out of accounting, voting, legislation or research, and replace it with trust and security. Benefits are bestowed without the need for central authority or arbitration. The blockchain not only solves a fundamental transaction challenge, it addresses communication and arbitration problems that have bedeviled thinkers since the ancient Egyptians.

Related:

—Ellery Davies, CRYPSA Co-chair
Cryptocurrency Standards Association