Sometimes the simplest ideas have the profoundest influence on the way humanity progresses.
This may sound like a peculiar way to start a post about blockchain, which is currently seen as a complicated and convoluted invention that it’s hard to get your head around. But it’s not the esoteric mix of cryptography, game theory and peer-to-peer networking that matters here: it’s the simple fact that a blockchain allows you to create a unique, unforgeable and unalterable digital item without requiring trust in a middleman or third party, that lies at the core of blockchain’s power. I think it’s an inkling of this matter that explains the current buzz and interest surrounding the technology.
It is something we take for granted in the real world – if I own and live in a house, you can’t own it, and you can’t live in it without my permission. My car is my car, and not yours, because I have the key and the registration documents to it, and it sits on my driveway. If I’m fortunate enough to amass enough wealth, I can buy and hang a Mondrian painting on my wall that no one else can have, and if I’m not wealthy I can pick up a rock on the beach or a stick in the forest and take it home, and it’s mine, not yours.
But in the digital world it’s trivial to create an identical copy of a video, e-book, picture, music file, or piece of software, and send it around the world at no cost. This makes it hard to enforce intellectual property rights – you have to resort to litigation, which only makes sense if the entity you’re suing is large, wealthy, and cumbersome. Thousands of tiny and relatively poor people copying and using your stuff can’t be prosecuted using traditional legal methods in any way that will result in regaining profits for the litigant. So strangely enough, given its origins, I don’t think the cryptoanarchists of the future are going to look back fondly at the rise of blockchain.
So here’s the root of the root and the bud of the bud: blockchain allows you to make digital entities that are as distinct entity-wise as the five pound note you got in your change from the chip shop, or the signed copy of a Smiths album you picked up at a trade fair, but they exist on a computer network rather than in the real physical world. That’s an extremely significant technological revolution.
I’m sure when the wheel was first invented, a lot of the rest of the tribe though it was over-hyped, because after all you can still just carry the stuff you foraged or hunted back to the cave on your back, or with a few journeys back and forth. But with a bit of refinement, and by building the right things around it, the wheel has proved to be a game-changer for society.
Forget drones, IoT, 3D printing or VR. Like double-entry bookkeeping, limited liability companies, the internal combustion engine, or the wheel, I think blockchain is eventually going to bring along huge changes that will impact all of our lives in all sorts of unpredictable ways. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon … and for the rest of your life.