Jan 04, 2018

How blockchain helped me grok clickbait

When I look up “blockchain” on Medium, I get a few different articles:

  • WTF is The Blockchain?
  • Ten years in, nobody has come up with a use for blockchain
  • Every company will use blockchain by 2027
  • How blockchain helped me refinance my mortgage
  • Why every parent should raise their child on blockchain
  • How blockchain helped me found my first cult
  • et cetera, et cetera, et cetera

Well, something like that, anyways. You’ll notice something very peculiar about these articles, and other articles written by the more plebeian news organizations out there like the BBC; they always refer to “blockchain” like it’s some kind of mystical Proper Noun that would — were you to understand its myriad inner complexities — shake you to the very foundation of your being.

The strange thing about this trend in “blockchain” coverage is that it’s very recent. If I Google “blockchain” and filter the results for news articles written between 2007–2014, something interesting happens: all the articles are about Bitcoin and wallets and the potential that the technology had to revolutionize our relationship with The Man. Nothing dedicated to “blockchain” specifically, mind you, but rather articles focused on Bitcoin or Bitcoin exchanges and services, usually mentioning in passing that the currency is built on a decentralized ledger system, the technical details of which are impenetrable to anyone who isn’t some kind of programmer wizard.

Then, on July 30th, 2015, the Ethereum project was born, and suddenly the cryptocurrency market was no longer synonymous with Bitcoin. Since then, thousands of derivative tokens have been created via the ICO process — talking about ol’ Bitcoin nowadays is capturing but a tiny amount of what’s actually out there. It doesn’t exactly help that Bitcoin itself has been forked a few times, and was for awhile also associated with criminal activity, either. So, to rebrand and to capture what the expanded market had to offer, journalists and bloggers joined forces to coin some new phrases: “crypto,” as in “cryptography,” and “blockchain,” as in the hitherto ignored ledger technology.

Chart of popularity of crypto search terms before and after ETH

And indeed, a Google search for news articles written between ETH’s release date and January, 2018 shows the beginning of “blockchain” mania, with articles lauding IBM for “tapping into the blockchain” and more than a few reporting on the panic that Wall Street (yes, all of Wall Street) was apparently in at the imminent destruction of their entire financial empire by “blockchain.”

So, it’s pretty clear that the recent spike in articles about “blockchain” and the resultant fervor is because of the ETH project and the relatively recent diversification of cryptocurrencies. The problem, of course, is that all of those articles — and, by extension, all of those people who are so fantastically invested in the ability for “blockchain” to topple the government and usher in a new decentralized utopia — are completely and utterly wrong.

Let me explain. Articles peddling “blockchain” as the solution to all your problems aren’t really talking about the distributed ledger at all. WTF is The Blockchain starts out with a giant Bitcoin header and a description of a problem sending money between bank accounts, for god’s sake — it’s very clear that “blockchain,” again, was just the journalistic co-opting of an otherwise innocuous technical term so that people could refer to Bitcoin without conjuring images of druglords and the deep web.

Yet, there’s nothing inherently tying a blockchain to Bitcoin, or Litecoin, or Ethereum, or any other cryptocurrency platform out there. The word “blockchain” isn’t even used once in Satoshi Nakamoto’s original paper — it was created later, to more easily refer to the abstract data type laid out in said paper.

Yes, indeed, it turns out that the magical blockchain is just an abstract data type (ADT), which is a fancy programming term that refers to a set of rules used to access data in a particular manner. In the case of a blockchain, it means that blocks can only be added onto the end of the chain, and that no blocks can ever be modified once they’ve been added, lest the chain become invalid. It turns out that this ADT is pretty useful for, say, implementing a distributed and trustless currency that benefits from Byzantine Fault Tolerance, but there’s no reason to tie it to that application, specifically.

There is no “blockchain market” anymore than there’s an “associative array market” or a “stack market;” conflating the blockchain ADT with Bitcoin is just a way to make vague, wildly unsubstantiated claims about an extremely new and volatile market of cryptocurrencies that is so diverse that any such claim, even if it were reasonable and data-centric instead of hysteric groupthink, wouldn’t apply to all, or even most of the coins.

What worries me isn’t that this sort of conflation is occurring — after all, this is the internet in 2018, where anyone can post almost anything regardless of credentials or merit — but rather that the community, full of what I would hope are otherwise rational and even skilled human beings, buy into it, especially considering how ineffective Bitcoin, in particular, has turned out to be at accomplishing its stated goal. After all, it’s not like the Nakamoto whitepaper was titled “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Store of Value.”

It seems almost like there’s a $750 billion dollar industry based around dogfooding, but that’s surely not the case. Right?

The fact is that the blockchain ADT is fairly novel, but niche. We still don’t have proof that it’s especially useful for distributing currencies — though, since the throughput issues that have been plaguing Bitcoin are probably solvable, I would be surprised if it weren’t an innovation in this space in some way — and people aren’t exactly rushing to put it in new applications. Some are skeptical that it’s an innovation at all, instead of a mere curiosity, ultimately impractical for day-to-day use, but I’d tend to shy away from that pessimistic way of thinking just as much as I shy away from the Bitcoin evangelists, with all of their unconstrained enthusiasm that their work is going to one day restructure society in some radical way.

I would like to believe in the dream of decentralization. Certainly, I believe in the usefulness of decentralized systems, and how they’re probably going to be the story of the 21st century internet, if we keep setting up walled gardens. Bitcoin may or may not end up facilitating this dream, but I can say for certain that if we can get away from what I see as the ridiculous, infantile, and toxic hype that plagues the image of what would otherwise be a potentially very useful and relatively novel ADT — not some magical panacea to all of societies problems — then we will have something worth developing, even if it doesn’t end up being used in cryptocurrencies.

What do I know, though? I’m not some sort of crypto expert followed closely by the community for my experience. Perhaps I should just let blockchain lead me. After all, it’s gotten you this far.