What the Hell is Blockchain, and Why Won’t Men Stop Telling Me About it?
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Guest post by David Ruiz
Twas the last week of August, when all through the Bay
not a tech-bro was spotted—Burning Man is today
You walk towards Dolores; it’s empty, you pray,
In hopes of avoiding: “Have you heard of blockchain?”
You’ve heard about it on dates. You’ve read about it on Tinder profiles. You’ve seen it emblazoned on startup t-shirts worn at 21st Amendment.
To some folks, blockchain is everything—from the future of currency to the dissolution of the state. But the technology’s lofty goals are often drowned out by its current, sometimes ass-backwards applications:, a , a digital currency inspired by a .
Because of the technology’s allegedly endless potential, blockchain goes from being “everything” to feeling more like nothing.
So, what the hell is it, and why can’t folks ever shut up about it?
“Blockchain” is a term used to describe a technology that lets a whole bunch of people keep secure records of trades and transactions. It’s basically a shared ledger for a whole community, in which every single purchase and trade is written down and then agreed upon by the community. Buy a few peaches at the farmer’s market? That automatically goes on the ledger. Then your neighbor sells her car to another neighbor? That automatically gets recorded next on the ledger, too.
If that sounds boring, we get it. This mental image of book-keeping is hardly as exciting as, say, the mental image of a robot uprising when describing artificial intelligence, or the mental image of the gorging and starving of your deep, narcissistic insecurities when describing Facebook (fun!). But, interestingly enough, an agreed-upon, shared ledger has real benefits.
When trades and purchases are recorded using blockchain technology, a copy of those records is sent to every single person helping run the blockchain itself. Those records are also encrypted and protected from tampering. That means that, according to a lot of blockchain enthusiasts, blockchain is a solution to fraud. With multiple, secure copies of records and no central authority for those records, no individual record can successfully be tampered.
Think of it like this:. But imagine dash-cam footage that gets automatically uploaded to the internet and copied thousands of times right after an accident. It is way harder to change the record of what happened in that accident when so many people have the same video.
Blockchain tech is already being applied in the less-sexy world of supply chain management. (And yes, big corporations are attempting to creatively advertise “blockchain” and “supply chain,” to many uninspired results.) Trial runs are happening now to ensure that, for instance, a diamond that was mined in one country and then sold and purchased in several more countries, never traded hands to support slavery, violence, or child labor.
Hold up, isn’t blockchain about bitcoin?
Wait a minute, I hear you say. When accosted about blockchain in bars, it’s never about tracking conflict minerals. It’s about money.
It’s about “cryptocurrency.”
“Cryptocurrency” is a term that describes the modern, encrypted, digital currencies that are popular today—things like Bitcoin, Ethereum, Litecoin, Zcash, Ripple, EOS, Augur, Ox, and Dai (fun fact: I made none of those up).
Cryptocurrencies are … well, they’re something. Because cryptocurrencies lack a meaningful, central controller—like a bank—that makes transactions around the world a little easier. And because of the fact that transactions are recorded by everyone, that means individual folks like you and I don’t actually have to trust the person we’re dealing with on the other end, because, through the magic of the blockchain, no one person can easily get away with fraud. Of course, the sort of built-in pseudonymity (many cryptocurrencies are not perfectly anonymous) makes these currencies a choice selection when buying drugs and purchasing illegal services. But that’s really not a knock to cryptocurrencies, since you can also buy illegal shit with cash.
But then, of course, you’ve never been asked while on a Tinder date, “Have you heard about cash?”
So why won’t people shut up about it?
I can picture your eyelids narrowing in scrutiny. Dear author, none of this is what I hear about when I am forced to hear about blockchain. I am told of a world rid of problems. I am shouted at over loud music about a decentralized currency that belongs to the people. I am ignored until someone finishes telling me about their fantasy.
So, where is all this enthusiasm coming from?
Blockchain evangelism seems to come in two flavors. The first is money.
For the man who has, or has been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years at his blockchain startup, blockchain is a literal way of life. He needs it to succeed because his success is tied to its success. To the blockchain-funded, or -fundee, proselytizing the Good Book of Blockchain is both paid advertising and a coping mechanism.
The second type of evangelist is more, shall we say, cosmic.
I once read from a wise internet commenter that blockchain is astrology for men. Gendered assumptions aside, I think I see their point.
In the same way that I can read my horoscope and retroactively justify being a total bitch because, like, August is just soooo hard for Libras (it’s not), there’s probably some similar delusion happening for the countless individuals who believe that blockchain can be used to solve their own personal problems. For these people, blockchain isn’t so much a way of life as it is a potential structure to fix their own lived chaos.
Or, at least, that’s what I tell myself when I try to decipher just .