Xen Baynham-Herd

An appreciation of where blockchain sits in the history of computing makes it clearer to see the technology’s potential to improve the way we share data by creating an in-synced, shared view of reality

Supertree Grove by Victor Garcia on Unspash

As awareness around blockchain grows, people are naturally eager to understand the technology more than ever. However, blockchain is a complex solution to a complex computational problem and so not everything about it is intuitive. To simplify matters I’ve personally found it helpful to think about where blockchain fits into the history of modern computing and to create a few mental models of what interacting with a blockchain is actually like. Hopefully you will also find this framework helpful.

Blockchain’s place in history of computing

Blockchain technology is a new model of computing, one that offers the potential to change the way we share and use data. But blockchain did not arrive out of nowhere, it’s part of a rich history of computing in which new models and key technological breakthroughs have tended to emerge every few decades. The first electronic computing machines were developed during the Second World War in places like Bletchley Park, England, where great minds came together to build devices to crack the Nazi’s secret code. In the decades following the war we saw the first ‘mainframe’ computers produced for commercial use. These data processing units were large and siloed, i.e not connected to one another. The 1970s ushered in the era of the personal computer when companies like Apple produced devices that were small enough to be used by individuals — we moved from large standalone computers to small personal (but still siloed) computers. The next major breakthrough came in the 1990 when mass adoption of the internet enabled millions of computers to be connected together. The creation of the internet meant that computers and databases were no longer siloed, but networked and able to communicate and share information. Then with the advent of the smartphone, computers got even smaller and became mobile. However, although databases and computers became connected via the internet they did not automatically become ‘in-sync’. Ensuring synchronisation across multiple databases generally requires some form of centralised reconciliation. The new computing model we call blockchain is one where the database and the network are fused together to create in-sync networked databases.

Using blockchain is like using Google Docs

Blockchain technology as described above sounds great but it’s also a very abstract idea. What does ‘synchronized networked computing’ actually look like? I have found that a good a point of reference is Google Docs (which I’m currently using to write this article). The beauty of Google Docs is that you can share a document with your colleagues and all edit it together in real-time. Everybody sees the most updated version of the document and everybody can make changes that others can immediately see. All have shared view of reality — a consistent view of the ‘truth’. Compare this to how it used to be done. Someone would create a document on their local computer using a program like Microsoft Word. They would then email the document over the internet to a colleague who would then download it, make changes, and then pass it on to someone else who makes further edits. By this time there are three versions of the same document in existence and changes can’t be made to the latest version until it is sent back around. People are connected but not in-sync, and the process is inefficient. Products like Google Docs solve this syncing problem to make collaboration and sharing easier, faster and more efficient.

Using blockchain is like using Google Docs, but without Google

The one caveat here is that Google Docs does not use actually Blockchain technology — the analogy is helpful but not the full story. Google Docs works because Google acts in the middle to ensure that users are verified, that everything works, and everyone stays in sync. To the extent that we are happy to trust a central intermediary, this works perfectly fine. However, there are many situations where trust does not exist, where governance is lacking, or where independent entities struggle to work together in a synchronized fashion. It’s here that blockchain holds huge promise to enable networked computing where data is synchronized without a trusted centralised reconciler. In other words, it’s like being able to use a product like Google Docs without having to trust Google

Using blockchain is like using Google Docs, but without Google, for potentially anything

Now take that small example of synchronized text-editing and imagine how it might look when applied on a global scale to many of the centralized databases our systems are based on today. Anything from legal documents, medical records or banking ledgers could become less like Microsoft Word and more like Google Docs. This could generate enormous efficiencies as sharing and using data in real-time becomes much faster and easier than it is today.

This is an extremely powerful idea because it is a generalised one. Bitcoin was of course the first manifestation of a blockchain, but since its creation many other protocols and use cases have emerged. Some of these protocols are being designed to serve specific purposes (like decentralised payments or file storage). Others have ambitions to perform generalised computations in a decentralised way. For some, the ultimate vision is nothing short of a global, decentralized, censorship resistant world computer that no one entity can own or shut down. For others, the vision is less dramatic and political, and more focused on generating enormous value by sharing data more efficiently between private organisations. The details and the dreams differ, but the future will be synchronised.

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