The blockchain is an undeniably ingenious invention – the brainchild of a person or group of people known by the pseudonym, Satoshi Nakamoto. But since then, it has evolved into something greater, and the main question every single person is asking is: What is Blockchain?
By allowing digital information to be distributed but not copied, blockchain technology created the backbone of a new type of internet. Originally devised for the digital currency, Bitcoin, (Buy Bitcoin) the tech community has now found other potential uses for the technology.
“The blockchain is an incorruptible digital ledger of economic transactions that can be programmed to record not just financial transactions but virtually everything of value.” – Don & Alex Tapscott, authors Blockchain Revolution (2016).
A blockchain is, in the simplest of terms, a time-stamped series of immutable records of data that is managed by a cluster of computers not owned by any single entity. Each of these blocks of data (i.e. block) is secured and bound to each other using cryptographic principles (i.e. chain).
The blockchain network has no central authority — it is the very definition of a democratized system. Since it is a shared and immutable ledger, the information in it is open for anyone and everyone to see. Hence, anything that is built on the blockchain is by its very nature transparent and everyone involved is accountable for their actions.
A blockchain carries no transaction cost. (An infrastructure cost yes, but no transaction cost.) The blockchain is a simple yet ingenious way of passing information from A to B in a fully automated and safe manner. One party to a transaction initiates the process by creating a block. This block is verified by thousands, perhaps millions of computers distributed around the net. The verified block is added to a chain, which is stored across the net, creating not just a unique record, but a unique record with a unique history. Falsifying a single record would mean falsifying the entire chain in millions of instances. That is virtually impossible. Bitcoin uses this model for monetary transactions, but it can be deployed in many other ways.
Think of a railway company. We buy tickets on an app or the web. The credit card company takes a cut for processing the transaction. With blockchain, not only can the railway operator save on credit card processing fees, it can move the entire ticketing process to the blockchain. The two parties in the transaction are the railway company and the passenger. The ticket is a block, which will be added to a ticket blockchain. Just as a monetary transaction on the blockchain is a unique, independently verifiable and unfalsifiable record (like Bitcoin), so can your ticket be. Incidentally, the final ticket blockchain is also a record of all transactions for, say, a certain train route, or even the entire train network, comprising every ticket ever sold, every journey ever taken.
But the key here is this: it’s free. Not only can the blockchain transfer and store money, but it can also replace all processes and business models that rely on charging a small fee for a transaction. Or any other transaction between two parties.
How Does Blockchain Work?
Picture a spreadsheet that is duplicated thousands of times across a network of computers. Then imagine that this network is designed to regularly update this spreadsheet and you have a basic understanding of the blockchain.
Information held on a blockchain exists as a shared — and continually reconciled — database. This is a way of using the network that has obvious benefits. The blockchain database isn’t stored in any single location, meaning the records it keeps are truly public and easily verifiable. No centralized version of this information exists for a hacker to corrupt. Hosted by millions of computers simultaneously, its data is accessible to anyone on the internet.
The Three Pillars of Blockchain Technology
The three main properties of Blockchain Technology which have helped it gain widespread acclaim are as follows:
Pillar #1: Decentralization
Before Bitcoin and BitTorrent came along, we were more used to centralized services. The idea is very simple. You have a centralized entity that stored all the data and you’d have to interact solely with this entity to get whatever information you required.
Another example of a centralized system is the banks. They store all your money, and the only way that you can pay someone is by going through the bank.
The traditional client-server model is a perfect example of this:
When you google search for something, you send a query to the server who then gets back at you with the relevant information. That is a simple client-server.
Now, centralized systems have treated us well for many years, however, they have several vulnerabilities.
- Firstly, because they are centralized, all the data is stored in one spot. This makes them easy target spots for potential hackers.
- If the centralized system were to go through a software upgrade, it would halt the entire system
- What if the centralized entity somehow shuts down for whatever reason? That way nobody will be able to access the information that it possesses
- Worst case scenario, what if this entity gets corrupted and malicious? If that happens then all the data that is inside the blockchain will be compromised.
In a decentralized system, the information is not stored by one single entity. In fact, everyone in the network owns the information.
In a decentralized network, if you wanted to interact with your friend then you can do so directly without going through a third party. That was the main ideology behind Bitcoins. You and only you alone are in charge of your money. You can send your money to anyone you want without having to go through a bank.
Pillar #2: Transparency
One of the most interesting and misunderstood concepts in blockchain technology is “transparency.” Some people say that blockchain gives you privacy while some say that it is transparent.
Pillar #3: Immutability
Immutability, in the context of the blockchain, means that once something has been entered into the blockchain, it cannot be tampered with.
Who Will Use The Blockchain?
As a web infrastructure, you don’t need to know about the blockchain for it to be useful in your life.
Currently, finance offers the strongest use cases for the technology. International remittances, for instance. The World Bank estimates that over $430 billion US in money transfers were sent in 2015. And at the moment there is a high demand for blockchain developers.
The blockchain potentially cuts out the middleman for these types of transactions. Personal computing became accessible to the general public with the invention of the Graphical User Interface (GUI), which took the form of a “desktop”. Similarly, the most common GUI devised for the blockchain are the so-called “wallet” applications, which people use to buy things with Bitcoin, and store it along with other cryptocurrencies.
Transactions online are closely connected to the processes of identity verification. It is easy to imagine that wallet apps will transform in the coming years to include other types of identity management.