For as long as mankind has possessed the ability to record information through letter and number systems, there has been a battle to control the message. Central authorities came to dominate written histories, giving them immense power, which has prevailed even into the digital age. Blockchain technology could be about to change all that.
This war over information has three fronts: privacy, security and control. And it just so happens that Blockchains are designed to democratise these.
Let’s trace the history of information control and then assess what role blockchain technology is playing today and its promises for our future.
Centralised control of information is dangerous. It’s dangerous because whoever controls the information, has control over the truth. Control over the truth is tough to distinguish from control over reality itself. Control over information is power.
This has been a problem for centuries and we can peer back in time to find examples of how the privilege of a central authority to record information was so powerful.
Arguably the most fundamental turning point in the battle to control written records came about through the printing press, invented in 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg. At that point Church and State were inseparable and Catholicism dominated European life.
The year the printing press was invented by Jonannes Gutenberg. Will Blockchains be regarded as revolutionary as books?
The truth, as revealed by the Catholic church through the bible, was simply accepted. Communicated through mass, in Latin, it gave the average citizen no opportunity to reach their own conclusions.
The printing press changed all this, creating a seismic splinter between those who felt Bibles should be printed and shared, and the church in Rome who insisted that only they held that privilege. Known as the Reformation, it fundamentally changed the course of history.
Though the printing press gave a wider section of the general population access to different opinions and ideas, and even enabled authority to be questioned and ridiculed - through political cartoons - central authorities still had almost absolute power over public records.
With just a few clicks we can look back hundreds of years at digitised versions of old parish Census records from the UK. They made damning assessments of people’s circumstances which were committed to record, as objective fact, alongside date of birth and sex.
Where a central authority has the power to define you, who is fact-checking those in charge? That danger was powerful dramatised in George Orwell’s dark dystopian novel, 1984. Big Brother watches over everything and everyone controlling the message via the ironically named Ministry of Truth, which continually edits newspaper histories to whatever is politically expedient for that moment in time.
Where a central authority has the power to define you, who is fact-checking those in charge?
In 1984, Winston Smith - the central character - was continually editing or destroying physical records in the form of newspaper stories. His challenge would have been harder, though not impossible where that information digitised.
The digital age changed the speed and ease of sharing information but it was arguably the introduction of the internet that brought the next major battle in this war to control information.
Ideas and data could suddenly flow effortlessly across geographic borders creating the same problems for authoritarian governments as the Roman Catholic church faced. While at the same time a stealth operation to capture information about individuals and their digital identity was taking place; coming to a head with the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Before the age of the internet, it was still costly to fact check what someone was saying. You would have either had access to a personal library (at high cost) or used a public one, which would have been enormously costly time-wise compared to today.
Nowadays, most people in the west (and increasingly globally) have access to more information than they could possibly dream of consuming through the phones in their pockets. With just a few clicks, you can access virtually any piece of knowledge you need. It’s not called the information age for nothing, you know?
The internet has made information cheap and accessible, which again, has caused significant changes politically and socially.
Consider for a moment, however, who controls this information? Is it distributed in the hands of the public?
Well, open-source projects like Wikipedia certainly seem to be, but they illustrate the issue of control because there are so many subjective topics for which there is no objective agreement on. Pages on religion and aspects of science are locked from editing, while the Talk history of others show the back-and-forth debates over what should be published.
But what about the data that Google collects about its users? Or Facebook? Twitter? Amazon? These certainly don’t seem to be in the hands of users but rather under the control of centralised institutions (in this case, companies) that make huge profits from controlling this data.
What is so interesting is that people are willing to hand over their very essence - their DNA - to centralised data centres. DNA-testing platforms like 23andMe making a tidy profit from selling their customers DNA information to medicine startups?
Even if you feel you can trust a private company not to share your data, can you trust their security team to protect it from being hacked? Centralised storage means a single point of failure, with every point it interacts with the internet a potential attack surface.
And let’s not forget information about the provenance of our products.
Can you trust that the new trainers you have just bought or the phone you're using to read this on are authentic and have an ethical supply chain?
Whilst today we have unrivalled access to information, bringing huge benefits, it’s also true that control can too easily be exerted over that information because the internet, and access to it, lies in the hands of powerful centralised institutions.
Blockchain technology offers a new scalable way of storing data securely without a central authority. It uses cryptography and economic incentives to create new ways of achieving consensus. Bitcoin, for example, is a new monetary system using the Proof of Work consensus mechanism to agree on unspent BTC balances removing the need for a bank. Every transaction can viewed by anyone with an internet connection, and those maintaining the system are incentivised to cooperate in avoiding double-spend of any funds.
In twelve years Bitcoin has maintained a 100% accurate ledger of ownership of a digital asset - bitcoin as money. And Bitcoin was just the start. It has inspired enormous innovation among systems where centralisation was either inefficient or created issues of transparency.
Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) is moving information away from centralised authorities and into the hands of individual users and customers. As these blockchains grow and interact with each other the network effects are compounding and the applications almost limitless.
Current innovators in this space include companies such as:
In the future, as blockchain technology begins to scale, we may see the rise of decentralised social media platforms, advertising, product supply chains, voting, property rights. The list is endless.
In the wake of Twitter banning Trump, Facebook selling Whatsapp data and the removal of right-wing social media platform Parler from the internet, demand for distributed control of social platforms continues to grow.
However, blockchain technology isn’t just a way to build new social platforms. It’s a technology that enables the distribution of control over information, and for that reason Satoshi Nakamoto’s invention may be regarded by future generations as being just as important as the printing press.