Michael J. Casey is chairman of CoinDesk’s advisory board and a senior advisor of blockchain research at MIT’s Digital Currency Initiative.
In this opinion piece, part of a weekly series of columns, Casey grapples with the inconsistencies of language in the world of blockchains and cryptocurrencies and tries to find a way to live with it all.
You can measure how long someone has been into cryptocurrencies by how they use the word “blockchain.”
My initiation came in the fall of 2013, when there was only one cryptocurrency worth talking about, which meant there was really only one blockchain. So, for me, the word had to come with the definite article: the blockchain.
This was about a year and a half before “blockchain” became a generic reference carrying an indefinite article – a blockchain – and two years before it morphed into an uncountable noun: “blockchain” as a concept. (Imagine someone saying “I’m interested in ledger” and you’ll understand why this drives some of us nuts. A blockchain is a tangible thing, not a practice, a process or a field of interest.)
But thinking about the etymology of these words is more than just an academic exercise. It helps us understand the motives and interests that fuel subtle but important changes in meaning. For example, recognizing that detaching the word “bitcoin” from “blockchain” works to neuter the former helps us see how those most threatened by cryptocurrency are trying to shape the debate.
By the same token (no pun intended), if you don’t understand why “blockchain,” expressed as an uncountable noun, means something different from “a blockchain” or “the [bitcoin] blockchain,” you could fall into a trap. It means you probably don’t understand the technology you’re dealing with and that someone could take advantage of you.
So, when Christian Smith, a colleague from the MIT Media Lab, gave an impassioned speech last week condemning the widespread use of “the blockchain,” it irked me. Not only did he dis the definite-article form on which I’d cut my cryptocurrency teeth, he happily used the uncountable noun form. To be fair, he was speaking at the MIT Legal Forum on AI & Blockchain. Perhaps I have to accept this increasingly ubiquitous usage as an unavoidable fact of life? Like taxes.
Still, Smith raised some good points. He rightly observed that there is now a plethora of distributed ledgers carrying the label “blockchain,” and thus that there is no monolithic single chain to which we all must adhere. And I fully share the disdain he expressed for that aggravating phrase, “just hash it and put it on the blockchain.”
But to banish the definite article seemed to me to deny the word’s roots.
I tend to view “the blockchain” as a nod to bitcoin’s catalytic role in fostering wider interest in “blockchain technology.” (Pro tip: if you want to talk about “blockchain” as a field of interest, use it as a modifier to a word like “technology”; it can also modify other words, like “pedant.”) We still say “the wheel” to talk about other the starting point of that world-changing invention, don’t we?
Origin of ‘blockchain’
Hardcore bitcoin enthusiasts, those who have been in the space from the beginning, sometimes scoff at the newfound ubiquity of the word “blockchain.”
Back in the day, no one really thought of the blockchain as being especially significant, other than that it described the particular transaction recording system that bitcoin used, one that happened to be arranged into a cryptographically linked chain of blocks.
“Blockchain” didn’t appear in Satoshi Nakamoto’s initial white paper. It has been suggested the first usage came from Satoshi’s early collaborator, Hal Finney, and even then in a less iconic, two-word construction – “block chain” – which Satoshi and others later picked up and used.
Once blockchain explorers were created, allowing people to more easily search the ledger, the single word started to gain significance. No doubt, its growing popularity was helped by the fact that the most popular of those software tools belonged to the startup named Blockchain – typically expressed with its URL extension “.info” to distinguish it from the bitcoin ledger. (One mark of the confusion around all this is now found in how Blockchain.info’s original logo is frequently used in slide decks by speakers seeking to illustrate a generic technology they call “blockchain.”)
Dedicated bitcoin developers still don’t really talk about the blockchain as an isolated thing of any great importance. They view bitcoin as an all-encompassing technology, within which the chain-of-blocks ledger is just one part.
I personally think the blockchain deserves to be recognized on its own. It’s what gives bitcoin its immutable time-stamping capacity, allowing tricks like Julian Assange’s “proof of life” and it lets us forecast when each halving will occur.
It also encapsulates the principle of the “longest chain” – contested as it may be – and, when the community is divided over a contentious hard fork proposal, as it was until recently, it’s the blockchain that literally manifests that division. Still, core devs have a point: it’s not entirely accurate to describe the blockchain, as many do, as the “technology underpinning bitcoin.”
Things got confusing when Wall Street banks got interested in distributed ledgers.
They used the phrase “blockchain without bitcoin,” which misleadingly suggested that blockchains were not only important but more important than cryptocurrencies – even though, without the latter, it was impossible to have the groundbreaking permissionless, fully censorship-resistant, record of transactions that bitcoin introduced.
This new usage had a purpose, of course. It allowed the newcomers in suits to strip the technology of its most disruptive characteristic – the fact that no one could control it – and impose their own control over it. It was a subtle but powerful act of appropriation.
What to do about it
Should we care about this? Well, yes, and no.
As anyone with teenagers knows, language, especially English, is always evolving. And it needs to. Language imposes rules on social interaction. It constrains what we can and can’t do with expression. This helps us make sense of each other, but if the rules are overly inflexible, they limit our imagination and our capacity for innovation.
There is a cultural zeitgeist underway in the “blockchain space,” a Cambrian explosion of ideas. We can do our part to try to steer the evolution of the language associated with that, but preventing change and new forms of expression is as difficult as stopping biological evolution.
What we must demand is awareness of why we use the words we use and why others choose theirs. (I’ll begrudgingly accept “blockchain” as an uncountable noun if others will understand why my co-author Paul Vigna and I put “The Blockchain” into the title of our new book to acknowledge the technology’s bitcoin-rooted history.)
With awareness hopefully comes consistency of usage. That’s vital if we are to develop this technology and its applications. We need precision in communication if we are to come together and collaborate on the same ideas.
If we are at least thinking, reading and educating ourselves about such matters, we can be more accepting of the fluidity of word usages. That way, we avoid the harmful, confining effects of political correctness for blockchain. (See what I just did there.)
I only have one demand: don’t, whatever you do, start using “blockchain” as a verb.
Pom pom image via Shutterstock
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