Blockchain is called distributed technology because every computer on the network participates in its functioning. The devices, called nodes, can be right next to each other, or on different continents. They have to form a consensus about every block created and time-stamp it on the chain.
There are many ways to form this consensus, ranging from souped-up computers competing to solve algorithmically generated “problems,” in a process called mining, to people proving their worthiness to verify consensus based on the number of cryptographic coins they hold, among other signifiers—known as proof of stake.
At first glance, this distributed nature made no sense at all to me, although at the same time it gave me a little illicit thrill. It just seemed crazy to have a level playing field, with no obvious leader setting the ethos of the organization. It upended everything I knew.
Yet, I’ve come to realize that this is the most important innovation of the chains, the aspect that is going to transform our future, if we let it. In a distributed system, no one node makes all the decisions. What’s more, since each node is aware of what the other nodes are up to on the blockchain, there’s a great chance that they will collaborate in more fruitful ways than in a top-down system.
Distributed systems have the ability to give power to the powerless. They also let the powerful flourish when they take advantage of the creative thinking brought on by collaboration.
The difficulty many of us have truly understanding distributed systems speaks to our conditioning. For at least ten millennia, humans have lived in increasingly hierarchical groups, defined by pecking orders and leaders. It’s been necessary for people to learn their place. If they don’t want to stay in their place, then they have to fight their way up the ladder. The concept starts with the family and expands ever outwards to the local community and the larger community of the state, region, or world, based on social status, wealth and power. It’s true in businesses, which are controlled by small, elite groups, and it’s what causes the most agitation on the global stage, as when major players, like China and the U.S., jockey for hierarchical dominance, and less-powerful states, such as North Korea, assert their own power.
Philosophers, anthropologists and others say it wasn’t always this way. Some evidence supports the idea that hunter-gatherer societies were egalitarian, and put a lot of effort into enforcing equality among members of the group. According to James Woodbury, of the London School of Economics, the egalitarian qualities arose because of several factors: hunter-gatherers had immediate, direct access to meat, fruit, and nuts that the group gathered, which limited outside control; goods could move among people without any of them feeling beholden to another; and people weren’t unduly dependent on others, as all contributed to the outcome of their group.
Distributed systems have the ability to give power to the powerless. They also let the powerful flourish when they take advantage of the creative thinking brought on by collaboration.
Apparently, say the anthropologists, hunter-gatherer societies did not have chiefs, bosses, or royalty. Women and men both had important functions. People cooperated, because that was the best way to get something to eat in a world where hunting and gathering was a daily, time-consuming task. Then hunter-gatherers figured out how to raise crops, about 12,000 years ago. Suddenly there were goods to manage, and other tasks to accomplish, in ways that changed these societies forever. As human groups grew, and used more resources, they needed to take over other territories to find enough animals to hunt, and enough good land to cultivate. This in turn led to people who could manage the resources, which were now distributed unequally, breaking the egalitarian structure. Suddenly, the group was divided by rankings based on prestige, wealth, and power.
Stanford University researchers ran a simulation that showed that this type of unequal access to resources weakens, rather than strengthens, groups. Yet at the same time, according to the models, the inequality enlarges the groups, by causing them to spread further in search of food and other needs. This leads to conflicts with other groups. When unequal groups conquer neighboring egalitarian societies, inequality spreads even further.
Our current unequal societies led by dominant hierarchies are a direct result of the transition to agriculture thousands of years ago. This state of society works well for many of us, and not so well for most of the people in the world, who struggle to have good food, health care, education, and even basic necessities like clean water and sanitation.
Maybe it’s time to look at the systems that control much of our behavior and try something new.
In general, most of us live lives that are dominated top down by those who have expertise, power, wealth, social standing, or some other means of control. This system is so ingrained in our societies that most of the time we don’t even notice. Those among us who “have trouble with authority” quickly learn to pick our battles. If we don’t, we suffer.
The dominant force might be the head of a family, or it might be a chosen leader, such as a president. It might be a corporation, government or religion. It might be someone who has taken the time to absorb more knowledge about a subject than anyone else—or at least pretends to have done so. These forces make decisions for us, and serve as gatekeepers to the truth. This authority comes in two basic forms: centralized, and decentralized.
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Centralized systems flow from the dominant node to all the lesser nodes. Let’s say you are a small-scale palm oil producer in rural Indonesia. There aren’t many of you left, as the industry is dominated by giant plantations, but those few of you remaining sell your crop to a local aggregator who has connections to the larger market. Let’s say this aggregator offers you 14,000 Indonesian rupiah (about one dollar) for each large bag of palm oil nuts you harvest. There is no negotiating on the price, and no way for you to ask for more money, even though your harvest was sustainably raised (unlike at the large plantations). Your choice is limited to two options: sell, or don’t sell. That is an example of centralized authority, and it’s in the hands of the aggregator. In effect, you have no flexibility and almost no choice.
Decentralized systems also have a central power, but that power gives power to other nodes, that in turn dominate the bulk of participants. This system can feel less direct, but also more oppressive, though we all accept it. In effect, it is a scattered group of centralized systems dominated by a large centralized power. Corporations often operate this way, as do schools.
For example, my older brother once objected when his fifth-grade teacher insisted that Baja California was part of the U.S. For his intemperance, he was sent to the principal’s office. There was no space for opinions, or even facts. That is an example of decentralized control, wherein there is one central power (the principal) that farms out lower levels of power to others (the teacher).
Despite all evidence to the contrary, the principal kept him for the afternoon. My brother’s 25 fellow students, in their 60s now, must be quite confused when they cross the border at San Diego.
The terms decentralized and distributed are often boiled in the same pot. I think that each deserves its own pot. Decentralized systems are non-hierarchical groupings of nodes that are connected to each other. For instance, the terror cells that make up Al Qaeda. Or the football teams in the NFL. Distributed systems are radical decentralized systems. The meetings under the Alcoholics Anonymous umbrella, for instance, are independent, self-funding, and can be started by anyone, yet belong, in a very real sense, to a larger organization.
Distributed systems are so radical that they are hard to imagine, let alone maintain, in most cultures. Decentralized systems seem to be more manageable, and still retain many of the benefits of their radical cousin. Blockchain is, by design, a distributed system. However, decentralized systems use and benefit greatly from its structure.
Many people look at a diagram of a distributed blockchain network for the first time and judge it as weak. There is no center. No dominant node. With everything in balance, who’s going to make the decisions? How will anything get done? All perfectly sensible responses.
It’s a pretty reasonable fear, and one I still feel. I’ve spent a lot of time wrapping my head around the distributed system concept. As I’ve said, after much pondering, I see the beauty of it.
The illustration above is like a web. If one part of it were to be destroyed, the rest of it could continue to connect. All of the nodes are part of a greater whole. Each node can contribute. In effect, all of these nodes, or participants in the blockchain, work together to form one large computer. As part of the system, each node can see what the other node is up to. This transparency should enhance creativity, as people who once were off the radar can now think about and participate in solutions and suggestions.
Now that I see the beauty of distributed systems, the centralized structures from the past feel antiquated, lethargic. Pondering them I feel stifled. I don’t want a big boss telling me what to watch, think, or do. I’d rather be able to make my own contributions to the outcome. This was the promise of democracy, communism, and socialism. The idea that the people would have the final voice. Democracy and socialism are still hanging on by a strong thread, but clearly Communism never lived up to its billing. Maybe distributed tech, fueled by blockchain, will lead us to some new, more egalitarian options—what the philosopher of blockchain, Melanie Swan, calls the next enlightenment.
The more participants in a distributed network, the better it works. An influential electrical engineer named Robert Metcalfe first demonstrated what has come to be known as Metcalfe’s Law in 1980, regarding phone networks: Two phones can only make one connection, with each other. Five phones, however, can make ten connections. And if you have twelve phones, you can make 66 connections. The number of connections rises exponentially as the number of participants grows. In general, the more connections a network can make, the more secure it is. Also, the more potential there is for creativity and transactions.
Curiously, Metcalfe invented Ethernet, which preceded the internet, and in 1995 predicted the total collapse of the internet within one year. He promised to eat his words if it didn’t happen. At the 1997 World Wide Web Conference, he put a printed copy of his prediction into a blender with some water, whipped it up, and then drank it in front of the audience. He later also predicted a quick end to the wireless craze. Still, one out of three ain’t bad.
The technology encourages an unprecedented way of organizing, creating and sharing value. When Columbus returned to Spain with goods and slaves from the new world, he opened a door not only to material wealth, but to the future. Some people saw the possibilities, and began to explore and exploit the new lands. Great achievements and incredible harm resulted from the impulse to explore. Others grew fearful and retreated.
The organic cotton grower in rural Vietnam is as much a steward of the chain as the London fashion executive who sells that cotton in a refined form.
Blockchain is our new world, and our reactions to it will determine our place in the future. Columbus dove in, and widespread annihilation of cultures quickly followed. Technology often follows that same trajectory. Perhaps this time we can go forward and explore this new world without destroying the best of what already exists.
Gavin Wood, a lanky Englishman who has been involved with the idea of distributed ledger systems since the early 2000s, before bitcoin existed, describes a blockchain simply as “a computer shared by everyone.” Because the transactions recorded on the blockchain are shared with every computer connected to that chain, the organic cotton grower in rural Vietnam is as much a steward of the chain as the London fashion executive who sells that cotton in a refined form. In this regard, blockchain resembles the fabled “commons” of yore—the town green where everyone could graze their sheep. Unlike this prosaic shared green-space, blockchains do not lead to the “tragedy of the commons” that every Econ 101 student studies. That tragedy occurs when each member of the community tries to exploit the grass of the commons to their advantage, with no consideration of conserving grass so their neighbors’ sheep can also graze.
On the blockchain, in theory (it will not be absolutely proven until blockchains are in wider use), it’s nearly impossible for one participant to manipulate the chain to their greater advantage, unless they gain 51 percent control of the computing power on the chain that certifies transactions. If that happens the invader can block others from acting, and even steal cryptocurrency.
For years, the 51 percent attack was a threat, like sasquatch, that many feared, but none encountered. However, since 2017, a few of the smaller altcoin blockchains have successfully been attacked. Because the smaller systems have fewer nodes that certify transactions, it’s easier (though certainly not easy) to buy or rent enough computer power to overwhelm them. Larger chains remain impervious, and many people are working on security solutions.
Since anyone with a computing device can become a node on a public chain, the barriers-to-entry fall, making it easier to join the blockchain commons than it is to enter many of the “rooms” now living on the Internet. You won’t need to ask for access to a public chain. Even “private” blockchains, which control access to information in order to maintain privacy, will offer an unprecedented ease of access, in time.
The distinct functions of distributed networks will alter our minds as blockchain expands. Never in history have humans made significant decisions, repeatedly, in a distributed way. With blockchains, we are becoming a hive.
Back in ‘81, when the American pop artist James Rosenquist created a series of seven prints titled High Technology and Mysticism: A Meeting Point (Seven Works), the internet was still birthing from ARPANET, and rare digital art was far in the future. Distributed thinking was in the air, for sure, though blockchain and its seeds were not yet in evidence. Rosenquist was celebrated for startling, oddly joyous images of handguns on candy colored backgrounds, massive canvases assaulted with vividly colored lipsticks, fighter jets, spaghetti in sauce and John F. Kennedy. The images were overlapped and fragmented and compelling enough that as a teenager I stared at his canvas, F-111, for over 20 minutes the first time I saw it.
In contrast to the urbane political nature of these canvases, the High Technology and Mysticism lithographs are deep meditations about technology and humanity. Distributed systems of various sorts, represented in soft lines and hard numbers and circles, like nodes, are layered over distorted images of people, and animals. At the time, computers were just beginning to become usable for non-experts, and it seems Rosenquist sensed the impending digital age, as well as the connection of mystics to distributed systems.
Mystics have always investigated non-hierarchical worlds, seeking wisdom and connection to God. Some Sufis cross dimensions in meditation to communicate with the beyond—though to them, this mysterious beyond is just “right here, always.” The communication between spirit, ancestor, self and neighbor is immediate and always present. Christian saints and martyrs, such as Teresa of Avila, have expressed a similar connection with “nodes” in other places.
I remember once traveling to the Ecuadorian Amazon with a highland Shaman named Ernesto, to join other Shamans gathering to heal a Shuar wise man who had taken ill in his village. It was an epic trek by small plane, canoe and foot to reach the village, and the esteemed shaman seemed near death, lying on his side on the ground, a small fire warming.
Several of the lowland shamans had gathered the vines and other materials needed to prepare their sacred ayahuasca, a powerful potion they were going to take in order to travel into another dimension to seek help and wisdom to heal their sick brother. As night came down, the shamans gathered in a circle and chanted, a few playing drums, each wearing the traditional clothing of his group. They were all men. The ayahuasca, dark and bitter, was served in small gourds. The shamans drank. (I declined.) Time passed and some of them vomited in the forest at the edge of the clearing. The only light was from the fire and a lantern hanging from a pole.
An hour or two passed—I do not know—as I watched these shamans chant, pray and sing around their sick colleague, who still lay on his side.
Suddenly, a fluorescent green line appeared along the bodies of several of the men. It was radiant with periodic dots—nodes—like the lines of a Keith Haring painting, traveling geometrically in the darkness, a marching dotted outline of the shamans’ bodies. I, who had not taken any drugs, was absorbed by the light, the movement, of the vibrating lines, constantly replenished.
Looking at the James Rosenquist lithographs, I see these lines again. These distributed systems are the same systems that the artist used in his series. They are the same patterns we see in the distributed systems of blockchain. The patterns we see in groves of redwoods and aspen, connected and communicating through underground roots. The huge starling flocks that make startling patterns in the evening sky, communicating as pods of seven—one moves, touches a wing to the next pod, and the geometry of the entire murmuration changes, pod by pod.
This excerpt is from Blockchain: The Next Everything by Stephen P. Williams, published by Scribner and available from today.