Defining Blockchain

Blockchain is a key component of how Bitcoin works. It is a technology that is implemented in so many different ways and is a revolutionary new way of securing highly sensitive information, which can be turned into all kinds of platforms that would make many different every day tasks much easier.

As we approach 2016 there seem to be endless discussions about ‘blockchain’. It’s a term that is ever-more frequently cited in even mainstream journalism, while in the FinTech space alone there are a slew of would-be suppliers and would-be users claiming that ‘blockchain’ will revolutionize any number of applications.

This now-common usage suggests it must be something precisely defined and well understood, but this seems to be more a matter of mantra than comprehension.

The echo chambers of the Internet reverberate to many opinions, but attempts to find a precise meaning seem to find a dismaying lack of agreement. To be anything more than marketing hyperbole we really need the answers some questions.

What is it? What isn’t it? What might it be? Can it be something that will allow us to build new and enduring systems? In short, what is the essence of blockchain?

The Satoshi white paper

Almost every discussion of blockchains starts with the Satoshi white paper, but it is this very foundation that starts us on a path to confusion. Neither the terms ‘blockchain’ or ‘block chain’ appear there; there are 67 uses of ‘block’ and 27 of ‘chain’, but zero of ‘block chain’ or ‘blockchain’. This aside though, let’s see where this origin leads us.

The white paper is short; it’s just nine pages long. The first mention of ‘block’ and ‘chain’ starts at the bottom of page 2, section 3, where there is a discussion of a basic timestamp server. Prior to this the white paper describes a series of design goals associated with the bitcoin design, such as the ability to allow two parties to transact without needing to trust a third party.

The statement of the design goals are fundamentally important. They set the scene for an implementation to meet those goals in which characteristics are layered upon each other, but it is informative to look at what each new layer does.

In our quest for the nature of a blockchain we need to be careful to look for things that are its attributes, rather than characteristics of this first implementation.

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