Blockchain is going to be a transformative technology. It is the next step in information storage and management technologies. We humans have been working at improving how we store and manage information for all our history, and each time a new technology has taken hold we have seen fundamental changes in society and business.
Information storage and governance have a subtle but profound impact on our world. It might not be as visible as physical technologies, but its impact is much more pervasive. Information storage and management determines what we remember, talk about and measure, as individuals and as a society, so it determines memory and history. Ancient Egyptians pharaohs changed the written records in the walls of temples and monuments to erase unwanted previous rulers and events. It also determines our organization. As a consequence, it determines government and power structures. So in full, it determines the reality in which we live and operate as humans. Orwell’s great 1984 is a great example of how a new world order is determined mainly by information access and storage.
Each new technology has improved how we deal with information in a series of dimensions. There are six main dimensions which need to be considered:
- Permanence, how well does information endure over time in terms of its overall structure and its specific content. Can we trust it against the tampering of time and other humans?
- Transmission, how easy and effective is it to replicate and transmit information.
- Updatability, how can new information be incorporated and learning occur.
- Processing, how can the information be used to come up with new knowledge or used to cause effects in the physical world.
- Cost, how many resources does information storage and management require.
- Speed, how fast can transmission, updates, and processing occur.
The oldest information processing structure is our genome. It is quite permanent, has mastered transmission, allows some updatability and it is processed into living beings that embody it. It is a wonderful achievement that allowed evolution and life. However, its speed is very slow, in the millions of years, and it is not versatile, it only deals with living beings.
Then came neural nets and the isolated brain. It was a substantial improvement in terms of speed and versatility of updating and processing. This advantage allowed brain-endowed creatures to gradually take over the biosphere at a macroscopic level. However, its transmission is very limited and it is very costly in biological terms.
Speech is evolution’s solution to the transmission problem in a very cost effective way. It is probably what allowed humans to expand all over the world. Its limitations are in permanence and processing, which are sorely lacking, as “words are taken by the wind”. Magic and priestly rituals fantasize with what speech could do with permanence and processing.
Writing issued us into history and world domination. It was speech with crude permanence and updatability. The different writing technologies (vellum, stone, clay, papyrus, paper…) made varying tradeoffs between permanence, updatability and cost. Writing allowed us to create complex organizational structures, such as early cities and empires, that integrate brains, speech and writing for processing.
The printing press was the forerunner of the industrial revolution. It improved transmission cost and speed drastically and enhanced permanence and updatability. For the first time, it allowed information to be transmitted effectively to large masses of people, integrating brains and speech closer and allowing even more complex organizations, like nation states and corporations.
The next step was digital information storage through computers. It improves cost and updatability, at the expense of some permanence. It also gave the first improvement to processing since the brain. As an example, its original use case was projectile trajectory calculations for the war and other mathematical endeavors, pure processing. Programming is the first example of processing being done independently from human beings, starting to fulfill the promise of magic.
The last step before the blockchain are databases and the internet. Put together they have allowed a step forward in transmission equivalent to the printing press, and they also improved learning and processing dramatically. Cost continued to decline based on the improvement of digital information storage. However, it has created a crisis of permanence. With information being so ubiquitous and easy to store, duplicate and manipulate: What can you trust? What is the last version? How can you keep privacy? How can you make sure several parties share the same information?
Blockchain, has come to the rescue to take permanence to a whole new level. Blockchain allows information that endures, that is safe against the tampering and that record all changes even when decentralized between different actors. At the same time, it continues to benefit from the cost and speed advantages of digital and the transmission power and updatability databases and the internet. In turn, this could unlock processing, because you can safely embody that information in the physical world and make “law into code”. So it promises to make true the fantasy of magical incantations through automatic processing of smart contracts.
Blockchains are currently struggling with challenges around the volume of information they can process, the speed of transactions and the cost to secure the network. As we can see in the graph the improvement of information technologies has been exponential over time and we can expect it to iron out those problems over the next years. We can also expect the next revolution soon enough (few years), building on blockchain and all previous advances. “Brains 2.0” focused on taking processing to the next level through AI could be that advance, so watch out for the marriage of blockchain and AI in the next wave of change. Magic could finally be made true with words spoken creating direct impact on the world.