Back in the 90s before the internet became mainstream, Bell Research in the US was the think tank for many of the world’s enterprise infrastructure inventions. In 1991 a paper was written by two scientific researchers entitled “How to Time-Stamp a Digital Document”. They described a digital hierarchy for preserving the integrity of digital records and ensuring those records could not be manipulated or modified and therefore trusted. They called this system a ‘Blockchain’.
Eventually in 2008 the infamous Satoshi Nakamoto wrote about Bitcoin and created a ‘blockchain based cryptocurrency’ that the term hit mainstream. A cryptographically secured currency creating a peer to peer cashless system, Blockchain was leveraged as an enabling infrastructure component using technology and mathematics to validate and commit transactions. This improved control and transparency and removed the need for a mutually trusted intermediary.
What exactly is a blockchain?
Simply stated, a blockchain is a method of storing data. The data is stored in the form of a sequential ledger of blocks where each block has extra information written to it. That information is generated by the previous blocks – therefore by checking that information, the system can recognise if any data has been changed. This ledger is then replicated, and synchronised. These copies can be stored by different personnel/organisations or in different places. Multiple copies mean higher degrees of resilience and availability – but also operate as a single network when validating transactions and recording data.
The goal for this type of architecture is to provide a very clear time based chronology of data history and secure it in a way that it cannot be tampered with or retrospectively changed. This data integrity feature whilst not unique is applied in a way that does not require a central authority – the authority is applied at the network level. From a classic data governance point of view – participants can trust in the system. To invalidate the data, the complete network must be invalidated and this is exponentially more difficult than with a traditional centralised point of control.
Not all blockchains are the same. In circumstances where the participants in a data sharing network are known – smaller, controlled networks can be created. These networks can be flexible and dynamic, the blockchain component is being used to enhance data security, control and trust. These systems provide the benefits of a secure time-stamped datastore without the complexity of tokens and incentives. This type of distributed datastore is highly resilient and highly observable.
Why is this relevant today?
During the late 90s new services and systems began to leverage the internet and throughout the first 20 years of the new century we have seen a topology called Web 2.0 surface as the prevailing model. This is where centralised organisations have owned key functions of the internet – including search, video marketplaces, music and social engagement. These large centralised companies have operated with opacity and prioritised self-growth.
In Web 2.0 these firms have perfected a business model of taking centralised control over information markets – primarily by taking ownership of the digital content into their ‘marketplace’. They can then control the flow of content and consumers.
Whilst Web 2.0 has been dominating the technology world, blockchain based systems have been overshadowed. The power of peer-peer transactions first found favour in environments such as the dark web to enable anonymous transactions. Cryptographic currencies have found some favour despite being highly volatile and unregulated. Large blockchain based networks have attempted to diversify away from currencies into digital assets (NFTs), decentralised applications (dApps) and organisations (DAOs) – all looking to put the underlying blockchain technology to work in environments where there is no single authority.
Web 3.0 is the umbrella term that encompasses all these initiatives, and it fundamentally is associated with retaining ownership and control. Thinking that all of these applications are the same is a misconception – blockchain is an underlying infrastructure component – powerful and reliable. Its application is varied and diverse. It is an enabler – not an absolute, and therefore can be confusing when viewed across the current blockchain universe.
How is this relevant to business?
At its foundational core, blockchains are used to store and audit data across multiple participants. In a traditional sense, the incumbent method for data sharing is email. Email is a dated protocol which has had limited enhancements over several decades and firmly sits in the web 2.0 and earlier era built very much on sharing but lacking any ownership function. A design that no longer fits todays much more complex world of the internet.
Contextually specific platforms have developed to remove email such as slack, WhatsApp etc. Closed, trusted networks have evolved based around social groups, communities and vocational environments. Email still exists however as the primary method of inter organisational document sharing without any capability to retain ownership or provide universal audibility. It is a situation that will simply have to change, sooner rather than later.
In recent times email has become so untrustworthy many people are frightened of opening any email attachment. Email has become the primary weapon of choice for hackers, phishing attacks and general bad behaviour when it comes to attacking users and systems.
It is no longer fit for purpose and now, some 30 years later the era of blockchain based data sharing has arrived. The time of “share everything, own nothing” is over. Blockchain based systems have the potential of an era where we ‘retain ownership and control what we share.”
Future of blockchain
As cryptocurrencies transition to adolescence through regulatory focus and maturity I believe we will see a resurgence in the application of blockchain against enterprise and infrastructure applications, particularly in controlled known networks. An increasing number of organisations are offering new services and solutions subtly built on blockchain systems. There has been consistent progress in the maturing of the underlying technology offerings and a natural selection in providers and platforms in this space.
Blockchain is an obvious architecture choice for wrestling with the complexities of architecting and building enterprise storage and data systems. Complex functions are integrated simply by design in a blockchain based system as opposed to assembled from various products and systems.
As discussed, blockchain is just an architectural foundation – not a silver bullet. However in the context of the current internet and its risks – it is clear to me that its value will be essentially in creating a more trusted and secure internet for the next 30 years. Any deployment or investment has a visionary element – the vision to see data stored and shared in a fundamentally different way than the present time. This vision demands creativity and commitment to a new web – where ownership and control are at its core.
Author Ian Smith , founder of Gospel Technology ; Gospel Technology, was founded in 2016 with the goal to speed up and improve the trust and security of enterprise document sharing by reducing the usage of email and paper based systems. Gospel’s ‘Document Wallet’ is a blockchain based system that uniquely sets a new standard in trust between businesses, users and customers allowing secure, confident and speedy document sharing and audit.