Blockchain, Explained

BY ZACH CHURCH

Why it Matters? Like the internet in its early years, blockchain technology is hard to understand and predict, but could become ubiquitous in the exchange of digital and physical goods, information, and online platforms. Figure it out now.

What is a blockchain?
Blockchain is a term widely used to represent an entire new suite of technologies. There is substantial confusion around its definition because the technology is early-stage, and can be implemented in many ways depending on the objective.

“At a high level, blockchain technology allows a network of computers to agree at regular intervals on the true state of a distributed ledger,” says MIT Sloan Assistant Professor Christian Catalini, an expert in blockchain technologies and cryptocurrency. “Such ledgers can contain different types of shared data, such as transaction records, attributes of transactions, credentials, or other pieces of information. The ledger is often secured through a clever mix of cryptography and game theory, and does not require trusted nodes like traditional networks. This is what allows bitcoin to transfer value across the globe without resorting to traditional intermediaries such as banks.”

On a blockchain, transactions are recorded chronologically, forming an immutable chain, and can be more or less private or anonymous depending on how the technology is implemented. The ledger is distributed across many participants in the network — it doesn’t exist in one place. Instead, copies exist and are simultaneously updated with every fully participating node in the ecosystem. A block could represent transactions and data of many types — currency, digital rights, intellectual property, identity, or property titles, to name a few.

“The technology is particularly useful when you combine a distributed ledger together with a cryptotoken,” Catalin says.

“Suddenly you can bootstrap an entire network that can achieve internet-level consensus about the state and authenticity of a block’s contents in a decentralized way. Every node that participates in the network can verify the true state of the ledger and transact on it at a very low cost. This is one step away from a distributed marketplace, and will enable new types of digital platforms.”

How is blockchain related to bitcoin?
Bitcoin, with a market cap of more than $40 billion, is the largest implementation of blockchain technology to date. While a lot of media attention has shifted from bitcoin to blockchain, the two are intertwined.

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