There are con­fer­ences and foun­da­tions and con­sor­tia and keynotes; it’s the new hot­ness! But I looked in­to blockchain tech­nolo­gies care­ful­ly and I’ve end­ed up think­ing it’s an over­pro­mot­ed niche sideshow.

First of­f, I should say that I like blockchain, con­cep­tu­al­ly. Provably-immutable append-only da­ta log with trans­ac­tion val­i­da­tion based on asym­met­ric cryp­to, and (op­tion­al­ly) a Byzantine-generals so­lu­tion too! What’s not to like? But I still don’t think the world needs it.

I’m not stuck on the tech­ni­cal ob­jec­tion­s, for ex­am­ple the laugh­ably slow transactions-per-second of most real-world blockchain im­ple­men­ta­tion­s. Where I work, scal­ing out hor­i­zon­tal­ly to sup­port a mil­lion TPS is ta­ble stakes.

I could maybe get past the socio-political is­sues, the mis­guid­ed no­tion that in civ­i­lized coun­tries, you can route around the le­gal sys­tem with “smart contracts” (in ad-hoc pro­ce­du­ral lan­guages) and al­go­rith­mic cryp­tog­ra­phy.

I could even skate around the huge busi­ness contra-indicator: Some­thing on the or­der of a bil­lion dol­lars of venture-capital mon­ey has flowed in­to the blockchain start­up scene. And, what’s come out? I’m not talk­ing about plat­forms that are “ready for business” or “proven enterprise-grade” or “approved by reg­u­la­to­ry authorities”, I’m talk­ing about blockchain in pro­duc­tion with jobs de­pend­ing on it.

But here’s the thing. I’m an old guy: I’ve seen wave af­ter wave of landscape-shifting tech­nol­o­gy sweep through the IT space: Per­son­al com­put­er­s, Unix, C, the In­ter­net and We­b, Java, REST, mo­bile, pub­lic cloud. And with­out ex­cep­tion, I ob­served that they were ini­tial­ly load­ed in the back door by geek­s, with­out ask­ing per­mis­sion, be­cause they got shit done and helped peo­ple with their job­s.

That’s not hap­pen­ing with blockchain. Not in the slight­est. Which is why I don’t be­lieve in it.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: eerie quark doll (May 13 2017, at 11:39)

Agreed.

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From: jason (May 13 2017, at 12:17)

I knew the creator of Etherium a few years years before it got started, and it's hard to picture anyone more geeky than he was.

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From: Matt (May 13 2017, at 13:21)

Keep an eye on Brendan Eich's brave and basic token project for an example of geeks back loading the tech into the mainstream: https://basicattentiontoken.org

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From: Speck Kevin Pratt (May 13 2017, at 13:37)

It seems that digital currencies will be useful, but no I don't see it being game changing. It's just continuing cash into the future in various ways. Where I think it might be way more disruptive is for the sharing economy and democracy. Imagine a secure, online, iterative and auditable voting system. We could do more direct democracy if not at a national level at least at a local, organizational or movement level. Imagine an occupy where everyone is able to vote worldwide on what our priorities should be. Or a network of co-ops that are able to coordinate their business activities to take on big companies and raise capital. What about a Democratic Party that actually sets an agenda from all registered democrats. On and on I can imagine more. When disparate networks of people can now effectively organize in a way that the members can trust the results, that could be incredibly powerful. We could end up with nations inside of nations or across nations.

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From: Nick Johnson (May 13 2017, at 14:30)

I only got involved in blockchain stuff about 9 months ago, because I had the same impression as you: this is some big finance play by people who want to get rich, and while the basic tech is interesting, what's being built on top of it isn't.

That changed when I took the time to learn about Ethereum. It's very much geek-driven, and if you'll excuse my making the comparison in this company, I feel very much how I imagine Vint Cerf, Jon Postel, Tim Berners-Lee, and many others (yourself included) must have felt when they started working on the building blocks of the internet and internet technologies.

It's still entirely possible it will turn out to be an "overpromoted niche sideshow", or that we'll turn out to be the next Xerox OS, OS/2, or Betamax. But some of the people I most respect for their technical ability, computer science expertise, and all around geekiness are people I've met while working on Etheruem. From where I stand, there's definitely no shortage of geeks.

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From: Alexander Andreyevich (May 13 2017, at 14:58)

Hear, Hear!

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From: Max Mayhem (May 13 2017, at 15:48)

> they got shit done and

> helped peo­ple with their job­s

If you are writing ransomware, the blockchain meets the above criteria.

or selling drugs, or laundering money, or offering murder-for-hire, or evading taxes, ....

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From: richard (May 13 2017, at 16:47)

Blockchain transactions are about 50,000 TIMES slower than a typical credit card transaction. The server power use for 1 transaction is enough electricity to run an average home in the USA for about a day and a half. VISA does about 5,000 transactions per second in busy Christmas shopping season in the USA and their network is suppose to be able to deal with about 10x that amount. So, there is not enough power on Earth to do with blockchain or so-called bitcoin transactions at our current levels.

Never happen. The quest for an ultra secure transaction environment is understandable, but this architecture is junk. And yet, the Venture Capital folks are all over it. Strange. ???

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From: Nick Johnson (May 14 2017, at 00:59)

> The server power use for 1 transaction is enough electricity to run an average home in the USA for about a day and a half. VISA does about 5,000 transactions per second in busy Christmas shopping season in the USA and their network is suppose to be able to deal with about 10x that amount. So, there is not enough power on Earth to do with blockchain or so-called bitcoin transactions at our current levels.

That's not actually a valid extrapolation. Proof of work is what consumes the electricity (and alternate architectures that don't consume power are on the way), but more proof of work does not equate to more transaction processing power. One 'network' (bitcoin, litecoin, ethereum etc) has a fixed transaction processing power regardless of the number of machines contributing to the proof of work scheme.

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From: Mike Loukides (May 14 2017, at 06:02)

While I basically, there's a fundamental difference between bringing in Linux or MySQL and Blockchain. Linux is an OS, MySQL is a database; upper management doesn't know, or even really care, about what's going on at this level, as long as it works. So Linux et al can be brought in through the back door, under the table, by enthusiastic geeks.

With Blockchain, though, you're talking contracts and money. And that is something that's watched closely. You can tell management "oh, we moved the servers from Solaris to Linux a decade ago. Same time we tossed that clunky proprietary database and put in MySQL." You can't say "Oh, yeah, a couple of years ago we switched all the contracts to Ethereum." That's a change that, by nature, has to get upper management directly involved.

I think your argument is fundamentally right, but it's important to recognize that blockchain touches upper management in a way that Linux and MySQL don't. And that has a huge impact on adoption. It can't happen without people noticing.

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From: Boris (May 14 2017, at 17:58)

I agree with your skeptical stance on crypto currencies, but do not think that all tech has to be spearheaded by early adopting geeks. Counter example I have in mind is HTTPS (and I guess security in general) which is now widely adopted yet was, especially at the beginning, a super pain in the ass to actually implement.

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From: OlivierL (May 14 2017, at 22:11)

Hy,

I work for a financial software company.

To me, blockchain is seen as the opportunity for fintech newcomers to replace established actors. Hence the artificial hype.

The promise is not to unleash new capabilities but to lower fees … and to whom those fees would be paid.

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From: Bill Bennett (May 15 2017, at 02:21)

I'm with you all the way but would like to add something else.

Blockchain seems to attract a crowd of flaky people. I don't think everyone or even most of the people involved are dodgy, but there's a high proportion.

And the 'get rich quick crowd' too.

It's like a suit and tie version of the multi-level marketing game.

And that worries me.

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From: Shidan Gouran (May 15 2017, at 05:24)

You know what I never believed in? XML, Web Services and pretty much everything you have ever been involved with.

All you guys did was freeload off of committees, reinvent wheels, over-engineer solutions and make lives of developers harder than they should have been ... you and your kind literally set us back some time as a society. There is a level of objectivity here as history has proven that my opinion turned out correct.

I would put blockchains up there with the work done, the past decade, on back-propagation and perceptrons, they are real innovations in IT whose full potential is to be still realised while what you work on is complete turd.

Thanks.

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From: PeterL (May 16 2017, at 13:52)

But ... but .. but ... the consultants are jumping onto it! http://www.mckinsey.com/industries/high-tech/our-insights/what-next-for-blockchain

Were SQL databases (not MySQL but the first relational databases) brought in by the "back door"? I suspect not, because of the cost; and originally relational databases were far too slow; but they proved to be far more flexible than the competition (remember CODASYL?) and eventually they became fast enough. (Ironically, we're now seeing NoSQL database as people re-learn the lessons of CODASYL)

But that's about the only counter-example to your argument that I can think of ...

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From: Robert Kloots (May 22 2017, at 05:15)

Today I stumbled upon the article of Tim Bray, read it with all comments.

I share your scepticism Tim. Although Blockchain is vulcanic hot here in Europe, (most of) the proponents are made from Geek stuff.

1) Blockchain seems to be just another technologywave - of which I also have seen a few,

1.1) this one claiming that every interaction is a contract - am I right?

2) Technology side - Intuitively I say Performance will be an issue, and the principle that every past transaction can be found will be dodged in order to keep performance up.

3) Market side - I don’t think the world needs it, regardless of Consultants jumping on the bandwagon.

Most of current organisational models and their supporting technologies have been fine tuned over the decades.

4) Not suitable for all situations or to replace all current practices. E.G.: I've heard a geek, sorry, should be Geek, claim that it will replace current Democratic practices. This guy obviously had no notion of 1000s of years of Societal processes that lead to current democratic principles, which cannot be replaced just like that using the latest hype technology.

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From: Jon (Jun 26 2017, at 10:07)

I initially liked the blockchain idea, but as I have seen more I have all but decided that aside from the possibility of a central bank digital currency, it will never be useful.

Every problem that people propose blockchain for is either one that has been solved or could easily be solved with digital signatures, time stamps, and a central mirrored database.

When asked why blockchain people either mention it being trustless or the high level of resilience. The one "trust " problem---changing data after it is written is hardly a great issue in many of these applications. Digital signatures and linked time stamping would address this well enough anyhow.

The other---high level of resilience is just due to the high number of replications of the data. It would seem more economical to decide explicitly on how many places and how disperse those should be than to use a blockchain.

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From: Torgeir (Jul 18 2017, at 06:37)

Git is not that dissimilar to a blockchain (they're both specialized merkel trees), so they're used by geeks.

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