The Oxford English Dictionary, begun in the 1880s but first published in its entirety in 1928, remains the definitive record of the English language. That being the case, many in the blockchain community were thrilled to see that the OED now maintains an entry for a “satoshi,” the smallest possible fraction of a bitcoin. Anyone who has spent time paging through a dictionary knows that it’s full of obscure and little-used words; a dictionary entry doesn’t mean mainstream acceptance. Yet the presence of “satoshi” in the OED is a marker of sorts, and one can’t help but wonder what emerging technologies will next make their way into dictionaries’ official vocabularies. Blockchain remains an “emerging” technology, but the presence of blockchain words in the dictionary shows a technology growing ever more important. What has blockchain overcome in its movement towards familiarity? And what might proponents of other emerging technologies learn from blockchain’s example?
The first challenge for many young industries and new technologies is conquering stigma. Though today you’ll find more blockchain enthusiasts in C-suites than in back alleys, years ago “bitcoin” and “cryptocurrency” were invariably discussed in reference to shady and seedy dealings on the dark web. It took years of good-faith effort and scrupulous behavior to make up for a few bad actors’ harm. Today, blockchain and cryptocurrency have largely shed the stigma they unfairly bore. Blockchain isn’t the only technology to make this move from suspicion to acceptance. Drones, to take just one example, attracted a reputation for being dangerous nuisances, but today they’re able to deliver lifesaving medical supplies in Africa. Drones are now understood to be a vital part of tomorrow’s infrastructure, not a problem to be legislated out of existence. Problems like privacy and hacking remain, to be sure, but drones are widely accepted.
A second challenge for emerging technologies is education. Even the most thorough dictionary entry — and the Oxford English Dictionary is famed for its comprehensiveness — will not give a reader everything they need to know about blockchain technology. This isn’t because blockchain is too complicated, it’s because blockchain is too big. After all, could someone understand the internet just by reading a lexicographer’s definition? Potential users and customers of emerging technologies need repeated exposure to the technology. They need to see it in action, hear about it from experts or enthusiasts, and hear from people whose lives or businesses have been improved by it. Theory beats practice every time.
Perhaps the most important thing emerging technologies need is time and space. “Satoshi” entered the dictionary more than a decade after the Bitcoin whitepaper appeared; it took more than thirty years for the internet to progress from the early days of DARPANET to its present ubiquity. We cannot expect the first iteration of a new technology to be perfect, and we must understand that there is always room for growth. Blockchain has been well-served by the millions of enthusiasts who follow its development and by the thousands of coders and programmers who have contributed projects. Major changes are not instant, even if, in retrospect, they appear inevitable.
Once stigmas have been conquered, education has been conducted, and time has been granted, it’s likely that your emerging technology is emerging no more. It has become an established part of the social and economic landscape, and an entire new era of its existence has begun. Blockchain is just reaching this stage; other emerging technologies are years or decades behind. But as blockchain opens this new chapter, one thing is sure: Blockchain and cryptocurrency will remain a model and an exemplar for emerging technologies now maturing and yet to be invented. Who knows? Perhaps some of those technologies will find their place in the dictionary a few years down the line.