For early drivers, breaking an arm with a Model T hand crank was almost a rite of passage. Early computers took up entire rooms, but left their operators little margin for error: One mis-punched card could throw operations into chaos. The very first Apple computer was a circuit board — no monitor or keyboard included — that purchasers had to assemble themselves. It’s rare for the first iteration of a technology to be widely accessible. By accessibility, I don’t just mean that new technologies often fail to incorporate principles of accessible design, though all too often they neglect to consider that some users may not be able-bodied. Other technologies are “inaccessible” to the average user because they assume sophisticated computer knowledge or expensive hardware. Many blockchain projects remain caught in the trap of inaccessibility through obscurity. For the technology to reach the mainstream, users and developers alike must strive to make their technology usable by and useful for the broadest possible audience.
Today, most consumer applications of blockchain require that their users have some understanding of the technology. They are supposed to know a little about cryptography and encryption, to be conversant in proof-of-work and proof-of-stake, and to understand why it’s good for something to be “trustless.” Even if they meet all these criteria, potential users of blockchain technology have further challenges to confront. If they wish to trade in cryptocurrency, they must evaluate dozens or even hundreds of coins and tokens, then decide what exchange warrants their trust. And once they have safely and successfully acquired a digital asset, they have to start thinking about its tax implications.
Thankfully, there are a number of firms and projects that have responded to these pressing needs. In the world of Ethereum, there’s the .eth movement, which lets simplified usernames take the place of long and unreadable hash codes. Usernames are familiar to anyone who is online; hash codes are not. The .eth system helps give a familiar and accessible entrance to a new and difficult technology. A substantial blockchain news system provides reports of major happenings, alerts its readers and listeners to scams, and provides introductory educational content to curious would-be adopters. There are even tax firms that specialize in accounting for cryptocurrency.
The projects that make blockchain understandable are important to the industry’s future. Just as important are the products that make blockchain invisible. The hand cranks that started Model T Fords evolved into the starter batteries in every modern car. The batteries serve the same purpose the cranks did, but drivers don’t see them unless they lift the car’s hood. Some of tomorrow’s blockchain applications will run their ledgers in the background: Users may not know they’re using a blockchain any more than they know when they’re using a program built in C++, Java, or Python.
As blockchain enters the 2020s, we can expect more users, better technology, and improved accessibility. If they truly believe in mass adoption, members of the blockchain community must strive to make blockchain broadly accessible. Everyone’s on the internet and everyone should be on the blockchain.