Use vs. Understanding: How Much Do We Need to Know About Blockchain?

Do blockchain users have to know what blockchain is to use it? Or should we expect that blockchain might reach mass adoption without achieving mass comprehension? Will consumers teach themselves blockchain mechanics and accept the protocol as an end in itself, or will they appreciate blockchain applications for what they can do, not how they do it? Perhaps computer code and programming languages can offer a model for the general public’s future interactions with blockchain.

Break any computer app, program, or protocol into enough pieces and you’ll eventually find yourself with nothing left but hundreds of thousands of zeros and ones. Everything we do on our devices may be ultimately reducible to binary code: The simplest building blocks allow every complexity of the digital age. While every coder understands that binary forms the foundation of their work, no everyday users have any reason to work in it. And though just about everyone today uses computers at work, at home, and at play, most people over the age of 40 would be hard-pressed to name a single programming language. Just as we can drive without knowing the best way to fix a busted carburetor, we can navigate the digital present without knowing its internal workings.

Do blockchain users have to know what blockchain is to use it? Or should we expect that blockchain might reach mass adoption without achieving mass comprehension? Will consumers teach themselves blockchain mechanics and accept the protocol as an end in itself, or will they appreciate blockchain applications for what they can do, not how they do it? Perhaps computer code and programming languages can offer a model for the general public’s future interactions with blockchain.

Break any computer app, program, or protocol into enough pieces and you’ll eventually find yourself with nothing left but hundreds of thousands of zeros and ones. Everything we do on our devices may be ultimately reducible to binary code: The simplest building blocks allow every complexity of the digital age. While every coder understands that binary forms the foundation of their work, no everyday users have any reason to work in it. And though just about everyone today uses computers at work, at home, and at play, most people over the age of 40 would be hard-pressed to name a single programming language. Just as we can drive without knowing the best way to fix a busted carburetor, we can navigate the digital present without knowing its internal workings.

Why do so many in the blockchain world expect that blockchain users know and understand the underlying technology’s principles? Though it can be difficult to remember in 2019, when dozens of banks and financial firms have expressed interest or made investments in the technology, many of the creators and early users of blockchain were motivated by a desire to create a radically free and decentralized method of storing and exchanging value, protected from government surveillance or state intervention. Such concerns remain major drivers of interest in blockchain, and privacy coins continue to make anonymity accessible, but the past few years have seen blockchain expand beyond the attempt to create a secondary economy. Today, blockchain startups are more likely to promote supply-chain tracking or bank-to-bank money transfers than they are to advertise new currencies. Blockchain’s reach and applicability are wider than anyone might have expected just two or three years ago.

Technologies usually achieve mass adoption because of what they do, not how they do it. The new drivers of the early twentieth century would have welcomed steam-powered or electric cars, had they been viable, just as enthusiastically as they greeted the gas guzzlers that have predominated as long as living memory. Quick and efficient transportation made the point; the internal combustion engine was a means to an end. Blockchain can provide security, but users don’t need to know its principles any more than they need to know about the tumblers, cylinders, plates, screws, and springs in the lock on their front doors. Blockchain can provide transparency, but users don’t need to know the details any more than they need to know how opaque silica becomes the clear glass in their windows. Some coders may be drawn to blockchain because it solves old problems in new ways. The public, however, cares more about the destination than the path to get us there.

Why do so many in the blockchain world expect that blockchain users know and understand the underlying technology’s principles? Though it can be difficult to remember in 2019, when dozens of banks and financial firms have expressed interest or made investments in the technology, many of the creators and early users of blockchain were motivated by a desire to create a radically free and decentralized method of storing and exchanging value, protected from government surveillance or state intervention. Such concerns remain major drivers of interest in blockchain, and privacy coins continue to make anonymity accessible, but the past few years have seen blockchain expand beyond the attempt to create a secondary economy. Today, blockchain startups are more likely to promote supply-chain tracking or bank-to-bank money transfers than they are to advertise new currencies. Blockchain’s reach and applicability are wider than anyone might have expected just two or three years ago.

Technologies usually achieve mass adoption because of what they do, not how they do it. The new drivers of the early twentieth century would have welcomed steam-powered or electric cars, had they been viable, just as enthusiastically as they greeted the gas guzzlers that have predominated as long as living memory. Quick and efficient transportation made the point; the internal combustion engine was a means to an end. Blockchain can provide security, but users don’t need to know its principles any more than they need to know about the tumblers, cylinders, plates, screws, and springs in the lock on their front doors. Blockchain can provide transparency, but users don’t need to know the details any more than they need to know how opaque silica becomes the clear glass in their windows. Some coders may be drawn to blockchain because it solves old problems in new ways. The public, however, cares more about the destination than the path to get us there.

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