If you’re just a tiny bit aware of blockchain, it’s probably thanks to Bitcoin, the peer-to-peer virtual currency introduced in January 2009 and rising sensationally, if erratically, in value ever since. (On November 25 a single bitcoin was worth US$8,770.) Bitcoin was made possible through blockchain technology, which, put as simply as possible, is a linked and cryptographically secured list of transactions.
Blockchain – also known as advanced digital ledger technology, or ADLT – makes obvious sense for currency. But it’s much more than the core component of a quirky monetary system with an enigmatic inventor. “Simply put,” The Economist explained in an October 31, 2015, article, “it is a machine for creating trust.” And that means blockchain’s potential for secure transactions of many kinds is seemingly limitless. In fact, “blockchain for X” is fast becoming the new “Uber for X.”
Here are a few recent examples of how blockchain is being implemented or envisioned:
- IBM announced in October that it’s using blockchain software “to move money across borders throughout the South Pacific.”
- Also in October, Mastercard announced that it’s opening up access to its blockchain technology to its business partners “to support all types of cross-border, B2B payment flows.”
- The World Economic Forum reports that an organization called Democracy Earth has developed an app that “brings together blockchain and liquid democracy, a form of democracy that gives people more control over their votes by allowing them to vote directly on issues themselves or pass their vote on to a delegate.”
- Air New Zealand is partnering with a blockchain startup, Winding Tree, to apply blockchain technology to ticketing, sales, and baggage tracking.
- A June 2017 survey of 120 pharmaceutical executives found that 83 percent of them expect blockchain to be implemented in their industry within five years to improve supply-chain safety.
- Agribusiness giant Cargill is using blockchain technology to track turkeys “from farm to market and help consumers understand where their birds are coming from.”
- IBM suggested to the government officials in British Columbia that blockchain be used to track cannabis “from seed to sale.” Recreational cannabis use will be legal throughout Canada by the summer of 2018.
How much of this is hype? Quite a bit, according to Gartner’s famous Hype Cycle, which places blockchain just past the Peak of Inflated Expectations, on its way to the Trough of Disillusionment … which will, we are assured, be followed by the Slope of Enlightenment.
Oxford Dictionaries Online antedates blockchain – “a system in which a record of transactions made in bitcoin or another cryptocurrency are [sic] maintained across several computers that are linked in a peer-to-peer network” – to the early 21st century. It was originally spelled block chain and quickly followed the trend for compound words to become closed.
But a different sense of block chain had already been in circulation for more than a century, according to the OED. The original usage referred to “an endless chain composed of alternate blocks and links” – physical, not virtual – and it applied to bicycles. The OED’s earliest citation is from 1896, in Bicycles & Tricycles: “The ‘Roller’ has the advantage over the ‘Humber’, or block chain, that its rubbing surface is very much larger.”