When we are faced with a new technology, we often look for analogies to understand and describe it. To bridge the knowledge gap, we seek analogies from the universe concepts familiar to us.
In our search for the right analogies, we often risk misunderstanding this new technology.
Blockchain technology has introduced a paradigm shift in the way we organize ourselves to generate, account for, transfer and store value. Yet, we are still in early stages of understanding its importance.
In this post I will try to shed light on the top 5 major misconceptions about digital assets and about the open blockchain—a technology that underlies them.
1. Blockchain, not bitcoin
This misconception stems from failing to realize why blockchain exists in the first place. In essence, blockchain is a shared ledger designed to function in an extremely hostile, open environment. It derives its value from the security of its tamper-proof records.
In the blockchain networks powered by proof-of-work (PoW) algorithms, that security is achieved by miners competing to solve a computationally intensive puzzle. The miners do this with the expectation of receiving a digital token as a reward. This digital token can be freely redeemed for fiat currency to cover their operating costs and generate profits. These open systems are designed in such a way that value of their token ultimately dictates the level of security of their network.
When we decouple the concept of blockchain from its underlying token, it simply wipes out most, if not the entire, value proposition the blockchain as a concept.
Implementing blockchain as a token-less system of recordkeeping within a single company is perhaps the prime example of this misconception. Such an endeavor fails to use one of the most valuable properties of the open blockchain. Implementing a blockchain solution in such settings may even be counter-productive especially when better alternatives exist, in the form of databases with proper access control.
Blockchain could be useful in a commercial setting where a consortium of companies decides to use a single ledger to keep track of important transactions. An example of such transactions could be shares of companies that are traded on Wall Street millions of times each day. These transactions are reconciled periodically between the financial institutions by a trusted third-party entity, which could be ultimately replaced by a blockchain-based protocol at a fraction of their cost.
That said, these systems may never become as secure and tamper-proof as the open blockchain as the security of the network depends on the number of its miner/staking nodes.
2. Exchange Hacks = Digital Assets Are Not Secure
Centralized digital asset exchanges are popular avenues for exchanging digital assets for currencies such as USD or other digital assets. However, their design creates a system of incentives for external or internal actors to compromise them.
When we hear about exchange hacks in the digital asset space, it almost always involves compromising the security of an entity that operates within the traditional server-client architecture. However, the mainstream consciousness conflates the digital exchange security with that of technology that underlies digital assets. Holding a digital asset in a cold storage is extremely secure. Holding it in an exchange is not.
3. Blockchain has low TPS, hence it will never compete with or replace traditional financial infrastructure
Traditional financial systems process a vast number transactions every day. This transaction processing capacity is called throughput and is measured by a metric called transactions per second (TPS). Payment networks such as Visa claim to process up to 56,000 TPS, while traditional exchanges are likely to have much higher capacity to process transactions to accommodate high-frequency trading.
Today, the Bitcoin network processes around 4-5 transactions per second while the second largest digital asset network—Ethereum processes around 15. If we compare the current state of the blockchain technology to the demands of the global financial industry, it is easy to see why such claims could be justified. However, this is a myopic view of this new technology, very much akin to the way Kodak dismissed digital cameras as a potential threat to its business model.
It failed to recognize (i) the speed at which digital cameras would develop and (ii) the fundamental shift the digital cameras introduced in the way we take and store pictures, despite being the company that invented digital cameras in 1975. As the history shows, that was Kodak’s grave mistake.
It is hard to ignore the historical parallels here. The digital asset space is evolving fast. The next-generation networks, which operate under the proof-of-stake consensus mechanism, preserve the securities of proof-of-work, but do away with its capacity limitations. A notable example of that is Cardano. These new networks also represent a shift in the global economic paradigm that many do not seem to notice.
4. Digital Assets Have No Intrinsic Value
The concept of intrinsic value, or lack thereof, is often used to describe digital assets as a purely speculative asset class. While this may apply, with some justification, to digital assets which only claim to function as money, such claims fail to capture the wider nature of platform-based digital assets, which derive their value from the direct use of their networks.
In digital asset platforms like Cardano or Algorand, the native token gives the holder the right to participate in the consensus of the network through the process of staking. The consensus mechanism secures the network, maintains the decentralized ledger, enables participation in the governance of the network and can sustain myriads of decentralized applications with real-world utilities.
Put simply, digital tokens may derive their value from the economic activity that takes place on their networks. The economic activity on such networks, in turn depends on the security of the network, its technical capabilities, its transaction fees and the real-world utility of decentralized applications that reside on them. In that respect, they can be thought of as a new kind of financial instrument. The kind that seamlessly combines the properties of currencies, commodities, and shares of ownership into a single digital token.
These new instruments require that we develop and apply new analytical frameworks to value them, much like the concepts of equities and derivatives did when they first emerged as new financial instruments.
5. Developed Economies Do Not Need Blockchain Technology Because They Have Well-Established Financial/Commercial Solutions.
While it is easy to see how the blockchain technology could unlock a lot of value in the emerging markets, the idea that developed economies do not benefit from this technology is short-sighted.
It is akin to saying that cell phones are a great technology for emerging markets, but developed markets already have land lines, hence do not need them. In a similar vein, we could argue that developed countries do not need internet because most of what internet could do already exists in analog form.
We have to realize that (i) at its core, blockchain is a paradigm-shifting infrastructure/technology and (ii) despite its nascent stage, blockchain is extremely cost-effective… To a degree that it has the capacity to fundamentally disrupt a slew economic sectors out of existence, from banking to real estate, and create new ones.
When we accept this eventuality, we will have to face some uncomfortable truths that many sectors will not exist in their current form or entirely disappear. Currently these sectors provide economic value, employment and generate taxes. If some blockchain-based solution is to replace them in 3-5 years, where would that value migrate? Losing them to open blockchain networks would not be acceptable politically or economically for many developed countries.
One way out of this could be for developed countries to invest in national networks, allowing them to reap the benefits of this new technology, while retaining value from economic activity of their citizens and companies within their jurisdictions.
Another, more realistic way, would be to invest heavily into friendly legal frameworks that would encourage both individuals and companies that would ultimately develop or maintain open blockchain protocols migrate to these jurisdictions, drawing in talent, capital and innovation.
One thing is becoming increasingly clear: we can no longer ignore the elephant in the room. Much like digital cameras and internet itself, blockchain is unstoppable.
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