The Word ‘Blockchain’ is a ‘Semantic Wasteland’ that We Should Abandon

Blockchain has gone from a niche tech tool to a household term. You see it on TV commercials for IBM. You see it in discussions on cryptocurrency. Nic Carter of Castle Island Ventures and, however, believes that the word ‘blockchain’ is a “semantic wasteland.” Blockchain is so over-used that it has become meaningless.

In a blog report published earlier today, Carter highlighted a number of issues with the term ‘blockchain’. Because of these issues, Carter believes we should abandon the term.

Nic Carter has a number of serious problems with the term, including the fact that it’s used to refer to a wide range of things from across the industry, including things that aren’t strictly about blockchain:

“…the term persists, an empty semantic husk, kept alive by a thousand press releases, conveying as little meaning as possible. Well past the point of no return, the term is used to refer simultaneously to projects, structures, and databases that have virtually nothing in common. As a consequence, attempts to define it are hopeless, general failures. In this post, I’ll try to explain the origin of ‘blockchain’, and what we should do about it.”

The Origins Of The Term Blockchain

Satoshi Nakamoto created the first popular, widely-used “linked list structure,” explains Carter. However, Satoshi Nakamoto never referred to bitcoin’s system as a blockchain.

Instead, documents like the bitcoin whitepaper refer to bitcoin as a “chain of hash-based proof-of-work” or a “chain of blocks” or a “timechain” (a term not used in the whitepaper but in the original bitcoin codebase).

So no, Satoshi Nakamoto didn’t technically invent the term blockchain, but Satoshi did refer to bitcoin as a “chain of blocks”, so it was easy for users to make the leap to blockchain.

People Who Overuse The Term ‘Blockchain’ Are Masking Their Ignorance

Carter believes that blockchain has become a panacea for all types of innovations in the crypto industry. Platforms are blockchains. Cryptocurrencies are blockchains. Private databases are blockchains.

That’s why he believes that people who overuse blockchain – especially in a general context and without qualifiers – are most likely:

  • Well-meaning people who are forced by convention to use “subpar linguistic tools”
  • People who are a bit muddled, and trying to mask their ignorance with technobabble
  • People who are trying to posture as experts in an industry which realistically has no experts

It’s Wrong To Limit Bitcoin To A Chain Of Blocks

Carter doesn’t just have an issue with the way blockchain is ignorantly used; he also has an issue with the way bitcoin is reduced to a single technological innovation.

If you ask someone what makes bitcoin innovative, they might tell you that it’s the blockchain. This makes it seem like blockchain is the only reason behind bitcoin’s success.

Carter disputes that notion with a clever analogy:

“If I could have you take anything away from this piece, it’s that referring to Bitcoin as a blockchain is like referring to car as a transmission.”

Yes, blockchain is a key element of the system. However, it’s one of several components that make blockchain great:

“Bitcoin relies on a linked list, indeed. But it also relies on a p2p network, an open source and leaderless project, a replicated database, a self-supporting incentive system, a heaviest chain consensus rule, and a proof-of-work (PoW) scheme which gives block proposals unforgeable costliness. (Unforgeable costliness in simple terms: it’s impossible to fake a block submission — you would have to have allocated a good chunk of computing power (energy) to the task. It is therefore hard to create new Bitcoins, but easy for anyone to verify that you worked hard at it.)”

All of these qualities make bitcoin unique, and they’re some of the reasons why bitcoin changed the world after launching in 2009.

“I can’t tell you exactly what the essence of bitcoin is, but to limit it to a chain of blocks is reductionist in the extreme.”

Blockchain is not the soul of bitcoin. It’s just one part of bitcoin that makes it great.

What’s A Better Solution? Which Term Should We Use?

Carter insists that users should be more honest when talking blockchain. Don’t rely on buzzwords to define your product.

“To permissioned/enterprise blockchainers: be honest about what you’re building and in your marketing! If you’re building a database controlled by a consortium of pre-permissioned entities, don’t claim or imply it will have similar reliability characteristics to systems that are designed to live in far more adversarial environments.”

In other words, don’t call your private, permissioned database a blockchain when it’s not.

At the same time, Carter claims that computer scientists should stop mocking non-technical people for using the term ‘blockchain’. Non-technical people might not know the specific meaning behind blockchain. However, the term ‘blockchain’ has come to encompass the whole system – economic and social – rather than just the technical data structure.

Finally, regulators are urged to not define blockchain or create regulations specific to blockchain technology:

“You will fail, not due to your lack of astuteness, but because blockchain is so semantically dispersed as to be un-definable.”

Any regulatory policy will need to be specific enough to be useful, but also general enough to encompass all the different blockchain-like systems. Good luck creating such regulations.

“Please Join Me In Spurning Blockchain At Every Opportunity”

Ultimately, Carter sums up his post with a simple request: that we should stop using the term ‘blockchain’ at every opportunity.

“Let’s try and devise new terms which are specific enough to be useful, and do justice to their referents.”

Carter, for example, refers to permissionless networks like bitcoin as ‘public blockchains’.

What do you think? Should we start phasing out the term ‘blockchain’ to refer to everything in our industry? Or is the term ‘blockchain’ suiting its intended purpose?

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