Have you heard the word “Bitcoin”? I’m sure you have. And while it might be confirmation bias (and by “confirmation bias” I mean a Google algorithm) that makes the word show up every day in my news feed, I doubt that can explain why it’s always on ‘World News Tonight with David Muir” or the lead article in my neighborhood newspaper.
As much as I was perfectly willing to audit conversations about Bitcoin (and its bestie, “blockchain”), write about its related scams (“Online Scams (or “How I (Almost) Met An American Hero”), and even listen to friends’ advice about investing in it, I didn’t have a clue what Bitcoin really was, how it works, where it comes from, if it’s legal, if it’s taxable, if it’s capitalized (in both senses!). NOTHING.
Which is like throwing down the gauntlet. If there’s a concept that’s this ubiquitous, Amazon Prime one-day delivery on books, and an entire Internet from which to learn about it …? Well, challenge accepted.
I dove headfirst down that wormhole. I read, “Blockchain for Dummies,” I devoured online articles, and I unabashedly reached out to experts all over the world (at this age, I clearly have no shame left at all). And here’s what I found out: cryptocurrency and blockchain technology are INCREDIBLY hard to explain – mainly because once you learn one tiny fact, you’re compelled to understand hundreds more.
And then I found Anders Brownworth, Maggie Hsu, and Adil Haris – experts who had not only published straight-forward explanations of Bitcoin and blockchain technology, but who offered to answer any questions I might have, so that those of us who are “not yet dead” can get a basic understanding – at least enough to know what all those news stories are all about and to think before investing our hard-earned retirement funds in it.
Adil, a Manager for the Financial Services Innovation team at Ernst and Young, received his Master of Science in Product Management at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science and Tepper School of Business and wrote, “Blockchain — A Short and Simple Explanation with Pictures” (pictures!). Anders, a Principal Architect in Applied Research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and co-taught the first blockchain class at MIT, spoke on the subject extensively from which he created a visual demo of blockchain technology (more pictures! And they move!). Maggie, who leads global business development for Amazon Managed Blockchain and is co-founder of Gold House, sent me a link to this video in which she not only provided me the first understandable explanation of the blockchain and bitcoin, she also illustrated the value of the blockchain technology.
So, here’s a (hopefully) very simple explanation, just to give you a head start. If you want to join me in the wormhole, be sure to click on the links provided by Anders, Maggie, and Adil.
Let’s start with the blockchain
Super simple explanation: Imagine a box (block) filled with information or transactions (data). Kinda like your checkbook ledger, except that it not only shows a record of your transactions, but it can also show a record of the transactions that your payee makes with the payment they receive, and so on, and so on, and so on. Just a big ol’ history of the provenance of that item of value (in this example, dollar) and all of the travels it makes through time.
Now imagine a bunch of computers (nodes) spread out all over the world who verify that the information in that box is accurate (mining) and add their seal of verification (hash). They get paid for this work (verifying that data) in native tokens (bitcoins in the case of the Bitcoin blockchain. Other blockchains may offer other coins or tokens).
Okay, now let’s say a new box of transactions comes along that needs verification (each block can contain a certain amount of information). This new box of data also contains the seal of verification (hash) from the previous box. Once this new box of transactions is verified and is given its own unique seal of verification (hash), it is chained to the previous box (block / chain) so that there’s a running history of verified transactions. The process continues as more and more boxes of data are added and verified. And because all the computers (nodes) running the blockchain have the same list of blocks and transactions and can transparently see these new blocks being filled with new transactions, no one can cheat the system.
All of the information on the blockchain (boxes of data, verified and chained together) is called an “immutable shared public ledger.” An important benefit of this system is that no one can change any of the data or transactions that have occurred (immutable) without affecting the seal of verification (hash) in their blockchain. If they do, it is immediately evident that their hash is different from all of the others who have the same blockchain on their computers, and that their data is not valid. Then the offending (minority) chain is dropped – the nodes simply choose not to talk to the offending node anymore and they carry on maintaining consensus without that node/copy of the blockchain.
And what is Bitcoin?
Bitcoin (BTC) is perhaps the most well-known of more than 6,700 cryptocurrencies in the marketplace (“crypto”). Cryptocurrencies, often called “tokens,” can be used as an online payment for certain goods and services. It’s important to note “online” here, as bitcoin is a digital asset and can only be used digitally.
Cryptocurrency got its name from “cryptography.” Cryptography keeps information secure by using a series of mathematical proofs to both hide (encode and decode) and authenticate (hash/sign) data. These proofs guarantee the security of the transactions or data, the security of the participants, the independence from central authority (like a bank … or a government), and the protection from double spending (ensuring that, like a physical dollar bill, you can only spend it once).
You can purchase bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies via a cryptocurrency exchange. You can also obtain it as a payment for goods and services. And you can “mine” it.
Mining is the process of solving a complex mathematical equation (proofs) first. Then, once your solution is verified by everyone else, you are paid in cryptocurrency. While anyone could ostensibly mine bitcoin by downloading the necessary software on a computer capable of running it, the cost of the computing resources necessary to do so makes mining much less tempting than simply purchasing it on an exchange.
Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have “value” in that there is a limited amount out there – just like there’s a limited amount of gold. The price fluctuates depending on media attention, rumors, speculation, and availability. That’s the cart-and-horse nature of cryptocurrencies – until they are accepted worldwide as valuable currencies, the volatility will likely continue. And until the volatility as a payment mechanism settles, it is unlikely to gain worldwide acceptance.
What does a blockchain have to do with Bitcoin?
This one is easier to answer. The Bitcoin network relies on blockchain technology to operate because the blockchain technology is what is providing the security, immutability, and historical ledger to the transactions. This organized collective of computers (nodes) is called a peer-to-peer network in that it allows each individual to interact directly with the others. In the case of Bitcoin, the network is built in such a way that each user is broadcasting the transactions of other users. And, crucially, no bank is required as a third party.
How might blockchain technology be used in the future?
Blockchains are decentralized ledgers that can keep track of essentially any data, transaction, asset, etc. If you imagine that every asset can be given a digital identity, then you can imagine how, in the future, all of those assets will be made trackable and unalterable via blockchain technology.
With blockchain technology, there will no longer be a need for third party involvement in many types of transactions. Instead, all of the data will be on the blockchain and accessible to the parties directly involved. Medical records, global financial products, banking, land ownership and real estate transactions, insurance, ID systems, intellectual property, program management within organizations, authentication and tracking can all be put on a blockchain system, one that will be secure, private, and immutable.
Lesson 1: Complete
Despite how confusing it got at times, learning about cryptocurrencies and blockchains was a fun exercise. And while there’s still a debate as to whether “brain training” activities have any effect on dementia, I guarantee you that you’ll know a little bit more the next time you hear someone say “Bitcoin.”
Cryptography – the field of science that is involved with the authentication and hiding of data using mathematics.
Hash – a unique, fixed-length string of random numbers that is the digital fingerprint of some data. Hashes are produced when a hashing algorithm runs a complex calculation on any data and generates a hash as the result of the calculation. For a great, visual explanation, see Anders Brownworth’s video here.
Miners (not minors) – the computers running the hashing algorithm who are paid in tokens (Bitcoins, for example) for their work.
Peer-to-Peer (P2P) – computers that are connected on the Internet via networks, rather than a central server, so that files can be shared directly.
Private keys and public keys – A private key is produced by a complicated mathematical algorithm that allows you to decrypt data. A public key is created from the private key the same way, so that whatever is encrypted with the public key requires the related private key for decryption and vice versa. The public key is made available to everyone that needs it (it is recorded on the blockchain) while the private key is confidential and only shared with its owner. It is nearly impossible to reverse the process of key generation, such that one could generate a private key from someone’s public key.
Consider this example from Adil Haris’s “Blockchain — A Short and Simple Explanation with Pictures”: The public key is like your mailbox which everyone knows about, and can drop you messages. The private key, on the other hand, is like the key to that mailbox. Only you own it, and only you can read the messages inside.
Signature – a cryptographic way to prove ownership. You would use your private key to sign something and then the resulting signature could be verified by everyone against your public key.
Wallet – where you keep all your money – in this case, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.
Photo by Pascal Bernardon on Unsplash