Blockchain poses as big a threat to banks as Facebook and Amazon did to conventional media firms
Humanitys earliest, truly transformative general purpose technologies were the ability to cross-fertilise plants and cross-breed animals. Suddenly, it made more sense to farm than to hunt and gather. The surge in agricultural output meant humans could do other things than worry about survival; they could live in cities. Human civilisation began.
The story of the subsequent millennia has been how some 30 general-purpose technologies of equal power, ranging from the printing press to the steam engine, have driven similar leaps in transforming our economy, our lives and our civilisation. Today, we are living through another.
Digitisation is, if anything, even more powerful: it is a meta general-purpose technology. No area of human activity will be left untouched by the translation of the physical into digital data. Already, it has created astonishing new capacities: the chances are that you are reading this on a smartphone or tablet. But the adventure is only just beginning. Everything from banking to health is about to experience similar transformations.
Last week, the growing impact of blockchain and the price of one of the crypto-currencies it underwrites bitcoin hit the front pages. Regulators stopped the US stock market trading in the Crypto Company (a tiny penny stock whose main asset is its name) after its shares jumped 2,000%, so that it briefly, and stunningly, joined the Fortune 500 with a value of $12bn. As extraordinary, when the Long Island Iced Tea Corp yet to make a profit announced that it was changing its name to Long Blockchain Corp, its shares jumped 500%. The price of bitcoin itself $1,000 at the start of the year briefly hit $19,000 per coin last week before falling to $11,000 and then recovering to $14,000 yesterday. A crazy wildness, emulating every financial bubble in history, has settled on US investors.
But bubbles dont come out of nowhere. Peoples animal spirits are sparked by something real that collectively captures their imagination: blockchain and crypto-currencies are that something. Blockchain is a foundational digital technology that rivals the internet in its potential for transformation. To explain: essentially, blocks are segregated, vast bundles of data in permanent communication with each other so that each block knows what the content is in the rest of the chain. However, only the owner of a particular block has the digital key to access it.
So what? First, the blocks are created by miners, individual algorithm writers and companies throughout the world (with a dense concentration in China), who want to add a data block to the chain. There is no government or central direction; no permission is needed to create a block and unless the law is broken, no government, regulator or police authority can close the block down.
Just as the web once promised freedom, so does blockchain. The chain is self-policing. Anyone who attempts to launch an exchange of data outside the protocols of the chain will immediately be spotted by the other blocks and the exchange will be aborted. Suddenly, the world has acquired a system for the fast, trusted exchange of vast amounts of data without intermediaries or supervision.
In the way that Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google (the Fangs) replaced conventional media and communication companies, that prospect faces banks, insurance companies and many public services. Our health data can be given to the whole chain for it to assess, rather than an individual doctor, and the chain can then assess and price an insurable risk. No intermediary is safe. No wonder investors are salivating at the prospect of old, analogue organisations being driven out of business and mega fortunes being made by the companies replacing them, perhaps by the Crypto Company or Long Blockchain Corp. If you had bought Facebook 13 years ago you would now be very rich.