What Makes Blockchain so Hard to Communicate?

One of the first concepts I teach undergraduates when I lecture on media and communication is what is known as Diffusions of Innovation theory. According to this theory, five sections of the public display different levels of willingness to adopt new technologies.

Innovators and early adopters tend to gravitate towards change rapidly with quick and informed commitment. The late majority and laggards are slow, skeptical and conservative consumers who gradually wean themselves off old tech. The critical middle group, the early majority, are the ones who transform a marginal technological trend into mainstream adoption with careful deliberation.

When it comes to something like blockchain, which is now finishing a decade in the public consciousness, this early majority is still fairly invisible. What I contend is, for this early majority to consolidate, one of the primary hurdles that needs to be passed is not logistical or infrastructural, but communicative.

Blockchain’s most commonly heard definition, “a decentralized, distributed, immutable ledger,” creates an instant blur in the minds of most of the uninitiated when they hear it for the first time. It is as much of a definition as it is an abstraction. It is difficult to pinpoint it as a process, code or a function. By the time we introduce nodes, timestamping and cryptocurrencies, we have already filtered out much of the public interest to learn more beyond the buzzword.

Our starting point should be accepting the reality that blockchain lacks a conventionally agreed upon definition, beyond being a digital ledger. Aspects such as being public and decentralized are not common to many blockchain systems, for example. The dividing line between a shared database and private blockchain also becomes hazy at times. This dilution of the blockchain tag has led to the inevitable worries of blockchain technology becoming a fancy but empty brand label amidst escalating Bitcoin hype.

Perhaps the best explanative tool to allow blockchain to seep into a non-technical audience is the right visual analogy. There are several out there on the Net, some funkier than others. My personal favorite is the onion analogy as put forward by Matthew Beedham.

He suggests that blockchain can be better demonstrated as composed of layers, each offering a new dimension of complexity. The first layer starts with the physical hardware infrastructure on top of the Internet which allows for blockchain to exist. The following layer is a set of consensus protocols to allow for Ethereum and Bitcoin. The third layer is decentralized applications where much of the blockchain functionality exists.

As useful an illustration as that is, we may be moving past the point of no return for an all-encompassing “blockchain” definition. Rather, as the years progress, the emphasis may be less on the shifting underlying foundation of the technology and more on the functionality itself. Under a more generic “Internet 2.0” approach, it may perhaps be easier for the public to identify applications based on their immediate USP, such as decentralization or immutability.

As blockchain startups eagerly push to expand their technology horizons outside of the fintech sphere, they are looking to boost existing performance and court governments to introduce supportive legislation to create an enabling environment. Yet they may also find it worthwhile to reframe the terms in which they present the technology itself, as the “blockchain” may soon find its impact dulled.

Author Name: Saqib Sheikh
Saqib is the Project Director for the Rohingya Project, a grassroots initiative for the financial inclusion of stateless Rohingya refugees worldwide using Blockchain technology.