Blockchain & Open Source Definitions
This post was written as a response to Trent McConaghy's post, Blockchain as a Field.
He starts with this statement:
“blockchain” is best used as a label for a field, just like “AI” is the label for the field of artificial intelligence.
It was Lisa Cheng1, who opened my eyes to the multiple definitions of blockchain.
Roughly paraphrased, here’s what Lisa used as a framework for defining blockchain:
The Three Definitions of Blockchain
- Blockchain as Innovation: the cryptographic / computer science innovation of Merkle Trees and organizing into an immutable chain using math.
- Blockchain as Public Chain: A collective label for instances of public chains, such as Bitcoin or Ethereum.
- Blockchain as Ethos: The believe and support for certain attributes of blockchains, such as decentralization, trustlessness, or immutability.
So I agree with Trent McConaghy that blockchain is a field, closely related to decentralized web.
I know some people interested in the decentralized web & p2p networks – who have a similar belief in ethos – but who don’t like blockchain’s currency / store of value attributes. Or perhaps they don’t like the technical underpinnings – we use to argue more strenuously about the merits of Programming Language A vs B, too.
Would blockchain be possible without the previous innovation and beliefs of open source?
I tried to think about how multiple definitions might apply to the concept of Open Source:
Three Definitions of Open Source
- Open Source as Legal Innovation: the creation of licenses that enabled source code to be open, including copy left which forced contribution of changes.
- Open Source as Collaboration Method: the process of working out in the open with a distributed group of contributors jointly making changes to a central code base.
- Open Source as Ethos: a belief that code should be open for inspection and free as in freedom. That code that runs applications should be available and changeable. That many eyes make all bugs shallow.
Open Source has gone through changes in the 15 years I’ve been involved. Highly centralized groups, which actively tried to prevent forks, was my experience when I started. And I had bad habits of tribalism supported by this approach.
Was it the rise of GitHub as a collaboration tool that led to changes of “many forks”? Was the shift to wider usage of the MIT license rather than GPL because of these tools, or was it an evolution of ethos by the wider open source community?
Blockchains’ ethos of trustlessness and decentralization is in part what drives interest in it, especially by people who don’t have the background to build the technology directly.
People like Trent may subscribe to some of these beliefs, but are also highly accomplished technologists, computer scientists, and/or cryptographers, actively working on innovations which power different tools.
Josh Stark’s recent article Making Sense of Cryptoeconomics explores similar thinking around the cross-disciplinary nature of the field:
Cryptoeconomic systems like bitcoin feel like magic to someone who views them only as a product of computer science, because bitcoin can do things that computer-science alone could never accomplish. Cryptoeconomics isn’t magic – it’s just interdisciplinary.
I’m looking forward to further evolutions and enhancements around the fields of blockchain, crypto-economics, and decentralized web, and how we apply our ethos to these capabilities.