Blockchain is a digital, decentralised, distributed ledger. But what does that really mean? We thought we would delve into what ledgers are and how they’ve been a fundamental part of companies and traditional economy structures.
Most explanations for the importance of blockchain start with Bitcoin and the history of money. But money is just the first use case of blockchain, and it is unlikely to be the most important.
It might seem strange that a ledger — a dull and practical document associated mainly with accounting — would be described as a revolutionary technology. But the blockchain matters because ledgers matter.
Ledgers all the way down
Ledgers are everywhere. Ledgers do more than just record accounting transactions. A ledger consists simply of data structured by rules. Any time we need a consensus about facts, we use a ledger. Ledgers record the facts underpinning the modern economy.
Ledgers confirm ownership. Property title registers map who owns what and whether their land is subject to any caveats or encumbrances. Hernando de Soto has documented how the poor suffer when they own property that has not been confirmed in a ledger. The firm is a ledger, as a network of ownership, employment and production relationships with a single purpose. A club is a ledger, structuring who benefits and who does not.
Ledgers confirm identity. Businesses have identities recorded on government ledgers to track their existence and their status under tax law. The register of Births Deaths and Marriages records the existence of individuals at key moments, and uses that information to confirm identities when those individuals are interacting with the world.
Ledgers confirm status. Citizenship is a ledger, recording who has the rights and is subject to obligations due to national membership. The electoral roll is a ledger, allowing (and, in Australia, obliging) those who are on that roll a vote. Employment is a ledger, giving those employed a contractual claim on payment in return for work.
Ledgers confirm authority. Ledgers identify who can validly sit in parliament, who can access what bank account, who can work with children, who can enter restricted areas.
At their most fundamental level, ledgers map economic and social relationships.
Agreement about the facts and when they change — that is, a consensus about what is in the ledger, and a trust that the ledger is accurate — is one of the fundamental bases of market capitalism.
The distinction between ownership and possession
Take passports, each country asserts the right to control who crosses its borders, and each country maintains a ledger of which of its citizens have the right to travel. A passport is a physical item — call it a token — that refers back to this ledger.
In the pre-digital world, possession indicated ownership of that right. The Australian passport ledger consisted of index cards held in by the government of each state. Border agents presented with a passport could surmise that the traveller who held it was listed on a distant ledger as allowed to travel. Of course this left border control highly exposed to fraud.
Possession implies ownership, but possession is not ownership. Now modern passports allow the authorities to confirm ownership directly. Their digital features allow airlines and immigration authorities to query the national passport database and determine that a passenger is free to travel.
Passports are a relatively straightforward example of this distinction. But as Bitcoin has shown: money is a ledger, too.
Possession of a banknote token indicates ownership. In the nineteenth century the possessor — ‘bearer’ — of a banknote had a right to draw on the issuing bank the value of the note. These banknotes were direct liabilities for the issuing bank, and were recorded on the banks’ ledger. A regime of possession indicating ownership meant that banknotes were susceptible to be both stolen and forged.
In our era fiat currencies a five dollar bill cannot be returned to the central bank for gold. But the relationship remains — the value of the bill is dependent on a social consensus about the stability of the currency and government that issued it. Banknotes are not wealth, as Zimbabweans and Yugoslavians and Weimar Republic Germans have unfortunately learned. A bill is a call on a relationship in a (now synthetic) ledger and if that relationship collapses, so does the value of the bill.
The evolution of the ledger
For all its importance, ledger technology has been mostly unchanged … until now.
Ledgers appear at the dawn of written communication. Ledgers and writing developed simultaneously in the Ancient Near East to record production, trade, and debt. Clay tablets baked with cuneiform script detailed units of rations, taxes, workers and so forth. The first international ‘community’ was arranged through a structured network of alliances that functioned a lot like a distributed ledger.
The first major change to ledgers appeared in the fourteenth century with the invention of double entry bookkeeping. By recording both debits and credits, double entry bookkeeping conserved data across multiple (distributed) ledgers, and allowed for the reconciliation of information between ledgers.
The nineteenth century saw the next advance in ledger technology with the rise of large corporate firms and large bureaucracies. These centralised ledgers enabled dramatic increases in organisational size and scope, but relied entirely on trust in the centralised institutions.
In the late twentieth century ledgers moved from analog to digital ledgers. For example, in the 1970s the Australian passport ledger was digitised and centralised. A database allows for more complex distribution, calculation, analysis and tracking. A database is computable and searchable.
But a database still relies on trust; a digitised ledger is only as reliable as the organisation that maintains it (and the individuals they employ). It is this problem that the blockchain solves. The blockchain is a distributed ledgers that does not rely on a trusted central authority to maintain and validate the ledger.
Blockchain and the economic institutions of capitalism
The economic structure of modern capitalism has evolved in order service these ledgers.
Oliver Williamson, the 2009 Nobel laureate in economics, argued that people produce and exchange in markets, firms, or governments depending on the relative transactions costs of each institution. Williamson’s transactions cost approach provides a key to understanding what institutions manage ledgers and why.
Governments maintain ledgers of authority, privilege, responsibility and access. Governments are the trusted entity that keeps databases of citizenship and the right to travel, taxation obligations, social security entitlements, and property ownership. Where a ledger requires coercion in order to be enforced, the government is required.
Firms also maintain ledgers: proprietary ledgers of employment and responsibility, of the ownership and deployment of physical and human capital, of suppliers and customers, of intellectual property and corporate privilege. A firm is often described as a ‘nexus of contracts’. But the value of the firm comes from the way that nexus is ordered and structured — the firm is in fact a ledger of contracts and capital.
Firms and governments can use blockchains to make their work more efficient and reliable. Multinational firms and networks of firms need to reconcile transactions on a global basis and blockchains can allow them to do so near-instantaneously. Governments can use the immutability of the blockchain to guarantee that property titles and identity records are accurate and untampered. Well-designed permissioning rules on blockchain applications can give citizens and consumers more control over their data.
But blockchains also compete against firms and governments. The blockchain is an institutional technology. It is a new way to maintain a ledger — that is, coordinate economic activity — distinct from firms and governments.
Blockchains can be used by firms, but they can also replace firms. A ledger of contracts and capital can now be decentralised and distributed in a way they could not before. Ledgers of identity, permission, privilege and entitlement can be maintained and enforced without the need for government backing.
Excerpt originally published by Cryptoeconomis, The Blockchain Economy: A beginner’s guide to institutional cryptoeconomics.