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Book review: 'Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin and Other Cryptocurrencies is Changing the World' by Don Tapscott; Alex Tapscott

  • July 2018
  • Topics in science
  • Book or article
Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin and Other Cryptocurrencies is Changing the World

Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin and Other Cryptocurrencies is Changing the World

by Don Tapscott; Alex Tapscott

Published by Portfolio Penguin (14 Jun. 2018)
ISBN-10: 0241237866
ISBN-13: 978-0241237861

Book review by Andrea Bandelli, Executive Director, Science Gallery International, Dublin, Ireland

It seems that today everybody is talking about blockchain, but to many it remains a big mystery.

Therefore, as is the case for many new and emerging technologies, we quickly develop a mix of fear, enthusiasm, utopian and dystopian scenarios, but in the end there’s a big risk that the technology is driven by the few who are investing in it, and many of us are left with applications that will shape our lives, rather than the other way around – us shaping the technology according to our needs and values.

Blockchain is an emerging technology, but it’s definitely gaining so much momentum (and investment) that it would be unwise to just “wait and see what happens”, given the implications that it may have on many aspects of our lives and societies.

The book “Blockchain Revolution”, first published in 2016, was updated this year with a comprehensive preface and afterword. The authors, Don and Alex Tapscott, do an excellent job at explaining in simple terms everything you need to know around blockchain. Don Tapscott is the bestselling author of “Wikinomics”, the book that brought the concept of “open source” to the masses; his son Alex is an investor in the blockchain business. The book is divided in three parts: the basics of blockchain and its design principles; a comprehensive review of the areas of change that can (or will?) be affected by blockchain; and a discussion about the road ahead, both in terms of developments that are still necessary as well as several possible pitfalls that need to be addressed.

The key to understand blockchain, the authors explain, is that it radically changes how the internet works. Today the internet is used to exchange information; blockchain transforms the internet to exchange value. Not information about value (as is the case today, when we conduct an online transaction, for instance) but actual value – money, property, rights, and even objects, with the internet of things.

Rather than dwelling too long on the technicalities of how this is enabled (a combination of cryptography and distributed infrastructure) the books dives into the actual applications of blockchain, in order to make it tangible and understandable. Financial transactions, based on digital currencies (“cryptocurrencies”) such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, have already been around for years. In the book we find an extensive overview of the main currencies, how they are implemented, and what kind of services they enable. For instance, Bitcoin is a basic currency, while Ethereum is actually an operating system which allows to build smart contracts that run on its currency, Ether. There are today almost 2000 cryptocurrencies on the internet, each with their own specific markets and goals. CulturalCoins, for example, is a cryptocurrency developed for the cultural sector.

Cryptocurrencies are only the tip of the iceberg, and the book takes us quickly into a whole new world of blockchain applications that are currently being prototyped, tested, and increasingly made ready for widespread use.

The music industry for example is ready for blockchain. 15 years ago the introduction of online stores such as iTunes started the disruption of the conventional music publishing industry. Today, streaming services such as Spotify create even more fractures in a system that is based on intermediaries – agents, publishers, distributors etc. A whole chapter in the book describes how artists like Imogen Heap are using blockchain to radically change this system, not only to ensure a fair payment for artists, but especially to regain transparency and oversight on how their music is used. By shifting the paradigm from information to value, blockchain allows musicians like Imogen Heap to literally place their creations online, allowing anybody to use their content either for commercial, personal or nonprofit use, and track every interaction with that content. Depending on its use, the interaction can trigger a financial exchange (as a compensation for the use of the content) or be added to the artwork (as in the case of a remix).

Several chapters of the book explore the impact of blockchain on entrepreneurship. The authors swing a few times between actual implementations and idealistic future applications, but they do a very good job at arguing how blockchain can eliminate several barriers to entrepreneurship (access to financial markets, sales infrastructure etc.) and offer new opportunities (microtransactions, smart contracts, shared platforms etc.).

The most visionary part of the book is dedicated to how blockchain can change democracy. That’s by no means an easy feat, and the authors expertly navigate the complex implications around the subject. One major transformation that blockchain enables is that all the data about our identity can be given back to individuals, and not stored in governments’ databases. This concept, like the shift from internet of information to the internet of value, takes a little while to sink in; but the implications are transformative. The authors articulate very well how blockchain is not set to replace representative democracy, but rather it can enable a lot of the changes that we already see happening outside the formal democratic institutions. For instance, it allows delegative (“liquid”) forms of democracy (where citizens can choose their level of involvement depending on issues and situations); random sample elections that can be accurate and instantaneous; and new ways to keep the voting process embedded at all times into the political and policy process, enforcing accountability and transparency. The authors also explain how blockchain can address three major problems affecting democracy today: the fragmentation of public discourse; scaling ignorance on the web; and complicated policy and implementation. Very aptly, however, after the chapter on democracy the book ends with ten major challenges facing blockchain that bring us “back to reality”. We are reminded that everything we read so far is not a given, and is not determined only by corporations, governments and computer scientists. It is also up to us to interpret those challenges and shape with our actions what we want blockchain to be.

P.S. These two additional resources are helpful to understand how blockchain can be applied to professional fields our readers are familiar with. Blockchain for Science is a think tank dedicated to how blockchain enables Open Science in a much more powerful way than open access or open data; and the article How Blockchain Can Impact Museums? gives a good overview of the ways in which blockchain is already used by museums impacting collections, fundraising, ticketing and exhibitions.