Why private blockchains should not be eager to run code
I’m not a fan of the term “smart contracts”. For a start, it has been used by so many people for so many different things, that we should probably just ban it completely. For example, the first known reference is from 1997, when Nick Szabo used it to describe physical objects that change their behavior based on some data. More recently, the term has been used for the exact opposite: to describe computation on a blockchain which is influenced by external events such as the weather. For now let’s put both of these meanings aside.
I want to focus here on “smart contracts” in the sense of general purpose computation that takes place on a blockchain. This meaning was popularized by Ethereum, whose white paper is subtitled “A Next-Generation Smart Contract and Decentralized Application Platform”. As a result of the attention that Ethereum has received, this meaning has become the dominant one, with banks (and others) working away on smart contract proofs-of-concept. Of course, since we’re talking about regulated financial institutions, this is mostly in the context of private or permissioned blockchains, which have a limited set of identified participants. For reasons that are now well understood, public blockchains, for all of their genius, are not yet suited for enterprise purposes.
So is the future bright for smart contracts in private blockchains? Well, kind of, but not really. You see, the problem is:
In private blockchains, smart contracts combine four good ideas with one bad one.
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Why blockchain detractors are missing the point
And so it goes on. From popular posts to contemptuous tweets to predictions about the future, the world and its mother are lining up to throw tomatoes at private blockchains, before even understanding what they are.
Saying that a private blockchain is just a shared database is like saying that HTML and HTTP are “just” distributed hypertext. It’s wrong in two ways. First, the semantic one: private blockchains are a technology that enables shared databases, like pens enable writing and HTML/HTTP enable distributed hypertext. The bitcoin blockchain and its primary application cannot be meaningfully separated, because one could not exist without the other. But this equivalence does not apply to private blockchains at all.
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How blockchains can solve the oldest problem in the book
Trading between people is as old as humanity itself. It began at the moment when caveman Ogg said to caveman Ugg: “me give you rock, you give me berries”. But trading carries with it a fundamental problem: it requires trust. What stops Ogg from using the rock to bash Ugg, then grabbing both rock and berries before running away? How do we translate a verbal exchange agreement into an enforcement mechanism that ensures both sides keep their word?
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Is there any value in a blockchain without a cryptocurrency?
The debate has been running for a while but the past month has seen a serious uptick. The question being asked is:
Is there any value in a blockchain without a cryptocurrency? And can these “tokenless shared ledgers” be called blockchains at all?
So I’ve read Bailey’s article, watched Tim’s video, read this Nasdaq post, followed Richard’s every word, and even had my own good-spirited debate (see comments) with the Counterparty foundation’s Chris DeRose. So much hot air.
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