Perpetual Decentralized Applications
Welcome back to another issue of Vault. This week, we’re breaking down the core use-case of blockchain tech and how it is positioned as a technological movement.
I just finished reading Nat Eliason’s latest on web3 use-cases and was struck by his descriptive framing of blockchains.
“Crypto and ‘Web3’ are really all about blockchain tech. And what a blockchain lets you do is run perpetual decentralized applications.”
—Nat Eliason, Does Crypto Have Any Good Use Cases?
The framing of Perpetual Decentralized Application is worth exploring because it speaks to what blockchain can do well and what it can’t—and where those facts point the progression of this technology.
Breaking Down the Term
Let’s address one of the most common criticisms: Attempts to define new technology use too many buzzwords. In this case, the question is whether Perpetual, Decentralized, and Application are buzzwords—or whether they point to real underlying meaning.
Any information written into a blockchain lives as long as the chain does. Once the block containing the information has been accepted by the network and written into the permanent and distributed copy of the chain, it will be there as long as the chain exists. That data cannot be modified, and it cannot be deleted.
As an example, all of the code written into the Ethereum chain can be called by any other application. Each block adds information to the chain, and thus—the value of Ethereum’s information supply grows with every block.
Blockchains turn information into a public good using private market dynamics. (Public goods are typically funded through taxation). In this case, the term perpetual speaks to the ability of blockchains to store immutable information and make it available to anyone around the world. Blockchains preserve the information’s origin and prevent it from being altered by bad actors. The key feature of blockchains is permanence.
You might think of a blockchain as a loom.
Validators (or Miners) are the shuttle, weaving information across nodes into an immutable pattern that can be read by anyone, anywhere—forever. The shuttle can’t go back. It can only go forward. The pattern cannot be rewoven. The blockchain cannot be unwritten.
We already have information sources that anyone in the world can access. Take Wikipedia, for example—which is also a public good. What does blockchain tech add that Wikipedia doesn’t already do?
Wikipedia is centralized. All the information collected, edited, and organized over the years are stored on centralized servers controlled by the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit legal entity that owns and manages Wikipedia.
Wikipedia has decentralized its network of contributors, all volunteers, who donate their time to grow and maintain Wikipedia. But the decentralized network of volunteers overlies a centralized entity that is the single point of control over the data on their servers. They grant permission for editors to make changes to Wikipedia’s information—but they can terminate this permission at any time. There is no check on the Wikimedia Foundation’s power. Only our trust that they will continue to act in an altruistic way.
To be clear, I love Wikipedia. I believe it’s a wonder of the world, and I’ve been donating monthly for years. But we must be clear-eyed about the power structures that influence our society’s information sources.
How does a blockchain decentralize information?
A blockchain with a well-developed network is decentralized by its nature. The network of nodes that distribute the ledger would be controlled by many different actors. A sufficiently decentralized network is supported by so many nodes and maintained by so many different parties that it would be nearly impossible (or economically unjustifiable) to attempt to seize control of the network.
This network of nodes decentralizes the network by moving control from one central node to many interconnected nodes. No single entity can act unilaterally to modify or delete information. No changes can be made to the information without the consensus of the entire network. This foundational decentralization creates a robust network, resistant to bad actors and actions that work against the network's best interests.
This is the most straightforward of the three terms. Simply, an application “is a computer program designed to help people perform an activity.” We’ve been developing applications since the invention of the computer—and nearly since the beginning—the open-source movement has been dedicated to keeping code open and available to everyone.
Open-source software has been fundamental to the modern internet. From servers software like the Apache HTTP server, browsers like Mozilla’s Firefox, to operating systems like Android and Linux—all of which are open-source projects.
Blockchain tech takes open-source to a new level. Not only is code written to a blockchain accessible by anyone in the world—other applications can call functions written into a blockchain. A blockchain like Ethereum is a supercomputer in the cloud—available for anyone to use.
Viewing blockchain tech through the lens of Perpetual Decentralized Applications opens the door for a new understanding of the direction this tech is heading.
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