I’m always on the lookout for something that helps make blockchain and cryptocurrency more understandable. (For the uninitiated or anyone like me who needed to refresh their memories, I have links to good essays on the topic further down in this posting.)
A July 10, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily announces a new approach to understanding blockchain technology,
A kit made from everyday objects is bringing the blockchain into the physical world.
The ‘BlocKit’, which includes items such as plastic tubs, clay discs, padlocks, envelopes, sticky notes and battery-powered candles, is aimed to help people understand how digital blockchains work and can also be used by innovators designing new systems and services around blockchain.
A team of computer scientists from Lancaster University, the University of Edinburgh in the UK, and the Universiti Teknologi MARA, in Malaysia, created the prototype BlocKit because blockchain — the decentralised digital infrastructure that is used to organise the cryptocurrency Bitcoin and holds promise to revolutionise many other sectors from finance, supply-chain and healthcare — is so difficult for people to comprehend.
“Despite growing interest in its potential, the blockchain is so novel, disruptive and complex, it is hard for most people to understand how these systems work,” said Professor Corina Sas of Lancaster University’s School of Computing and Communications. “We have created a prototype kit consisting of physical objects that fulfil the roles of different parts of the blockchain. The kit really helps people visualise the different component parts of blockchain, and how they all interact.
“Having tangible physical objects, such as a transparent plastic box for a Bitcoin wallet, clay discs for Bitcoins, padlocks for passwords and candles representing miners’ computational power, makes thinking around processes and systems much easier to comprehend.”
The BlocKit consisted of physical items that represented 11 key aspects of blockchain infrastructure and it was used to explore key characteristics of blockchain, such as trust – an important challenge for Bitcoin users. The kit was evaluated as part of a study involving 15 experienced Bitcoin users.
“We received very positive feedback from the people who used the kit in our study and, interestingly, we found that the BlocKit can also be used by designers looking to develop new services based around blockchain – such as managing patients’ health records for example.”
I will be providing a link to and a citation for the paper but first, I’m excerpting a few bits,
We report on a workshop with 15 bitcoin experts, [emphasis mine] 12 males, 3 females, (mean age 29, range 21-39). All participants had at least 2 years of engaging in bitcoin transactions: 9 had between 2 and 3 years, 4 had between 4 and 5 years, 2had more than 6 years. All participants have at least graduate education, i.e., 6 BSc, 7 MScs, and 2 Ph.D. Participants were recruited through the mailing lists of two universities,and through a local Bitcoins meetup group. [p. 3]
A striking finding was the overwhelmingly positive experience supported by BlocKit. Findings show that 10 participants deeply enjoyed physically touching [emphasis mine] its objects and enacting their movement in space while talking about blockchain processes: “there is going to be other transactions from other people essentially, so let’s put a few bitcoins in that box. I love this stuff, this is amazing” [P12]. Participants suggested that BlocKit could be a valuable tool for learning about blockchain: “I think this all makes sense and would be fine to explain to the novices. It is cool, this is really an interesting kit”[P7]. Other participants suggested leveraging gamification principles for learning about blockchain: “It’s almost like you could turn this into some kind of cool game like a monopoly”[P5] [p. 5]
A significant finding is the value of the kit in supporting experts to materialize and reflect on their understanding of blockchain infrastructure and its inner working. We argue that through its materiality, the kit allows bringing the mental models into question, which in turn helps experts confirm their understandings, develop more nuanced understandings, or even revise some previously held, less accurate assumptions. [emphasis mine]
Even experts are still learning about bitcoin and blockchain according to this research sample. it’s also interesting to note that the workshop participants enjoyed the physicality. I don’t see too many mentions of it in my wanderings but I can’t help wondering if all this digitization is going to leave people starved for touch.
Getting back to blockchain, here’s the link and citation I promised,
BlocKit: A Physical Kit for Materializing and Designing for Blockchain Infrastructure by Irni Eliana Khairuddin, Corina Sas, and Chris Speed.presented at Designing Interactive Systems (DIS) 2019
ACM International Conference Series [downloaded from https://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/id/eprint/132467/1/Design_Kit_DIS_28.pdf]
This paper is open access, as for BlocKit, it exists only as a prototype according to the July 10, 2019 Lancaster University press release.
Introductory essays for blockchain and cryptocurrency
Here are two of my favourites. First, there’s this February 6, 2018 essay (part ii of a series) by Tim Schneider on artnet.com explaining it all by using the art world and art market as examples,
… the fraught relationship between art and value lies at the molten core of several pieces made using blockchain technology. Part one of this series addressed how, in theory, the blockchain strengthens the markets for new media by introducing the concept of digital scarcity. This innovation means that works as simple as an “original” JPG or GIF could be made as rare as Francis Bacon paintings. (This fact leads to a host of business implications that will be covered in Part III.
However, a handful of forward-looking artists is using the blockchain to do more than reset the market’s perception of supply and demand. The technology, their work proves, is more than new software—it’s also a new medium.
The description of how artists using blockchain as a medium provides some of the best descriptions of cryptocurrency and blockchain that I’ve been able to find.
The other essay, a January 5, 2018 article for Slate.com by Joshua Oliver, provides some detail I haven’t seen anywhere else (Note: A link has been removed),
Already, blockchain has been hailed as likely to revolutionize … well … everything. Banks, health care, voting, supply chains, fantasy football, Airbnb, coffee: Nothing is beyond the hypothetical reach of blockchain as a revolutionary force. These predictions are easy to sell because blockchain is still little-understood. If you don’t quite know what blockchain is, it’s easier to imagine that it is whatever you want it to be. But before we can begin to search for the real potential amid the mass of blockchain conjecture and hype, we need to clear up what exactly we mean when we say blockchain.
One cause of confusion is the phrase the blockchain, which makes it sound like blockchain is one specific thing. In reality, the word blockchain is commonly used to describe two broad types of computer systems. [emphases mine] Both use similar underlying protocols, but they have other important differences. Bitcoin represents one approach to using blockchain, one wedded to principles of radical decentralization. The second approach—pioneered by more business-minded players—puts blockchain to use without adopting bitcoin’s revolutionary, decentralized governance. Both of these designs are short-handed as blockchains, so it’s easy to miss the crucial differences. Without grasping these differences, it’s hard to understand where we are today in the development of this promising technology, which blockchain ventures are worth your attention, and what might happen next.
That’s all I’ve got for now.