Blockchain and Bitcoin – an introduction for beginners written by a beginner

I am pretty interested in finance and economics (often useful as a professional accountant) and I have worked with enough tech companies over the years to feel vaguely competent in understanding at least the business models of most technology businesses and the markets they operate in. It has however taken quite a while to get me to the point of feeling like I understand anything at all about blockchain, bitcoin, cryptocurrencies and the whole related world which seems to have become really prominent recently.

Talking to fellow professionals and business owners I realised that it wasn’t that I was a long way behind the curve on this – it was simply that this stuff has usually been really badly explained by the specialists who are all over it and generalists like me can’t keep up. I decided to try and shed some light on this whole topic and if some tech expert finds I have misunderstood it, please just correct me!

So first of all, “blockchain” – this really is a set of data “blocks” linked together in a way quite similar to a chain. Each data block is encrypted and the way the encryption works is that part of it is linked to the previous block in the chain.  Even if you can’t read the data (because you don’t have the key to the encryption) you can tell that the data in the previous block is unchanged because the link to that previous block in your current block still works – i.e. the chain is unbroken.

These data blocks are stored on a large number of independent computers linked together in a peer to peer network (no-one computer is in charge of the network) and the common feature is that they have all agreed to run the same protocol (i.e. programme). Because the computers are all linked any change to any block would be instantly highlighted – the “chain” on one computer would no longer work and would be different from the chain on every other computer from that point on.

This is therefore a very flexible and resilient way to store data transparently – and the fact that the data is encrypted and only the people with the key know what it actually means makes the process very private as well.  A really clever way of squaring the circle.

Bitcoin is a specific blockchain. An individual Bitcoin is a particular number that meets a set of criteria. There are only around 21 million numbers which meet these criteria and so there is a restricted supply of Bitcoins. Identifying numbers which meet the criteria is a very computer processing intensive exercise – this process is known as “mining bitcoins” and there are untold thousands of computers devoting processing power to it all the time. When you read that “bitcoin mining is using more power than the entire state of Mexico”, it illustrates just how much effort is being put into this computing.

So an individual number which meets the criteria is a bitcoin and forms one of the blocks. The block is encrypted but if you have the key to the encryption then you “own” it and have the capacity to transfer the key to someone else – this transfer of the key is the transfer of value and the encryption keys are therefore the real Bitcoin currency.

The potential of blockchain however goes well beyond Bitcoin. There are other cryptocurrencies (the most prominent of which is probably Ethereum) and a whole host of other applications which people are devising for using the squared circle of transparency and privacy that blockchain offers. An interesting idea I have seen is a register of all large diamonds – you can put the details into blocks in a blockchain with the physical details unencrypted and ownership and cost details attached but encrypted. This would allow much easier verification of the ownership of valuable assets.

I think the key value of blockchain is that it allows some transactions and relationships to be conducted very quickly, without needing to take the time to build trust as has previously been needed. In lots of ways, in the world we live in now, there is already a huge degree of trust and the extra admin of using blockchain is completely unnecessary. In other cases, it can be a game changer.

And if you think I am going to tell you what the future value of Bitcoin is, think again.  I am an accountant, not a prophet!