What are the 5 pillars of open blockchain?

30 May, 2019

Blockchain technologist and serial entrepreneur Andreas Antonopoulos recently gave a speech in Seoul, South Korea talking about what he calls the '5 pillars of open blockchain'. He believes that if these five things remain at the center of blockchain development moving forward, the future of blockchain could be one that helps separate nation states and banks.

Antonopoulos envisions a day when governments and central banks can no longer compete with open ecosystems because those ecosystems have transcended centralized control. His thoughts are quite intriguing to anyone who believes in the power of blockchain to create truly decentralized systems that governments and central banks can never interfere with.

While Antonopoulos' ideas are fairly common within the cryptocurrency community, their eventual reality remains to be seen. Government always seems to find a way to stick its nose in where it doesn't belong. Will cryptocurrency and blockchain be any different? The only way to know for sure is to wait and see what happens. In the meantime, it might be interesting to look at the five pillars Antonopoulos spoke about.

Pillar #1: Open

The first pillar of open blockchain is, obviously, openness. But what does this mean? From a technical standpoint, we already know platforms like Bitcoin and Ethereum are open because anyone can take existing code and fork it. Forking is that which gave rise to Bitcoin Cash and Ethereum Classic.

If forking is not your thing, you could take the Bitcoin core and modify it to make an entirely new blockchain. Quite a few of the cryptocurrencies now on the market were developed under that model. It can be done because Bitcoin's underlying code is open to anyone who wants it. However, that's not what Antonopoulos means when he talks about openness.

To Antonopoulos, openness refers to access. A truly open blockchain can be accessed by any and all for whatever reason necessary. It is open to developers who want to contribute to making it better. It is open to others who want to use it as a basis for creating something new. Finally, it is open to those consumers who want to participate in the ecosystem it has created.

Antonopoulos takes openness to a higher level by changing the direction in which it works. Rather than blockchain being open because its original creator has given access, Antonopoulos says true openness exists when a blockchain is created from the ground up in such a way that it cannot be closed. One that is 'unclosable', as Antonopoulos puts it, is one that doesn't rely on establishing permissions for openness. It just is.

Pillar #2: Borderless

The second pillar of open blockchain is that it is borderless. This seems pretty easy to understand. A borderless system knows no national boundaries whatsoever. It exists across the globe and is accessible regardless of where a person might be at any given time.

The borderless nature of blockchain is one of the things that makes it so important as the foundation for monetary systems. Being borderless, a blockchain is not subject to government and central bank control. Compare that to fiat and it is easy to see a significant difference.

Fiat currencies are regulated within their own borders. Take the U.S. dollar, for example. As the world's most sought reserve currency, the U.S. dollar holds great sway in global economics. Yet it is regulated only by the U.S. government and America's central bank, the Federal Reserve.

What American regulators decide to do with the dollar affects the economies of just about every other nation on earth. And guess what? The U.S. uses its control over the dollar to its advantage. But they are not alone. Every nation whose currency is in high demand does the same thing. Countries from the UK to Japan all exercise control over their currencies in order to maintain a position of strength in the global economy.

That same kind of thing is not happening in crypto. There is no controlling authority manipulating Bitcoin or Bitcoin Cash in order to bolster a national economy.

Pillar #3: Neutral

Neutrality is the third pillar of open blockchain. A truly neutral blockchain does not favor any one individual or entity over another. It does not allow power and control to be centralized. Without true neutrality, there is no point in having blockchain at all.

How is neutrality achieved? Through governance over both code development and network maintenance. Those behind a particular block chain's development must all come to a consensus in order to make material changes. As far as network maintenance, that is accomplished through a combination of developer decisions and token mining. The more miners in the game, the easier it is to maintain neutrality.

It is important to note that some within the crypto community view neutrality as theoretical only. They point to the fact that it is entirely possible for a small pool of miners to gain control over a cryptocurrency by combining their resources to control at least 51% of all mining activities. Once control is gained, neutrality is lost.

Pillar #4: Censorship Resistant

Antonopoulos' fourth pillar of open blockchain is resistance to censorship. This is an interesting pillar for the mere fact that censorship is hard to stop. The powers that be have a lot of resources at their disposal to censor what they don't like. That leads to the obvious question of whether or not any blockchain can survive serious censorship attempts.

Provided a blockchain is truly borderless and neutral, it would seem to be also free of censorship. But once again, that is theoretical. If you don't understand why, just take a look at China. The average Chinese citizen does not have access to the entire internet and the world it represents. Access is severely restricted by a government that works hard to make sure citizens do not learn certain kinds of information.

The same is true in North Korea. Internet access there is even more restricted than in China. Government officials dictate every piece of information fed to its citizens in order to control what they think about everything.

If a government can control internet access, and the internet is the primary means of deploying blockchain, it stands to reason that governments could also censor blockchain itself. Any blockchain technology that does not fit within a given government's acceptable boundaries is kept off-limits to citizens. It seems pretty simple.

On the other hand, one could smuggle a blockchain technology into a closed country with something as simple as a smartphone. Like missionaries smuggling Bibles, blockchain evangelists could smuggle in important projects. Though not recommended, that is one way around censorship.

Perhaps what Antonopoulos is referring to here doesn't really equate to censorship proofing. Rather, it is a state of blockchain being resistant to passive aggressive attempts to censor it. That would make more sense.

Pillar #5: Public

The fifth and final pillar dictates that truly open blockchain be made public. This is a distinction that seems to separate blockchain monetary systems from applications that would be used for corporate purposes, government work, military projects, etc.

Let us say a company develops a blockchain platform for handling large-scale logistics. That technology exists only to serve the company's logistics needs. Furthermore, it is technology that was developed by company engineers. That bit of blockchain is not likely to be made publicly available for multiple reasons.

A similar scenario can be applied to government use of blockchain. It can be applied to education, healthcare, and just about anything else. The main distinction here is purpose. A blockchain project that is not intended to be publicly presented and accessed is one that is not truly open.

On the other hand, truly open blockchains are out there to be had by anyone and everyone. That takes us back to cryptocurrencies. The reason you can play slots online using your bitcoins or litecoins is that both blockchains are public. You can buy and sell coins at your leisure. You can use them to gamble online, buy a cup of coffee, pay for travel, and so forth.

If you were entrepreneurial and had a flair for computer software development, you could take the Bitcoin core and use it as a basis for your own cryptocurrency. You could then distribute coins by inviting investors to get on board. You wouldn't need a license to do so. You wouldn't need permission from any government. You could just do it.

The internet example

Antonopoulos' speech on the five pillars of open blockchain is quite inspirational. It is also quite idealistic. Not only does Antonopoulos paint a picture of using truly open blockchain to separate nation states and banks, but he also sees it as an opportunity to build an ecosystem of innovation on a global scale.

Are his views a bit out of touch? Antonopoulos says no. He says we already have an example of what he is talking about, an example that has proven that true openness can work. That example is the internet. While the internet was born out of U.S. military operations in the 1950s, it didn't stay that way. Once the technology was released to the public, developers began jumping on and adding to it. The rest is history.

If the internet truly exemplifies the same five pillars Antonopoulos spoke of in his speech, then there's hope that blockchain will eventually become what he envisions it to be. So now let's see what happens.