Beyond Chainsplaining: Blockchains as Brick Walls and Other Ways to Light the Lightbulb


Our recent Enough with the Chainsplaining post seemed to strike a nerve – in a positive way! – within the Ethereum community. Ecosystem thought-leaders and crypto-newbies alike have reached out to encourage us to continue on this theme. We clearly have good company in our quest to figure effective ways to discuss the foundational concepts that make blockchain technology so compelling.

Given this feedback, today we're kicking off this Beyond Chainsplaining series. It will explore the vocabulary and metaphors that help make blockchain concepts more accessible. We invite you to be part of this journey. Provide feedback. Engage in dialogue. And contribute your ideas and experiences to help drive adoption of this ecosystem.

In our last post, we provided a high-level overview of the dangers of Chainsplaining, including this simple definition: "mansplaining cryptocurrency and/or blockchain technology." Instead, we encouraged blockchain enthusiasts and insiders to approach the topic with empathy by 1) forgetting the tech 2) leading with a story 3) using examples and metaphors people already understand 4) knocking your audience off-balance with unexpected insights. 

Walking the crypto-curious through a relatable metaphor like 'blockchains as brick walls' can help those interested begin to make sense of this new world.

In this post, we'd like to further expand one of our favorite metaphors for illustrating what makes blockchain technology both interesting and challenging: blockchains as brick walls. Here's a high-level outline of the narrative: 

  1. In the Fiat world, the money moves. If I want to pay you $20, I take a $20 bill out of my wallet and hand it to you. You then place the $20 bill in your wallet. Possession of the bill determines who controls the value. And the money literally moves out of my wallet and into your wallet. Or, similarly, out of my bank account and into yours. 
  2. In the Crypto world, money is like bricks in a wall. In the world of blockchain, money is more like a brick in a wall. Each brick has a recognized value. But that brick will never be inside my wallet because, of course, it is fixed in place in the wall. If someone were to attempt to pry the brick out, doing so would damage the surrounding bricks and make it obvious that the wall had been tampered with. 
  3. Each brick has 'permissions' associated with it. While you can’t put that brick in your wallet, you can prove that you control it. Each brick has 'permissions' which let you use them in transactions.
  4. To move the value, change the permissions. In the Crypto world, I can pay you the equivalent of $20 by changing the permissions on one of the bricks that I control. But, critically, the bricks still don't move. It was never in my wallet. And it will never be in your wallet. The change in permissions is effectively instantaneous* so, unlike a normal $20 bill, it can never be in transit between wallets. So while control over the value has changed, the value itself remains perfectly fixed. 
  5. The consequence: Ownership Without Possession (OWP). Unlike the Fiat world, ownership in the Crypto world is divorced from possession. In fact, the absence of any notion of possession is among the most surprising aspects of blockchain technology. It is also intellectually and emotionally challenging to internalize. 
  6. The wall is growing. At a predictable pace. While the bricks are fixed in the wall, the wall itself is growing at a predictable rate. New bricks get created and added to the wall at a regular cadence. And each of these new bricks behaves exactly like the existing bricks. 
  7. There are many identical walls. And they all agree with each other. To continue the 'blockchains as brick walls' metaphor, it turns out there are many identical copies of the wall. They are located all over the world. And they are perfectly synchronized. Each wall contains exactly the same bricks, in the same order, with the same permissions, and new bricks get added at precisely the same moment. If someone tries to make a fraudulent wall that contains bricks in a different order, or (more likely) with different permissions, it is easy to spot – and hence ignore – the one wall that is out of sync.
  8. There are different networks of walls. Each with different rules and behaviors. There are different types of walls, each representing an independent blockchain — Bitcoin, Ethereum, Litecoin, Ripple, Zcash, Dogecoin, and many more. While each type of wall has its own particular set of rules and behaviors, in general, they share most of the above characteristics.
  9. Some walls have a single type of brick. Many walls consist of a single type of brick — such as Bitcoin. The Bitcoin blockchain supports the Bitcoin cryptocurrency alone.
  10. Other walls include different types of bricks. Other walls support many different types of bricks — like Ethereum. Ethereum supports a native cryptocurrency as well as Smart Contracts. Because Ethereum is a programmable blockchain, it also allows for the creation of new bricks (ERC20, ERC721, and beyond).

Walking the crypto-curious through relatable metaphors can help them begin to make sense of this new world. And to internalize the more fundamental implications of this new ecosystem, we must also unlearn some deeply held notions. 

What do you think? Have you tried this out? If so, I'd love to learn how it went. What worked? Where did you stumble? Did your audience lean in and start asking questions? If so, what were they? Do you use different analogies?

Let's learn from each other. The easiest way to find me is Twitter via @mcutler.

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