Bitcoin was hatched as an act of defiance. Unleashed in the wake of the Great Recession, the cryptocurrency was touted by its early champions as an antidote to the inequities and corruption of the traditional financial system. They cherished the belief that as this parallel currency took off, it would compete with and ultimately dismantle the institutions that had brought about the crisis. Bitcoin’s unofficial catchphrase, “In cryptography we trust,” left no doubt about who was to blame: It was the middlemen, the bankers, the “trusted” third parties who actually couldn’t be trusted. These humans simply got in the way of other humans, skimming profits and complicating transactions.
Bitcoin sought to replace the services provided by these intermediaries with cryptography and code. When you use a check to pay your mortgage, a series of agreements occur in the background between your financial institution and others, enabling money to go from your account to someone else’s. Your bank can vouch that your money is good because it keeps records indicating where every penny in your account came from, and when.
Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies replace those background agreements and transactions with software—specifically, a distributed and secure database called a blockchain. The process with which the ownership of a Bitcoin token will pass from one person to another—wherever they are, no matter what government they live under—is entrusted to a bunch of computers.
Now, eight years after the first blockchain was built, people are trying to apply it to procedures and processes beyond merely the moving of money with varying degrees of success. In effect, they’re asking, What other agreements can a blockchain automate? What other middlemen can blockchain technology retire?
Can a blockchain find people offering rides, link them up with people who are trying to go somewhere, and give the two parties a transparent platform for payment? Can a blockchain act as a repository and a replay platform for TV shows, movies, and other digital media while keeping track of royalties and paying content creators? Can a blockchain check the status of airline flights and pay travelers a previously agreed upon amount if their planes don’t take off on time?