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That ‘blockchain’ buzzword you keep hearing

Fans used to cool Bitcoin data miners are

Fans used to cool Bitcoin data miners are hooked up on the miners during construction of a Bitcoin data center. Credit: AP / Steve Helber

Some call it the great disrupter. Still others call it the future. Whatever you call it, understand blockchain.

The phrase “blockchain” is popularly associated today with the hyperbolic rise of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, Ethereum and Litecoin. But it has far greater relevance.

Think of blockchain as new digital architecture. Or, as technologyreview.com explains this technological innovation: “A mathematical structure for storing data in a way that is nearly impossible to fake.” It’s a kind of database for the future. A key component is that unalterable data is validated by a decentralized group (peer-to-peer) as opposed to a centralized authority (bank or government) via a distributed network of powerful computers.

(Ironically, many big financial institutions are not interested in cryptocurrencies; but, rather, they see value in the underlying technology supporting the new currencies.)

At its core, blockchain is a public electronic ledger.

“Each ‘block’ represents a number of transactional records, and the ‘chain’ component links them all together,” writes digtialtrends.com. Blockchain can only be “updated by consensus between participants in the system,” adds computerworld.com; “and when new data is entered, it can never be erased. The blockchain contains a true and verifiable record of each and every transaction ever made in the system.”

While many cite Bitcoin as the beginning of blockchain, it has an earlier genesis.

Digital Trends notes the publication of two scholarly papers that laid the conceptual and foundational groundwork. In 1976, “New Directions in Cryptography,” addressed the need for new tools for cryptographic (computerized encoding) systems and the idea of a secured mutual distributed ledger. And, given advances in technology, in 1991, “How To Time-Stamp a Digital Document,” foresaw a world where digitized content (text, audio, video, picture) would need time certification (such as medical procedures, stock transactions, and intellectual property). In many regards, the launch of Bitcoin was the realization of these and other theories.

Blockchain’s transformational potential in areas like conventional economic and social systems are in its nascent stages — in unknowable but exciting ways. That is its sweeping future promise.

Already, though, technological visionaries see practical applications for today. Huffingtonpost.com recently noted these five: distributed cloud storage, digital identity (birth certificates, titled property), smart certificates, digital voting and decentralized notaries.

One of these days you may not have to wait in long lines at the post office to apply for your passport.

“Word Wise” is an occasional series highlighting words or phrases finding their way into popular culture. It is written by James P. Freeman, a New England writer. He is a columnist with The New Boston Post and former columnist with The Cape Cod Times.

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