How do you remember that poignant line from your favorite book? Why is it you can recall every phrase from a catchy song? What is it about that poem you learned in grade school that enables you repeat it word-for-word years later? Many of the most memorable works of fiction, music and poetry rely on a powerful literary device -- the analogy -- to communicate complex emotions and experiences.
An analogy is, by definition, a comparison between two things, typically for the purpose of explanation or clarification. As a PR agency, we’ve found analogies to be an invaluable device for communicating on behalf of our clients, particularly in the tech sphere. Just as it is difficult to describe the sensation of falling in love to someone who has never experienced it, explaining the essence of blockchain to those who have little exposure is challenging. But like novelists, songwriters and poets, we’re determined to explain the unexplainable with a little help from our powerful communication ally.
Below I share a few analogies to elucidate the basic components of blockchain. Hopefully after reading them, you’ll not only have a better understanding of the public blockchain but also gain a newfound appreciation for the analogy’s ability to shed light on difficult-to-grasp material.
If you look up “What is blockchain?” online, you’ll probably land on a jargon-heavy description resembling something akin to the following: "Blockchain is a digital ledger that chronologically records transactions on a decentralized database or peer-to-peer network. Each transaction event is stored as a cryptographic hash and validated by all other nodes in the network, which makes the blockchain essentially 'unhackable.'"
Let’s break this definition down:
You probably receive a statement from your bank each month documenting the total number of credits and debits made to your account. Just as your bank keeps a ledger of all transactions, so does the blockchain. One differentiator is that transactions on the blockchain do not require validation by an institution, such as a bank, because the blockchain is a decentralized database.
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Before the internet, the library comprised the original “database” of information. The ancient city of Alexandria in Egypt maintained the largest collection of written works in the world until its famous destruction around 48 B.C. Caesar’s army set fire to the library, destroying all of its contents. Thousands of scrolls in philosophy, science and mathematics were lost forever.
Thankfully, the information once found only in books is now stored in academic institutions, websites, digital platforms and people’s homes across the globe. If we were so unfortunate to lose the contents of an entire library, the wisdom contained in the lost works would remain accessible in other locations; that is the benefit of a distributed network of records, or a decentralized database.
The decentralized database that is the blockchain records all events occurring within the blockchain ecosystem. These transactional events can include anything from the exchange of value, like bitcoin, to the transfer of goods on a supply chain. This permanent record of events is stored on a peer-to-peer network that ensures no one can alter the record without raising red flags.
Imagine someone steals from a convenience store but there are no cameras to capture the theft. It would be very difficult to find the culprit. Now imagine there is a camera, but it was destroyed after the theft occurred. This doesn’t help solve the crime either. But what if the convenience store camera was connected to multiple cameras across the globe that also recorded the event? It would be extremely difficult for the thief to destroy all these scattered cameras and get away with the crime.
Like this hypothetical network of cameras, the blockchain is stored on a network of computers or “nodes.” Any node that has ever transacted on the blockchain joins the network and takes part in validating every exchange that takes place; this goes for any attempted revisions to previous transactions as well. To attempt a fraudulent revision to the blockchain, a criminal would need to compromise all the nodes in the network. The larger the network, the more impossible this feat becomes.
Our entire genetic makeup is coded in DNA, with all of our hereditary information determined by strung-together combinations of just four nucleic acids. Sequences of these nucleic acids code for traits ranging from eye color to aptitude for piano playing. This code is immutable and does not change over the course of an individual’s lifetime. When we have offspring, we pass sequences of our unique genetic code along to our children, they to their children, and so on and so forth.
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The blockchain is also composed of sequences of code, called “hashes.” Just as DNA is passed down to successive generations, revisions to the blockchain (noted by hashes) are retained on the chain for successive transactions.
The complexity of hashes is another aspect of what makes transactions on the blockchain so secure. Imagine how difficult it would be to guess an individual’s genetic code. Likewise, in a blockchain, the number of possible combinations of letters and numbers designating any given hash is so extensive that even a supercomputer lacks the power necessary for correctly “guessing” a sequence.
So next time you’re explaining your new business venture, product idea or concept, you might consider using an analogy. Just like that hit tune from your high school prom, if you strike the right note, your audience will never forget your message.