Will Blockchain Really Change The Way The Internet Runs?

16:05 minutes

an abstract digital art piece of Network connection structure made of array of dots and composition of geometric shapes.
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The internet has changed quite a bit over the last few decades. People of a certain age may remember having to use dial-up to get connected, or Netscape as the first web browser. Now, social networking is king, and it’s easier than ever to find information at the click of a mouse.

But the modern internet has massive privacy concerns, with many sites collecting, retaining, and sometimes sharing user’s personal information. This has led many technology-minded people to think about what the future of the web might look like.

Enter blockchain, a decentralized database technology that some say will change the way the internet runs, while giving users more control over their data. Some say that blockchain will be the basis for the next version of the internet, a so-called “Web 3.0.” 

But where are we now with blockchain technology, and can it be everything we want it to be? Joining Ira to wade through the jargon of blockchain and the future of the internet is Morgen Peck, freelance technology journalist based in New York.

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Segment Guests

Morgen Peck

Morgen Peck is a science writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Slate, IEEE Spectrum, and Scientific American, among other publications.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. If you’re a person of a certain age, like I am, you probably remember the early days of the internet. Using dial up to get connected, Netscape as the first browser, seems quaint looking back, doesn’t it?

Well, the internet, we now know has changed quite a bit since then. Social networking is king. And it’s easier than ever to find any information you want. But the modern internet also has massive privacy concerns. And lots of people out there are thinking about what the future of the web might look like.

Enter blockchain. You know that, as a decentralized database technology, that some people say is going to change the way the internet runs and give people more control over their data. Some say blockchain will be the basis for the next version of the internet, what you may have heard referred to as 3.0. But where are we now with blockchain, and can it be everything we want it to be?

Joining me today to wade through the jargon and the mysteries behind blockchain and the future of the internet is my guest Morgan Peck, freelance technology journalist based in New York. Welcome back to the show, Morgan.

MORGAN PECK: Thanks for having me back.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. OK, it sounds very futuristic, this possible new version of the internet. Let’s talk about the concept of 3.0, Web 3.0. Tell us what that means.

MORGAN PECK: I would say that in some ways it’s a marketing term, same with 2.0. When you have a term that’s as juicy as Web 3.0, a lot of people want to get in there and define it for themselves. So in some ways, it doesn’t mean a lot because it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

But for our purposes, I would look back at Web 2.0 and sort of think of that as a time when users were really the ones creating content on the internet. And they had platforms that enabled that, facilitated it, like social media. And so it was really about what the user was bringing to the experience.

And Web 3.0, you could see that as the user now being given agency over how that data that they’ve brought, how it’s going to be used and what the actual structure is of the platforms that they’re using, and how those things work. So giving them more of a say or more control over how those work. And how the content that they were invited to bring and share is actually used. That’s how I think of it.

IRA FLATOW: And Web 3.0 is powered by blockchain, right?

MORGAN PECK: Well, I would say that some people would like it to be, whether or not it can be is a big open question. But there are certainly– there certainly is a vision out there being advanced and there are advocates who would like to see a future in which everything we do on the internet now, using social media and all the ways that we talk to each other online that that’s happening on top of the blockchain, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: I’ve mentioned it before, but it is sort of a confusing concept to people. Give me your best description of what blockchain is, like you’re explaining it to a fifth grader.

MORGAN PECK: OK, so I think it’s best if you sort of back up and take a little look at how services work on the internet and really simplify that, if we’re going to simplify blockchain. So you can think of every service out there as a big stack of records, so a big pile of data. Your bank account is a big pile of data about how much money you have and where it’s gone and what you want to do with it.

Twitter is a big stack of data about what people have said and what they’ve shared with each other and who they want to see it. And then you also have the problem of updating that. And so those updates have to follow certain rules, right? So we usually give these tasks of storing that data and updating the data to companies or governments, but basically closed services.

And what a blockchain does or what people who use blockchain technology want to do is to take both the storage of data and the processing and the updating of that data and spread it out. And in some cases, spread it out to anybody who wants to participate. So that causes a lot of problems.

If you’re going to give all the data to everybody and give everybody sort of a copy of what’s out there, you’re going to have inherently privacy problems. You know, how do you keep people from seeing everybody’s stuff. And if you’re also going to give people the ability to make those updates, you’re going to have to coordinate them somehow. So I’d say that the cryptography part of blockchain and cryptocurrency is how do you give everybody the data but not have them see exactly what’s going, on that’s a cryptography part. And then the blockchain part is really the structure of the data and how you coordinate all of these people who may not trust each other and have no reason to trust each other because they don’t know who each other are. How do you let them all update at the same time.

And what that results in is this data structure where you’re adding new chunks in these blocks of data. So you’re not just adding one piece at a time, you’re scooping a bunch up and then adding it. And it results in what we call a blockchain, which is a series of those blocks of additions. Which once they’re added, you can’t reverse it. Nobody can take it apart and rearrange it and mess with it.

IRA FLATOW: And is that the advantage of it? I mean, you talked about the weaknesses of it. So why use it? What are the advantages of blockchain?

MORGAN PECK: That’s a really big question, one that’s gotten muddled, I think. But the scenario in which a blockchain is obviously useful as it is where you have a bunch of people who do not trust each other but want to collaborate on building a database that you need to continuously update. And you want to do that without there being one person who’s making all the decisions.

And then the why, why would you want to remove that. We could have a gatekeeper who just like does that and it’s way easier and you don’t have to have all of these versions all over a network. Why would you want to take that out? That sort of depends on your use case. But a lot of the time it’s because you don’t want one person to censor that data, or you don’t have anybody that you trust. So you have to put together a bunch of people that you don’t trust and then give them a way to work together.

IRA FLATOW: Because they can all check the block, and keep each other honest, so to speak, by seeing if anyone is trying to meddle with the block in the chain.

MORGAN PECK: That’s one of the ways it stays secure, yep. There are some other really complicated ways. But yeah, the transparency of it is definitely a big piece. If somebody tries any funny business on the Bitcoin blockchain, everybody sees it.

IRA FLATOW: Well let’s talk about– you brought up Bitcoin blockchain. I think a lot of people confuse Bitcoin and blockchain and think that Bitcoin and blockchain are equivalent or the same thing and they’re not.

MORGAN PECK: Right. Well, so Bitcoin was the first blockchain. The concept didn’t exist until the anonymous creator of Bitcoin made Bitcoin and he or she or they just happened to use something that they called a blockchain. But since then, other people have tried to make similar applications that do distribute storage and this updating function I’m talking about. And they’re using the same blockchain architecture. But the first one was Bitcoin. But not every blockchain is Bitcoin.

IRA FLATOW: Now speaking of blockchain, we hear the term Ethereum thrown around, as if that is one kind of blockchain. Explain what Ethereum and how it fits in to this picture.

MORGAN PECK: Ethereum was unveiled– the concept for it was unveiled in 2014, so that’s five years after Bitcoin. And it has its own blockchain. But it is a project that seeks to add functionality to beyond just transferring funds.

What Bitcoin does is move assets from one person’s possession to another. Ethereum has its own blockchain. And it’s using its network to support all sorts of different types of functions. I mean basically anything that you would have on the internet, you can build on Ethereum. Or that’s the hope.

IRA FLATOW: So it’s an alternate, an alternate internet. It’s a way of connecting banks, or people and devices and playing games, and you could have cryptocurrency on it, you could have the NFT we talk about. All on this– so this is sort of a backbone then, of this new kind of Web 3.0.

MORGAN PECK: Yeah, it’s a backbone. And because of that, you have the Ethereum blockchain. But also you can build other coins on top of it. So there are just tons of coins that people have used Ethereum to put out there.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s talk about right now, 2021, where we are. Where are we at with blockchain technology? What is it actually used for as we speak?

MORGAN PECK: Well, there are lots of projects in various stages. But I would say that it’s actually hard to find ones that are in wide usage. But the ones where there’s been the most interest over the last two years is in a sector called DeFi, which is Decentralized Finance.

And this is actually basically just trying to take banking and put it on a blockchain– and banking that’s more complex than just me giving you, sending you a payment or something. So it’s different ways of making loans, setting up loans, and all of the really complex banking stuff. But it’s still fundamentally has to do with assets.

So I would say that although there’s been a lot of– there was a lot of excitement, especially in like 2015 to 2018 about having non-financial applications, what we’ve really seen the most growth in is kind of replicating our banking system in a decentralized, hopefully a more decentralized manner.

But that’s actually kind of ironic. Because Bitcoin itself really came out of the financial collapse. And a lot of people were– the people who got excited about it did so because it was pulling all of the complexity away from a system that had sort of led us into demise very much through its opacity and complexity. So some people think we’re just kind of building that again.

IRA FLATOW: Well, the whole idea is to do away with the banks altogether as the middleman, is it not?

MORGAN PECK: Some would say that. Though, there are blockchain projects that have now, are partnering with JP Morgan and there are all sorts of partnerships going on. And like I said, the most active sector of the industry is this Decentralized Finance.

IRA FLATOW: One of the big controversies with our current version of the web lies with social media platforms and how much data they collect from users. Are there any movements to move social media to blockchains?

MORGAN PECK: Yeah, absolutely. I mean this is one of the first things I heard about was we’re going to have a decentralized version of Reddit, we’re going to have a decentralized version of Twitter. And the promise of those things was you won’t be censored and you’ll have control of your data. And if anybody wants to use your data, you’ll either be able to say no or you’ll be able to commoditize it.

So those were very early projects. And right now I would say there are multiple projects that I, as someone who follows very closely, haven’t heard of most of them. And unfortunately, they are just not there in terms of usability. And so they’re not getting a lot of traction.

And I did ask somebody why, why isn’t this happening? And they said, you know, it’s in part because of bad user interface development. But there are also just really structural fundamental weaknesses of blockchain technology that have not been solved and that have been a problem since the beginning that we’ve all known about that make it slow and then make it expensive.

And so if you’re going to have a social network on a blockchain, the way it’s going to work is that you’re going to be paying as you go along. All of these things have a token embedded within them. And so you kind of have to use that every time you want to interact with the platform.

And so you’re spending continuously. And right now we just have really high– price are really high and doing those transactions is really expensive. And it’s also quite slow because they haven’t figured out scaling issues with the technology. And that in part has made this– we’re just not there yet.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. So this is an industry or technology really in its infancy that has ideas behind it that have not really been come to fruition yet. Would that be coming close to summarizing it?

MORGAN PECK: Yeah, I would say that, yes. And any industry, it takes time to get developers educated. You know, this is a really new discipline in technology. And so that’s part of the problem. And building things, things takes time. But unfortunately I do think that there are just structural problems with how a blockchain actually works that it’s not clear yet whether those problems are going to be solved to the point that we’re actually making usable user-friendly things that can actually compete with the big boys.

IRA FLATOW: So with blockchain needs to become the version of itself that people have promised it to solve these structural problems where the transactions don’t work very quickly, it’s expensive, we’re not sure we trust the players in it, those kinds of things.

MORGAN PECK: Absolutely. Those are the two big ones. It’s slow and it’s expensive. And there are some really experimental changes that are happening in the near future that people think are going to alleviate those scaling problems. But it’s totally an open question right now.

IRA FLATOW: And so you watch to see whether those scaling problems can be solved.

MORGAN PECK: Yeah. And until they can, you might still have a platform where you can’t censor tweets and stuff like that. But I think what we’re seeing is that’s not enough. There are some people in the community for whom that is enough. And that is a goal unto itself.

But with technology conveniences, absolutely, always the most driving factor, I think, in adoption. And these are not convenient tools right now.

IRA FLATOW: Well, it was very convenient to have you here, Morgan.

MORGAN PECK: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you for taking time to be with us today. Morgan peck, freelance technology journalist, based in New York. Thank you for taking time to be with us today. It was great.

MORGAN PECK: Thanks, Ira.

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