In early August, a four-year-old company called Voatz – it's pronounced "votes" – announced that it had contracted with the state of West Virginia to allow voting via smartphone app for members of the military stationed overseas. Voatz assured the state that the pilot program, to be implemented during the November elections for local and national offices, would be secure and tamper-proof. Why? Because, in part, of blockchain technology.
Not everyone views the project with optimism; Vanity Fair quoted five skeptical security experts whose reactions ranged from "worrying" to "a horrifically bad idea." Nevertheless, West Virginia is moving ahead with the plan. Blockchain – a word with seemingly supernatural powers – had sealed the deal.
Voting may be a new use of blockchain, but the technology and the word have been around since the early 21st century. Reduced to its simplest terms, blockchain – originally spelled block chain – is a list of records, or blocks, that are linked in a chain using cryptography, a method of disguising and revealing information using complex mathematics. (It's "a machine for creating trust," as the Economist put it in an October 2015 article.) Sometimes called advanced digital ledger technology, or ADLT, blockchain is the core component of Bitcoin, the peer-to-peer virtual currency that was introduced in 2009 and which entered the mainstream in 2014.
A different sense of block chain was in circulation more than a century ago, according to the OED. The original usage referred to "an endless chain composed of alternate blocks and links" – physical, not virtual – and it applied to bicycles. The OED's earliest citation is from 1896, in Bicycles & Tricycles: "The 'Roller' has the advantage over the 'Humber', or block chain, that its rubbing surface is very much larger."
Want to become fluent in the new lingo of blockchain? Here's a brief alphabetical glossary of some of the terms you may encounter.
A type of cryptocurrency that's an alternative (hence "alt") to Bitcoin. Like Bitcoin, altcoins "are peer-to-peer, involve a mining process by which users solve difficult problems to unlock blocks, and offer efficient and cheap ways to carry out transactions on the web." (Source: Investopedia.) The most popular altcoins include Dogecoin (named for an Internet meme that was popular in 2013 and 2014), Litecoin, Ethereum, and Ripple. There's even an altcoin for freelancers: the bitterly facetious Exposure. ("Creative professionals are very consistently asked to do things 'For the Exposure,' which historically has been code for 'For free.' But now there's a better way. Now we can ask, 'Oh yeah? How much Exposure exactly?' and link to this website.")
An algorithm used to encrypt blockchain data. Cipher came into English in the late 1300s from an Old French word, cifre, meaning "zero"; its ultimate source is Arabic sifr, which also means "zero." By the early 15th century cipher had come to mean "any number"; a century later it could mean "a secret way of writing" or "a coded message," because early codes often substitute numbers for letters.
A virtual or alternative currency, such as Bitcoin, that has no central issuing or regulatory authority and uses cryptography to secure financial transactions. The term was coined (no pun intended) from crypto- (from a Greek word meaning "underground room") and currency (a medium of exchange that "flows" or "circulates"); it was added to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary in March 2018, but the dictionary's editors antedate its usage to 1990. Cryptocurrency is not legal tender; it is sometimes contrasted with fiat currency – fiat means "authority" or "sanction" – which is backed by a central government.
initial coin offering
The first sale of a cryptocurrency to the public, conducted for the purposes of raising funds (to support a startup business, for example). Modeled on "initial public offering," it's sometimes abbreviated as ICO. According to Merriam-Webster, it was first seen in print in 2014.
Cryptocurrencies are virtual, but they have to be brought into existence just as gold, silver, or copper have to be unearthed. Anyone can "mine" bitcoin with the help of free downloaded software that grants the user access to a node, a powerful computer that keeps the information transfer going; the user then keeps a certain port open (which consumes electricity and storage space). To create bitcoin, users guess at the solution of a complex mathematical problem – the solution is called a nonce, a compression of "number used once" – and if they're successful they're rewarded with a single bitcoin. It seems laborious (and it is), but the payoff can be substantial: As of this writing, a single bitcoin was valued at US$6,443. (You can read a much more detailed explanation of bitcoin mining here.)
The smallest unit of Bitcoin currency, equal to one-hundred-millionth of a bitcoin. (Capital-B Bitcoin refers to the concept or network; lower-case bitcoin, sometimes abbreviated BTC, refers to the unit of account.) It takes its name from Satoshi Nakamoto, the nom de blockchain of the person or persons regarded as the founder of Bitcoin. Although the name is Japanese, the identity and nationality of the person(s) remain unknown. According to the Bitcoin Wiki, "Perhaps he chose the name Satoshi because it can mean 'wisdom' or 'reason' and Nakamoto can mean 'central source'."
This very old word is used in three novel ways in the blockchain universe. In a general sense, it describes any cryptocurrency. (Bitcoin is a token; Ethereum is a token.) It may also describe a unit of value ("I have 100 Bitcoin tokens"). And it may, according to CryptocurrencyFacts.com, refer "to the fact that the creation, transfer, and storage of cryptocurrencies use strings of data called tokens." Token goes back to Old English, where it was spelled tacen and meant a sign, a symbol, or evidence; it could also mean "a characteristic mark." (During the plague years of the Middle Ages, the purplish spots on an infected person's body were called "God's tokens.") The idiom "by the same token" – meaning "in the same way," "for the same reason" – first appeared in the mid-15th century. By the late 16th century, a token was a coin-like piece of stamped metal, a meaning we still see in "subway token." Token became an adjective meaning "nominal" or "symbolic" in the early 20th century; token payment (of a small or nominal sum) was first recorded around 1933. This "minimal" sense carries over to tokenism, a word that appeared in the 1960s to describe the practice or policy of making only a minimal effort toward racial or ethnic integration. Not long afterward, token also acquired a meaning in computing: A marker whose presence or absence at a particular point in a networked system indicates the status of that point in some way. Those markers combine to make a token ring, a type of network architecture.