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It’s time for a proof-of-purpose blockchain

Near the tail end of the 19th century, two great thinkers were locked in a very contentious and very public contest to prove whose innovation would electrify our world.

Nikola Tesla’s alternating current vs. Thomas Edison’s direct current. Two different means of achieving the same end: on-demand electricity in every household in the world.

For the better part of two decades, the world watched as each man and his supporters locked horns in a battle for private contracts and public opinion that came to be known as the “War of the Currents.” 

Fast-forward 150 years or so and we’re once again abuzz with a winner-take-all contest to determine the course of a new technology that, like electricity, is poised to transform the world as we know it.

War of Currents… meet the Battle for Blockchain.

First, a quick primer for the uninitiated:

This step-by-step introduction to blockchain by the folks at BlockGeeks gives a pretty comprehensive—yet still digestible—overview of what blockchain technology is, what its core pillars are, and generally speaking what all the fuss is about. If you’re feeling a little lost, go read it, then come back. I’ll wait.

All good? Let’s continue.

One key mechanism of blockchain technology relevant to today’s topic is creating consensus

Fundamentally, consensus in blockchain means the same thing it does anywhere else: i.e. general agreement amongst a number of parties with regard to a specific thing. In blockchain, the “thing” in question is the transaction and all the data that goes along with it. 

Just like when you use a five-dollar bill to buy a coffee for four bucks, all parties involved—namely you and the merchant—must agree you’re owed $1 in change. If neither party holds up their end of the bargain the whole transaction falls apart. 

Consensus is critical to blockchain. No one disputes that. But the means by which consensus is created… that’s where the battle begins.

Alphabet soup, anyone?

O.G. blockchains like Bitcoin and Ethereum create consensus using a proof-of-work (POW) mechanism which—layperson’s oversimplification warning—rewards miners based on how hard they work. While POW chains were the first on the scene, certain shortcomings emerged as blockchain adoption grew.

By its very nature, POW mechanisms can encourage the centralization of computational resources (more miners with more machines working together) in ways that can undermine the decentralized promise of blockchains. It’s also winner-take-all. So all the would-be miners who come up short waste a lot of energy. Which is part of why proof-of-work blockchains have come under fire for being a wasteful drain on our natural resources.

Proof-of-stake (POS) consensus first emerged in response to Bitcoin’s energy consumption problem. Rather than reward miners for how hard they work, POS chains reward miners based on how invested they are in the system itself. 

What better way, the thinking goes, to ensure the health and viability of the network than by incentivizing those who already have skin in the game? Participants in a POS system have a vested interest in keeping it secure and performant. And on the system side, putting up stake means the network can take something of value from you if you behave badly. All of which gives POS systems built-in functionality to deter bad actors. 

After years of speculation, Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin announced in 2017 that his team was working toward an implementation of a proof-of-stake consensus mechanism to complement (and, many believed, eventually replace) the proof-of-work mechanism it started with.

The blockchain world has anxiously awaited Ethereum’s move to proof-of-stake ever since.

The more scalable, energy efficient nature of POS systems will allow “Ethereum 2.0” and other so-called “next generation blockchains”—at least to hear their founders tell it—to finally bring blockchain out from the edge and into the real world. 

Other mechanisms have emerged as well. This cadre of challengers includes: Proof of Authority (POA), Proof of Capacity (POC), Proof of Elapsed Time (POET), and Delegated Proof of Stake (DPOS). 

Hybrid mechanisms, which take the best of a handful of a few approaches, have also been growing in popularity.

Proof of Purpose

While the proof-of-this, proof-of-that Battle for Blockchain rages on, the rest of the world waits for simple proof that blockchain can and will mean anything of consequence to our lives. 

It’s an all-too-common refrain: A new technology hits the scene, and conversation quickly turns to “speeds and feeds.” Focus fixes on which platform has the most horsepower under the hood and who’s got the best features and functions.

In the headlong rush to win market share and venture capital, no one bothered to stop and tell the world why they should give a damn.

Unlike the “War of the Currents”—in which the ultimate value and impact of electricity was never in question—blockchain’s ability to finally see widespread adoption depends less on achieving consensus around the best way to verify transactions, and more on achieving consensus on the technology’s fundamental purpose.

In other words, blockchain needs to focus less on the “What” and more on the “Why.”

What tangible impact will blockchain create? How will people’s lives be transformed? What new possibilities lie just out of reach that blockchain alone can bring at-hand? 

If we can’t answer these questions as effortlessly as we can rattle off node counts and transaction speed claims, we’ve already lost.

So how does one build the world’s first Proof of Purpose blockchain? 

It starts with telling stories.

Move the heart and the head will follow

Consider the words of Andrew Stanton, famed Pixar screenwriter and the man behind some of the most moving and impactful stories of the 21st Century: Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Wall-E, to name a few.

In his 2012 TED Talk, Stanton makes the case for storytelling and the incredible impact narrative has on the human experience. From the days of cave paintings, humans have used storytelling to mark history, build community, and inspire action. It’s as true today as it was in the age of cave paintings thousands of years ago.

At the end of his talk, Stanton leaves his audience with a single, deceptively simple directive: Make me care.

In the end, that’s really what it comes down to. Whether moving an audience, or moving product, the goal remains the same. Move the heart and the head will follow.

Before continuing the fight for features and functions, blockchain needs to wage a charm offensive to help the world understand how this technology they’ve heard so much about will actually change their lives for the better.

In the New Kind Storytelling Workshop, we guide participants through exercises to uncover their own unique brand story, which starts with an understanding of the universal elements every story needs:

  1. Characters—Heroes, villains, and mentors. Protagonists who move the action forward and antagonists who stand in the way. Your customer is your hero, but every character has a role to play.
  2. Setting—A rich and detailed world in which the story takes place. A compelling setting is the foundation for imagination and provides stories with structure. It’s the backdrop for all the action.
  3. Conflict—The source of tension and drama in your story. If your customer is your story’s hero, what problems does you product help them overcome? How do you help them vanquish their villains?
  4. Emotion—Channelling emotion lets brands connect to what really drives their customers—their wants, needs, and decisions. It helps brands focus on why customers buy—beyond the tech specs.
  5. Journey—Start in one place and, by story’s end, arrive in a new, better place. The journey represents what your brand helps people achieve, immediately and long-term. 

Blockchain needs more companies and platforms telling stories. Not just debating which consensus mechanism reigns supreme.

When it was all said and done, Nikola Tesla’s alternating current won the War of the Currents. 

But really—whether AC, DC, or some other, better technology had won out in the end—the rest of us were the true winners. Why? Because every day we benefit from everything electricity makes possible. No moon landings or smartphones, no internet or x-rays—few (if any) 20th- or 21st-century innovations happen without it. 

It’s not just about what products can do. It’s about what people can do with those products.

Even Tesla himself knew true innovation can’t exist in a vacuum. That technical pursuits often suffer from a singular focus on technicality at the expense of practicality.

“Today’s scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality.” 

As ever, Tesla was ahead of his time. Blockchain, it’s time to prove your purpose.

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