Demystifying an industry in motion for users and developers alike.
Last year I decided to dive into crypto headfirst.
The space was as boisterous as a teenager — acne & all — and growing up just as fast. I was intrigued. And I was wary.
I’d been working on web applications since the dot-com era, and wanted a new challenge. Taking the lead on the technical vision of a stablecoin — a cryptocurrency pegged to real world asset — seemed like a good way to dive in headfirst. 😳
Most of what I saw in the space were inflated egos of self-proclaimed “visionaries” and dollar signs behind every perked-up ear. Everyone I met was pitching their brand new infrastructure/platform, and it was exhausting. To top it off, the jargon thrown around at events was so thick you could cut it with a knife. A day at a conference felt like a week in some foreign land. I was sequestered in hotel ballrooms and warehouses, hidden from the sun, courted by one-dimensional pitchmen speaking a language that I (and arguably they) barely understood.
It was hard to cut through to any real signal.
But, from the things I’d read to discussions with people whose insights I trusted, I was certain there was something happening in this space that demanded attention. Even just the pace it had been evolving at was frankly intimidating. Not being immersed in crypto seemed like a huge opportunity cost.
So, I set out to learn it. To understand its shape, demystify its structure and ruminate on its implications.
Like most technical readers — I’d read up a bunch, and had learned the basics.
I knew that it, in effect, a blockchain was a collection of actions, with identical copies running across a large number of computers across the world (the larger the number and the more widespread, the better). I knew that the information in them was publicly available to everyone, and that any prior actions in the chain, once added, could never be modified or removed — only more added.
From those key features publications and pundits had inferred the sectors best suited to the technology, and I tended to agree. Namely services that store important, public domain information — such as census data, public expenditure, research statistics and the like. It would be a boon for government, science and organizations around the world.
Yet, I was also pretty bearish on cryptocurrencies like bitcoin (BTC) and ether (ETH) as a replacements for fiat (government backed) currencies. The volatility wasn’t manageable — fiat wouldn’t be replaced until goods and services started being priced in crypto, and that seemed — and still does — like a distant pipe-dream. That said, there are still plenty of true believers.
As soon as I started looking around, it became apparent that any guide to crypto was not forthcoming. There was no one great top-down explanation of it all that would allow me to drill into a section piece by piece; I better get used to a hybrid of top-down and bottom-up understanding as I read articles, listened to presentations and read whitepapers. I also accepted a large amount of “black-box” learning — a term I use to refer to learning while accepting that there are large holes in understanding, to be filled in later.
 Not to be confused with black-box machine learning.
While making my way timidly across the ecosystem, I became increasingly frustrated with the abysmal user experiences in the space I was constantly dealing with. It seemed to me the developers creating the applications on blockchain were not aware how much knowledge they had assumed; their interfaces presumed their users shared their understanding of the nuances of transacting.
This assumed context went well beyond user interfaces — it was in every blogpost, news article and conversation I had. I was infuriated. I knew I needed the proper background yet I was drinking from the firehose and drowning fast.
I became fed up not having a good mental modal to fit everything into. So, I promised myself once I demystified enough of the space to be able to teach it to others that I’d write a guide to do just that.
I soon realized that there were at least two different perspectives to tackle it from — a user and a developer — and that I’d be doing both a disservice if I tried to combine them. So I began to take notes on the lessons and learnings I found along the way, and set out to create both a guide for users of blockchain and a guide for those creating on blockchain — hence this blog post.
However, in order to illustrate some of the key learnings in the space, these lessons need to be presented in the context from which they emerged. And for that, we need both history and perspective.
Before we begin, one note: I’m not going to go into much of how mining works or the cryptography behind blockchain. If you’re a bottom-up learner, or dislike the black-box approach, I recommend you looking up posts specific to your interests. Though be aware, mining and cryptography, while similar, work differently between blockchains — even Bitcoin and Ethereum.