Ledgers of information shower us with examples from the past. The bitcoin blockchain is no different. Indeed, it shares many parallels with both the printing press and Babylonian cuneiform. When we study these artifacts, we can get a glimpse of what bitcoin as an information technology will bring.

The Printing Press

The printing press is widely considered one of the most influential inventions is human history because, for the very first time, it destroyed a centuries-old monopoly on the publication and dissemination of knowledge. Johannes Gutenberg’s movable type technology, invented in Mainz, Germany (circa 1439), ushered in a permanent change in the structure of society as it began an era of mass communication and the dismantling of a stranglehold on the interpretation of written word. Unrestricted circulation of books made information free flowing and gave birth to revolutionary ideas which, under the current establishment — the church, would never have been permitted.

The printing press was an instrument which destroyed a long-held tradition of religious institutions housing so-called ‘knowledge’ of how one was to live. When the ledger technology of the printing press brought decentralization to the manufacturing of books, it raised literacy rates considerably within the proximate. It is estimated that by 1500 there were “fifteen to twenty million copies of 30,000 to 35,000 separate publications.” (McLuhan, 1962)

With authority waning, political and religious institutions of the time saw their influence eroding and fought viciously to prevent it. The church was up in arms. The “Royal Family” was furious. They even went as far as forging new laws which held that only printers with special licenses and prior approval were allowed to print books, multiplying knowledge and spreading culture for citizens.

500 years ago, the spread of knowledge came from a central source. Anyone or anything that violated that customary authority was quelled and prosecuted.

As his first work with his new invention, Johannes Gutenberg decided to print a 42-line latin bible. As their first work of the blockchain innovation, Satoshi Nakamoto produced the genesis block — an allusion to the first passages of that same bible.

Under no circumstances did the church allow the citizens to spread information on their own, they governed the whole law enforcement; prevention, punishment and harassment.

Today, we know the only right thing for the evolution of society was to let that knowledge go free. That Galileo Galilei was right. Even if he was infringing on the knowledge monopoly. We’re talking about a time when the church went out in full force, promoting the idea that citizens didn’t have to, learn to read and write, since the priest would tell them everything they needed to know anyway. The church knew what it would mean if they lost their control.

– Charlie Shrem/Rick Falkvinge, Nothing New Under the Sun

How much influence would the source of spiritual knowledge have on the masses of people, and would the source of money issuance have a similarly persuasive effect on those same masses?

Babylonian Cuneiform

Babylonian cuneiform was used as a method by which to record information into clay tablets. These early writing styles first emerged around late 4th millennium B.C.E. during the Uruk IV period.

Both the printing press and Babylonian cuneiform are histories shining examples, and both had revolutionary roots in the way they made information accessible and record-able.

Bitcoin As A Ledger Technology

Bitcoin is fundamentally different. You can store more than imprints in clay tablets, and more than movable type press into a sheet of paper. Essentially, a network such as the bitcoin blockchain can be used to store any type of information which can be distilled down to bits and bytes. The economics of such however, are subject to many different technical factors. as there is not always a viable case to do so. It seems in most cases, a good bet is to make the network as efficient as possible, and at current, the bitcoin blockchain is in no shape to perform a service such as large-scale services in payment systems and a public dropbox. Look for the introduction of sidechains and pegged-cryptography to allow such applications in the near future however. As well, creations of entirely new blockchains with Eris Industries or the Ethereum platform may also fuel this trend.

Not only does the bitcoin have revolutionary implications for the decentralization of money supply, but it also has roots in free thought. An individual’s ability to express information through the medium of the blockchain grants the ability to make it virtually unalterable. It is a permanently recorded history not only of transactions, but a forever-engraved ledger of information.

More than ever, our past is stored on a global mind, a database of events unfolded: the internet. The parties which control these channels of information are in a place of extreme power, as they are able to oversee, to a large extent, historical records.

Rather than history being controlled by the entities which control the present, we now have a digital medium to record history, thereby breaking Orwell’s dictum of ‘Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.’ Bitcoin is a way to propagate information in a way that we have never seen before.

The revolutionary roots of bitcoin are buried in the ashes of history’s ledger technologies.


Travis Patron

Travis Patron is the author of The Bitcoin Revolution: An Internet of Money, a seminal publication in the digital money space which outlines the basics of the bitcoin payment system. As a public speaking authority, he regularly speaks to audiences on the economics & industry trends of bitcoin.

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