Well it is – and this is what makes it so special.
A group of us were discussing blockchain technology, when one member of our party dropped a bomb into the conversation…
I don’t see what all the fuss is about… blockchain – it’s just a spreadsheet.
Well you could have heard a pin drop. It’s just a spreadsheet! Just a spreadsheet!?
We were dumbfounded. How could our hopes and dreams of a new and liberated financial system be crushed by this simple throwaway line? It was time to do some soul searching.
There would be very few in the blockchain space who would refer to this technology as ‘just a spreadsheet’. Regardless though, our friend was correct – blockchain is ‘just a spreadsheet’.
So why are we all so captivated by blockchain and cryptocurrencies; and, why has Bitcoin captured the imagination of libertarians the world over? Then the answer occurred to me – ‘It’s a spreadsheet’.
Though to truly understand this answer – I need to first understand the enormous importance of the ‘spreadsheet’
The marvellous spreadsheet
“Whatever you think of the spreadsheet, don’t dismiss it as trivial.”— Mike James, “Spreadsheets are special”
A spreadsheet is simple and functional in design – horizontal rows crossing vertical columns and where the two meet, a single cell is born. Beautiful! And into the newly born cell the author may attribute anything they like. A person, a place, an asset, a liability, a balance.
Spreadsheets have not always looked the way that do now, spanning the width and height of a computer monitor. No – before Microsoft Excel there was IBM’s Lotus. Before Lotus there were paper spreadsheets, often referred to as worksheets or accounting worksheets.
Worksheets themselves have been used for many hundreds of years. It is known that in 1494, the first book about double-entry transaction recording was published by Luca Pacioli – and this gave birth to what we now call Accounting. Pacioli did not invent ‘Accounting’ as such, he merely detailed the manner in which the merchants of Venice would record their business transactions on worksheets, these pages combined into journals.
Prior to this there have been records uncovered of transactions inscribed on ancient timber, stone and clay tablets recording inventories, barter trades, assets and liabilities – again early forms of spreadsheets.
So the spreadsheet has been around for a very, very long time. Over this time it has served mankind very well. These spreadsheets were records of financial transactions and asset ownership. They enabled free market trade to flourish.
There was one proviso in all of this however – you had to TRUST the person who administered the spreadsheet. And many a war, both internal and external, has been fought for the right to administer the spreadsheet. Whilst currency wars are outside the scope of this blog post – know that those who control the spreadsheets, control the economy.
The days of stone tablets and accounting worksheet are long gone. Banks, Central Banks, Exchanges and Governments around the world maintain massive computerised spreadsheets, journals and ledgers, which record asset ownership, liabilities and transactions.
However, spreadsheets are not just being used for currency control. The combination of spreadsheets affects every aspect of our life now – business management tools, logistics, manufacturing, supply chain distribution, engineering, client management systems, social media and basically all computer based software. At the heart of all computer software – is a spreadsheet.
A computer based game – again, at its heart is a spreadsheet. Recording moves, points accrued, levels gained; plus, setting the rules of the game, along with running the algorithms which control the artificial opponents.
Computerised information databases – again at their core – a spreadsheet.
So… ‘just a spreadsheet!’ There is no ‘just a spreadsheet.’
Spreadsheets are everywhere. Spreadsheets are in nearly every modern technology. Spreadsheets are ‘spectacular!’
Regardless however of how important spreadsheets are, both historically and at present – the issue of TRUST remains.
Until now – ownership and control of spreadsheets has be centralised. One entity would own and administer the spreadsheet and could do with it as they pleased (at least as far as laws would permit). Create new assets. Create new liabilities. Transact on accounts. Create new currency, diluting the value of the old.
Then along came blockchain. Beautiful decentralised spreadsheets capable of doing everything a centralised spreadsheet can do. Yet running on servers around the world, simultaneously. Allowing for worldwide collaboration, new financial markets and new economies, with no single point of failure. Trustless. Instantaneous. International. Belonging to no one and yet… belonging to everyone.
Blockchains are not just spreadsheets – they are amazing spreadsheets. Journals and ledgers born out of cryptography, the internet and an untamable human spirit.
Blockchains are not just spreadsheets – they represent liberty and freedom. Well… they might one day. Watch this space.