Disruption Happens - Blockchain is a new Paradigm
When asked what originally piqued my interest in blockchain well before the technology was a conventional topic, I often excitedly say reading that blockchain had the potential to become the fifth disruptive computing paradigm told me this tech is a big deal. But why was this so thrilling for me? To answer that, let’s look at the results of the other four disruptive computing paradigms.
First, the term paradigm was introduced by American historian of science Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn, whose teaching career included positions at Harvard, Berkeley, Princeton, and MIT, defined a paradigm as the formal theories, classic experiments, and trusted methods of scientific research and thought. He reasoned that scientists usually accept the predominant paradigm but challenge it by constantly refining the theories and pushing the limits through experiments until ultimately the paradigm is contradicted or becomes inadequate. The result becomes a paradigm shift where a new scientific thought, or paradigm, replaces the old. This determination to disprove, or to disrupt, commonly accepted scientific limits is the driver of innovation.
Kuhn’s concept of paradigms and their shifts extended into other areas such sociology, economics, political science, etc., but here we’re discussing computing paradigms. Specifically, we’re discussing the disruptive computing paradigms which lead to disruptive technologies. Disruptive technologies typically fall into one of two categories. First, we may have a new technology that hits the scene and displaces an incumbent technology. Consider how DVD replaced VHS. The second common disruptive technology category is one that creates something entirely new also resulting in a whole new market that previously did not exist. The personal computer falls into this latter disruptive tech category. Keep in mind, many of these highly impactful technologies are not actually new themselves. After decades of development, new and disruptive applications are found.
Again, what’s so exciting about these disruptive computing paradigms? It’s the never-ending technical advancements resulting in disruptive technologies that change our world on a regular basis. Take the first one, for instance, which started in the early 1900s. From this disruptive computing paradigm we got the concept of the computer itself. By the 1940s, IBM created the first mainframe computer. The Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC) could complete three additions or subtractions in a second with multiplication taking about six seconds. The ASCC was a massive machine with a 51-foot-long steel frame that stood eight feet high. It weighed 10,000 pounds and used 500 miles of wire. After a few iterations and improvements, such as more reliable transistors replacing vacuum tubes as switches inside these machines, IBM brought the mainframe into the mainstream in the 1970s. Since then, the computing paradigm has been disrupted every decade resulting in cool new tech for us.
From the mainframe, the paradigm shifted to building smaller, faster machines with software designed for more personal use. Like its predecessor, there were multiple iterations of the microcomputer stating in the 50s. In the mid-1970s, we saw Xerox create the Xerox Alto with a graphical user interface and a very early version of the Microsoft Windows operating system. We also saw the Apple Computer I and the Commodore PET, which ended up on backorder for almost a year. But, by the 1980s the personal computer became affordable and accessible and was intended for use by a single nontechnical person. The PC was marketed to consumers and cost much less than commercial machines. They also usually had better graphics and sound than business computers and were most commonly used for playing video games, word processing and even programming other computers.
Welcome to the 90s where the internet was born. Well, the fundamental components of the internet had been around since the 60s, but the computing paradigm shifts of the previous decades gave us software and hardware advancements resulting in smaller, faster, more accessible, easier to use computers spreading throughout homes everywhere. The possibilities were endless if we could get these machines talking to each other and even working together. We could share information faster and more efficiently through this world wide web of computers. Of course, there were a slew of concerns including both privacy and identity. For these challenges, computer scientists applied millennium-old cryptographic techniques creating security in this new digital age.
This is usually the point in a discussion about disruptive computing paradigms where I get extremely excited. When I pause for a moment and think about how different the world is because of the internet, the PC and the computer, I am blown away. The way we communicate with one another. The way we share information. The way we learn. The way we purchase goods. The way we live our everyday lives has evolved because scientists and technologists pushed the limits of the scientific theories and trusted methods of their day.
We entered a new century more connected than ever and in the 2000s the paradigm shifted again. We can actually look at the computing paradigm of that decade as convergence. Hardware continued to get smaller and faster. Software advancements were keeping up with hardware and adding functionality to the internet while telecom companies helped the internet spread like wildfire. These individual technologies that were disruptive to our lives just a few years before were now common place and poised for a disruption themselves. The result was a computer-like device that would fit in the palm of our hand allowing us to be mobile while keeping us constantly connected. Not only did we get mobile devices at this time but with internet connectivity so common, geographic and socioeconomic boundaries began to break down through online social networks.
Once more, I pause to consider the impact 40 years of an ever-shifting computing paradigm had, and continues to have, on every aspect of the way we live, work, connect and interact with one another. After these four paradigms - the mainframe, the PC, the internet, the mobile and social networks - where do we go from here?
The 2010s brings us the Internet of Things (IoT) extending internet connectivity from computers and mobile devices to just about any object. From smartphones we now have smart cars and smart homes. This connectivity serves up massive amounts of data allowing us to analyze, optimize and automate just about everything. Today, we can track a package each step it takes down the procurement and delivery processes. Doctors proactively monitor healthcare devices and preemptively adjust a patient’s care. We can request a taxi (or Uber), track the ride and pay the driver with just a few taps on a mobile device.
Yes, this sounds exciting; but what does it have to do with blockchain? Blockchain can secure information while making the data more accessible, supporting the analysis, optimization and automation of these newly connected devices. Like many disruptive technologies before it, few fundamental blockchain concepts are new. Using cryptography to secure information is tried and true. The peer-to-per computing model, which blockchain uses to distribute processing, storage and disaster recovery needs, is decades old as well. These proven concepts applied in a new and innovative way, when partnered with other recent innovations like IoT, support the disruptive computing paradigm that brings us a completely and continuously connected world where information is accessible like never before. Where we accomplish more, and do it all more efficiently.
My excitement around blockchain sparked after reading this new technology was poised to be the fifth disruptive computing paradigm. I thought about the scientists who simply refused to accept their known limits and who defined our world today through four decades of disruptive technologies resulting from these paradigm shifts. I thought about the changes in the public accounting profession caused by these disruptive technologies. The new tools. The new processes. The new challenges. The new efficiencies. My excitement has only grown as I’ve followed the technological evolution of blockchain, and I’m always happy to share that excitement with you. After all, if blockchain will change the world and our profession as much as the PC, internet or mobile phone did, I don’t just want to be prepared for the change. I want to be a part of the disruption. How about you?
Amanda Wilkie, Consultant at Boomer Consulting, Inc., has a computer science background, but she’s not your average geek. With two decades of technology experience, Amanda has spent 13 years driving change and process improvement through innovative technology solutions working across firms of varying sizes in the public accounting profession. She has held strategic leadership positions in firms ranging from Top 50 to Top 10 including her most recent role as CIO of a Top 30 firm.
Amanda is a recognized expert in the profession who regularly speaks and writes on blockchain and cryptocurrency and their impact on the profession.