Blockchain: An ancient solution to a modern problem


Our world is constantly changing. As humans, we’re always looking for a “better” way to get things done, from the biggest events to the smallest, everyday tasks. And while our advancing technology does make a lot of things much easier, it can also bring new complications that we have never faced before.

A prime example is the concept of ownership in the digital age.

Think about it. In the past, you could walk into a physical place, buy something, someone would hand you a receipt, and that item was yours. Even large purchases like a car or house came with physical, notarized documents.

But today, there is so much we own that doesn’t exist as a physical entity. Software, movies, credentials, stocks, most of our money: These are just a few examples of the digital goods, tools, and wealth that underpin nearly every aspect of human life today.

Solving ownership in a digital world

But how do we really prove we own any of these things?

The old system of receipts and physical documents doesn’t work that well anymore. Those documents are much easier to fabricate today — making them much more difficult to trust. In many instances, the burden of proof falls on the shoulders of issuers and vendors, which often involves proprietary security methods that only they can read.

That credential you earned through hours, days, or years of training? Most are just PDFs directing potential employers towards the right institution to ask for proof of receipt. That e-book you bought for your Kindle? Amazon keeps the record of whether you can read it or not.

So do you really own these things, or do the issuers?

It is a common question — one that needed a solution. And that’s where blockchain technology comes into play.

A broad definition of blockchain is that it is a shared infrastructure that can verify digital goods far more durably, securely, and conveniently than any single institution or vendor can. Essentially, that means it is a shared digital ledger that cannot be changed once it is written. This shared ledger follows the distributed good from owner to owner — whether that is a person or an entity — and because it is shared, no one party can modify it to their advantage.

You can use blockchain for almost any process where you need to verify important information, including:

  • Digital currency
  • Digital identity
  • Legal agreements
  • Financial services
  • Ownership of physical and virtual goods
  • Verifying the authenticity of records and claims

Best of all, blockchain is an infrastructure layer that does not require institutional knowledge for you to interpret it. Anyone can check the validity of an item secured with blockchain when the right open standards and software applications are used in combination with the chain itself. This gives the technology an ultra-modern appeal.

But how modern is the social technology behind blockchain?

Finding answers in the past

Anthropologists — like myself — will tell you that similar solutions actually came into existence thousands of years ago.

In fact, the first examples of using tokens to represent ownership came from ancient Mesopotamia. There, tokens were physical objects carved with symbols that specified the ownership of goods or livestock. If sold, the tokens for that specific item were passed from owner to owner.

For thousands of years, people used tokens to conduct trade. Eventually, tokens evolved into letters of the earliest alphabets, which created greater efficiencies when engraved onto tablets. Now people could use ledgers, recorded on tablets, to track each transaction of a given good instead of requiring people to bring their physical tokens with them to prove ownership.

In the following millennia, people learned that whoever controls and can read ledgers holds the power. This evolved into the world we have today, where private and public institutions centralize the control of money, credentials, goods — pretty much everything. These systems of centralized control created real efficiencies in a pre-digital, pre-internet world because you only had to consult one record to figure out the truth about who did what and who owned what when.

But when there’s only one record, it’s easy to change. And the people who control ledgers often change them to their own advantage. In addition, people who control ledgers can create bottlenecks by refusing to provide ledger-related services unless specific conditions they determine are met.

That’s why today, centralized control of ledgers doesn’t just disempower ordinary people — it slows things down. Anyone who has had to wait three days for a wire transfer to go through, a month (or more!) to open a bank account, or two months for their birth certificate to be verified as authentic understands why things need to change.

Blockchain technology — as an open-source ledger system — is a move to put the power back in the hands of the people. It combines an ancient solution to a perennial problem with the most important modern innovations in cryptography and computer science. The best of past and present.

Hyland Credentials: Putting ownership in the right hands

When you put time, energy and money towards earning something – like a degree or license – you should have control and ownership over it. But it shouldn’t just be the recipients who feel that way. Taking the burden of proof away from the issuing institution and placing it into the recipient’s hands simplifies things for both sides.

That’s why forward-thinking organizations across every industry are looking to blockchain technology to combat fraud, mitigate risk, and relieve the administrative burdens associated with exchanging information and content. When used to issue official records as part of a holistic content and process management strategy, the power of blockchain only grows.

Hyland Credentials provides that by giving organizations the ability to issue credentials in a blockchain-secured format that is shareable and instantly verifiable anywhere in the world. Any organization that issues documents that require validation, from diplomas and transcripts to physician certifications and professional licenses, can benefit from blockchain-based digital credentialing.

The solution helps organizations:

  • Improve efficiency by removing the need to constantly re-issue and verify records
  • Increase security with vendor-independent, secure, tamper-proof record formats
  • Prevent fraud with blockchain-anchored cryptographic proof of authenticity for every record

Blockchain, like every technology, builds upon the technical and social ingenuity of past generations. Its unique combination of social and technical proofs brings the concept of property into the digital age. This mutual evolution of technology and goods is creating a world where centralized institutions do not hold all the power associated with determining ownership.

This holds exciting possibilities for new ways of organizing and forming communities. By decentralizing verification, blockchain technology creates new opportunities for trust, mobility, and value creation everywhere in the world.

Learn more about digital credentials here.

Natalie Smolenski

Natalie Smolenski leads business development for Hyland Innovation.

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