A note before we begin: this article is intended primarily for non-technical audiences who already have some base knowledge on what blockchain technology is.
If you’re starting from scratch, I recommend checking out the learning resources on the Ethereum website or listening to this great podcast by Tim Ferriss featuring Chris Dixon and Naval Ravikant.
If you’re looking for deeper technical analysis, there are plenty of better resources for you. I doubt you need my guidance on where to look.
Blockchain technology is the future of the internet. In extremely simplistic terms, blockchain is like a giant supercomputer in the sky that anyone can use to run computations if they’re willing to pay a “gas” fee to operate the machine.
What makes blockchain so revolutionary is its ability to act as a neutral, transparent, secure third party between different entities. Every transaction that occurs on the blockchain is completely transparent and recorded in the public domain. This has massive economic implications because the blockchain can act as a trusted intermediary and replace the middlemen that have been a necessity in the modern economy, particularly post-industrialization.
Blockchain has the potential to make nearly every type of transaction in our economy far more efficient than ever before.
The technology has made massive leaps forward over the past decade, some of the latest being the proliferation of L2’s on the Ethereum chain and the Ethereum merge.
That being said, blockchain still has a few big challenges that are preventing it from realizing its full potential.
Obstacle #1: Scaleability
The beauty of blockchain is based around the decentralized, permissionless nature of the technology. Transactions are run and validated on separate servers all across the world that ensure every transaction “checks out”. The cost of this permissionless decentralization is speed.
Although it’s far from “slow” in an objective sense, the speed of blockchain computation is far below what we have come to expect in the modern digital world (particularly for people like me living in Chattanooga, TN, home of the world’s fastest internet).
To get a feeling of the speed discrepancy, check out this graphic.
As I was saying, blockchain isn’t ridiculously slow. Twenty transactions per second (the current computation speed of Ethereum) isn’t bad. But when you compare it to industry leading software like Visa, you can see there’s a huge gap.
Fortunately this gap is beginning to shrink, with the introduction of L2’s on the Ethereum chain like Polygon and Solana.
We’ve still got a ways to go in order to achieve the kind of speed that mainstream users have come to expect these days, but things are moving in the right direction. I expect scalability issues to be massively diminished over the next 5 years.
For a more in-depth read on the blockchain scalability trilemma and scalability solutions, I recommend checking out this article on Crypto.com.
Obstacle #2: Regulatory Clarity
One of the biggest challenges facing blockchain is, by far, Regulatory Clarity.
What makes this challenge so difficult is that it is the only hurdle that lies completely outside the power of blockchain entrepreneurs and builders.
Things change quickly in the blockchain space, and government regulators and legislators are only beginning to get up to speed.
This creates a bit of a “wild, wild west” feel. Laws and legal definitions are ambiguous and new startups have to spend ridiculous amounts of their early finances on legal teams.
That financial burden is a huge factor that prevents startups from scaling quickly.
In the ecommerce and mobile revolutions, if a startup had $5 million of runway, they’d be able to devote 80% of it to development and engineering. Products would mature quickly.
Because of the current regulatory ambiguity in the space, startups have to spend the majority of that $5 million on legal teams. It hamstrings product development and impedes innovation across the industry.
I’m not advocating for a lack of regulation. Rather, all we need is a baseline of clear standards and regulations by legislators.
For a more in-depth read on regulatory challenges in the blockchain space, check out this great synopsis from The Regulatory Review.
Obstacle #3: Messaging
No idea can change the world until it is easily understood by the masses.
In my opinion (and the opinion of Chris Dixon of A16Z) messaging is, by far, the greatest obstacle to widespread blockchain adoption.
If we know anything about people, it’s that they don’t like walking into a fog.
The language in this space is inaccessible, confusing, and often even intimidating to outsiders. Terms like nonfungible-tokens, trustless, zero-knowledge protocol, gas fees, and custodial wallets were primarily invented by engineers rather than communications specialists.
To reach the next phase of maturation in the market, we need to make blockchain products relevant to everyday brands and consumers.
Public education is a hugely important initiative for anyone hoping to take this tech to the mainstream. We need to lead the charge in expressing the power of blockchain technology, particularly for NFTs, to mainstream audiences with clear, simple language that even grandparents can understand.
Many people have described blockchain as a “solution in search of a problem” over the past decade, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, the leaders in the space have just done a terrible job speaking to mainstream audiences about mainstream problems and mainstream applications using mainstream language.
Storytelling and brandbuilding are going to be vital cogs during this next phase of blockchain’s growth.
The people who can communicate simply and clearly, rather than those building the most groundbreaking products, will ultimately be the ones who reach sustainable viability in the marketplace.
It takes more than a great product to change the world. You must also get millions of people to understand and trust it.
To get up to speed on some of this confusing jargon, check out this Blockchain Glossary for Beginners from Consensys.