5

I have noticed that the technology word blockchain often seems to be used with the definite article the even in contexts where there is no specific blockchain being referenced, where with other nouns a blockchain, blockchains or even a zero-article blockchain used like a proper noun would seem to make more sense.

Other technology words don't seem to use the in the same way.

Some examples found in Corpus of Contemporary American English selected to show this usage:

...topic. In the past, TechCrunch has hosted similar events on robotics, the blockchain and social justice. Through intimate interviews and in-depth discussions, attendees of TC Session...

...From new companies building businesses based on the genome, to businesses built on the blockchain, distributed applications, teams, genes and geographies will shape the future of the...

...have on the future of our economy? # Episode one seeks to explain the blockchain, the technology that allows bitcoins to be transferred between entities, as well as...

...a Paris-based startup that wants to create a platform-as-a-service for developers interested in the blockchain. With Stratumn, you can build, deploy and run applications on the company...

Is my perception that blockchain takes the definite article in contexts where other comparable words wouldn't be correct, and why does it do so?

8
  • 1
    Without context and an example, I doubt the question will be answered.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Feb 25, 2022 at 9:44
  • For any application there's a single blockchain. But it's probably similar to expressions like "storing data on the cloud", "the darkweb", "the network", or "the internet", and earlier idioms like "the wires" (news wire services). "A blockchain" seems widely used in generic context, so I'm not sure you're correct to say "the blockchain" is preferred in all contexts, and is where examples would help. (Obviously what blockchain enthusiasts write in propaganda or social media posts isn't restricted by the rules of grammar.)
    – Stuart F
    Commented Feb 25, 2022 at 9:58
  • 1
    @StuartF They've added examples. "the blockchain" is often used to mean "blockchain technology", not a specific blockchain use or implementation.
    – Barmar
    Commented Feb 25, 2022 at 23:24
  • 1
    To conceal the fact that the term is meaningless.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 9, 2022 at 12:54
  • 1
    I suspect looking at early usages of "the blockchain" would shed light on this. It seems pretty plausible to me that either "the blockchain" was unambiguously referring to Bitcoin's blockchain early on and the usage stuck colloquially, or that "the blockchain" was borrowed by a broader public from specific in-group usages where "the blockchain" referred to the specific blockchains underpinning whatever those groups were doing (i.e. various cryptocurrencies). It's also plausible to me that the usage was impacted by the prevalence of "the Internet"- "xxxing the Internet to do yyy". Commented May 10, 2022 at 16:29

1 Answer 1

4
+100

Why does "the blockchain" have a definite article?

Because the blockchain refers to the blockchain technology underpinning Bitcoin. Or simply, it specifically refers to the Bitcoin blockchain. The sources below cover the differences between "[a] blockchain" and "the blockchain" really well:

From The Truth Machine: The Blockchain and the Future of Everything by Michael J. Casey and Paul Vigna:

Addressing an inconsistency in popular parlance, we generally employ three distinct usages of the word "blockchain": "The blockchain," which refers to Bitcoin's original distributed ledger; "a blockchain"— or, pluralized, "blockchains"— to cover a variety of more recent distributed ledgers that share Bitcoin's chain-of-blocks structure; and "blockchain technology," referring to the overall field. We also use "distributed ledger technology" to encompass both blockchain and non-blockchain distributed ledgers. We mostly avoid the popular construct of "blockchain" as a non-countable noun. We view a blockchain, like any ledger, as a distinct, identifiable thing, not a process. The book's title uses the definite article form to acknowledge the catalytic role that the original Bitcoin blockchain played in unleashing this field.

From Bitcoin, Blockchain & distributed ledgers by Deloitte Australia:

Bitcoin (upper case) is the well-known cryptocurrency.
bitcoin (lower case) is the specific collection of technologies used by Bitcoin’s ledger, a particular solution. We should note the currency itself is one of these technologies as it provides the miners with the incentive to mine.
blockchain (or blockchain technology) is the generic name for the family of technologies and solutions that provide the same functionality as bitcoin, but which use different approaches to realising the functionality, for example via alternate algorithms.
the blockchain (the definite article) is the particular ledger that underpins Bitcoin: the blockchain created by Satoshi Nakamoto.
a blockchain (the indefinite article) is a ledger based on blockchain technology, though not necessarily the one used by Bitcoin. This might be as simple as using the same open source code as bitcoin to create a new ledger, through to swapping in alternative implementations or algorithms.
distributed ledger is a generic name for the family of problems that bitcoin and blockchain are one possible solution to.
shared ledger is an alternative generic name.

[...]

The ownership of Bitcoins, including transfers of ownership, is recorded in a distributed ledger: the Blockchain.11

11 We use ‘the blockchain’ to refer to the distributed ledger that underpins Bitcoin, and ‘a blockchain’ to refer to the family of similar solutions, which the Blockchain is a member of.

[...]

Bitcoin represents the genesis of distributed ledgers, and the particular type of distributed ledger that Bitcoin uses – the blockchain – has a currency as an integral part of its solution.

From a ScienceDirect article, How blockchain technologies impact your business model, by Vida J. Morkunas et al.:

Before proceeding further, it is important to clarify noteworthy blockchain-related terminology. Consistent with the approach suggested by Swan (2015) and Evans-Greenwood, Harper, Hillard, and Williams (2016), we herein use the terms as follows:

  • Blockchain, without the use of an article. Blockchain technology, or a blockchain (indefinite article), refers to the underlying technology: A network of computers and algorithms that process Bitcoin and many other distributed ledger applications.

  • The blockchain, using a definite article, refers to the technology underpinning bitcoin specifically.

From a blog entry, A blockchain with emphasis on the “a” by Tim Swanson:

So it appears that there are more than one in the wild.

Yet, a couple weeks ago Fred Wilson wrote that:

If you think of the blockchain as an open source, peer to peer, massively distributed database, then it makes sense for the transaction processing infrastructure for it to evolve from individuals to large global corporations. Some of these miners will be dedicated for profit miners and some of them will be corporations who are mining to insure the integrity of the network and the systems they rely on that are running on it. Banks and brokerage firms are the obvious first movers in the second category.

He later clarified in the comments and means the Bitcoin blockchain, not others.

From an article From “the Blockchain” to “distributed ledger technology” – the direction of travel for insurance by Dave Connors:

The evolution of terminology around blockchain provides a clue to the likely progression of its use in insurance. Initially it was "the blockchain" as there was effectively only one, powering the Bitcoin cryptocurrency. It then lost its definite article, becoming "blockchain" or "blockchain technology" as other cryptocurrencies and separate networks leveraged the same principles. Currently it is repurposing the existing term "distributed ledger technology" as its use expands beyond digital currencies and into other worlds.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.