How do you know what you had for breakfast today?
Do you remember it? Good.
But how do you know that those memories are correct and not fabricated by the Evil Cartesian Demon? How do you know you’re not plugged into the Matrix and those memories have just been uploaded into your brain?
Historians don’t occupy themselves with such questions but simply presuppose the existence of the external world, other minds and the reality of history. Now, it would seem a historian’s work is a straightforward albeit laborious process of recording what happened.
Not so fast.
There remains challenges:
- People’s memories aren’t perfect.
- There is a saying which goes “History is written by the victors.”
- There’s always more than meets the eye.
- Those in power may have motivations to manipulate the story.
Historians acknowledge this and a serious historian who wants to communicate some findings accurately and carefully will always preface things with: “As far as we know/To the best of our knowledge…” Because, as the adage implies, there simply might be some data we’re not aware of.
But what if we could help mitigate some of these concerns?
The nature of blockchain
Cryptography makes documenting things on the blockchain resistant towards counterfeiting and forgery. Blocks on the blockchain operate on a similar principle that is related to the public/private key pair in cryptography.
Each block is a list of transactions and has a special number. When the data and the number is run through a cryptographic hash function (such as SHA256), that produces a hash or a fingerprint which has some property that verifies the block.
Now, each block starts with the fingerprint of the previous one. That fingerprint isn’t merely some designation of the block but it’s a part of that block and it’s part of the data that enters into producing the next fingerprint, and so on.
This is where “proof of work” comes from, and “mining” involves trying to solve the hash problem and find the ‘number’. To incentivize that work, the network rewards the “miners.”
Thus, changing any data in the block produces a different fingerprint, which creates a domino effect and messes up the whole chain for that member of the network. Redoing the whole thing to establish a counterfeit transaction requires an infeasible amount of work.
The reason why this is important is that each member of the network has a copy of the whole blockchain and any modification by any other member of the network would just be rejected, not only by the members of the network, but by the network itself.
All this is why someone can’t just come in and forge data on the blockchain.
In other words, blockchain is decentralized and counterfeit-proof — and that makes it an ideal technology for documenting history.
All these advantages of the blockchain and decentralization hold true even if we’re talking about proof of stake.
To help visualize this, you can go to the Blockchain Demo website.
NFTs exist on the blockchain (and so should history)
NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are created and exist on the blockchain. Since they’re created, or minted on the blockchain, they cannot be changed or manipulated. They have a public and verifiable proof of their uniqueness and ownership, which in itself cannot be tampered with either.
So, let’s imagine someone mints a photo of a certain event as an NFT. This is forever inscribed into that network. Then, let’s say someone wants to doctor the photo. They could certainly mint a new NFT. However, the original stays on the network — and everyone can check what the original NFT is.
Now, think about this in the context of a historian’s work. If a journalist discovers government corruption and documents it in an NFT, it’s forever on the blockchain. The corrupt leader is motivated to wash the internet clean of that proof of corruption, but they can’t. Even the journalist who minted the NFT can’t delete it.
In short, NFTs can not only ensure the accuracy of history documentation, but also that the important stories get told. History is no longer monopolized by the so-called victors.
What’s in the name?
One of the core properties of NFTs is their non-fungibility. One token, no matter its market value, cannot be swapped for another.
For instance, two $10 bills, though unique because of their serial number, can be swapped for one another and it wouldn’t change a thing. They’re interchangeable.
It is not so with NFTs. Non-fungibility is like uniqueness squared. Each NFT retains all of its properties forever, and at least conceptually, this is similar to how each moment in time is unique, irreplaceable and cannot be swapped for another one.
This is precisely makes NFTs perfect for documenting history
NFTs are permissionless
Since basically anyone can mint an NFT and own one, or sell it on the marketplace, that makes NFTs resistant to gatekeeping, barriers to entry and elitism. This is a property which makes NFTs “permissionless”.
No permission is needed to make, own and sell them.
In other words, this challenges that aforementioned aphorism that history is written by the victors. In this case, even the proverbial losers can write history and in the end, all the collected data can be ran against itself.
To this, one can add the fact that, once NFTs on the blockchain, not only are they to stay there, but they’re publicly available, and as already stated, there is also a publicly available proof of their uniqueness and ownership.
Distribution of power levels the playing field, strips unjustified authority (and there’s a question of whether any authority is justified), and thus empowers “the common person” to write their own history—instead of having it written by someone more powerful than him.
Decentralization in combination with blockchain technology thus prevents censorship of uncomfortable information.
It also facilitates a more community-driven and grassroots approach to documenting history. It incentivizes taking up our individual responsibility within our communities to document history, rather than offloading it to some unaccountable central authority.
What once was telling stories through singing of epics around the campfire, might tomorrow become documenting history through minting NFTs.
NFTs are trustless
Moreover, because blockchain is “trustless,” NFTs are too. This doesn’t mean that you can’t trust them, but that you don’t need trust for transactions to occur. The network itself takes care of it. The network itself wouldn’t work or even exist if the members of the network didn’t operate within its parameters (which themselves are open-source).
For example, decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) rely on smart contracts to make interactions between anyone safe and trustless. The code ensures fair, ethical behavior. You don’t have to trust any one company or individual. You have the distributed trust of all the members of the network.
Let’s relate that to the recording of history. Say someone minted an NFT of the famous photo of that man standing in front of the tank at Tiananmen Square. Because of blockchain, you can rest assured that that photo is precisely what that NFT creator actually minted.
Historical NFTs: A way forward
These ideas and concepts might seem far fetched, idealistic and somewhat utopian. But there are already projects like NFThistory that are using this technology to preserve historic moments.
The point is to provide a decentralized alternative to how history is currently documented. This way, nobody in a power position has the ability to manipulate the story. In this sense, historical NFTs can almost serve as a check on power. Because no longer do those in charge write the story. We all do.
The point is to help preserve history more accurately. Then, we can all understand our past better and move forward more effectively.