Welcome to Episode 1 of #Blockchainized, a series about an outsider inside the blockchain
In 2013, my colleague and I bought coffee with tokens worth a tenth of a cent each. No, this isn’t a story of how those tokens are now worth a zillion dollars. They’re still made of coloured newsprint and their value has remained constant at The Hindu, an over-135-year-old news daily headquartered in Chennai, India.
So, with the coffee those tokens bought, we sat down over a chrome table bolted to the floor, and listened as Vignesh (colleague’s developer friend) spoke about mining bitcoin. Nearly everything Vignesh said went through me like cosmic neutrinos, without igniting a single spark of understanding. I knew the words, but I couldn’t wrap my head around what they were playing at.
There were questions I was itching to ask but couldn’t because they seemed so stupid inside my head. They’re not really coins? Why are they worth anything at all? How do you turn them into real money? So you really don’t know who invented this?
What I do remember, apart from the coffee (it was hot and delicious), is Vignesh’s passion for blockchain, and my unconscious, adamant refusal to absorb anything.
This was the first bitcoin discussion I was part of. I was not looking forward to a second. Vignesh left for Canada, so it didn’t seem likely.
Two years later. After nearly a decade as a journalist in three of India’s largest news houses across print, broadcast and online reportage, I began to identify with myself as a communications professional, currently in the financial technology sector. Since it was 2015 and I didn’t live under a rock, I couldn’t avoid gaining a pretentious knowledge of bitcoin (I actually meant cryptoeconomics — or crypto for short. I just didn’t know it yet).
Financial technology was itself full of daunting new concepts, but to my mind, none of what I had learned over the past few years could be quite as mind-bending as crypto. But it began to make sense, in a ‘the thick haze started to coalesce into a sinister shape’ kind of way. The Fintech world was going through an identity crisis, triggered in part by crypto and, ironically enough, the solution too seemed to rest with crypto.
I organized a tweet chat on #KYCAML (Know Your Customer, Anti Money Laundering) with Vinay Gupta @leashless, the release coordinator for Ethereum, and Prof. Michael Mainelli @mrmainelli. It dawned on me that Blockchain was as awesome as, well, sliced bread. It was significant enough be a metaphor by itself. And I’d only viewed this industry through a keyhole so far. I needed a wider perspective.
Then Vignesh came to Chennai.
The man had aged a bit. He still looked the same — tall, a bit out of shape, good hair, eyes that seemed to stare three years ahead. But there was something else. He’d lived some extra lives in this interim. Co-invented the bitcoin ATM, built and given away a crypto exchange start-up, founded another company (Bitaccess), got picked by Y-Combinator. He’d learned, grown, been disillusioned, gotten wiser, and had begun to concretise the vision and beliefs that drive him today.
We talked over another beverage (or three). After dissecting the startup bubble layer by microscopic layer, he spoke about decentralized systems on the blockchain.
It all still seemed a bit out there. Intelligible but still something that belonged in a parallel dimension, not my world. It was the first time I felt I wanted to be part of something like this.
Early in 2017, the seed of Lendroid was planted. It was envisioned as a decentralized lending platform. In February, Vignesh asked if I would lend him a hand with some messaging, a spot of writing, so that his focus on the dev side would be unencumbered. I said ‘sure’ and then went back to doing something inane for a multinational.
Then Vignesh, as he does, came to Chennai.
Over lunch, and amidst constant interruption by my toddler daughter, we spoke again.
Blockchain is not cryptoeconomics. It is socioeconomics. It is a means of achieving individual sovereignty in the truest sense. Complete ownership and control over my identity, my money, my IP, my work.
Without having to spell it out, I realised how important it was to build sustainable monetary instruments on such a system. On-chain and as part of a transaction, concepts like integrity, transparency, accountability, automation suddenly become measurable, profitable, even.
Lendroid, as I begun to understand it, protected the interests of the lender, not by locking his funds and identity in a centrally controlled secret place, but by distributing the responsibility of safekeeping among the entire community. It etched the rules of the transaction in an inviolable smart contract. It automated enforcement so that risk and friction are minimized.
A system in which it is impossible to cheat. A system that you trust implicitly, because you don’t have to trust it at all!
Mind = blown.
Fired up, I said, “I’m in, bro. Let me know how I can help. I can help with a bit of messaging, clean up clunky phrases, maybe conjure some sharp slogans and online campaigns. What do you need?”
I was confident I could add value as a little cog in this complex machine. That I could contribute interesting bits of content and digital marketing strategy. Baby steps.
“Great!” Vignesh said. “Let’s do a whitepaper first.”
I’d been sucker punched.
Episode 2: Dummy Writes a Whitepaper.