How the language of digital assets holds the ecosystem back.
In crypto-land, decentralization — of currency, governance, and capital— is at the heart of seemingly every new project. But in light of all this decentralizing, there is one arena where the crypto and blockchain community is oddly, and rigidly, consolidated: language.
Words aren’t isolated entities, hiding in cold storage, detached from tradition. They carry with them weight, history and implications.
Amid the grander task of re-defining currency, contracts and the transfer of value, the crypto community has held on to legacy terminology that undermines its mission.
The most important words in crypto are transposed from traditional finance and technology, or made up by cryptographers whose talents lay elsewhere. To be sure, the ideas underneath cryptocurrency and the blockchain aren’t simple. But they are made even more complex by vocabulary that leads new users and investors astray.
Now, I don’t intend to actually upend the basic vocabulary of crypto-land. But it is crucial to examine where these words came from, who they serve, and what they carry with them.
As a writer, product marketer and longstanding hodl-er, I have a keen interest in how the story of cryptocurrency and the blockchain is conveyed to the next million (and next billion) users. This community should thoughtfully consider the vocabulary it uses, and how the stories and pitches we compose are defined by the vocabulary inside them.
Through this lens, let’s take a look at three of the most fundamental words in the crypto landscape.
Wallets, like Lambos and elections, can be stolen.
The analog leather wallet most of us carry every day didn’t become ubiquitous until the 1950s, in tandem with the spread of mass-market credit cards. Wallets were the conduit through which retail banks and credit card companies solidified their role in everyday consumerism. Interestingly, at least in America, wallets still represent the convergence of our financial, political and physical identities, via the credit or debit card, driver’s license and insurance card, respectively. These are precisely the reference points of identification that a great number of projects (Civic, Blockstack, etc.) in crypto-land seek to upend and replace.
• A wallet in the traditional sense is merely a collection of reference points. In its velcro pouches are government-issued currencies and access points to credit that are out of the wallet-holder’s control. Why would we use “wallet” when the purpose of decentralized, digital assets and currency is to detach from those larger entities, and “be your own bank”?
• Wallets for digital currency don’t actually store any money — they only store the public and private keys that provide access to those assets.
• Wallets in the analog sense are hard to secure, limited in their capacity and increasingly obscelescent.
A crypto wallet really refers to a private access point through which an individual can lay claim to specific tokens of a blockchain. It is not so much a container as it is a location with two entry points; one for the public, and one just for you.
For a better phrase, we might look to architecture: the vestibule, or simply “vest”.
Vestibules, first popularized in ancient Rome, are the small enclosures connecting the interior, private area of a home to the public street.
In the world of digital assets, the vest — closer and more connected to your body than a leather wallet — is where public and private keys interact in order to store and exchange value. A vest, just like a wallet, can hold things. But it is also a protective layer that represents a threshold between you and the public.
ex. “If you’ve got more than 20 ETH in your vest, you’ll be eligible for PoS.”
Crypto is shorthand for cryptocurrency, which often employs some form of cryptography to secure transactions and verify the transfer of assets on a blockchain.
We use the name “crypto” out of convenience. But is the cryptographic element in digital assets important enough to justify naming the entire ecosystem after that root? Probably not.
In fact, many projects in this ecosystem employ no cryptography at all. And simpler public key encryptions are a part of the vast majority of other web-based experiences.
•“Crypto” in English connotes the secretive, inaccessible messages implied by cryptography. It also is tied to crypt; that is, hidden catacombs, vaults and caves where bodies and religious relics are stowed. How do these connotations serve crypto?
•“Crypto” reinforces the notion that cryptocurrency is used and held for nefarious purposes.
• By distinguishing digital assets as cryptocurrency, we are branding it as “currency, with cryptography as its defining difference” — which it is not.
The critical feature of most assets in this space is not their (often basic) cryptography but rather their employing the blockchain — the public ledger that provides a record of each transaction and acts as the consensus protocol. One of the defining functions of the blockchain is to provide transparency of value — the idea that everyone can see how much value is stored in each account at any moment — which doesn’t sound like it would happen in a crypt, now does it?
So, if this transparent, shared consensus protocol is the defining element in most of what we today call cryptocurrencies, how can we choose a name that serves the mission?
Digital Assets is a good, already-in-use alternative. But non-blockchain-based currencies mostly exist on digital ledgers today anyway. Is this enough of a differentiator?
We need a flexible, short prefix that be easily appended to other terms, just as crypto has led to crypto-assets and crypto-kitties. Two that might work are Viz (Latin visiblis, “that may be seen”) and Lucid (Latin lucidus, “light, bright, clear”):
Ex. The “vizeconomy” allows asset holdings and transactions to be rendered visible; “viz contracts” disintermediate third parties in order to allow buyers and sellers to directly and clearly come to an agreement. And so on.
The “lucid economy,” comprised of “lucid currency,” “lucenomics,” and “lucid assets,” could act in just the same way.
In the Bitcoin white paper, Nakamoto writes: “The steady addition of a consistent amount of new coins is analogous to gold miners expending resources to add gold into circulation.” Satoshi uses a few analogies like these to guide the reader from traditional commerce and economics to his new, P2P “electronic cash system”. By some estimates, bitcoin miners are now using over 70 terawatt hours of electricity annually, for a global mining revenue of $5B. But how might this analogy of “mining” be detrimental in telling the story of decentralized digital assets to the world?
•Mining carries the connotation that what will emerge from that process are actual physical coins, gold or otherwise. This is distracting.
• Mining in the world of digital currency is not an act of searching or digging, but of verification.
• Traditional mining carries with it the legacies of the gold rush, colonial exploitation and pillaging of the natural world.
• Traditional mining is something that occurs underground, in darkness — as opposed to mining digital currency, which deigns to be a transparent, P2P process that anyone can hypothetically take part in.
Mining bitcoin and many other digital currencies is comprised of two activities: verifying and compiling recent transactions into “blocks” and solving the “proof-of work” computational puzzle. The first solver of said puzzle is rewarded — in the case of bitcoin — with 12.5 bitcoin (as of this writing) and the right to add the next “block” to the “chain”.
Instead of “mining” bitcoin, the owners of the vast Chinese and Oregonian warehouses filled with ASICs are verifying the recent past and writing the present. They are establishing the current distribution of a given currency, ensuring that every last bitcoin is accounted for. (This is why bitcoin are never “lost”, they are only rendered inaccessible due to the loss of a private key.)
If mining is really an act of verification and creation, not destruction and extraction, it should be named as such.
Consider the word Auth. Auth leads one to both “author” — the creation of new tokens — and “authenticate” — which an author has to do in order to put the next block on the applicable blockchain. It neatly combines both of the crucial functions of a miner and doesn’t have the baggage of the old term. Auth can be traced to the latin auctor — “promoter, producer, creator, trustworthy writer” or the Old French autorite meaning authority.
ex. “He set up a few rigs in his basement and has been authing Ethereum since early 2017.”
What other words in the digital asset landscape need to be re-considered? Have better ideas for those listed above? Drop me a line or leave a comment below.