Blockchain for People

You’re in for 10 minutes of reflection about the failures of the blockchain sector to explain itself to society, tormenting the so-called experts, and a bit of history of the internet, hacker culture and cryptography.

Let’s start this piece proclaiming a nowadays tech blasphemy:

Blockchain is old news.

Before you start furiously typing a response or unloading a waterfall of verbal rotten lettuce onto my twitter handle, allow me to clarify that I don’t mean it in a bad way.

In fact, I mean it in the best possible way: why is it taking so long for our societies to wake up to this technology? when mainstream?

A decade has passed since Satoshi published his/her/their whitepaper and most people have heard of bitcoin and cryptocurrency thanks to last year’s craze. But ask this tonight around the dinner table: “what’s your view on blockchain?” I bet you’ll struggle to make it all the way to desserts.

I don’t mean that blockchain is old news because of Bitcoin whitepaper’s publishing date — nine years is not that long. But we’ve been talking about decentralisation, cryptography, peer-to-peer and many other blockchain-related concepts for as long as the internet has been around.

Most of the foundational texts and manifestos about the internet are from the 80s and 90s, and the average Joe and his mother have been surfing the net over two decades. Just 10 years ago, Bitcoin was born.

According to the Global Blockchain Business Council latest survey, only 5% of Americans own cryptocurrency. Let’s compare blockchain’s rate of adoption with other technologies:

Do you see that ugly, non-parabolic blockchain line? Something’s wrong here…

Ok, smartphones had lots of marketing behind them with Steve Jobs’ turtleneck keynotes and having big companies behind a technology surely accelerates adoption. But the cryptocurrency total market cap reached $830 billions in early 2018, that’s not peanuts either.

If we count all the ICO marketing efforts of 2017, with sports figures like Lionel Messi or Dennis Rodman placing cryptos in the faces of tens of millions of Instagram followers, we should be really reaching the mainstream public by now. So why aren’t we?

“Blockchain is the top less understood technology, way ahead of Robo-advisers”

Maybe is that technology is evolving too fast for society to make up its mind about it. Every quarter we get new projects that claim to be the real deal, to execute the true vision of Satoshi, or to paraphrase Gavin Belson: to make the world a better place.

Blockchain, Directed Acyclic Graph (DAG), proof-work (PoW), Byzantine Fault Tolerance (BFT)… Too many weird concepts and too many acronyms.

These are the top less understood technologies, extracted from HSBC Trust in Technology Report:

1. Blockchain, a digital ledger (80%)
2. Robo-advisers, automated investment advice (69%)
3. Finance applications integrated into social media, like WeChat or Facebook (60%)

Almost one in four people (24%) have not heard of, or do not know what voice activation technology is, despite it being widely available in consumer smartphones.

Seems that the general public just does not care about fancy names and complex technological concepts, as long as the thing they are paying for does the job and is accessible from their phone. Buzzwords are great on a research paper that won’t be read beyond an engineers’ Slack channel, or to say very fast at VC meetings so that investors get caught shields down and have to add a couple of million to their original offer.

People want to enjoy the benefits of technology at the cheapest possible price. We need to stop inflating the blockchain bubble, and I know exactly where to start, or better said, with whom: the experts.

The last ten years has been enough time for a load of freshly-baked, self-proclaimed “blockchain experts”, most of whom earn their bread by jumping from summit to summit, talking mostly to other “experts”, investors and some blockchain enthusiasts who are already familiar with their ideas.

The telephone was patented in 1849. If someone would’ve written a letter to the local newspaper proclaiming themselves “a telephone expert” on 1859, everybody in town would’ve looked at them suspiciously as if they had a bottle of snake-oil popping out their jacket pocket.

There are distributed ledger experts in every corner of LinkedIn and Twitter, repeating constantly the big buzzwords: decentralisation, scalability, transactions per second, adoption… Some even list themselves under humble titles like “bitcoin maximalist”.

Yet outside the corporate world, nobody seems to give a bit of a damn about the technology.

Example of the average expert in 2017. Link to this priceless video here.

There’s a slight chance that you consider yourself a sort of sage in the matter. You may have even done a few keynotes in an overpriced conference full of ICO pitch sales. Far from me to question your expertise, but nowadays everybody can become a certified blockchain expert for life, online and in only 6 hours!

Jokes aside, there is a handful of true experts in distributed ledger that I respect, namely the guys actually building stuff: Vitalik Buterin, Nick Szabo and a few more. I’d stop counting right there.

These guys’ job is to build cool stuff. The rest of us, non-engineer peasants that see the potential of their creations, should focus in communicating this to everybody else in a simple and benefit-led way, not to elaborate corporate gibberish-style speeches to blast around in conferences while getting paid fat fees — in fiat currency no less. I’m yet to see a blockchain expert who only accepts crypto as payment — besides Andreas Antonopoulos.

So far, we’re failing at painting a clear picture of how our cherished online words will benefit flesh-and-blood people.

That’s the goal of this article: to bring experts down to Earth with their fellow mortals and give newcomers a few points of reference to get started. To make experts realise that some of the words they employ as modern concepts have been around over three decades, and to bridge the gap between engineering technicalities and ordinary Janes and Joes.

In order to do that, let’s see how blockchain will impact individuals and markets, and let’s see how long have we been talking about some of the concepts that seem new but are rather older than most millennials. I would also like to cover how blockchain will impact businesses, but that’s a story for another day.

The individual and the market, decentralised.

Blockchain can empower the individual in a way never seen before. It will do to our identity what cars did to our mobility. We will be able to generate an incorruptible virtual ‘self’ that will be our passport, bank account and dental record combined.

Every single one of our loyalty cards could be incorporated, the remaining points of our driver license and our credit score. It could combine everything you have in your wallet into a digital form that can never be lost, stolen or manipulated. Ultimately, it can render laws and traditional nation-state useless.

Maybe you are a newcomer and think that these ideas are futuristic, or maybe you are a “blockchain expert” and believe that you are disrupting the space-time fabric with your disruption when you say them.

Let’s see them in detail:

Decentralisation

1 Access to computers — and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works — should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!
2 All information should be free.
3 Mistrust authority — promote decentralization.
Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984)

Tech people have been preaching about it since the Cold War. Long story short, decentralisation means removing the need of a central authority. Decentralisation is a logical consequence of the internet, as we are all now nodes connected to the network.

A Soviet citizen in the 50s that wanted to move around depended fully on the state’ five-year-plan public transport or car production, whereas an American citizen relied on a tapestry of private companies and public local systems. Ultimately, the decentralised capitalist market proved a better way of organising transport.

An American citizen in the 1990s that wanted to move around could either buy a car or a ticket for public transport, in both cases, they need the Federal Reserve and the American government to print dollars and uphold their value.

Nowadays, anyone with enough bitcoins can buy a car, or pay an Uber ride with crypto, thanks to services like Revolut. Decentralisation is a historical force that is speeding up and reaching all aspects of our lives.

It makes your data safer, as there’s no central server that can be hacked.

It gives you more power, as networks substitute companies and governments.

It places the interest of the most before the interest of the few, as it is harder to manipulate participants of the network to act against other participants.

Privacy

Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age. Privacy is not secrecy. A private matter is something one doesn’t want the whole world to know, but a secret matter is something one doesn’t want anybody to know. Privacy is the power to selectively reveal oneself to the world. (…)
We cannot expect governments, corporations, or other large, faceless organizations to grant us privacy out of their beneficence. It is to their advantage to speak of us, and we should expect that they will speak. To try to prevent their speech is to fight against the realities of information. Information does not just want to be free, it longs to be free.
A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto (1993)

For several millennia, from hunter-gatherer bands to classic Greek polis, privacy was an unimaginable concept. Almost all things one ever did were done in front of a few other people. Information travelled mostly orally until the XVII-XVIII centuries, so there was no point holding things for oneself.

Even today, if you are familiar with the life in any small city around the Mediterranean, you’ll know that gossip and social pressure is way higher and invasive there than it is in London or Amsterdam, where people go about their business and have a strict sense of private life.

But no matter where you live, there’s a shared burden that we all suffer everywhere, all the time: we’re been spied and monitored. That’s no tin-foil conspiracy, by the way, that’s Facebook and Google business model. Governments are jumping in the data mining trend more and more, with a few major democracies like the US and the UK willing to install backdoors into any hardware sold in their markets.

Luckily, blockchain technology can fight back and guarantee serious levels of privacy. I won’t go into all the different projects focusing on privacy, but just have a look at Monero’s mission:

Monero takes privacy seriously. Monero needs to be able to protect users in a court of law and, in extreme cases, from the death penalty. This level of privacy must be completely accessible to all users, whether they are technologically competent or have no idea how Monero works.

Pretty cool for a project done amongst nameless cryptographers who probably never saw each other’s faces for a good while, don’t you think?

Monero is not alone in the privacy quest, there are tens of other cryptocurrencies after this, and more are coming.

In the digital world, data is becoming the most important commodity out there. Is the equivalent of coal in the industrial revolution, or oil in consumerist capitalism. The difference is that each of us owns data, so we better take care of who we shared.

Network economy

Networked markets are beginning to self-organize faster than the companies that have traditionally served them. Thanks to the web, markets are becoming better informed, smarter, and more demanding of qualities missing from most business organizations.
The Cluetrain Manifesto (1999)

At writing time, there are 2094 cryptocurrencies listed on Coinmarketcap.com. Last year this time year under 1000. Yes, most of them are vapourware or even black smoke, but that gives an idea of how fast these markets are moving.

More and more people are coming to realise that they don’t need bankers to conduct their transactions, politics to establish governance or companies to earn an income.

All that, and more, can be done through many of the crypto ecosystems that are sprouting every other day.

As mentioned in the previous point, in the dataist economy, we are as valuable as the data we hold and sell. Imagine what will happen to the global economy when the value of our personal data is over the poverty line ($1.90 a day, as of 2015). Will that be the catalyst of a global network economy?

Liquid Market

Combined with emerging information markets, crypto anarchy will create a liquid market for any and all material which can be put into words and pictures. And just as a seemingly minor invention like barbed wire made possible the fencing-off of vast ranches and farms, thus altering forever the concepts of land and property rights in the frontier West, so too will the seemingly minor discovery out of an arcane branch of mathematics come to be the wire clippers which dismantle the barbed wire around intellectual property.
Arise, you have nothing to lose but your barbed wire fences!
The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto (1992)

I find really appealing the concept of a revolution based in maths, rather than propaganda or violence. At least it aligns with the scientific method and it empowers the role of the individual.

In summary, everything can become a liquid market, even ourselves. If you want to delve into one subject around the blockchain, I suggest you start here.

Those “liquid markets” of the manifesto are what we in the cryptoworld call “tokenisation of assets”. My colleague Uzair Qidwai wrote a nice piece about that topic.

So, where are we now?

The incipient blockchain industry seems trapped in a bubble of self-interest. The bubble keeps expanding, but only a few millimetres at a time.

When/if the cryptocurrency market comes back to the bullish side, we’ll see another wave of mainstream interest.

But what if this happens in six months’ time? Or a year, or years? Are we going through a long and cold winter of media attention?

In a sense, this is good, it gives us more time to hone our technology proposals and battle test our new networks. On the other hands, investors are getting bored with an ever-ranging market and are looking at other asset classes.

While we wait for the potential return of the bull, there is one thing that we can work on as an industry: explain better our proposal. Wave better stories, detail our expectations and write down how we see the world in a few years thanks to our mind-boggling tech.

I’m fully committed to this endeavour, happy to have you on board.

On the next article, I’ll list my favourite experts and will make a long list of material to read, watch and even touch blockchain.

Until next time,

Tony

PS.

If you know of a true blockchain expert that take payments in crypto, pop their name in the comments, we’d love to invite them to host one of our events in London.


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Header pictures credits > Werner Du plessis