What an Afternoon with High Schoolers Taught Me About Blockchain

Getting everyone in the same room is how we hack our way to real utility

Photo: DoraHacks

The thing you realize after spending an afternoon with high school and college students who are amped up about diving headfirst into blockchain, is they may be complete newcomers, but they’re not letting that stop them.

Last Sunday I participated as a judge in a small-scale hackathon event, hosted near MIT and Harvard, where students who wouldn’t know the difference between Binance and Bollinger Bands were grappling with ideas around decentralized health data storage, weighted multi-tier voting platforms, and micro vendor payment systems for digital currencies — subjects even seasoned blockchain experts have yet to fully contend with.

While these students unfortunately did not manage to solve all of crypto’s problems in that 24-hour period, the event — hosted by Chinese-based nonprofit DoraHacks — exemplified to me a lot of what’s missing in terms of recruitment and incubation. Participants were young and excited with great ideas, and I couldn’t help but wonder what their next step would be after that one day event.

Read more: Breaking Down the Silicon Valley Silo

Say you’re an open source developer thinking about experimenting with blockchain technology: what’s your starting point? You could pay for an online course, but that is time consuming and expensive. You might try to wade through hours of online threads trying to tease out helpful information, but let’s face it: the crypto community its own universe, and overwhelmingly dominated by speculators. Where’s our open door for these crypto-curious creators? Because make no mistake: we need them.

Especially now that we’re collectively in the middle of a post-ICO boom hangover, it is important that we rewrite our playbook, and this can only happen if we exit the echo chamber and instigate hard conversations about where we’re going. As crypto becomes increasingly fragmented — hundreds of decentralized apps each with less than 100 users — it’s become clear we would all benefit from a shared knowledge base and ability to iterate with others.

Not only would we waste less energy running in circles duplicating each other’s projects, but we would be less likely to stay huddled in our corner of the crypto world, where it’s easy to forget your 30 million dollar idea may not actually have much use in everyday users’ real lives.

At Sunday’s hackathon, the first post-presentation question you’d usually hear was, “So, how would people use this?” This sounds simple, and yet somewhere along the line we stopped asking it of each other.

The other question that students asked each other, seemingly obvious to those who have not been immersed in the crypto-sphere: “Wait…why does this part need to be on the blockchain?”

Take the hackathon team that wanted to incentivize students to study, for example. Should the payment reward distribution for achieving good grades happen via blockchain? Sure. Do the students’ class schedules need to be on-chain? Not so much. The 19-year olds on this team intuited the idea I have had to implore blockchain vets to even consider.

Most mature decentralized projects on the market today would have benefited from opening themselves up to similar critiques in the early stages of their development — and they might have, had we used tools for open collaboration. If we had spaces where we could drop the tribalist mindset and grant each other permission to be wrong about things.

The students I saw on Sunday were unafraid of making mistakes, not shy about asking “what does that mean?”, motivated by the fact that they had a captive room of people to throw their ideas at. Sure, there was also a $10,000 prize at stake. But the predominant incentive was permission to try — to collectively iterate on half-ideas, to take a crack at something miles out of their comfort zone — in a field where that opportunity feels exceptionally rare.

Which raises the obvious question: why is it so rare? Why don’t we have ways to get everyone in the same room, physically or virtually?

We have to make it drastically easier for people to find starting points, and that means creating lower-stakes ways to talk, share, exchange, critique, and experiment in a collaborative way.

For our part, Cardstack is working on an extensible community environment that will do just that: facilitate exchange with others in a composable, seamless way. It’s called Card Space, and it will necessarily be both tactile and easily accessible, no matter what your background.

Imagine how much easier it would be to iterate and see your work come alive interactively. If you could essentially combine the best of WordPress, Codepen, and Slack in one composable platform that you could run on your local machine. Think: versioning capabilities, pull request and editing components, and more all in one conversational workflow that also allows you to determine what lives in public or private spaces.

Suddenly the stakes for experimentation are considerably lower, and a lot more people are invited to the party. We’re collectively working toward better, more practical ideas that can withstand constructive criticism throughout the development process. And guess what? The technology interoperates with each other, since all of it was developed in tandem.

If we create new spaces for people to enter and let ourselves be surprised by who shows up, we all win. And as we shift our focus away from speculation and toward creating real utility through interoperability and progressive decentralization, we’re going to require a lot more perspectives. Meaning we need more seats at the table — fast.


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Chris Tse (@christse) is a technologist and designer who has been working to humanize blockchain technology since its early days. In 2014 he founded Cardstack, where he leads a team of blockchain architects and open-source contributors to build the experience layer of the decentralized Internet. He is also a co-founder of blockchain companies Monegraph and Dot Blockchain Media, and has more than a decade of experience leading R&D and innovation teams for Fortune 500 companies.