My Ethereum-related travels have taken me to four continents and around a dozen countries over the past year. In all of those places I met great hackers who in many cases have shunned traditional careers and high salaries to follow their hearts, pursue a dream and help #buidl the Ethereum ecosystem. It’s a warm, welcoming, well-intentioned, optimistic community of schemers and dreamers and most importantly buidlers, and it genuinely gives me hope for the future.
I’ve been awed at presentations at Devcon3 in Cancun, I’ve had Red Bull-fueled conversations about changing the world with cypherpunks in Berlin, I’ve argued with Masters of the Universe in finance and consulting in New York and Hong Kong about how they’re going to be disrupted, and I pulled an all-nighter deciphering web3.js while mentoring a team at ETHDenver. I thought I had seen pretty much everything the Ethereum ecosystem had to offer. So imagine my surprise when I paid my first visit to Argentina for the ETHBuenosAires workshops and hackathon two weeks ago and discovered that there’s even more to this global community than I knew.
To put things today in context it’s helpful to understand a little bit about Argentina’s history.
A famous economist once said, “There are four kinds of countries: developed countries, underdeveloped countries, Japan, and Argentina.”¹ Uniquely, Argentina achieved rich, developed-world status quite early, then subsequently lost that status and backpedaled significantly. In 1908, thanks to several decades of liberal economic policies and masses of European investment and immigration (“second only to the United States”) it was the seventh wealthiest country in the world, on par with France and Germany and far ahead of countries such as Italy and Spain. It was on a similar path to that of the United States and the two were clear rivals. Those paths began to diverge after 1930 when a coup kicked off decades of political and economic instability.
Since then Argentina has witnessed six military coups and 11 governments and has defaulted on its sovereign debt six times, tied with only Chile for the highest number of defaults in modern times. It has slipped back into underdevelopment and is again a middle-income country, in 56th place globally, and remains economically unstable. All Argentine adults remember the Argentine Great Depression when as much as 50% of the population was poor and the associated unemployment, riots, and collapse of the government. Most saw their life savings wiped out not once but several times in a series of defaults and failed currency reforms.²
In recent years the Argentine peso has continued to slide against the US Dollar and other currencies, sometimes jumping multiple percentage points overnight. As one Argentine friend put it, “The peso is as volatile as cryptocurrency, with one big difference: it only ever goes down.” The value has dropped from around 19 pesos per dollar to around 26 already this year (a 37% slide!), in just the past six months. As a result, if you sign any sort of long-term contract today such as renting an apartment, the amount goes up by 15–20% every quarter.
All of this is to say that Argentines have a unique worldview and a unique relationship with money. They are as educated as the rich world but have the fierce drive unique to those born and raised in the underdeveloped world. While their hacker peers in Silicon Valley are building photo sharing apps, Argentine hackers are busy reinventing democracy and property rights, doing security research, and launching early Bitcoin startups.
All of the Ethereans I’ve met around the world share this desire to build better systems and to make the world a better, fairer place, but the teams I met in Argentina take this passion to a new level. They learned to innovate with very little and they saw the value of Bitcoin, cryptocurrency, and trustless systems long before most of us did. The result? Tons of meaningful innovation. A sense of shared struggle (“this broken system has screwed all of us, so let’s tear it down and build something better together”). And an extraordinarily tight knit community, the likes of which I’ve not seen anywhere else.
The hacker teams I met in Buenos Aires don’t just code together. They live together, travel together, dine together, and generally look a lot more like families than firms. They have houses (I felt like I was at Hogwarts!). There’s the famous Voltaire house that gave birth to several successful local projects. There’s El Castillo, home of Zeppelin, and there’s La Mansion where Decentraland is based. They have fireplaces and back yards with pools, yoga, grills, cooks, and shared meals. This is some next level stuff they’ve got going on.
Okay, maybe some well-funded Silicon Valley startups have these things but there’s something about Buenos Aires that makes it more accessible, more reasonable. We could never have these things in NYC, which is just another reason why New York and cities like it (Hong Kong, I’m looking at you) will always struggle to become an innovation hotbed. When you optimize for wealthy bankers, $8 lattes and avocado toast, you necessarily push out the strivers, schemers, and artists.
Oh, and they hold killer hackathons!
ETHBuenosAires had all of the accoutrements we’ve grown accustomed to from the excellent ETHGlobal event series including, most recently, ETHDenver: legit hackers hacking on real projects. Ample food and drink and more caffeine than you can shake a stick at, including coffee and tea but also the local specialty, mate. Awesome panels and presentations, mentors, judges, and prizes. Late night conversations with the schemers and world-changers and rule-breakers I’ve come to know and love in this community. An excellent venue: I especially loved the large, green outdoor space and the neighborhood was full of trendy bars, cafes and restaurants.
I was extraordinarily impressed by the teams and what they were able to build in only 36 hours. Among the winning projects, three in particular caught my eye.
- Tu Cédula Digital makes it possible for Venezuelans to link their national ID card to an Ethereum account to overcome currency controls and receive cash transfers safely. If you’ve been following the tragic situation in Venezuela it should be obvious how valuable systems like this can be, and it’s a fantastic example both of South-South innovation by necessity and of the power of censorship-resistant, decentralized blockchain applications for good. The platform faces interesting challenges around identity and decentralizing the KYC process.
- Crypto Against Humanity is brilliant for two reasons: like the game it’s based on, it’s dead simple and hilarious and it’s the first straightforward, intuitive application I’ve seen of Token Curated Registries, which are still new and confusing. Check out the project at cryptoagainsthumanity.net.
- Kimono lets you write secrets on chain, sharded and incentivized in such a way that the secrets are automatically revealed after a certain point in time (a block number). It’s not hard to think of tons of uses for this sort of technology including whistle blowing and dead man switches. This project is also live at kimono.network.
One of my favorite aspects of these events is that they are far more than simple hackathons. If you want to stay heads down and focus on code, you can do that, and there are gurus and mentors on hand to help around the clock. If you want to learn, there are talks, panels, and workshops led by thought leaders and world class experts. If you want to unwind or network, there are also some fantastic social events.
Among the standouts were a heavy-hitting panel on token design and distribution, Simon de la Rouviere’s talk on token curation markets (TCRs), and an introduction to the newly-launched Zeppelin OS. Shameless plug: I did a talk on Scaling Ethereum in 2018.
There were also smaller, more focused workshops for those who wanted to go a bit deeper into highly technical topics. The esteemed researcher Michael Zargham led a workshop on the important-but-still-emerging field of Token Engineering and my team did a workshop to share the status of our work on ewasm (Ethereum-flavored web assembly) and how it fits into the Ethereum roadmap.
I’m looking forward to more of the same goodness (and, of course, a few local surprises!) at ETHBerlin and the other excellent events that ETHGlobal has planned over the next few months. If you’re new to Ethereum development or if you haven’t already attended one, 2018 is a great time to do so. The community is incredibly open, welcoming, and accessible, and it’s early enough that the work you do today will have an outsized future impact. Come share what you’re working on, share what excites and concerns you, and #buidl alongside the best hackers in the world today.
And if you haven’t been to Argentina yet, vamos pronto. The Argentines know what they’re doing and we have a lot to learn from them. They’re in this together. Really, we’re all in this together. They’ve just figured it out before the rest of us.
Somos todos Argentinos. ✌️🇦🇷
Check out the videos of all of the ETHBA talks and workshops, and make sure you don’t miss this one:
About the author: Lane Rettig is an independent Ethereum core developer and a member of the ewasm team. In addition to code he is passionate about community, governance, and economics. He founded and helps run Crypto NYC, a Manhattan-based co-working space and community that strives to make blockchain and other distributed consensus technology accessible to all humans. Find him on Twitter at @lrettig.
: This quote is attributed to Nobel laureate Simon Kuznets but it’s somewhat apocryphal and I cannot find the source. Cf. https://www.economist.com/briefing/2014/02/17/a-century-of-decline, https://www.quora.com/What-does-this-quote-by-Simon-Kuznets-mean-There-are-four-kinds-of-countries-in-the-world-developed-countries-undeveloped-countries-Japan-and-Argentina, https://www.reddit.com/r/AskSocialScience/comments/36bbdo/nobel_winning_economist_simon_kuznets_stated_that/.
: Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argentina, https://www.economist.com/node/2704457, https://www.economist.com/briefing/2014/02/17/a-century-of-decline, https://www.ft.com/content/778193e4-44d8-11de-82d6-00144feabdc0