The Prophets of Cryptocurrency Survey the Boom and Bust

Sakshi Chaturvedi
Published on: 27 Oct 2018 7:55 AM GMT
The Prophets of Cryptocurrency Survey the Boom and Bust
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Not long ago, I was in Montreal for a cryptocurrency conference. My hotel, on the top floor of a big building downtown, had a roof garden with a koi pond. One morning, as I had coffee and a bagel in this garden, I watched a pair of ducks feeding on a mound of pellets that someone had left for them at the pond’s edge. Every few seconds, they dipped their beaks to drink, and, in the process, spilled undigested pellets into the water. A few koi idled there, poking at the surface for the scraps. The longer I watched, the more I wondered if the ducks were deliberately feeding the fish. Was such a thing possible? I asked the breakfast attendant, a ruddy Quebecer. He smiled and said, “No, but it is what I tell the children.”

My mind had been marinating overnight—and for more than a year, really—in the abstrusities of cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology on which they are built. Bitcoin and, subsequently, a proliferation of other cryptocurrencies had become an object of global fascination, amid prophecies of societal upheaval and reform, but mainly on the promise of instant wealth. A peer-to-peer money system that cut out banks and governments had made it possible, and fashionable, to get rich by sticking it to the Man.

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Some of this stuff I understood; much of it I still did not. If you’re not, say, a computer scientist or a mathematician, the deeper you get into the esoterica of distributed ledgers, consensus algorithms, hash functions, zero-knowledge proofs, byzantine-fault-tolerance theory, and so on—the farther you travel from the familiar terrain of “the legacy world,” where, one blockchain futurist told me, pityingly, I live—the better the chance you have of bumping up against the limits of your intelligence. You grasp, instead, for metaphors.

Blockchain talk makes a whiteboard of the brain. You’re always erasing, starting over, as analogies present themselves. So, Montreal bagel in hand, I considered the ducks and the carp. Let the pellets be a cryptocurrency—koicoin, say. Would the ducks then be currency miners? Every altcoin—the catchall for cryptocurrencies other than bitcoin, the majority of which are eventually classified as shitcoin—has its own community of enthusiasts and kvetchers, so perhaps the koi were this one’s. The koi community. The breakfast attendant who had put out the pellets: he’d be our koicoin Satoshi—as in Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous and still unidentified creator of Bitcoin. Yes, the koicoin protocol was strong, and the incentives appeared to be well aligned, but the project didn’t really pass muster in terms of immutability, decentralization, and privacy. Koicoin was shitcoin.

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A few hours later, I was at lunch in a conference room in another hotel, with a table of crypto wizards, a few of them among the most respected devs in the space. (Devs are developers, and even legacy worlders must surrender after a while and ditch the scare quotes around “the space,” when referring to the cryptosphere.) Four of these devs were researchers associated with Ethereum, the open-source blockchain platform. Ethereum is not itself a cryptocurrency; to operate on Ethereum, you have to use the cryptocurrency ether, which, like bitcoin, you can buy or sell. (Among cryptocurrencies, ether’s market capitalization is second only to bitcoin’s.) The devs were specimens of an itinerant coder élite, engaged, wherever they turn up and to the exclusion of pretty much everything else, in the ongoing construction of an alternate global financial and computational infrastructure: a new way of handling money or identity, a system they describe as a better, decentralized version of the World Wide Web—a Web 3.0—more in keeping with the Internet’s early utopian promise than with the invidious, monopolistic hellscape it has become. They want to seize back the tubes, and the data—our lives—from Facebook, Google, and the new oligarchs of Silicon Valley.

One of them, Vlad Zamfir, a twenty-eight-year-old Romanian-born mathematician who grew up in Ottawa and dropped out of the University of Guelph, was scribbling equations on an electronic tablet called a reMarkable pad. He narrated as he scrawled. The others at the table leaned in toward him, in a way that recalled Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.” To the two or three people at the table who were clearly incapable of following along, he said, earnestly, “Sorry to alienate you with my math.” Zamfir is the lead developer of one strand of Casper, an ongoing software upgrade designed to make Ethereum scale better and work more securely—an undertaking thought to be vital to its viability and survival. “It’s shitty technology,” Zamfir, whose Twitter bio reads “absurdist, troll,” told a journalist two years ago.

Zamfir was showing the others some rough equations he’d worked out to address one of the thousands of riddles that need to be solved. This particular effort was an attempt (jargon alert) to optimize the incentive structure for proof-of-stake validation—that is, how best to get enough people and machines to participate in a computing operation essential to the functioning of the entire system. “We’re trying to do game theory here,” Zamfir said. The others pointed out what they thought might be flaws. “It doesn’t seem reasonable,” Zamfir said. “But the math works out.” This summarized much of what I’d encountered in crypto.

To his right sat Vitalik Buterin, Ethereum’s founder and semi-reluctant philosopher king. Buterin, who is twenty-four, occasionally glanced at Zamfir’s formulas but mostly looked into the middle distance with a melancholic empty stare, sometimes typing out messages and tweets on his phone with one finger. He was a quick study, and also he pretty much already knew what Zamfir had come up with, and to his thinking the work wasn’t quite there. “When the models are getting overcomplicated, it’s probably good to have more time to try to simplify them,” he told me later, with what I took to be generous understatement.

Buterin had been working, simultaneously, on another version of Casper. So he and Zamfir were both collaborating and competing with each other. There seemed to be no ego or bitterness—in their appraisal of each other’s work, in person, or on social media, where so much of the conversation takes place, in full view. Their assessments were Spockian, and cutting only to the Kirks among us.

They had first met before a conference in Toronto in 2014. Zamfir was amazed by Buterin, whom he called a “walking computer,” and he joined Ethereum as a researcher soon after. Now good friends who meet up mostly at conferences and workshops, they had greeted each other the day before in the hotel lobby with a fervent embrace, like summer campers back for another year, before quick-walking to a quiet corner to start in on the incentive-structure-for-proof-of-stake-validation talk. Whenever and wherever Buterin and Zamfir convene, people gather around—eavesdropping, hoping for scraps of insight. The two are used to this and pay little heed. There were no secrets, only problems and solutions, and the satisfaction that comes from proceeding from one toward the other.

The first time I heard the word “Ethereum” was in April, 2017. A hedge-fund manager, at a benefit in Manhattan, was telling me that he’d made more money buying and selling ether and other cryptocurrencies in the past year than he’d ever made at his old hedge fund. This was a significant claim, since the fund had made him a billionaire. He was using words I’d never heard before. He mentioned bitcoin, too, which I’d certainly heard a lot about but, like most people my age, didn’t really understand. I’d idly hoped I might be just old enough to make it to my deathbed without having to get up to speed.

As the year wore on, that dream faded. The surge in the price of bitcoin, and of other cryptocurrencies, which proliferated amid a craze for initial coin offerings (I.C.O.s), prompted a commensurate explosion in the number of stories and conversations about this new kind of money and, sometimes more to the point, about the blockchain technology behind it—this either revolutionary or needlessly laborious way of keeping track of transactions and data. It seemed as if language had been randomized. I started hearing those words—the ones I’d never heard before—an awful lot: “trustless,” “sharding,” “flippening.” Explaining blockchain became a genre unto itself.

The dizzying run-up in crypto prices in 2017 was followed, this year, by a long, lurching retreat that, as the summer gave way to fall, began to seem perilous. As with notorious stock-market and real-estate bubbles, innocents had been taken in and cleaned out. But both boom and bust reflected an ongoing argument over what cryptocurrencies and their technological underpinnings might be worth—which is to say, whether they are, as some like to ask, real. Is crypto the future or a fad? Golden ticket or Ponzi scheme? Amazon 2.0 or tulip mania? And what is it good for, anyway? It sure is neat, but for now it lacks its killer app, a use that might lead to mass adoption, as e-mail did for the Internet. “We need the hundred-dollar laptop, the iPod,” a blockchain apostle told me.

Now and then, legacy titans voiced their scorn. Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of J. P. Morgan, labelled crypto “a fraud”; Warren Buffett used the phrase “rat poison squared.” Legions of skeptics and technophobes, out of envy, ignorance, or wisdom, savored such pronouncements, while the true believers and the vertiginously invested mostly brushed it aside. They had faith that a new order was nigh. They pumped but did not dump.

Among a certain subset, it was both fashionable and integral to ignore the fluctuations in price. The idea was to build and shore up a new system—for everything from payments and banking to health care and identity—that was either a replacement for the old one, or at least an alternative to it, one that was borderless, independent of state control and of exploitation by Big Tech. “It’s definitely nice to try to eke out some completely parallel kind of world that’s totally separate from the existing one,” Buterin said. “It does interact with the rest of society, and the goal is definitely to help improve the mainstream world, but we’re on a different track.” Such an undertaking would, at best, take many years and likely span several economic and investment cycles. While the old armature rots, a new one rises alongside it, much as the new Tappan Zee Bridge, over the Hudson, gradually took shape next to the rusty old one it would one day replace. To Buterin, however, the benefits were already clear. “The cryptocurrency space has succeeded at making certain aspects of the international economy more open, when politics is moving in the exact opposite direction,” he said. “I do think that’s a meaningful contribution to the world.”

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Buterin is a striking figure, tall and very lean, with long, fidgety fingers, sharp elfin features, and vivid blue eyes, which, on the rare occasions when he allows them to meet yours, convey a depth and warmth that you don’t expect, in light of the flat, robotic cadence and tone of his speech. People often joke about him being an alien, but they usually apologize for doing so, because there’s a gentleness about him, an air of tolerance and moderation, that works as a built-in rebuke to such unkind remarks. As we spoke, on the first afternoon of the Montreal conference (the crypto life is a never-ending enchainment of conferences, and is pretty much wall-to-wall dudes), he aligned some items in front of him: pens, Post-its, phone. He forgoes most social niceties and overt expressions of emotion but, when he finds questions or assertions agreeable, is generous with notes of encouragement: “Yep, yep, yep”; “Right, totally”; “Yes, yes, exactly.” Arguable remarks elicit a mechanical “Hmm.” He seems to anticipate your question before you even know quite what it is, but he forces himself to allow you to finish. He has a dry sense of humor.

He said, “I definitely don’t have the kind of single-minded C.E.O. personality that a lot of Silicon Valley V.C.s lionize—that thing of being ambitious and wanting to win at all costs, like, basically, Mark Zuckerberg.” He was dressed that day, as on the day before and the day after, in a gray turtleneck, black track pants, and laceless Adidas sneakers over turquoise socks. He often wears T-shirts with unicorns and rainbows. He likes to cite Lambos—as in Lamborghini, the cryptobro trophy ride of choice—as shorthand for the excessive trappings of wealth, which do not interest him. He’s about as indifferently rich as a man can be. Although he sold a quarter of his bitcoin and ether well before the prices began to soar last year, he is said to be worth somewhere in the vicinity of a hundred million dollars. (He recently gave away a couple of million dollars to a life-extension research project.) He has no assistants or entourage. He owns little and travels light. “Recently, I reduced my bag size from sixty litres to forty,” he said. “Forty is very tolerable. You can go on fifteen-kilometre walks with it.” The Adidas, he said, were his only pair of shoes. “Actually, I have another pair that’s in one of the many places I call home.” These are friends’ apartments, where he sometimes sleeps for a few nights at a stretch—in Toronto, San Francisco, Singapore, Shanghai, Taipei. He especially likes East Asia. He speaks fluent Mandarin.

After Montreal, he was headed to Berlin and then Switzerland. His home, really, is the Internet. At one point, I referred to an Ethereum outpost in San Francisco, which I’d read about, as a “base of operations,” and he rejected the term: “Home. Base of operations. The more you invent your own life style, the more you realize that the categories that have been invented are ultimately, at best, imperfect devices for understanding the world, and, at worst, fake.”

I’d been trying for months to talk to Buterin. In January, I reached out to his father, Dmitry, who reported back that Vitalik was not interested in an interview. “He is trying to focus his time on research,” Dmitry said. “He’s not too excited that the community assigns so much importance to him. He wants the community to be more resilient.” Dmitry Buterin, forty-six, is from Grozny, in Chechnya. He studied computer science in Moscow and then started a financial-software business, before emigrating to Canada, when Vitalik was six. Dmitry settled in Toronto, with Vitalik; Vitalik’s mother, a financial analyst, chose Edmonton. Vitalik, when he was three, got an old PC and began fiddling around with Excel. By ten or eleven, he was developing video games. “Vitalik was a very smart boy,” his father said. “It was not easy. His mind was always racing. It was hard for him to communicate. He hardly spoke until he was nine or ten. I was concerned, but at some point I realized it is what it is. I just gave him my love.”

He also gave Vitalik his first glimpse of Bitcoin. It was 2011, somewhat early, but Dmitry was an avowed anarcho-capitalist, a cynical child of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. For many others like him, especially in those early days, the first encounter with Bitcoin was like a religious epiphany—powerful, life-altering, a glimpse of an entirely different and perhaps more agreeable way of ordering human affairs. “Bitcoin looks like money’s dream of itself,” the technology journalist Brian Patrick Eha wrote, in “How Money Got Free.”

“Before Bitcoin came along, I was happily playing World of Warcraft,” Vitalik told me. He had already been nursing some inchoate ideas about the risks and intrinsic unfairness of centralized systems and authority. He once told a journalist, “I saw everything to do with either government regulation or corporate control as just being plain evil. And I assumed that people in those institutions were kind of like Mr. Burns, sitting behind their desks saying, ‘Excellent. How can I screw a thousand people over this time?’ ” Bitcoin scratched this itch. But in many ways what drew him in was the elegance of the system, invented, it seemed, by a rogue outsider out of thin air. It suited a world view, a dream of a fluid, borderless, decentralized financial system beyond the reach of governments and banks, inclined as they inevitably are toward corruption and self-dealing, or at least toward distortions of incentive. Buterin said, “If you look at the people that were involved in the early stages of the Bitcoin space, their earlier pedigrees, if they had any pedigrees at all, were in open source—Linux, Mozilla, and cypherpunk mailing lists.” These were subversives and libertarians, ranging in political affinity from far left to weird right, as often as not without institutional or academic stature or access. “I found it immensely empowering that just a few thousand people like myself could re-create this fundamental social institution from nothing.”

In the eighties, cryptographers and computer scientists began trying to devise a foolproof form of digital money, and a way to execute transactions and contracts without the involvement (or rent-seeking) of third parties. It was the man, woman, or group of humans known as Satoshi Nakamoto who, with Bitcoin in 2008, solved the crux—the so-called double-spend problem. If you have ten dollars, you shouldn’t be able to pay ten dollars for one thing, then spend the same ten for another. This requires some mechanism for keeping track of what you have, whom you gave it to, and how much they now have. And that was the blockchain.

Definitions of blockchain are as various as the metaphors—bingo, Google Docs, a giant room of transparent safes—that people use to try to illustrate them. Broadly speaking, a blockchain is an evolving record of all transactions that is maintained, simultaneously and in common, by every computer in the network of that blockchain, be it Ethereum, Bitcoin, or Monero. Think, as some have suggested, of a dusty leather-bound ledger in a Dickensian counting house, a record of every transaction relevant to that practice. Except that every accountant in London, and in Calcutta, has the same ledger, and when one adds a line to his own the addition appears in all of them. Once a transaction is affirmed, it will—theoretically, anyway—be in the ledger forever, unalterable and unerasable.

Historically, records have been stored in one place—a temple, a courthouse, a server—and kept by whoever presided. If you distrust central authority, or are queasy about Google, this won’t do at all. With blockchains, the records, under a kind of cryptographic seal, are distributed to all and belong to no one. You can’t revise them, because everyone is watching, and because the software will reject it if you try. There is no Undo button. Each block is essentially a bundle of transactions, with a tracking notation, represented in a bit of cryptographic code known as a “hash,” of all the transactions in the past. Each new block in the chain contains all the information (or, really, via the hash, a secure reference to all the information) contained in the previous one, all the way back to the first one, the so-called genesis block.

There are other words that are sometimes included in the definition of blockchain, but they are slippery, and grounds for endless parsing, asterisking, and debate. One is “decentralized.” (Some blockchains are more decentralized than others.) Another is “immutable”—the idea that, in theory, the past record can’t be altered. (This is different from having your crypto stolen or hacked, when it’s stored in an online “wallet.” That happens all the time!) Then there’s “privacy.” The aspiration is for a digital coin to have the untraceability of cash. Because bitcoin was, at the outset, the dark Web’s go-to tender for the purchase of drugs, sex, weaponry, and such, many assumed that it was private. But it isn’t. Every transaction is there in the ledger for all to see. It is, fundamentally, anonymous (or pseudonymous, anyway), but there are many ways for that anonymity to be compromised.

The odds are high that someone, somewhere, has attempted to make an explanation like this one to you. The chain-splainer is a notorious date spoiler and cocktail-party pariah. Here he comes—you’re trapped. You should have known better than to ask about mining.

Mining is a reward system—compensation for helping to maintain and build a blockchain. The work of establishing and recording what’s legit takes machinery, memory, power, and time. Cryptocurrency blockchains require that a bunch of computers run software to affirm (or reject) transactions—it’s a kind of automated convocation. During this ritual, the computers in the network are competing, via brute guesswork, to be the first to get the answer to a really difficult math problem. The more computational power you have, the more guesses you can make, and the more likely you are to get the answer. The winner creates a new block and gets a reward, in, say, bitcoin—new bitcoin, which has not previously been in circulation. (Satoshi ordained that there be a finite number of bitcoin ever created—twenty-one million—so that no one could inflate away the value of existing bitcoin, as, say, the Federal Reserve does with dollars. Other cryptocurrencies, including ether, don’t necessarily have finite supplies.)

This system is known as Proof of Work. The problem-solving exercise is proof that the computers are doing the work. This approach has serious and, some would say, fatal, flaws. First, it requires a tremendous amount of electricity. This year, it is said, the Bitcoin network will use as much energy as the nation of Austria, and produce as much carbon dioxide as a million transatlantic flights. Mining rigs—computers designed specifically to do this work—are thirsty machines. Mining farms tend to sprout up where juice is cheap (typically, in proximity to hydropower projects with excess capacity to unload) and where temperatures are low (so you don’t have to burn even more electricity to keep the rigs cool). There are open-air warehouses in remote corners of sub-Arctic Canada, Russia, and China, with machines whirring away on the tundra, creating magic money, while the permafrost melts. Second, a small number of mining conglomerates, or pools—many of them Chinese—have wielded outsized influence over the network and the decisions that get made. Last month, one of the biggest of these, Bitmain, confirmed plans to go public.

The alternative, which Zamfir and Buterin were working on in Montreal, is called Proof of Stake. In this scenario, the holders of the currency in question become the validators, who typically take a small cut of every approved transaction. Theoretically, the more crypto you have, the more influence you have, so PoW partisans consider PoS to be plutocratic as well—a new gloss on the old problem of too much in the hands of too few.

In 2013, Buterin travelled to San Jose for a Bitcoin meet-up, and felt that he’d encountered like-minded people for the first time in his life—a movement worth devoting himself to. “The people that I had been searching for the whole time were actually all there,” Buterin told me. Zooko Wilcox, a cryptographer, recalled Buterin telling him, “This is the first technology I’ve ever loved that loves me back.” Buterin had been writing blog posts about it for five bitcoins per post. Together, he and Mihai Alisie, a Romanian blockchain entrepreneur who’d read his posts, founded Bitcoin Magazine. Buterin had a knack for explaining things—at least to an audience already primed to understand. But, as he travelled around the world to Bitcoin meet-ups, he began to think that the technology was limited, that attempts to jury-rig non-money uses for this digital-money platform was the computational equivalent of a Swiss Army knife. You basically had to devise hacks. He envisaged a one-blade-fits-all version, a blockchain platform that was broader and more adaptable to a wider array of uses and applications. The concept behind Bitcoin—a network of machines all over the world—seemed to be a building block upon which to construct a global computer capable of all kinds of activities.

In the mid-nineties, Nick Szabo, a cryptographer and early cypherpunk, coined the term “smart contract,” which two decades later became the basis of Ethereum. This is a means of setting and enforcing the terms of an agreement without a middleman—no lawyer, notary, bookie, or referee. The terms are enshrined in and triggered by code, rather than by someone’s interpretation of legal language or fit of pique. The proposition is that computer code, unlike, say, Hammurabi’s or the Federal Reserve’s, is impartial—that it can eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, the role of toxic subjectivity. This could cover a simple exchange of digital money, or the sale of a house, or an insurance payout, or a bet. Szabo’s preferred metaphor was the vending machine. You don’t generally require someone to vouch for the machine. In a smart-contract world, as he described it, if a borrower hasn’t paid off his car loans in time his car just stops working, as per the terms of the loan, which are embedded in the code and integrated into the mechanism of the car.

The reliability of the code, and of the system for checking it, would discharge humans from having to read minds and look into hearts, or from having to pay someone else to make up for the fact that they cannot. As it stands, here in the dusty old legacy economy, we have to pay other people, and squander time and resources, to establish a modicum of trust. It’s a legalized kind of protection racket. A favorite example is title insurance; an entire industry exists to prove that the person selling you a house is the owner in good standing. Provenance—of property, both real and intellectual—is big business, but, to the blockchain believers, it need not be. Code shall banish the odious frictions and costs. “Blockchains are more fundamentally about increasing our ability to collaborate across these large social distances,” Buterin said. “It’s the trust machine bringing more trust where there was less trust before.”

Another thing we presently outsource, perhaps to our peril, is our identity: the affirmation of who we are, along with whatever data sticks to that. Identity as we know it now is typically maintained by a centralized state—by the taxman, the department of motor vehicles, the police. Then it spills out into the world, often without our knowledge or consent, through our transaction histories, browsing habits, and unencrypted communications. In the Google era, we spray aspects of ourselves all over the Internet. The blockchain innovation is what’s often called “self-sovereign identity,” the idea that you’ll control and parcel out information about yourself, as you wish. The Ethereum network maintains the attestation.

Then there are those vast realms where the old intermediaries hardly exist at all. The trust machine’s most obvious beneficiaries are said to be the disenfranchised and the so-called unbanked—the billions of humans around the world with no passports or access to any reliable kind of financial system. We may find it harder to see the utility here in our daily lives, where we can rely on Citibank, Visa, Venmo, and Western Union to handle our transactions and keep track of all the money flying around. Amid such a sturdy (if extractive) system, the blockchain can seem like a back-office fix, a change in the accounting scheme, of interest to the systems geeks and bean counters but not to oblivious customers. But if you are, say, a Venezuelan citizen or a Turkish journalist, or a refugee from Syria or Myanmar, the prospect of being able to maintain and render portable both money and identity could be hugely liberating, perhaps even life-saving. Unless you forget your private key.

In November, 2013, Buterin wrote up a white paper—cryptoland is a blizzard of white papers—proposing a new open-source, distributed computing platform upon which you could build all kinds of smart-contract applications and uses, as well as other coins. He called it Ethereum. “I was browsing a list of elements from science fiction on Wikipedia when I came across the name,” he said then. “I suppose it was the fact that [it] sounded nice and it had the word ‘ether,’ referring to the hypothetical invisible medium that permeates the universe and allows light to travel.” He expected that experienced cryptographers would pick his proposal to pieces. Instead, everyone who read it seemed to be impressed by its elegance and ambition. Among the early enthusiasts were a handful of Toronto Bitcoiners who’d got to know one another at informal meet-ups and in a Skype group chat—“a regular call with serious people,” as one of them recalled.

The foundational gathering, in the Ethereum creation story, occurred at the North American Bitcoin Conference in Miami, in January, 2014. These serious people decided to rent a beach house, and there, in a week or so, banged out a fuller sense of what Ethereum, Buterin’s “computer in the sky,” as he described it to me, might become. They defined themselves as founders. Among them were Gavin Wood (a British programmer who later took on the role of Ethereum’s chief technology officer), Charles Hoskinson (a Colorado programmer who was briefly the C.E.O.), and Anthony Di Iorio, a Torontonian who was underwriting the project. Di Iorio had invited a fellow Toronto Bitcoiner named Joseph Lubin, then forty-nine, who, with a sense of the import of the occasion, brought along the reporter Morgen Peck, to bear witness. She later described it as “an after-hours grease trap” for dozens of additional participants in the conference. (The online publication Backchannel published her story, as well as a photograph she’d snapped of Buterin working at his laptop one morning while the rest of the house slept. Peck says that the pot pipe on the table next to him wasn’t his.)

Buterin’s Miami début of Ethereum was a hit. Nineteen at the time, he dropped out of the University of Waterloo, where he’d been studying computer science, and devoted himself full time to the Ethereum project. “We realized this was going to be big,” Hoskinson recalled.

The founders assumed different roles. Lubin, who had Wall Street experience, was the chief operating officer. “That’s one of the silly titles we chose to give ourselves,” Lubin told me. “It didn’t really mean anything in that weird open-source project.” (Buterin dubbed himself the C-3PO.) Lubin positioned himself as the grownup in the room, the worldly chaperon. Wood, with whom he eventually clashed, said, “He wanted to be the mentor, the Obi-Wan Kenobi, but unfortunately he became the Darth Vader.”

Months of work ensued, in which the founders came up with a lexicon and a conceptual framework both to define Ethereum in lay(ish) terms and to inoculate it against possible legal consequences. When the idea arose to sell new cryptocoins to the public, to raise money for the project, Lubin, along with Hoskinson, recognized that this might be a fraught enterprise. “Some people, including me, pointed out that it looks like we were going to raise tens of millions of dollars from bitcoin nouveau riche and that we might want to talk to some lawyers—that we should be concerned that we might be selling an unregistered security to Americans,” Lubin said. It was an exercise in semiotics with vital legal implications.

“In that process, we pretty much defined what Ethereum is and what ether is,” Lubin said. “We realized—I realized—that we had an opportunity to tell people what this is, and there was a good chance that they were just going to accept our understanding and that we could create reality that way. And it seems to have worked. We seem to have created a reality.” Language is consciousness: they defined ether as a “crypto-fuel,” which one needs to run programs and store data on the Ethereum system. Wood, at a meet-up in New York, called it “a computer at the center of the world,” like a sixties-era mainframe that everyone everywhere can use.

The founders took to calling it “the world computer,” and debated the best corporate conveyance. Should it be a for-profit entity funded by an I.C.O. or by venture capital—like Ripple, an earlier cryptocurrency protocol launch—or a not-for-profit foundation, with independent oversight? Different groups among the eight founders staked out different positions, with some favoring for-profit, others not-for-profit. “Things started souring pretty quickly,” Hoskinson recalls. Wood told me, “There was this sense, which I found distasteful, that Vitalik was the goose that laid the golden egg, and he was treated in that objectivizing form by everyone else, like he was some alien from Mars sent to help us all.”

“There was a lot of drama,” Lubin said. “It got really complicated.” Broadly speaking, the developers, among them Wood, were wary of the motives and methods of the business guys, who in turn felt that the developers lacked practical sense and an appreciation for the allure of a big payday.

Eventually, the founders agreed to let Buterin decide. “I was definitely the person that people had respected and trusted more than they trusted each other, which was unfortunate and sad,” Buterin said. He was also, he said, “seemingly the most harmless of the group.”

“Vitalik was innocent and unprepared,” Dmitry Buterin told me. “He had to learn a lot of tough lessons about people.”

Six months after Miami, the whole team holed up in a house in Switzerland, in the canton of Zug, an old commodities-hedge-fund tax haven now known as Crypto Valley. This was the first time all of the founders were in one room together. Buterin, after some time alone on the patio, told Hoskinson and another founder that they were out. Later, he made clear that Ethereum would proceed as a nonprofit. “It was a shitty time, and it was a shitty thing for Vitalik to have to do,” Wood said.

“That was one of those few nuclear bombs that I threw into the Ethereum governance process,” Buterin told me. “I felt very strongly that Ethereum is meant to be this open-source project for the world,” he continued. “Having a for-profit entity be at the center of it felt like going way too far in this centralized direction.” The remaining founders established the nonprofit Ethereum Foundation, with headquarters in Zug, to help fund development. (Ethereum itself is based nowhere, and in traditional corporate terms is as substantial as the ether.)

And so the founders, driven by discord and the appeal of more lucrative endeavors, decentralized themselves. “We all scattered to the winds,” Hoskinson told me. He eventually started a crypto company called IOHK, and a blockchain project called Cardano. “Now I run my own company, with a hundred and sixty people,” he told me. “I’m basically a billionaire. At this point, I couldn’t care less about those six months of my life with Ethereum.”

What would a world reconstituted by smart contracts look like? One grasps at legacy tableaux: office towers emptied of bankers, lawyers, and accountants; crypto-utopian settlements on hurricane-ravaged Caribbean islands; open-air barns out on the steppes, stacked with bitcoin-mining computers. In May, I attended the Ethereal Summit, a conference held in a former industrial glassworks in Maspeth, Queens. The symbolism—new order sprouting up in the derelict precincts of the old—was on the nose, as was the vibe: food trucks, local craft beers, a “Zen Zone” meditation tent. Here was blockchain as life style. Two big bathrooms, side by side, started out unisex, but by the afternoon of the first day the conference attendees, at the urging of no centralized authority, were self-sorting: men to the one on the right, women the one on the left.

On the main stage, a roster of luminaries and evangelists served up a steady diet of jargon stew, but elsewhere in the old factory you could find spoonfuls of sugar—use cases for English majors. One was a presentation of a supply-chain startup called Viant, which had deployed the blockchain to track fish from “bait to plate.” A video depicted a yellowfin tuna caught off Fiji on April 10th. And here it was, a month later, as sashimi, its provenance indisputable, trusted, immutable, thanks to the blockchain. Everyone surged forward for a free taste—plate-to-mouth still requiring humans to jostle and reach. There was a panel discussion with the founders of Civil, an attempt to use the blockchain to remake the journalism business, amid the wreckage wrought by the Internet and the demise of the advertising model.

And, in a small brick outbuilding, there was a demonstration of something called Cellarius, which was, according to its founder, Igor Lilic, (1) a crowdsourced sci-fi story, set in the year 2084, after the activation of an artificial super-intelligence; (2) a community of artists and collaborators; and (3) a technological platform that its developers were gradually building out. “It’s a hypothesis,” Lilic said. “The long-term goal is to figure out some new economics of intellectual property.” A worthy goal, Lord knows, and yet I failed to understand what it had to do with distributed ledgers or consensus algorithms.

The host of the conference was ConsenSys, a company that Lubin started, in Brooklyn, in 2014, after he left Ethereum. ConsenSys is an incubator of new businesses and projects that operate—or will, or would—on the Ethereum blockchain. It is the Ethereum community’s most prominent and ubiquitous developer and promoter of what are called DApps, for decentralized applications, less for stuff like tuna fish or sci-fi than for such fundamentals of commerce as property ownership, identity management, document verification, commodities trading, and legal agreements—the rudiments of what Lubin calls the infrastructure of a new decentralized economy.

ConsenSys’s home base, in a graffittied industrial space in Bushwick, is a defiant, almost ostentatious expression of an anti-corporate ethos—a nod to crypto’s anarchic underpinnings, but with a bit of pretense, since ConsenSys consults with businesses and governments seeking help in building private blockchains. A friend who has done some work with them said, “They have billions of dollars to spend. Why is it like this? Why don’t they have an office on Twenty-eighth Street in Manhattan, like everyone else?” The firm now has more than a thousand employees, in offices around the world. (Lubin says that they’ve hired a lot of people from I.B.M.) “They have so much money,” another member of the community said. “The approach is, throw it all at the wall and see what sticks.” So far, not much has. They can cite dozens of projects in various stages of emergence; none has morphed into a killer DApp.

Lubin is said to be the largest holder of ether and is estimated to be worth more than a billion dollars. A few people told me that he had started ConsenSys to enhance the value of his ether. When I asked him about this, he scoffed. “What a poor strategy that would be for making money,” he said. “Like, yeah, I’m going to build a company on an ecosystem that doesn’t exist, so I can increase the value of my Internet magic-money holdings.” He went on, “The people who were in the space early were there for philosophical reasons, for political or economic reasons not tied to their personal wealth.” ConsenSys has instituted a policy that forbids employees from talking about price. I went to see Lubin in Bushwick one day, after ether, and other currencies, had suffered a huge drop in value overnight. When I asked him about the plunge, he said, “Who gives a fuck?” Not a crypto billionaire, apparently.

For a great number of people at Ethereal, there was an evangelical fervor—techno-utopianism in a new guise, unaffiliated, for the most part, with Silicon Valley and the cults of Elon and @Jack. The director of the Ethereum Foundation, Aya Miyaguchi, told me, “We want to change the world. We actually believe in it.”

Article from: The New Yorker

By Nick Paumgarten

Sakshi Chaturvedi

Sakshi Chaturvedi

A journalist, presently working as a Sub-Editor at

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