A survey of the early stages of a financial revolution
Beyond the hype around Bitcoin, there is a quieter revolution taking place as various governments and industries explore the potential uses of digital currencies and their underlying blockchain technologies. Governments as diverse as Russia, Japan, China and Dubai are developing state cryptocurrencies to supplement (and maybe even eventually replace?) their more tangible fiat currencies. Meanwhile, a whole range of industries from banking and finance to insurance and big tech are looking to streamline systems, lower costs, and explore new revenue streams by leveraging tokenized systems and public and private blockchain platforms.
As with any emerging and disruptive technologies, there are those industries and companies which sense new opportunities and want to get ahead of the game through early exploration and adoption, while others wait to see how things will shake out.
I wasn’t planning on writing about Bitcoin/blockchain today, but it’s on everyone’s mind as we close the week. From the coverage I’ve got stacked up in my browser tabs after a morning of perusing the more interesting stories from the past few days, it’s clear we’re all obsessed. So instead of the regular mix of six or seven unrelated stories, I’m going to focus today’s Money Quote column on our favorite speculative bubble, and see what sense we can make out of it, including some background reading. Given that Bitcoin futures trading officially starts next week, it seems a bit of weekend study is in order. Onwards…
I can’t vouch for the integrity of all the information in this long and clearly detailed overview, but it’s been shared widely on Medium and helped me make sense of some of the finer and more technical points around Bitcoin’s architecture. The piece covers many of the technology’s limitations, affordances, and potentials, and is a good place to start if you’re familiar, but not deeply literate in the space.
A conversation with Andreas M. Antonopoulos, author of Mastering Bitcoin and The Internet of Money, one of the world’s leading experts on bitcoin and blockchain.
I met Andreas M. Antonopoulos at the inaugural edition of Singularity University Canada Summit in Toronto earlier this fall, where he was breaking down bitcoin/blockchain for a large crowd of business leaders, entrepreneurs and thinkers at Evergreen Brickworks, a former quarry and industrial site reserved for the event. The flurry of emerging conversations around bitcoin and blockchain, the billion-dollar valuations, and the specialized jargon can make blockchain an intimidating topic to wade through. Is the hype justified? Consider:
Bitcoin (BTC) went over $6,200 this week, as the total crypto market cap approached $180 billion.
While you were getting on with your life, the world of crypto-tokens and currencies has been evolving at an astonishing clip. Bitcoin broke the ice and introduced the world to the concept, but new mutations are happening fast, many built on the Ethereum platform. Consider:
Startups and new-technology ventures are using “initial coin offerings” to raise capital, auctioning off cryptographically secured tokens (Joon Ian Wong in Quartz). Proponents see this mechanism, which has already been used to raise $150 million this year, as a method for bypassing traditional venture funding and routing around the “take investment, scale up, cash out” mode of technology finance that dominates today. If a new venture succeeds, its token will appreciate in value, giving early adopters a nice payoff. Of course, there’s huge risk for investors, too — and the more value these new currencies have, the harder people will work to break their still immature underlying technologies. Also looming in the wings: regulators.
As venture capitalist Chris Dixon points out, the larger implication of the rise of tokens is that they provide a method to finance the creation and support of open technologies. Traditional financial models demand that innovators close off their work. Tokens allow entrepreneurs to release a protocol or network technology, and to profit as it gets widely adopted, without hoarding the intellectual property. Dixon sees the token movement as “spiritual heir” to open projects like Linux and Wikipedia. Tokens, Dixon writes, are “a breakthrough in the design and development of open networks, combining the societal benefits of open protocols with the financial and architectural benefits of proprietary networks.”
Alexander Ruppert offers a deeper dive on how tokens can decentralize industries as they move up the value chain from network protocols to end-user applications, in realms like law and gov tech, logistics, energy, and payments.
Kik, the chat app, announced that it’s launching its own crypto-currency called Kin (Sonya Mann inInc), which will function similarly to Kik’s existing “Kik points” rewards system. Kin also represents a bid to find a new business model for apps in the social media attention-sphere — one that doesn’t rely on ads.
Crypto-currencies function outside existing financial record-keeping rules and offer some levels of anonymity. That makes life easier for people who want to evade existing laws. The real-world consequences are already on display in the opioid overdose crisis: As The New York Times’ Nathaniel Popper reports, Bitcoin-based online markets are playing a big role in the distribution of the deadly painkiller fentanyl. Every time we introduce a new technology for connection, we amplify both social benefits and costs. It would be nice to think we’d be getting a little better at minimizing the harms, but so far, there’s not much evidence of that.
Apple HQ’s Splendid Isolation Is So 1950s
When Apple’s humongous beached-UFO of a new office opens, the world will gawk at its perfection, from the toroid curves of its glass roof to its 40-foot high dining-hall doors. But all you need to do is look at its site to see something that’s horribly, anachronistically wrong with Apple’s project, writes Adam Rogers in Wired: “Apple’s new HQ is a retrograde, literally inward-looking building with contempt for the city where it lives and cities in general.”