Beyond the boring blockchain bubble

The silly season continues. Speculators are piling into the cryptocurrency space in the hopes ofsometimes very literallymaking money fast. As I write this Ethereums value has halved since June but is still 20 x since January. Litecoin is up 12 x since then. Even Bitcoin has tripled, again. It seems like everyone now has an opinion on, and a position in, cryptocurrencies.

And hey, if you want to speculate, and casinoes seem too sedate and controlled to you, then more power to you, jump right in. But for those of us who are interested in the technology , not the money who think that blockchains are primarily interesting because, unlike most modern technology, they de centralize power so far this has actually been a mostly disheartening year.

This has been the year of the ICO, in which an astonishing amount of money has been raised by the issuance of new cryptocurrencies in exchange for existing ones, the value of which is then inevitably measured in US dollars, which says something. Tezos, which is basically a more flexible Ethereum( just as Ethereum was, to vastly oversimplify, a more flexible Bitcoin) created ~$ 230 million. Bancor, which enables anyone to create a new type of cryptocurrency, created ~$ 150 million. Status, an open source messaging platform and mobile browser to interact with decentralized applications that run on the Ethereum Network, raised $95 million. TenX, Building Cryptocurrencies Spendable Anytime Anywhere, raised ~$ 80 million.

Do you notice anything that these massive fundraises have in common? Thats right; theyre projects which benefit cryptocurrencies which manipulate and/ or hope to supplant other cryptocurrencies. Much, if not most , of the big-money high-profile ICOs this year have been self-referential Crypto Inception. Theyre built on the( often unquestioned) assumption that decentralized blockchain apps will be widespread and staggeringly valuable, and therefore, blockchain tooling and infrastructure will be as well.

That implicit premise sounds nice; it even sounds plausible, if you squint the right way and accept a few uncomfortable assumptions; but uh tooling and infrastructure for what , precisely? Bitcoin has fought its way into a valuable and important niche as a widely recognized, reasonably widely used, decentralized currency and alternative to gold, which is remarkable although as pointed out by Adam Back, CEO of Blockstream, crypto OG, and generally highly perspicacious guy, the rise of other cryptocurrencies is arguably a threat to the whole notion of blockchains-as-currency 😛 TAGEND

When you get beyond Bitcoin, though, and more specialized currencies such as ZCash and Monero, what exactly are blockchains being used for? Where is the colossal value implied by these eye-popping valuations for ICOs for blockchain tools and infrastructure?

Well. Uh. About that.

As we will see, most of these projects are unlikely to be useful. And of those that have a chance of being useful, most dont seem to clearly need the tokens that were sold and dont have a clear track to provide value to the token holders, or are likely to be quickly forked into less rent-seeking forms.

Thats from a pessimistic but trenchant analysis by Lyle Cantor a whopping six weeks ago. It does not seem any less accurate today. Consider the forthcoming Filecoin ICO; then consider the analysis Filecoin doesnt want you to read. Does this still seem like a healthy market to you? Does it genuinely?

( Aside from this parenthetical Im not even going to talk about the millions of dollars worth of currency that has been stolen or outright lost because of glitches and/ or insecure code. Im actually not too concerned about that in the long run. Every new technology is ridden with security flaws early in its lifespan. Think of cryptocurrencies as a technology with massive built-in glitch bounties .)

Most blockchain apps weve insured to date which arent focused on the cryptocurrency space itself address the same few regions: namespaces, identity management, decentralized storage, decentralized cloud computing, and prediction markets. What concerns me is that it remains at best highly unclear whether a decentralized answer is better in any of these areas than a centralized one, for anything more than a small minority of users. As Ive said before: when it is necessary to customer apps, blockchains are the new Linux , not the new Internet.

The calls for a glorious fully-tokenized fat-protocol future are stirring. I want to believe. But when the rubber makes the road, and they consider concrete instances, these glorious futures tend to come to a screeching halt. They talk of value being shared among all users of the network, instead of accruing to a single company but they are generally elide the fact that such a network would be slower, more complex, and harder to use, in exchange for very little end-user value.

Consider Facebook. Imagine that Facebook was a decentralized social network that returned fully half of its revenue( not profits, revenue ) to its users. That entails the average Facebook user would receive a whole US$ 1 a month. That is not enough to induce people want to use a clumsier, slower Facebook that innovates far less rapidly. It isnt enough for decentralized networks to be more equitable. They have to be better . Or they have to do something that centralized networks cannot.

Note that thus far Ive been talking about public, permissionless, fully decentralized blockchains. Private blockchains are a different story. Their obvious application there is to replace the multiple systems involved in any dedicated type of fiscal transaction with a single shared blockchain. For instance: any dedicated credit card transaction necessitates systematic coordination between five different parties, as entertainingly related in this recent video from noted cryptocurrency champions Andreessen Horowitz. It would be simpler, more efficient, and presumably cheaper for all concerned, to use a common shared datastore such asyou guessed ita blockchain.

But as for new applications of the technology

well, thankfully, largely orthogonal to the crypto/ ICO bubble, a few have in fact arise. There is Braves Basic Attention Token, which is nothing less than an entirely new business model for online ad. There is Grid +, which leverages the Ethereum blockchain to give consumers direct access to wholesale energy markets; its early days yet, but the interesting thing here is that the energy marketplace is, when you consider the growth of home solar, also permissionless and decentralized; it seems like a natural fit.

Most interesting of all, there are multiple initiatives trying to give Ethereums smart contracts code which runs to conditionally perform transactions, or not, depending on certain criteria the actual force of statute. OpenLaw from Consensys. The Accord Project. And Mattereum, from Ethereum release coordinator Vinay Gupta and crypto-accountant-philosopher Ian Grigg among others, which 😛 TAGEND

is the first Internet of Agreements infrastructure project, bringing legally-enforceable smart contracts, and enabling the sale, lease, and transfer of physical property and legal rights achieved by employing natural language contracts which specifically delegate legal authority to two external systems: the smart contract on the blockchain, and an arbitration association which handles disagreements.

The kind of blockchain true believers who cause my eyes to roll violently are fond of telling things like code is statute, which, um, good luck persuading a judge of that. But explicitly incorporating code as statute is a far more interesting and productive approach, and opens a road to a whole new panoply of applications and possibilities. Which is supposed to be the whole ultimate phase of new technology.

So speculate if you like, but dont pay too much attention to valuation bubbles or cryptocurrency costs or even ICOs. Conversely, dont be dissuaded by the recent surreality there into thinking that the whole blockchain sector is nothing but snake-oil Dunning-Krugerrands. Once you get past the present wave of sheer ignorant greed, I promise you, youll find a lot of interesting things going on.

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