Bittercoin: true blockchain believers versus the trough of disillusionment

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The last 12 months have seemed an annus horribilis in the cryptocurrency world. The Bitcoin community is still fighting its years-old esoteric-to-an-outsider civil war, and is still nowhere near consensus; Ethereum’s public image has not recovered from the DAO fiasco; the much-hyped R3 consortium has abandoned blockchain technology; and the SEC rejected the touted Bitcoin ETF.

What now? Is this a slow death spiral, signalling the sad end of Satoshi Nakamoto’s dream and the motley crew of plucky cryptoheroes who defend it? Or is something interesting happening beneath this sheen of despair and decay?

The answer is: possibly neither, probably the latter, almost certainly not the former. The searching-for-the-new-new-thing, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mindset of so much of the tech industry tends to equate a period of slow grinding with stagnation and death. This is not so. The quixotic quest for the cryptocurrency “killer app” — one that will bring widespread, mainstream usage — continues, and won’t succeed any time soon; but, meanwhile, a whole panoply of interesting and practical use cases has arisen. Call them “maimer apps.” They include:

Permissionless digital money

This is the raison d’etre of Bitcoin itself, of course, and let’s not lose sight of the fact that it remains a remarkable accomplishment. Actual monetary value can be transferred between two strangers, and this transfer can be demonstrably, indisputably verified, without requiring the blessing of any other person or entity. That’s pretty amazing, and in many contexts — international money transfers, hedging for residents of high-inflation nations — extremely useful. (Which is maybe why Bitcoin has risen above $1,000 in value, though I caution against attributing too much significance to this; in the long run, lower volatility, not higher value, is what’s important.)

…But it’s not a killer app. And even if everyone in the world wanted to use Bitcoin — a very big if, given the irrevocability of such transactions — they couldn’t, because the Bitcoin network can only handle six transactions per second. The ongoing civil war is about the best way to deal with this restriction. There also are proposals for off-chain solutions, such as the Lightning Network, which would support a vastly larger number of transactions that are only occasionally compiled and written to the master Bitcoin blockchain; this does, however, (currently) seem a bit like a solution looking for a problem. Still, permissionless digital money is a big deal, and is enough all by itself to ensure that Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies won’t be going away any time soon.

Permissionless programmable money

Every Bitcoin transaction is actually a small program written in a custom scripting language, limited but still enough to do some powerful things (e.g. “mathematically require any 3 of 5 digital signatures before this money can be spent.’) Ethereum, the indisputable other most significant cryptocurrency, removes this restriction and allows transactions to be dictated by any code. These “smart contracts,” aka “programmable money,” offer vast potential, but also considerable bleeding-edge risk — as last year’s DAO debacle showed.

That said, Ethereum is much more mature and battle-tested than it was last year, and a lot of interesting things are being built atop it. Augur, a prediction market. WeTrust, a mechanism for people to pool money for large purchases. Numerai, discussed further below. And, again, like Bitcoin, Ethereum is permissionless; once you have someone, no one (barring a nuclear “hard fork” of its network) can dictate what you do with it. Only the contract code can. The possibilities are still somewhat nebulous, but exciting, in a vague, vigorous-handwaving kind of way.

Permissionless anonymous digital money

Bitcoin is pseudonymous, but far from anonymous, and every single transaction is recorded on an irrevocable public ledger for later scrutiny. That’s not nearly private enough for many people. (Would you want your credit card and bank details available for scrutiny to anyone in the world who knew a particular code word, which you used for every transaction? Bitcoin is loosely comparable.)

Enter ZCash, which hides not just the sender and recipient of transactions but their amount, while maintaining a public blockchain to verify them, via the mathematical magic of zero-knowledge SNARKs; and Monero, which uses, well, different mathematical magic (“ring signatures,” which lets you verify that someone from a fixed set signed off on a transaction without knowing who, plus Gregory Maxwell’s “confidential transactions,” which let you commit to a secret without revealing what it is). Both seem to be thriving and growing. Some will argue that they enable drug dealing, tax evasion, etc.; but on balance, they seem to me a much-needed mitigating factor in a world increasingly full of ubiquitous surveillance, and increasingly built on surveillance capitalism.

Permissionless equity

This is an especially interesting one. In the early cryptocurrency era, scores of Bitcoin-clone “altcoins” hit the market, ranging from the surrealist (Dogecoin) to the interesting (Litecoin) to the pointless and useless. The prevalence of the latter led to these “crapcoins” being written off as worthless and irrelevant.

Of late, however, we’ve seen many cryptocurrency projects funded by Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) — i.e. the creation of an altcoin, an initial tranche of which are sold by the founders for bitcoin, to fund future development. Unlike the “crapcoins,” these altcoins are not purposeless; if the project succeeds, the altcoin in question will grow in value, just like stock in a successful company. They are, in practice, equity. (Even voting equity, in a way, for proof-of-stake chains.)

This is an interesting crowdfunding alternative to traditional equity investment. But if you’re thinking, “hey, aren’t there a lot of laws and regulations surrounding equity sales?”, well, you’re sure not wrong. Just as the FAA claims jurisdiction over “every device that flies,” it seems very likely that the SEC will claim jurisdiction over these de facto equity sales, and frown on their permissionless, unregulated nature. Although this, of course, might just lead to jurisdiction-shopping, and new cryptocurrency projects fleeing the USA for some ICO-friendly nation…

This may be why Numerai, a fascinating new project that uses cryptocurrency to reward data scientists for successful stock-trading algorithms, has structured the distribution of its “numeraire” tokens so they do grow in value if and as Numerai as a whole succeeds, but they’re not a source of crowdfunding income.

Private blockchains

Despite the retreat of R3, any number of financial companies are still building and/or moving toward “private blockchains.” What all the above items have in common is that they’re permissionless; anyone can participate in an Ethereum contract, become a Bitcoin miner, buy into an ICO, etc. But many organizations and consortiums want to maintain more control, and/or worry more about legal oversight.

You may ask: What’s the use of a private blockchain when people can just use that well-known private data-storage solution, the database? Perhaps a certain amount of skepticism is warranted. A blockchain is, at its core, just a data model supported by a consensus network. You don’t hear people talking about “B-Tree companies,” do you?

However, a database doesn’t make it easy for a group of equal counterparties to maintain, and perform, transactions across a single store of verifiable data that no single one of them controls. A database doesn’t let you make your tokens into programmable money. Both of these things could save enterprises substantial amounts of time and money.

And both are eminently possible with a private (or “permissioned” — limited to a finite number of pre-set partners) blockchain. Consider Monax, which builds open-source tools for “business ecosystems” — and recently joined both the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance and the Hyperledger “enterprise blockchain” consortium, contributing its Ethereum virtual machine. Permissioned programmable money isn’t as exciting as the permissionless equivalent, but it’s not without its uses.

And next?

I’m leaving out a lot of other interesting initiatives — Sia‘s blockchain-orchestrated file storage, Factom‘s irrevocable storage of data, etc. — but hopefully you get the idea. A lot of interesting and useful stuff continues to happen in the cryptocurrency space. But none of it seems to really threaten to become the world-conquering tsunami, the change machine on the scale of the internet itself, that was dreamily suggested in the early days of cryptocurrencies — or, at least, not any time soon.