Blockchain is entering the valley of despair phase, and that’s a mistake

I’ve had a number of conversations with blockchain-focused people over the past few weeks. In some of those conversations — particularly with engineers — there is a palpable excitement and a belief that this technology is going to end up being their life’s work. As one blockchain hacker told me this past week, “It’s going to be a multi-decade long battle against the technologies that have been weaponized against us,” referring to the technology of the attentional economy.

On the other hand, I’ve had significantly more morose conversations with investors who are starting to lose faith in blockchain as a medium for investment returns. ICOs are still happening, of course, and investors are still clamoring to gain access to the best ones. But there is a remarkable cooling of the excitement thermometer, particularly from investors who were investing for financial returns rather than faith in blockchain as a decentralizing force.

I see the past near-universal excitement around blockchain diverging along two arcs. The tinkerers and hackers exploring this technology have never been more enthusiastic, yet some of the financiers and investors exploiting the technology for profit are starting to lose interest and enter the valley of despair. But that’s a mistake because it follows the wrong arc forward.

The excitement around blockchain over the past few years has been intensified by the convergence of these two groups working in parallel. For a disruptive technology, blockchain managed to capture the imagination of investors shockingly early compared to its antecedents.

Take the internet, for instance. The early protocols and packet-switching technology was invented in the 1960s, and email roughly as we know it was developed throughout the 1970s. Yet, it wasn’t until 1995 that commercial websites were even authorized to run on the internet. Three decades passed before entrepreneurs and investors were able to invest in companies built on top of this technology.

Compare that to Bitcoin, which kicked off the modern blockchain movement. The original Satoshi white paper on Bitcoin was released in late 2008. The first run-up in prices happened in mid-2011, then again in late 2013, and then the most recent peak in early December of 2017. So the technology got about three years before it was the focus of intense investment speculation, which really hasn’t abated since.

We can see the difference in the arcs between the hackers and the financiers. The hackers of the internet played with this new technology, expanded its boundaries and functionality, and created new products on top of it for decades, mostly with no sign that any of their work would pay off monetarily. Today, the legacy of that work lies in the open-source community, which continues to push this technology forward.

The financiers mostly ignored the software internet, instead funding the hardware infrastructure companies that produced packet-switching devices and other networking equipment. They didn’t show up until what would become the dot-com bubble of the 1990s.

That sequential pattern of technology development was parallelized with blockchain. The hackers continue to tinker and expand the functionality of the technology. They are still exploring the possibilities here. The financiers, though, invested far earlier in the technology maturation process, and are suddenly finding out that blockchain is very, very early. No wonder some of them are running away at the first sign that the bubble wasn’t what they thought it might be.

So we begin to enter the valley of despair, when the technology loses its charm among a certain type of investor who will complain that they lost their shirt in the market and that the technology is “dead” or whatever other metaphor they will use. You can already sense this in some of the media coverage of the technology, and I fear it is only going to get more intense.

However, it would be an enormous mistake to focus on the investor arc and not center our attention on the hacker arc. Investors are not the story about blockchain, the engineers are. Engineers are going to keep playing with this technology, and they are the ones who will eventually discover the “killer apps” that ultimately drive the value here. That might happen this year, or it might happen a decade from now. Or longer.

The potential of a disruptive technology like blockchain will take decades to fully understand. You don’t have to be a True Believer to participate in that progress, but you do need insatiable curiosity and an eye on the frontier.

So don’t despair at the valley of despair. Instead, see it as an opportunity to flush out all the speculation (and the speculators themselves) and return the field to the people who are actually going to be building the future rather than just trying to make a quick buck. Those fleeing investors will be back when we need them.