Owen Davis of Dealbreaker—a self-described Wall Street Insiders’ publication—recently attended the inaugural ICO Forward summit in Manhattan. Davis’ take away has been making its way across the web over the last week, popping up in Bloomberg and a handful of other high-profile fintech publications. The gist of Davis’ experience? “In their hurry to usher in the new world, crypto pioneers might end up getting lost in the current one.”
Whether or not you’re a true believer in crypto, Davis has got a point. While there’s no denying that the technological one-two punch delivered by blockchain and cryptocurrencies stands to radically reshape the future of global finance, its equally true that the crypto community suffers from a major PR problem. After all, one man’s crypto-anarchist utopian vision is another man’s delusional pipe dream.
If crypto is to go mainstream, its pioneers will have to seriously refine their pitch. Take for instance Matt McKibbin, the head honcho of DecentraNet, an up and coming crypto consulting firm featured at the Manhattan ICO summit. “Decentralization will change more in our lives over the coming years than possibly any other technological shift we’ve seen,” McKibbin reportedly stated, going on to liken the crypto rush to a paradigm shift on the magnitude of the Protestant Reformation itself.
For those of us inside the crypto community, McKibbin’s claims aren’t entirely absurd. There’s something deeply alluring about the mythologizing overtures that get wrapped up in cryptocurrency—tantalizing rumors of daydreaming computer programmers turned millionaires overnight; bombastic and contradictory claims about the blockchain’s radical potential, an emancipatory triumph over the junta of the market, the birth of an anarcho-capitalist utopia, the death-knell of the nation-state—these cyberpunk sound bites exert a nearly religious hold over much of the crypto community. But for “non-believers,” these overtures sound more like amateurish sci-fi plots than compelling market signals.
Case in point, in response to McKibbin’s claims about building blockchain-backed anarcho-capitalist states—even “token[izing] the moon with a startup society”—Davis and other financial insiders were left, understandably, in a state of bemused incredulity. More concerned with regulatory compliance than philosophical navel-gazing, Bloomberg’s Matt Levine notes that while the “tokenized startup moon” may lack securities laws, here on Earth, lawyers will be kept busy defending subpoenaed blockchain startups from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Issues of compliance with the SEC aren’t the only concerns being voiced by industry insiders. Recent revelations about the astronomical environmental impact of mining Bitcoin have raised concerns over the long term sustainability—to say nothing of the financial viability—of crypto. Of course, a number of blockchain companies have stepped up to the task of providing environmentally sound solutions to mining cryptocurrency; for instance, an Austrian blockchain outfit has taken to mining Bitcoin in abandoned hydroelectric power plants. Unfortunately, many of these allegedly environmentalist endeavors are woefully shortsighted—the aforementioned Austrian company included. As Matt Levin points out, their efforts are “better that than just buying power from coal plants, but the basic math of bitcoin mining using a ton of electricity hasn't really changed.”
Clearly, if crypto is to be taken seriously, blockchain pioneers need to do much more than just pay lip service to regulatory and environmental concerns. At present, for every concrete market-ready blockchain solution that might improve the technology’s public image, there are half-a-dozen or more poorly conceived alternatives serving to drag the community’s struggling reputation back through the mud.
Its tempting to attribute these half-baked blockchain projects to petty opportunism or outright ill-will, but its more than likely that its simple naivety that’s to blame. Returning to the ICO Forward Summit, Owen Davis found himself in a discussion with an individual proposing to leverage smart contracts to sell shares of their own home— “Someone who wants to own a % of a real estate asset in this city could just buy a % share of mine.”
Davis and other commentators were quick to scrutinize the blockchain-backed real estate scheme, noting that “smart contracts make this doable” is hardly a realistic or suitably thorough explanation for how such a scheme could be carried out. As Matt Levine puts it:
"Yes, absolutely, it is easy to conceive of a smart contract that would pay you for appreciation on my house. And we could get together and hash out exactly the events that would trigger it and how we'd calculate the appreciation and so forth. But how would we find each other? How would millions of people find each other and hash out these deals? If the deals are going to be standardized and aggregated, how do we know we can trust the standardizers and aggregators? Won't they be subject to securities regulation? Shouldn't they be?"
To be fair, there are at least a dozen technologically and socially feasible blockchain applications that could address the majority of Levine’s concerns, but that’s not really the point. The point is that there’s a kind of naïve and wishful thinking attitude that’s all-to-common in the crypto community, an attitude that’s stymying the industry’s reputation and impeding crypto’s mainstream market traction.
While we may not agree with David or Levine’s snarky characterization of the crypto community, their ultimate take-away is on-point. If blockchain and cryptocurrency are to realize their full disruptive potential than alienating political overtures, noncompliant enterprises and naïve business plans simply won’t cut it. In short, if we want to see crypto succeed, we’ve got to seriously shape up.