Balaji S. Srinivasan is that the CTO of Coinbase, a Board Partner at Andreessen Horowitz and a member of CoinDesk’s planning board .
The following article originally appeared in Consensus Magazine, distributed exclusively to attendees of CoinDesk’s Consensus 2018 event.
In Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” there’s a famous scene during which John Cleese’s character is stirring up a gaggle against the Romans.
He’s trying to urge all of them frothed up about the supposed righteousness of their cause and therefore the uselessness of the Romans, until reality intrudes. One by one, members of the gang begin listing off all the items the Romans even have delivered to the community, from roads to medicine to sanitation, thereby contradicting his criticism and undermining his point.
I’m reminded of this scene when surveying much of today’s commentary on blockchain technology.
There’s no dearth of intelligent and thoughtful people claiming that the blockchain is bad, or that it’s no use, or that it’s bad and has no use.
It’s an odd situation, because while businesses within the blockchain sector are already empirically generating billions of dollars in revenue, the worth of digital currencies and assets is usually said to be driven largely by speculation on future instead of present utility.
But albeit we grant this claim for the sake of argument, stating that the majority of the worth of blockchain lies within the future isn’t an equivalent as saying that (a) the present-day utility of the blockchain is zero or that (b) the blockchain sector will never live up to its valuation.
In this piece, we review a number of the explanations why new technologies just like the blockchain are often heavily criticized on the way to ubiquity. We then discuss the specifics of how the blockchain has already begun disrupting a minimum of three multibillion dollar verticals: the gold industry, international wire transfers and crowdfunding.
Finally, we talk through a couple of objections, and conclude by discussing the areas where the blockchain may provide yet more near-term 10X advantages.
Fad, bubble, monopoly
Highly valuable technologies typically experience relentless negativity on the thanks to the summit.
High growth is matched by high volatility and even higher expectations, resulting in hype cycles and periods of apparent overvaluation until eventually the technology is globally ubiquitous. Then the new critique is not any longer about faddishness or lack of utility but about inescapable monopoly, until subsequent disruption appears on the horizon and therefore the cycle begins anew.
One example of this with the sooner internet revolution are often seen by comparing IT Doesn’t Matter (published within the trough of the dot-com bubble in 2003) to The Shallows (written after social media and web 2.0 had re-emerged and proven themselves in 2011).
The first book argued that software was not a source of competitive advantage which the web revolution had been overhyped. The second book, by the exact same author, argued that software companies were now too successful and therefore the internet revolution was causing a fundamental shift in society. While the theses were mutually contradictory, the one common thread was unremitting negativity toward the then-new technology called the web .
Another newer example is with Facebook and social media.
Despite piling up 500 million users in six years, in 2010 people were still calling the corporate a bubble that might never live up to the outlandish $33 billion valuation that folks had placed thereon . This narrative still held as late as August 2012, as Facebook’s stock plummeted after the IPO and it had been an open question on whether they’d be ready to monetize on mobile. By 2017, of course, Facebook made $15 billion in net in only one year.
Now the questions of whether social media may be a fad or Facebook is overvalued have silently faded away. The new question is whether or not Facebook is an unstoppable monopoly that needs government regulation. this might be a legitimate question; however, it’s an entirely different one from the contention that social media was a mere trifle or passing fad.
The blockchain is already midway through an identical path. Lest we forget, bitcoin was initially dismissed as something that would never work thanks to its deflationary mining schedule. Decade-old macroeconomic textbooks were quoted like Bible , as if “Econ 101” was relevant to Nakamoto Consensus and therefore the solution of the Byzantine Generals Problem. Tulips were waved like cloves of garlic. Endless processions of the prominent were trotted bent denounce the heresy.
Hundreds of obituaries and dozens of “bans” later, of course, bitcoin is now worth many billions of dollars. It hasn’t just survived but has thrived, and has given rise to ethereum and dozens of other coins and chains.
But it’s far too early to declare victory.
No longer dismissed as a passing fad, and not yet attacked as a dominant monopoly, today’s argument against the blockchain sector is that it’s a bubble without real use. After all, the blockchain space as an entire is worth many billions of dollars, but where is that the utility? What are the daily use cases? What justifies this value? Why is it not just a bubble now and forevermore?
So let’s mention the successes of the blockchain so far , as those often go without saying. There are a minimum of three multibillion dollar sectors where the blockchain has provided quantifiable 10X improvements over the preceding technologies. These are digital gold, international wire transfers, and crowdfunding.
First and maybe most obviously, bitcoin may be a better gold.
Wences Casares of Xapo gave the canonical presentation on this several years ago. Being digital, bitcoin is infinitely lighter than gold of an equivalent value. Large amounts of cash are often quickly transported across borders, easily 10X faster than the equivalent amount of gold are often moved. And bitcoin is significantly more divisible and liquid than a gold bar.
Even given bitcoin’s recent issues with transaction fees and wait times (already partially obviated via Lightning), the technical advantages vis-a-vis gold are obvious and at now well-nigh indisputable. The gradual replacement of gold by bitcoin on many balance sheets and during a big variety of monetary contexts is now just a matter of your time and institutional inertia.
Given that the entire value of gold is estimated to range into the trillions of dollars, scaling the digital gold application alone can justify the entire market cap of the blockchain sector.
Second, consider international wire transfers.
If two startups or contractors on either side of the planet want to transact and if both parties are conscious of cryptocurrency, ethereum is increasingly their medium of choice. the explanations for this low-profile revolution in global money transmission are simple: ethereum settles in roughly 14 seconds, works 24/7 in any country, allows instantaneous generation of receiving addresses, and is now fairly documented within the tech community. Thus, if you’ll email someone, you’ll send them $50,000 in ethereum about as quickly and simply as you’ll send them an attachment.
This allows medium-scale international deals to shut in real time. the seller emails over an ethereum address, and therefore the customer Docusigns a contract and sends the ethereum. Receipt is confirmed over the phone as both parties hit refresh on Etherscan. The sheer speed of the transaction increases the speed of business and therefore the trust between geographically distributed partners. Forget same-day transfer; this is often same-minute transfer.
We’ve personally seen this exact use case repeatedly . While it’s not obvious what percentage people are using ethereum during this way, it’s obvious that it’s much better than wires for people who are. to measure how widespread this use case is, we spoke to Peter Smith, CEO of Blockchain for this text , who noted that “a significant fraction of our tens of many users are using the Blockchain Wallet to enable large, fast cross-border transactions. We may publish statistics on this within the future.”
In theory, this use case will soon face competition from banks, who will adopt SWIFT gpi and convey settlement times down. But in practice, international wires still take multiple business days to clear while ethereum reliably clears within seconds — and has for years. Ethereum also saves both parties a visit to the bank during business hours, as ETH transactions are often sent between any pair of devices at any time of day.
In this case, the important world utility of a blockchain-based technology has actually been underhyped. it’s already 10X faster than SWIFT, and has been for a few time.
As a 3rd example of what the blockchain has already finished us, consider crowdfunding. most people in tech know of Kickstarter, Indiegogo and GoFundMe. But when considered internationally, the world is even bigger than you would possibly think. it had been estimated to be within the billions annually and growing fast even before January 2017. then came the year of ICOs and token sales.
With almost $9 billion worth of token sales and ICOs consummated within the span of a few year, we’ve entered a totally new age for crowdfunding. to place this in perspective, just three years ago ethereum itself raised about $15 million in what was then one among the most important crowdfunders of all time. But the arrival of ICOs and token sales completely demolished all previous records. like gold and international wire transfers, the utilization of blockchain technology empirically introduced a 10X improvement, allowing international crowdfunders on the size of many many dollars to occur for the primary time. And because of the blockchain, tens of many dollars from all round the world could now be sent and settled within 30 seconds.
Please note: remarking on these totals is supposed to supply neither praise nor criticism of the precise projects which have raised these funds. it’s simply important to notice that blockchain-driven improvements in crowdfunding technology have enabled financings of an unprecedented scale and speed, literally 10X larger and faster than what came before. And while many regulatory issues still got to be figured out to completely mainstream ICOs and token sales, it’s quite possible that the blockchain will continue to rework not just crowdfunding, but risk capital itself.
Flaws are fixable
The three application areas outlined above — digital gold, international wire transfer, and crowdfunding — demonstrate that blockchain-driven 10X innovation is already here.
The remaining obstacles are associated with execution and distribution. the elemental zero-to-one innovation within the se areas is not any longer in question and has been obvious to people in the space for years.
One counterargument is that these 10X improvements may indeed exist, but not everyone can yet avail themselves of them.
Note, however, that this is often a big step back from the claim that “nobody has come up with a use case for blockchain after 10 years,” because the number of parties which will enjoy these three use cases includes every entity with gold on the record , every business with transnational trade, and each organization raising money online.
While scaling the blockchain-driven 10X advantages bent of these entities will doubtless take a while , it’ll also reliably generate billions in value.
Another counterargument is that the new technologies aren’t superior altogether respects.
What about bitcoin’s volatility? What about the very fact that everybody doesn’t yet accept ethereum in lieu of a bank-based wire transfer? And what about the regulatory issues surrounding crypto crowdfunding?
Each of those may be a legitimate objection, that we will furnish a solution .
To address volatility we’d like companies to sell the normal instruments for managing volatility, like collars. to urge more folks to simply accept crypto as a way for international wire transfer means getting more users for exchanges on each side . And to deal with the regulatory issues surrounding ICOs and crypto-crowdfunding, we’ll need to spend time with policy makers and heads of state.
But these sorts of objections miss the forest for the trees. a replacement technology is usually not mildly superior to an existing technology in every respect but is instead 10X better on one key axis. That 10X improvement draws customers and provides the capital and rationale for fixing the opposite defects.
The early iPhone camera may be a good case in point — while far worse than a fanatical camera in most respects, it had one 10X advantage going for it: its ubiquity as a bundled piece of a network-connected smartphone. That led to a rapid rise in use and a concomitant rapid investment within the feature set of network-connected, phone-based cameras.
We’re seeing an identical phenomenon with blockchain-based technologies, where their 10X advantages mean they’re gaining ground despite their largely remediable flaws.
There is no dearth of articles on how the blockchain will eventually disrupt everything. I actually believe we’ll see most of the envisioned use cases come to pass, though some will take years or decades to completely play out and can undergo multiple iterations before succeeding. Over subsequent few years, I’m particularly bullish on ethereum games and blockchain-based social networks and marketplaces.
But that long-term bullishness comes from an empirical reckoning with the concrete successes that the blockchain has placed on the board so far .
It is only because the blockchain has already done such a lot for us that I expect it to try to to such a lot more.