cryptocurrencies


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Yet much like millennials will never have a landline, a coming generation might do without bank accounts thanks to secure, peer-to-peer cryptocurrency transactions. Blockchain technology and the vast new crypto wealth have opened the door to four cryptocurrency futures that could usher in a new financial order.

Four Cryptocurrency Future Scenarios

What are these possibilities?

  • The Federal Reserve could issue its own digital currency, as some global central banks are exploring.
  • Large companies such as Amazon, Walmart and Starbucks might issue digital coins that inspire trust and gain wide acceptance.
  • Retail giants, by accepting payments in the currency, could elevate Bitcoin, Ethereum or another cryptocurrency above the others vying to offer safety, soundness and utility.
  • Finally, if  trust is lost in government-backed, or fiat, currencies, a cryptocurrency future could come about by default. That may be a risk not only in places like Venezuela, but in the U.S., where federal deficits are spiraling.

“Virtual currencies might just give existing currencies and monetary policy a run for their money,” International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde predicted last fall. “Citizens may one day prefer virtual currencies, since they potentially offer the same cost and convenience as cash — no settlement risks, no clearing delays, no central registration, no intermediary to check accounts and identities,” she said.

That explosive potential helps explain why so many tech entrepreneurs and investors turned cryptocurrencies into a 21st Century gold rush, even as JPMorgan Chase (JPM) CEO Jamie Dimon has trashed Bitcoin as “a fraud.”

Dimon and other titans of finance voice certainty that commercial banks will remain indispensable, cryptocurrencies will stay on the fringe, and governments will want to keep it that way.

FedCoin? Central Banks Mull Future Of Cryptocurrency

Blockchain’s potential to revolutionize the financial system has some central banks studying whether to issue their own digital currency. Yale University scholars have proposed the FedCoin. In this cryptocurrency future, FedCoin could make monetary policy more flexible and forceful, even allowing for negative interest rates.

If a cryptocurrency acted as a reliable, widely accepted store of value, people could cut ties to their banks. They could keep some crypto cash in digital wallets, with other liquid assets in mutual funds, stocks and government bonds.

A Bank of England study concluded that a central-bank cryptocurrency could boost GDP by 3%. Gains would come, in part, from shrinking “monetary transaction costs that are analogous to distortionary tax rates.”

Yet FedCoin looks far-fetched at present because of the massive disruption it could cause. Central bank crypto dollars “could endanger the economically and socially important financial intermediation function of commercial banks,” JPMorgan analysts warned.

The contribution of fractional reserve banking to global growth — turning each $1 of deposits into $10 in loans — could fade. “We would expect that central banks would think twice before disturbing this source of capital to the private sector.”

Bitcoin Crash Or Cryptocurrency Revolution?

Dimon is surely right about one thing: The cryptocurrency future will depend heavily on government. That could mean smothering it with regulation, stealing its thunder via FedCoin or cultivating it with a light regulatory touch.

Bitcoin hit its 2018 low early on Feb. 6, the morning of a key Senate cryptocurrency hearing, briefly undercutting $6,000. The chairmen of the Securities and Exchange Commission and Commodity Futures Trading Commission both urged stronger oversight. But the financial regulators stopped short of sounding an alarm. Nor did they call for any legislation to rein in cryptocurrencies. In the weeks after that hearing, Bitcoin rebounded to around $11,000 but it has retreated yet again to below $7,500.

Bitcoin had doubled in the first half of December, hitting a peak above $19,000 just as Bitcoin futures began trading on Cboe Global Markets (CBOE) and CME (CME). The anticipation of futures trading, touted as validation from U.S. regulators, stoked speculation.

At the Senate hearing, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who earned his fortune as an early investor in the cell phone industry, said he sees a parallel between mobile phones then and cryptocurrencies now. “The same kind of transformation is about to take place,” he said.

Could Bitcoin Raise Systemic Risks?

Warner criticized the CFTC for embracing Bitcoin options at this stage. He fretted that total cryptocurrency market capitalization could hit $20 trillion — vs. $300 billion now — with another 2017-like surge.

“This rises potentially to the level of a systemically relevant event,” Warner said.

Yet there’s reason to doubt that cryptocurrency frenzy will return. JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America (BAC) and Citigroup (C) — Ma Bell in Warner’s analogy — banned credit-card purchases of cryptocurrencies. Meanwhile, the SEC and foreign governments have cracked down on initial coin offerings. And lately, Alphabet (GOOGL)-unit Google, Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR) have banned cryptocurrency ads.

Even Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin warned via Twitter not long ago that cryptocurrencies “could drop to near-zero at any time.” He added that “traditional assets are still your safest bet.”

The Bank for International Settlements, the central banker for global central banks, has warned that cryptocurrencies in the future could become a “threat to financial stability” if regulators aren’t vigilant. U.S. regulators appear to be playing catch-up. As of Feb. 6, the cryptocurrency working group put together by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had held a single meeting.

Politicians and central bankers worry that cryptocurrencies won’t hold value in a panic. “When things really go bad, where do Americans turn?” Philadelphia Federal Reserve President Patrick Harker asked a fintech conference last fall. “Well, they’re going to come back to the government. That’s the history of the country.”

Another ‘Large Player’ For Cryptocurrencies

Harker did allow that other currency models might work if another “large player” besides the government provided trust.

Who could fill that role? Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz offered some thoughts on the coffee chain’s January earnings call.

“I personally believe that there is going to be one or a few legitimate, trusted digital currenciesoff of the blockchain technology,” Schultz said. He doubted that Bitcoin would be one of them.

Cryptocurrencies “will have to be legitimized by a brand in a brick-and-mortar environment, where the consumer has trust and confidence in the company that is providing the transaction.”

Starbucks wants to play a role but isn’t making a big investment in a cryptocurrency future right now, Schultz said.

Amazon, Cryptocurrency Kingmaker — Or Central Bank?

Cryptocurrency investors have speculated that Amazon might accept Bitcoin or one of its digital rivals. That specific cryptocurrency would vault past competitors as a trusted store of value and useful medium of exchange. Amazon even registered the domains AmazonEthereum.com, AmazonCryptocurrency.com and AmazonCryptocurrencies, kicking such talk into high gear.

Alternatively, Amazon, Walmart — or a consortium of large companies — might issue their own cryptocurrency. Doing so could let them save on transaction costs and act as a competitive weapon.

But Amazon has also been cozying up with JPMorgan. Recently, Amazon and JPMorgan have partnered in a health care venture and in creating a new type of bank account.

Yet imagine if Amazon or Walmart rewarded loyal customers with tokens that could escalate in value. The tokens would jump to the head of the cryptocurrency pack with potential for broad acceptance as a currency. Customers would likely hoard the tokens, rather than spend them. The effect on sales and profits might be electric.

For a digital currency to gain wide acceptance from outside businesses, the issuer would have to act like a central bank. Governing a currency requires trust, so some functions might need independence from corporate issuers.

Those milestones could ease fears of a massive cryptocurrency crash. The Fed shouldn’t need to rush in and save the day if AmazonCoin or WalmartCoin crashed.

Currencies rely on conservative and predictable rules to assure the public that massive money printing won’t destroy value. Could people trust the central bank of Amazon?

Then again, will people always be able to count on the Fed?

Cryptocurrency Future: Competition For Central Bank Fiat Money

The Fed controls the creation of money, but central bankers seem to be losing their grip. Any loss of faith in the dollar and the Fed bodes well for a cryptocurrency future as dollar-skeptics look for an alternative store of wealth — besides gold.

Bitcoin’s peer-to-peer electronic payment system, first proposed in 2008 to verify transactions through a decentralized public blockchain, arrived on the scene as the global financial crisis triggered bailouts of one big bank after another.

Bitcoin fulfilled famed economist Friedrich Hayek’s idea of denationalizing money. He believed competition could help keep central banks honest and prevent runaway inflation.

Doubts fueled by “ballooning balance sheets of the major central banks in the aftermath of the global financial crisis” motivated early cryptocurrency investors, JPMorgan analysts wrote. Yet the lack of any upsurge in inflation since “has surely reduced concerns about fiat (legal tender issued by a central bank) money.”

A Fiscal Train In Cryptocurrency Future?

Yet the Fed now faces a much different challenge: a runaway federal deficit even amid a strong U.S. economy. The deficit will top $1 trillion in fiscal 2019 and $2 trillion by 2027, and there’s no fix in sight. Republicans have overseen big deficit-financed tax cuts and increased government spending. Democrats want more generous Social Security benefits, Medicare for all and debt-free college.

“The continued growth of public debt raises eventual sustainability questions if left unchecked,” Goldman Sachs economists warned recently.

The Fed seems on track to suffer the same fate as the Bank of Japan. The BoJ has been forced to accommodate sky-high government deficits with easy money and asset purchases. Japan, with a falling working-age population, hasn’t had a whiff of inflation. But the U.S. might be a different story.

Deutsche Bank global credit strategist Jim Reid put this shocking headline on a November report: “The Start of the End of Fiat Money?” Reid argued high debt levels will keep the Fed and other central banks too accommodative, putting fiat currencies at risk.

“The fiat currency system may be seriously tested over the coming decade and ultimately we may need to find an alternative,” Reid wrote. “Cryptocurrencies are all the rage at the moment and are as much about blockchain as anything else, but there could be an increasing desire for alternative” mediums of exchange in the years to come.”

Keep in mind that fiat money is a relatively young innovation. It’s only truly been the norm since President Nixon ended the dollar’s quasi-gold standard in 1971.

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Ah, crypto-currencies. Whether in a bull or bear market (sometimes we see both before lunch), they bore neither fans nor skeptics.  The still-young 2018 has been rough for the nascent asset class, as the four most prominent vehicles (bitcoin, ethereum, ripple and litecoin) have declined by 42%, 39%, 40% and 74% respectively after logging spectacular gains last year.
Beyond financial losses, the pullback seems to be taking a toll.  According to Bloomberg: “Online searches for ‘bitcoin’ fell 82 percent from December highs, according to Google Trends. Tweets that mention the coin peaked Dec. 7, at 155,600, and are now down to about 63,000, BitInfoCharts says. And the number of bitcoin transactions is off 60 percent from its record on Dec. 13, according to Blockchain.info” (Almost Daily Grant’sMarch 16).
Crypto-ficcianados have lately contended with more than falling prices and waning public interest.  Yesterday, Reuters reported: “Twitter, Inc. will start banning cryptocurrency advertising [today], joining Facebook and Google in a clampdown that seeks to avoid giving publicity to potential fraud or large investor losses.”  In other words, the ubiquitous social media ads featuring author and investor James Altucher will be no more.  Altucher himself voiced his approval, telling Recode: “There are many scams and illegitimate services out there.” This afternoon, Coinbase reports that Reddit (which bills itself as “the front page of the internet”) no longer accepts payment in bitcoin for its Reddit gold membership program.
Regulators, too, are taking a stricter stance.  On Thursday, the Wall Street Journalreported that the Securities and Exchange Commission is scrutinizing up to 100 crypto-focused hedge funds: “Examiners are keen to inspect whether fund managers have bought the type of assets they advertised to investors in disclosure documents. Regulators also worry about the risk of crypto assets being stolen because hackers often attempt to breach exchanges where crypto-currencies are kept.” On March 2, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney told the Scottish Economics Conference that “the time has come to hold the crypto-asset ecosystem to the same standards as the rest of the financial system.”
Meanwhile, efforts at wider implementation of the blockchain in the financial industry have recently suffered what appear to be major setbacks.  Today, Reuters reports that three separate projects undertaken by financial institutions to incorporate the distributed ledger technology have been halted.  One such example:
DTCC, known as Wall Street’s bookkeeper, recently put the brakes on a blockchain system for the clearing and settlement of repurchase, or repo, agreement transactions, said Murray Pozmanter, head of clearing agency services at the DTCC.
The project, which had successfully tested with startup Digital Asset Holdings, was shelved because banks and other potential users believed the same results could be achieved more cheaply using current technology, he said. “Basically, it became a solution in search of a problem.”
As prices fall, regulators circle and big tech heads for the hills, some investors are doubling down. Yesterday, Bloomberg reported that:
While ICO’s [initial coin offerings] were supposed to disrupt venture capital, such funding in blockchain-based companies is surging, with startups raising $434 million since December, the most ever in a three-month period, according to CoinDesk data.
“If a company goes on and gets an ICO, my equity is worth more,” Frank Meehan, partner at SparkLabs Group, said. “That’s really the game right now.”
CoinDesk calculates that ICO’s have raised north of $3 billion through February, more than half of their 2017 intake.  For the sake of their limited partners, VCs best choose wisely. Bloomberg goes on to note that 46% of such offerings either failed of were unable to attain funding, while 50 of 340 ICO’s have already failed this year.
Last week, CryptoKitties (which bills itself as an ethereum-based “game centered around breedable, collectible, and oh-so-adorable creatures” who can’t be “replicated, taken away, or destroyed”)  raised $12 million in seed funding led by Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures, with Mark Pincus (founder of Zynga) and Fred Ehrsam (former founder of Coinbase) lining up as investors.
Meanwhile CoinDesk reports that ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin recently penned a blog post arguing for the institution of rent fees on his network, where “users would be asked to pay to use the network based on how long they’d like their data to remain accessible on the blockchain.”  Evidently, permanence is a relative concept.

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Even after a sharp correction earlier this year, the price of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies has remained unsustainably high, and techno-libertarians have continued to insist that blockchain technologies will revolutionize the way business is done. In fact, blockchain might just be the most over-hyped technology of all time.

NEW YORK – Predictions that Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies will fail typically elicit a broader defense of the underlying blockchain technology. Yes, the argument goes, over half of all “initial coin offerings” to date have already failed, and most of the 1,500-plus cryptocurrencies also will fail, but “blockchain” will nonetheless revolutionize finance and human interactions generally.

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In reality, blockchain is one of the most overhyped technologies ever. For starters, blockchains are less efficient than existing databases. When someone says they are running something “on a blockchain,” what they usually mean is that they are running one instance of a software application that is replicated across many other devices.

The required storage space and computational power is substantially greater, and the latency higher, than in the case of a centralized application. Blockchains that incorporate “proof-of-stake” or “zero-knowledge” technologies require that all transactions be verified cryptographically, which slows them down. Blockchains that use “proof-of-work,” as many popular cryptocurrencies do, raise yet another problem: they require a huge amount of raw energy to secure them. This explains why Bitcoin “mining” operations in Iceland are on track to consume more energy this year than all Icelandic households combined.

Blockchains can make sense in cases where the speed/verifiability tradeoff is actually worth it, but this is rarely how the technology is marketed. Blockchain investment propositions routinely make wild promises to overthrow entire industries, such as cloud computing, without acknowledging the technology’s obvious limitations.

Consider the many schemes that rest on the claim that blockchains are a distributed, universal “world computer.” That claim assumes that banks, which already use efficient systems to process millions of transactions per day, have reason to migrate to a markedly slower and less efficient single cryptocurrency. This contradicts everything we know about the financial industry’s use of software. Financial institutions, particularly those engaged in algorithmic trading, need fast and efficient transaction processing. For their purposes, a single globally distributed blockchain such as Ethereum would never be useful.

Another false assumption is that blockchain represents something akin to a new universal protocol, like TCP-IP or HTML were for the Internet. Such claims imply that this or that blockchain will serve as the basis for most of the world’s transactions and communications in the future. Again, this makes little sense when one considers how blockchains actually work. For one thing, blockchains themselves rely on protocols like TCP-IP, so it isn’t clear how they would ever serve as a replacement

Furthermore, unlike base-level protocols, blockchains are “stateful,” meaning they store every valid communication that has ever been sent to them. As a result, well-designed blockchains need to consider the limitations of their users’ hardware and guard against spamming. This explains why Bitcoin Core, the Bitcoin software client, processes only 5-7 transactions per second, compared to Visa, which reliably processes 25,000 transactions per second.

Just as we cannot record all of the world’s transactions in a single centralized database, nor shall we do so in a single distributed database. Indeed, the problem of “blockchain scaling” is still more or less unsolved, and is likely to remain so for a long time.

Although we can be fairly sure that blockchain will not unseat TCP-IP, a particular blockchain component – such as Tezos or Ethereum’s smart-contract languages – could eventually set a standard for specific applications, just as Enterprise Linux and Windows did for PC operating systems. But betting on a particular “coin,” as many investors currently are, is not the same thing as betting on adoption of a larger “protocol.” Given what we know about how open-source software is used, there is little reason to think that the value to enterprises of specific blockchain applications will capitalize directly into only one or a few coins.

A third false claim concerns the “trustless” utopia that blockchain will supposedly create by eliminating the need for financial or other reliable intermediaries. This is absurd for a simple reason: every financial contract in existence today can either be modified or deliberately breached by the participating parties. Automating away these possibilities with rigid “trustless” terms is commercially non-viable, not least because it would require all financial agreements to be cash collateralized at 100%, which is insane from a cost-of-capital perspective.

Moreover, it turns out that many likely appropriate applications of blockchain in finance – such as in securitization or supply-chain monitoring – will require intermediaries after all, because there will inevitably be circumstances where unforeseen contingencies arise, demanding the exercise of discretion. The most important thing blockchain will do in such a situation is ensure that all parties to a transaction are in agreement with one another about its status and their obligations.

It is high time to end the hype. Bitcoin is a slow, energy-inefficient dinosaur that will never be able to process transactions as quickly or inexpensively as an Excel spreadsheet. Ethereum’s plans for an insecure proof-of-stake authentication system will render it vulnerable to manipulation by influential insiders. And Ripple’s technology for cross-border interbank financial transfers will soon be left in the dust by SWIFT, a non-blockchain consortium that all of the world’s major financial institutions already use. Similarly, centralized e-payment systems with almost no transaction costs – Faster Payments, AliPay, WeChat Pay, Venmo, Paypal, Square – are already being used by billions of people around the world.

Today’s “coin mania” is not unlike the railway mania at the dawn of the industrial revolution in the mid-nineteenth century. On its own, blockchain is hardly revolutionary. In conjunction with the secure, remote automation of financial and machine processes, however, it can have potentially far-reaching implications.

Ultimately, blockchain’s uses will be limited to specific, well-defined, and complex applications that require transparency and tamper-resistance more than they require speed – for example, communication with self-driving cars or drones. As for most of the coins, they are little different from railway stocks in the 1840s, which went bust when that bubble – like most bubbles – burst.

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Predicting cryptocurrency prices is a fool’s game, yet this fool is about to try. The drivers of a single cryptocurrency’s value are currently too varied and vague to make assessments based on any one point. News is trending up on Bitcoin? Maybe there’s a hack or an API failure that is driving it down at the same time. Ethereum looking sluggish? Who knows: Maybe someone will build a new smarter DAO tomorrow that will draw in the big spenders.

So how do you invest? Or, more correctly, on which currency should you bet?

The key to understanding what to buy or sell and when to hold is to use the tools associated with assessing the value of open-source projects. This has been said again and again, but to understand the current crypto boom you have to go back to the quiet rise of Linux.

Linux appeared on most radars during the dot-com bubble. At that time, if you wanted to set up a web server, you had to physically ship a Windows server or Sun Sparc Station to a server farm where it would do the hard work of delivering Pets.com HTML. At the same time, Linux, like a freight train running on a parallel path to Microsoft and Sun, would consistently allow developers to build one-off projects very quickly and easily using an OS and toolset that were improving daily. In comparison, then, the massive hardware and software expenditures associated with the status quo solution providers were deeply inefficient, and very quickly all of the tech giants that made their money on software now made their money on services or, like Sun, folded.

From the acorn of Linux an open-source forest bloomed. But there was one clear problem: You couldn’t make money from open source. You could consult and you could sell products that used open-source components, but early builders built primarily for the betterment of humanity and not the betterment of their bank accounts.

Cryptocurrencies have followed the Linux model almost exactly, but cryptocurrencies have cash value. Therefore, when you’re working on a crypto project you’re not doing it for the common good or for the joy of writing free software. You’re writing it with the expectation of a big payout. This, therefore, clouds the value judgements of many programmers. The same folks that brought you Python, PHP, Django and Node.js are back… and now they’re programming money.

Check the codebase

This year will be the year of great reckoning in the token sale and cryptocurrency space. While many companies have been able to get away with poor or unusable codebases, I doubt developers will let future companies get away with so much smoke and mirrors. It’s safe to say we can expect posts like this one detailing Storj’s anemic codebase to become the norm and, more importantly, that these commentaries will sink many so-called ICOs. Though massive, the money trough that is flowing from ICO to ICO is finite and at some point there will be greater scrutiny paid to incomplete work.

What does this mean? It means to understand cryptocurrency you have to treat it like a startup. Does it have a good team? Does it have a good product? Does the product work? Would someone want to use it? It’s far too early to assess the value of cryptocurrency as a whole, but if we assume that tokens or coins will become the way computers pay each other in the future, this lets us hand wave away a lot of doubt. After all, not many people knew in 2000 that Apache was going to beat nearly every other web server in a crowded market or that Ubuntu instances would be so common that you’d spin them up and destroy them in an instant.

The key to understanding cryptocurrency pricing is to ignore the froth, hype and FUD and instead focus on true utility. Do you think that some day your phone will pay another phone for, say, an in-game perk? Do you expect the credit card system to fold in the face of an Internet of Value? Do you expect that one day you’ll move through life splashing out small bits of value in order to make yourself more comfortable? Then by all means, buy and hold or speculate on things that you think will make your life better. If you don’t expect the Internet of Value to improve your life the way the TCP/IP internet did (or you do not understand enough to hold an opinion), then you’re probably not cut out for this. NASDAQ is always open, at least during banker’s hours.

Still will us? Good, here are my predictions.

The rundown

Here is my assessment of what you should look at when considering an “investment” in cryptocurrencies. There are a number of caveats we must address before we begin:

  • Crypto is not a monetary investment in a real currency, but an investment in a pie-in-the-sky technofuture. That’s right: When you buy crypto you’re basically assuming that we’ll all be on the deck of the Starship Enterprise exchanging them like Galactic Credits one day. This is the only inevitable future for crypto bulls. While you can force crypto into various economic models and hope for the best, the entire platform is techno-utopianist and assumes all sorts of exciting and unlikely things will come to pass in the next few years. If you have spare cash lying around and you like Star Wars, then you’re golden. If you bought bitcoin on a credit card because your cousin told you to, then you’re probably going to have a bad time.
  • Don’t trust anyone. There is no guarantee and, in addition to offering the disclaimer that this is not investment advice and that this is in no way an endorsement of any particular cryptocurrency or even the concept in general, we must understand that everything I write here could be wrong. In fact, everything ever written about crypto could be wrong, and anyone who is trying to sell you a token with exciting upside is almost certainly wrong. In short, everyone is wrong and everyone is out to get you, so be very, very careful.
  • You might as well hold. If you bought when BTC was $18,000 you’d best just hold on. Right now you’re in Pascal’s Wager territory. Yes, maybe you’re angry at crypto for screwing you, but maybe you were just stupid and you got in too high and now you might as well keep believing because nothing is certain, or you can admit that you were a bit overeager and now you’re being punished for it but that there is some sort of bitcoin god out there watching over you. Ultimately you need to take a deep breath, agree that all of this is pretty freaking weird, and hold on.

Now on with the assessments.

Bitcoin – Expect a rise over the next year that will surpass the current low. Also expect bumps as the SEC and other federal agencies around the world begin regulating the buying and selling of cryptocurrencies in very real ways. Now that banks are in on the joke they’re going to want to reduce risk. Therefore, the bitcoin will become digital gold, a staid, boring and volatility proof safe haven for speculators. Although all but unusable as a real currency, it’s good enough for what we need it to do and we also can expect quantum computing hardware to change the face of the oldest and most familiar cryptocurrency.

Ethereum – Ethereum could sustain another few thousand dollars on its price as long as Vitalik Buterin, the creator, doesn’t throw too much cold water on it. Like a remorseful Victor Frankenstein, Buterin tends to make amazing things and then denigrate them online, a sort of self-flagellation that is actually quite useful in a space full of froth and outright lies. Ethereum is the closest we’ve come to a useful cryptocurrency, but it is still the Raspberry Pi of distributed computing — it’s a useful and clever hack that makes it easy to experiment but no one has quite replaced the old systems with new distributed data stores or applications. In short, it’s a really exciting technology, but nobody knows what to do with it.

Where will the price go? It will hover around $1,000 and possibly go as high as $1,500 this year, but this is a principled tech project and not a store of value.

Altcoins – One of the signs of a bubble is when average people make statements like “I couldn’t afford a Bitcoin so I bought a Litecoin.” This is exactly what I’ve heard multiple times from multiple people and it’s akin to saying “I couldn’t buy hamburger so I bought a pound of sawdust instead. I think the kids will eat it, right?” Play at your own risk. Altcoins are a very useful low-risk play for many, and if you create an algorithm — say to sell when the asset hits a certain level — then you could make a nice profit. Further, most altcoins will not disappear overnight. I would honestly recommend playing with Ethereum instead of altcoins, but if you’re dead set on it, then by all means, enjoy.

Tokens – This is where cryptocurrency gets interesting. Tokens require research, education and a deep understanding of technology to truly assess. Many of the tokens I’ve seen are true crapshoots and are used primarily as pump and dump vehicles. I won’t name names, but the rule of thumb is that if you’re buying a token on an open market then you’ve probably already missed out. The value of the token sale as of January 2018 is to allow crypto whales to turn a few cent per token investment into a 100X return. While many founders talk about the magic of their product and the power of their team, token sales are quite simply vehicles to turn 4 cents into 20 cents into a dollar. Multiply that by millions of tokens and you see the draw.

The answer is simple: find a few projects you like and lurk in their message boards. Assess if the team is competent and figure out how to get in very, very early. Also expect your money to disappear into a rat hole in a few months or years. There are no sure things, and tokens are far too bleeding-edge a technology to assess sanely.

You are reading this post because you are looking to maintain confirmation bias in a confusing space. That’s fine. I’ve spoken to enough crypto-heads to know that nobody knows anything right now and that collusion and dirty dealings are the rule of the day. Therefore, it’s up to folks like us to slowly buy surely begin to understand just what’s going on and, perhaps, profit from it. At the very least we’ll all get a new Linux of Value when we’re all done.

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The sequence of words is meaningless: a random array strung together by an algorithm let loose in an English dictionary. What makes them valuable is that they’ve been generated exclusively for me, by a software tool called MetaMask. In the lingo of cryptography, they’re known as my seed phrase. They might read like an incoherent stream of consciousness, but these words can be transformed into a key that unlocks a digital bank account, or even an online identity. It just takes a few more steps.

On the screen, I’m instructed to keep my seed phrase secure: Write it down, or keep it in a secure place on your computer. I scribble the 12 words onto a notepad, click a button and my seed phrase is transformed into a string of 64 seemingly patternless characters:

1b0be2162cedb2744d016943bb14e71de6af95a63af3790d6b41b1e719dc5c66

This is what’s called a “private key” in the world of cryptography: a way of proving identity, in the same, limited way that real-world keys attest to your identity when you unlock your front door. My seed phrase will generate that exact sequence of characters every time, but there’s no known way to reverse-engineer the original phrase from the key, which is why it is so important to keep the seed phrase in a safe location.

That private key number is then run through two additional transformations, creating a new string:

0x6c2ecd6388c550e8d99ada34a1cd55bedd052ad9

That string is my address on the Ethereum blockchain.

Ethereum belongs to the same family as the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, whose value has increased more than 1,000 percent in just the past year. Ethereum has its own currencies, most notably Ether, but the platform has a wider scope than just money. You can think of my Ethereum address as having elements of a bank account, an email address and a Social Security number. For now, it exists only on my computer as an inert string of nonsense, but the second I try to perform any kind of transaction — say, contributing to a crowdfunding campaign or voting in an online referendum — that address is broadcast out to an improvised worldwide network of computers that tries to verify the transaction. The results of that verification are then broadcast to the wider network again, where more machines enter into a kind of competition to perform complex mathematical calculations, the winner of which gets to record that transaction in the single, canonical record of every transaction ever made in the history of Ethereum. Because those transactions are registered in a sequence of “blocks” of data, that record is called the blockchain.

The whole exchange takes no more than a few minutes to complete. From my perspective, the experience barely differs from the usual routines of online life. But on a technical level, something miraculous is happening — something that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago. I’ve managed to complete a secure transaction without any of the traditional institutions that we rely on to establish trust. No intermediary brokered the deal; no social-media network captured the data from my transaction to better target its advertising; no credit bureau tracked the activity to build a portrait of my financial trustworthiness

And the platform that makes all this possible? No one owns it. There are no venture investors backing Ethereum Inc., because there is no Ethereum Inc. As an organizational form, Ethereum is far closer to a democracy than a private corporation. No imperial chief executive calls the shots. You earn the privilege of helping to steer Ethereum’s ship of state by joining the community and doing the work. Like Bitcoin and most other blockchain platforms, Ethereum is more a swarm than a formal entity. Its borders are porous; its hierarchy is deliberately flattened.

Oh, one other thing: Some members of that swarm have already accumulated a paper net worth in the billions from their labors, as the value of one “coin” of Ether rose from $8 on Jan. 1, 2017, to $843 exactly one year later.

You may be inclined to dismiss these transformations. After all, Bitcoin and Ether’s runaway valuation looks like a case study in irrational exuberance. And why should you care about an arcane technical breakthrough that right now doesn’t feel all that different from signing in to a website to make a credit card payment?

But that dismissal would be shortsighted. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the recent history of the internet, it’s that seemingly esoteric decisions about software architecture can unleash profound global forces once the technology moves into wider circulation. If the email standards adopted in the 1970s had included public-private key cryptography as a default setting, we might have avoided the cataclysmic email hacks that have afflicted everyone from Sony to John Podesta, and millions of ordinary consumers might be spared routinized identity theft. If Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, had included a protocol for mapping our social identity in his original specs, we might not have Facebook.

The true believers behind blockchain platforms like Ethereum argue that a network of distributed trust is one of those advances in software architecture that will prove, in the long run, to have historic significance. That promise has helped fuel the huge jump in cryptocurrency valuations. But in a way, the Bitcoin bubble may ultimately turn out to be a distraction from the true significance of the blockchain. The real promise of these new technologies, many of their evangelists believe, lies not in displacing our currencies but in replacing much of what we now think of as the internet, while at the same time returning the online world to a more decentralized and egalitarian system. If you believe the evangelists, the blockchain is the future. But it is also a way of getting back to the internet’s roots.

Once the inspiration for utopian dreams of infinite libraries and global connectivity, the internet has seemingly become, over the past year, a universal scapegoat: the cause of almost every social ill that confronts us. Russian trolls destroy the democratic system with fake news on Facebook; hate speech flourishes on Twitter and Reddit; the vast fortunes of the geek elite worsen income equality. For many of us who participated in the early days of the web, the last few years have felt almost postlapsarian. The web had promised a new kind of egalitarian media, populated by small magazines, bloggers and self-organizing encyclopedias; the information titans that dominated mass culture in the 20th century would give way to a more decentralized system, defined by collaborative networks, not hierarchies and broadcast channels. The wider culture would come to mirror the peer-to-peer architecture of the internet itself. The web in those days was hardly a utopia — there were financial bubbles and spammers and a thousand other problems — but beneath those flaws, we assumed, there was an underlying story of progress.

Last year marked the point at which that narrative finally collapsed. The existence of internet skeptics is nothing new, of course; the difference now is that the critical voices increasingly belong to former enthusiasts. “We have to fix the internet,” Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs’s biographer, wrote in an essay published a few weeks after Donald Trump was elected president. “After 40 years, it has begun to corrode, both itself and us.” The former Google strategist James Williams told The Guardian: “The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will.” In a blog post, Brad Burnham, a managing partner at Union Square Ventures, a top New York venture-capital firm, bemoaned the collateral damage from the quasi monopolies of the digital age: “Publishers find themselves becoming commodity content suppliers in a sea of undifferentiated content in the Facebook news feed. Websites see their fortunes upended by small changes in Google’s search algorithms. And manufacturers watch helplessly as sales dwindle when Amazon decides to source products directly in China and redirect demand to their own products.” (Full disclosure: Burnham’s firm invested in a company I started in 2006; we have had no financial relationship since it sold in 2011.) Even Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web itself, wrote a blog post voicing his concerns that the advertising-based model of social media and search engines creates a climate where “misinformation, or ‘fake news,’ which is surprising, shocking or designed to appeal to our biases, can spread like wildfire.”

For most critics, the solution to these immense structural issues has been to propose either a new mindfulness about the dangers of these tools — turning off our smartphones, keeping kids off social media — or the strong arm of regulation and antitrust: making the tech giants subject to the same scrutiny as other industries that are vital to the public interest, like the railroads or telephone networks of an earlier age. Both those ideas are commendable: We probably should develop a new set of habits governing how we interact with social media, and it seems entirely sensible that companies as powerful as Google and Facebook should face the same regulatory scrutiny as, say, television networks. But those interventions are unlikely to fix the core problems that the online world confronts. After all, it was not just the antitrust division of the Department of Justice that challenged Microsoft’s monopoly power in the 1990s; it was also the emergence of new software and hardware — the web, open-source software and Apple products — that helped undermine Microsoft’s dominant position.

The blockchain evangelists behind platforms like Ethereum believe that a comparable array of advances in software, cryptography and distributed systems has the ability to tackle today’s digital problems: the corrosive incentives of online advertising; the quasi monopolies of Facebook, Google and Amazon; Russian misinformation campaigns. If they succeed, their creations may challenge the hegemony of the tech giants far more effectively than any antitrust regulation. They even claim to offer an alternative to the winner-take-all model of capitalism than has driven wealth inequality to heights not seen since the age of the robber barons.

That remedy is not yet visible in any product that would be intelligible to an ordinary tech consumer. The only blockchain project that has crossed over into mainstream recognition so far is Bitcoin, which is in the middle of a speculative bubble that makes the 1990s internet I.P.O. frenzy look like a neighborhood garage sale. And herein lies the cognitive dissonance that confronts anyone trying to make sense of the blockchain: the potential power of this would-be revolution is being actively undercut by the crowd it is attracting, a veritable goon squad of charlatans, false prophets and mercenaries. Not for the first time, technologists pursuing a vision of an open and decentralized network have found themselves surrounded by a wave of opportunists looking to make an overnight fortune. The question is whether, after the bubble has burst, the very real promise of the blockchain can endure.

To some students of modern technological history, the internet’s fall from grace follows an inevitable historical script. As Tim Wu argued in his 2010 book, “The Master Switch,” all the major information technologies of the 20th century adhered to a similar developmental pattern, starting out as the playthings of hobbyists and researchers motivated by curiosity and community, and ending up in the hands of multinational corporations fixated on maximizing shareholder value. Wu calls this pattern the Cycle, and on the surface at least, the internet has followed the Cycle with convincing fidelity. The internet began as a hodgepodge of government-funded academic research projects and side-hustle hobbies. But 20 years after the web first crested into the popular imagination, it has produced in Google, Facebook and Amazon — and indirectly, Apple — what may well be the most powerful and valuable corporations in the history of capitalism.

Blockchain advocates don’t accept the inevitability of the Cycle. The roots of the internet were in fact more radically open and decentralized than previous information technologies, they argue, and had we managed to stay true to those roots, it could have remained that way. The online world would not be dominated by a handful of information-age titans; our news platforms would be less vulnerable to manipulation and fraud; identity theft would be far less common; advertising dollars would be distributed across a wider range of media properties.

To understand why, it helps to think of the internet as two fundamentally different kinds of systems stacked on top of each other, like layers in an archaeological dig. One layer is composed of the software protocols that were developed in the 1970s and 1980s and hit critical mass, at least in terms of audience, in the 1990s. (A protocol is the software version of a lingua franca, a way that multiple computers agree to communicate with one another. There are protocols that govern the flow of the internet’s raw data, and protocols for sending email messages, and protocols that define the addresses of web pages.) And then above them, a second layer of web-based services — Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter — that largely came to power in the following decade.

The first layer — call it InternetOne — was founded on open protocols, which in turn were defined and maintained by academic researchers and international-standards bodies, owned by no one. In fact, that original openness continues to be all around us, in ways we probably don’t appreciate enough. Email is still based on the open protocols POP, SMTP and IMAP; websites are still served up using the open protocol HTTP; bits are still circulated via the original open protocols of the internet, TCP/IP. You don’t need to understand anything about how these software conventions work on a technical level to enjoy their benefits. The key characteristic they all share is that anyone can use them, free of charge. You don’t need to pay a licensing fee to some corporation that owns HTTP if you want to put up a web page; you don’t have to sell a part of your identity to advertisers if you want to send an email using SMTP. Along with Wikipedia, the open protocols of the internet constitute the most impressive example of commons-based production in human history.

To see how enormous but also invisible the benefits of such protocols have been, imagine that one of those key standards had not been developed: for instance, the open standard we use for defining our geographic location, GPS. Originally developed by the United States military, the Global Positioning System was first made available for civilian use during the Reagan administration. For about a decade, it was largely used by the aviation industry, until individual consumers began to use it in car navigation systems. And now we have smartphones that can pick up a signal from GPS satellites orbiting above us, and we use that extraordinary power to do everything from locating nearby restaurants to playing Pokémon Go to coordinating disaster-relief efforts.

But what if the military had kept GPS out of the public domain? Presumably, sometime in the 1990s, a market signal would have gone out to the innovators of Silicon Valley and other tech hubs, suggesting that consumers were interested in establishing their exact geographic coordinates so that those locations could be projected onto digital maps. There would have been a few years of furious competition among rival companies, who would toss their own proprietary satellites into orbit and advance their own unique protocols, but eventually the market would have settled on one dominant model, given all the efficiencies that result from a single, common way of verifying location. Call that imaginary firm GeoBook. Initially, the embrace of GeoBook would have been a leap forward for consumers and other companies trying to build location awareness into their hardware and software. But slowly, a darker narrative would have emerged: a single private corporation, tracking the movements of billions of people around the planet, building an advertising behemoth based on our shifting locations. Any start-up trying to build a geo-aware application would have been vulnerable to the whims of mighty GeoBook. Appropriately angry polemics would have been written denouncing the public menace of this Big Brother in the sky.

But none of that happened, for a simple reason. Geolocation, like the location of web pages and email addresses and domain names, is a problem we solved with an open protocol. And because it’s a problem we don’t have, we rarely think about how beautifully GPS does work and how many different applications have been built on its foundation.

The open, decentralized web turns out to be alive and well on the InternetOne layer. But since we settled on the World Wide Web in the mid-’90s, we’ve adopted very few new open-standard protocols. The biggest problems that technologists tackled after 1995 — many of which revolved around identity, community and payment mechanisms — were left to the private sector to solve. This is what led, in the early 2000s, to a powerful new layer of internet services, which we might call InternetTwo.

For all their brilliance, the inventors of the open protocols that shaped the internet failed to include some key elements that would later prove critical to the future of online culture. Perhaps most important, they did not create a secure open standard that established human identity on the network. Units of information could be defined — pages, links, messages — but people did not have their own protocol: no way to define and share your real name, your location, your interests or (perhaps most crucial) your relationships to other people online.

This turns out to have been a major oversight, because identity is the sort of problem that benefits from one universally recognized solution. It’s what Vitalik Buterin, a founder of Ethereum, describes as “base-layer” infrastructure: things like language, roads and postal services, platforms where commerce and competition are actually assisted by having an underlying layer in the public domain. Offline, we don’t have an open market for physical passports or Social Security numbers; we have a few reputable authorities — most of them backed by the power of the state — that we use to confirm to others that we are who we say we are. But online, the private sector swooped in to fill that vacuum, and because identity had that characteristic of being a universal problem, the market was heavily incentivized to settle on one common standard for defining yourself and the people you know.

The self-reinforcing feedback loops that economists call “increasing returns” or “network effects” kicked in, and after a period of experimentation in which we dabbled in social-media start-ups like Myspace and Friendster, the market settled on what is essentially a proprietary standard for establishing who you are and whom you know. That standard is Facebook. With more than two billion users, Facebook is far larger than the entire internet at the peak of the dot-com bubble in the late 1990s. And that user growth has made it the world’s sixth-most-valuable corporation, just 14 years after it was founded. Facebook is the ultimate embodiment of the chasm that divides InternetOne and InternetTwo economies. No private company owned the protocols that defined email or GPS or the open web. But one single corporation owns the data that define social identity for two billion people today — and one single person, Mark Zuckerberg, holds the majority of the voting power in that corporation.

If you see the rise of the centralized web as an inevitable turn of the Cycle, and the open-protocol idealism of the early web as a kind of adolescent false consciousness, then there’s less reason to fret about all the ways we’ve abandoned the vision of InternetOne. Either we’re living in a fallen state today and there’s no way to get back to Eden, or Eden itself was a kind of fantasy that was always going to be corrupted by concentrated power. In either case, there’s no point in trying to restore the architecture of InternetOne; our only hope is to use the power of the state to rein in these corporate giants, through regulation and antitrust action. It’s a variation of the old Audre Lorde maxim: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” You can’t fix the problems technology has created for us by throwing more technological solutions at it. You need forces outside the domain of software and servers to break up cartels with this much power.

But the thing about the master’s house, in this analogy, is that it’s a duplex. The upper floor has indeed been built with tools that cannot be used to dismantle it. But the open protocols beneath them still have the potential to build something better.

One of the most persuasive advocates of an open-protocol revival is Juan Benet, a Mexican-born programmer now living on a suburban side street in Palo Alto, Calif., in a three-bedroom rental that he shares with his girlfriend and another programmer, plus a rotating cast of guests, some of whom belong to Benet’s organization, Protocol Labs. On a warm day in September, Benet greeted me at his door wearing a black Protocol Labs hoodie. The interior of the space brought to mind the incubator/frat house of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” its living room commandeered by an array of black computer monitors. In the entrance hallway, the words “Welcome to Rivendell” were scrawled out on a whiteboard, a nod to the Elven city from “Lord of the Rings.” “We call this house Rivendell,” Benet said sheepishly. “It’s not a very good Rivendell. It doesn’t have enough books, or waterfalls, or elves.”

Benet, who is 29, considers himself a child of the first peer-to-peer revolution that briefly flourished in the late 1990s and early 2000s, driven in large part by networks like BitTorrent that distributed media files, often illegally. That initial flowering was in many ways a logical outgrowth of the internet’s decentralized, open-protocol roots. The web had shown that you could publish documents reliably in a commons-based network. Services like BitTorrent or Skype took that logic to the next level, allowing ordinary users to add new functionality to the internet: creating a distributed library of (largely pirated) media, as with BitTorrent, or helping people make phone calls over the internet, as with Skype.

Sitting in the living room/office at Rivendell, Benet told me that he thinks of the early 2000s, with the ascent of Skype and BitTorrent, as “the ‘summer’ of peer-to-peer” — its salad days. “But then peer-to-peer hit a wall, because people started to prefer centralized architectures,” he said. “And partly because the peer-to-peer business models were piracy-driven.” A graduate of Stanford’s computer-science program, Benet talks in a manner reminiscent of Elon Musk: As he speaks, his eyes dart across an empty space above your head, almost as though he’s reading an invisible teleprompter to find the words. He is passionate about the technology Protocol Labs is developing, but also keen to put it in a wider context. For Benet, the shift from distributed systems to more centralized approaches set in motion changes that few could have predicted. “The rules of the game, the rules that govern all of this technology, matter a lot,” he said. “The structure of what we build now will paint a very different picture of the way things will be five or 10 years in the future.” He continued: “It was clear to me then that peer-to-peer was this extraordinary thing. What was not clear to me then was how at risk it is. It was not clear to me that you had to take up the baton, that it’s now your turn to protect it.”

Protocol Labs is Benet’s attempt to take up that baton, and its first project is a radical overhaul of the internet’s file system, including the basic scheme we use to address the location of pages on the web. Benet calls his system IPFS, short for InterPlanetary File System. The current protocol — HTTP — pulls down web pages from a single location at a time and has no built-in mechanism for archiving the online pages. IPFS allows users to download a page simultaneously from multiple locations and includes what programmers call “historic versioning,” so that past iterations do not vanish from the historical record. To support the protocol, Benet is also creating a system called Filecoin that will allow users to effectively rent out unused hard-drive space. (Think of it as a sort of Airbnb for data.) “Right now there are tons of hard drives around the planet that are doing nothing, or close to nothing, to the point where their owners are just losing money,” Benet said. “So you can bring online a massive amount of supply, which will bring down the costs of storage.” But as its name suggests, Protocol Labs has an ambition that extends beyond these projects; Benet’s larger mission is to support many new open-source protocols in the years to come.

Why did the internet follow the path from open to closed? One part of the explanation lies in sins of omission: By the time a new generation of coders began to tackle the problems that InternetOne left unsolved, there were near-limitless sources of capital to invest in those efforts, so long as the coders kept their systems closed. The secret to the success of the open protocols of InternetOne is that they were developed in an age when most people didn’t care about online networks, so they were able to stealthily reach critical mass without having to contend with wealthy conglomerates and venture capitalists. By the mid-2000s, though, a promising new start-up like Facebook could attract millions of dollars in financing even before it became a household brand. And that private-sector money ensured that the company’s key software would remain closed, in order to capture as much value as possible for shareholders.

And yet — as the venture capitalist Chris Dixon points out — there was another factor, too, one that was more technical than financial in nature. “Let’s say you’re trying to build an open Twitter,” Dixon explained while sitting in a conference room at the New York offices of Andreessen Horowitz, where he is a general partner. “I’m @cdixon at Twitter. Where do you store that? You need a database.” A closed architecture like Facebook’s or Twitter’s puts all the information about its users — their handles, their likes and photos, the map of connections they have to other individuals on the network — into a private database that is maintained by the company. Whenever you look at your Facebook newsfeed, you are granted access to some infinitesimally small section of that database, seeing only the information that is relevant to you.

Running Facebook’s database is an unimaginably complex operation, relying on hundreds of thousands of servers scattered around the world, overseen by some of the most brilliant engineers on the planet. From Facebook’s point of view, they’re providing a valuable service to humanity: creating a common social graph for almost everyone on earth. The fact that they have to sell ads to pay the bills for that service — and the fact that the scale of their network gives them staggering power over the minds of two billion people around the world — is an unfortunate, but inevitable, price to pay for a shared social graph. And that trade-off did in fact make sense in the mid-2000s; creating a single database capable of tracking the interactions of hundreds of millions of people — much less two billion — was the kind of problem that could be tackled only by a single organization. But as Benet and his fellow blockchain evangelists are eager to prove, that might not be true anymore.

So how can you get meaningful adoption of base-layer protocols in an age when the big tech companies have already attracted billions of users and collectively sit on hundreds of billions of dollars in cash? If you happen to believe that the internet, in its current incarnation, is causing significant and growing harm to society, then this seemingly esoteric problem — the difficulty of getting people to adopt new open-source technology standards — turns out to have momentous consequences. If we can’t figure out a way to introduce new, rival base-layer infrastructure, then we’re stuck with the internet we have today. The best we can hope for is government interventions to scale back the power of Facebook or Google, or some kind of consumer revolt that encourages that marketplace to shift to less hegemonic online services, the digital equivalent of forswearing big agriculture for local farmers’ markets. Neither approach would upend the underlying dynamics of InternetTwo.

The first hint of a meaningful challenge to the closed-protocol era arrived in 2008, not long after Zuckerberg opened the first international headquarters for his growing company. A mysterious programmer (or group of programmers) going by the name Satoshi Nakamoto circulated a paper on a cryptography mailing list. The paper was called “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” and in it, Nakamoto outlined an ingenious system for a digital currency that did not require a centralized trusted authority to verify transactions. At the time, Facebook and Bitcoin seemed to belong to entirely different spheres — one was a booming venture-backed social-media start-up that let you share birthday greetings and connect with old friends, while the other was a byzantine scheme for cryptographic currency from an obscure email list. But 10 years later, the ideas that Nakamoto unleashed with that paper now pose the most significant challenge to the hegemony of InternetTwo giants like Facebook.

The paradox about Bitcoin is that it may well turn out to be a genuinely revolutionary breakthrough and at the same time a colossal failure as a currency. As I write, Bitcoin has increased in value by nearly 100,000 percent over the past five years, making a fortune for its early investors but also branding it as a spectacularly unstable payment mechanism. The process for creating new Bitcoins has also turned out to be a staggering energy drain.

History is replete with stories of new technologies whose initial applications end up having little to do with their eventual use. All the focus on Bitcoin as a payment system may similarly prove to be a distraction, a technological red herring. Nakamoto pitched Bitcoin as a “peer-to-peer electronic-cash system” in the initial manifesto, but at its heart, the innovation he (or she or they) was proposing had a more general structure, with two key features.

First, Bitcoin offered a kind of proof that you could create a secure database — the blockchain — scattered across hundreds or thousands of computers, with no single authority controlling and verifying the authenticity of the data.

Second, Nakamoto designed Bitcoin so that the work of maintaining that distributed ledger was itself rewarded with small, increasingly scarce Bitcoin payments. If you dedicated half your computer’s processing cycles to helping the Bitcoin network get its math right — and thus fend off the hackers and scam artists — you received a small sliver of the currency. Nakamoto designed the system so that Bitcoins would grow increasingly difficult to earn over time, ensuring a certain amount of scarcity in the system. If you helped Bitcoin keep that database secure in the early days, you would earn more Bitcoin than later arrivals. This process has come to be called “mining.”

For our purposes, forget everything else about the Bitcoin frenzy, and just keep these two things in mind: What Nakamoto ushered into the world was a way of agreeing on the contents of a database without anyone being “in charge” of the database, and a way of compensating people for helping make that database more valuable, without those people being on an official payroll or owning shares in a corporate entity. Together, those two ideas solved the distributed-database problem and the funding problem. Suddenly there was a way of supporting open protocols that wasn’t available during the infancy of Facebook and Twitter.

These two features have now been replicated in dozens of new systems inspired by Bitcoin. One of those systems is Ethereum, proposed in a white paper by Vitalik Buterin when he was just 19. Ethereum does have its currencies, but at its heart Ethereum was designed less to facilitate electronic payments than to allow people to run applications on top of the Ethereum blockchain. There are currently hundreds of Ethereum apps in development, ranging from prediction markets to Facebook clones to crowdfunding services. Almost all of them are in pre-alpha stage, not ready for consumer adoption. Despite the embryonic state of the applications, the Ether currency has seen its own miniature version of the Bitcoin bubble, most likely making Buterin an immense fortune.

These currencies can be used in clever ways. Juan Benet’s Filecoin system will rely on Ethereum technology and reward users and developers who adopt its IPFS protocol or help maintain the shared database it requires. Protocol Labs is creating its own cryptocurrency, also called Filecoin, and has plans to sell some of those coins on the open market in the coming months. (In the summer of 2017, the company raised $135 million in the first 60 minutes of what Benet calls a “presale” of the tokens to accredited investors.) Many cryptocurrencies are first made available to the public through a process known as an initial coin offering, or I.C.O.

The I.C.O. abbreviation is a deliberate echo of the initial public offering that so defined the first internet bubble in the 1990s. But there is a crucial difference between the two. Speculators can buy in during an I.C.O., but they are not buying an ownership stake in a private company and its proprietary software, the way they might in a traditional I.P.O. Afterward, the coins will continue to be created in exchange for labor — in the case of Filecoin, by anyone who helps maintain the Filecoin network. Developers who help refine the software can earn the coins, as can ordinary users who lend out spare hard-drive space to expand the network’s storage capacity. The Filecoin is a way of signaling that someone, somewhere, has added value to the network.

Advocates like Chris Dixon have started referring to the compensation side of the equation in terms of “tokens,” not coins, to emphasize that the technology here isn’t necessarily aiming to disrupt existing currency systems. “I like the metaphor of a token because it makes it very clear that it’s like an arcade,” he says. “You go to the arcade, and in the arcade you can use these tokens. But we’re not trying to replace the U.S. government. It’s not meant to be a real currency; it’s meant to be a pseudo-currency inside this world.” Dan Finlay, a creator of MetaMask, echoes Dixon’s argument. “To me, what’s interesting about this is that we get to program new value systems,” he says. “They don’t have to resemble money.”

Pseudo or not, the idea of an I.C.O. has already inspired a host of shady offerings, some of them endorsed by celebrities who would seem to be unlikely blockchain enthusiasts, like DJ Khaled, Paris Hilton and Floyd Mayweather. In a blog post published in October 2017, Fred Wilson, a founder of Union Square Ventures and an early advocate of the blockchain revolution, thundered against the spread of I.C.O.s. “I hate it,” Wilson wrote, adding that most I.C.O.s “are scams. And the celebrities and others who promote them on their social-media channels in an effort to enrich themselves are behaving badly and possibly violating securities laws.” Arguably the most striking thing about the surge of interest in I.C.O.s — and in existing currencies like Bitcoin or Ether — is how much financial speculation has already gravitated to platforms that have effectively zero adoption among ordinary consumers. At least during the internet bubble of late 1990s, ordinary people were buying books on Amazon or reading newspapers online; there was clear evidence that the web was going to become a mainstream platform. Today, the hype cycles are so accelerated that billions of dollars are chasing a technology that almost no one outside the cryptocommunity understands, much less uses.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the hype is warranted, and blockchain platforms like Ethereum become a fundamental part of our digital infrastructure. How would a distributed ledger and a token economy somehow challenge one of the tech giants? One of Fred Wilson’s partners at Union Square Ventures, Brad Burnham, suggests a scenario revolving around another tech giant that has run afoul of regulators and public opinion in the last year: Uber. “Uber is basically just a coordination platform between drivers and passengers,” Burnham says. “Yes, it was really innovative, and there were a bunch of things in the beginning about reducing the anxiety of whether the driver was coming or not, and the map — and a whole bunch of things that you should give them a lot of credit for.” But when a new service like Uber starts to take off, there’s a strong incentive for the marketplace to consolidate around a single leader. The fact that more passengers are starting to use the Uber app attracts more drivers to the service, which in turn attracts more passengers. People have their credit cards stored with Uber; they have the app installed already; there are far more Uber drivers on the road. And so the switching costs of trying out some other rival service eventually become prohibitive, even if the chief executive seems to be a jerk or if consumers would, in the abstract, prefer a competitive marketplace with a dozen Ubers. “At some point, the innovation around the coordination becomes less and less innovative,” Burnham says.

The blockchain world proposes something different. Imagine some group like Protocol Labs decides there’s a case to be made for adding another “basic layer” to the stack. Just as GPS gave us a way of discovering and sharing our location, this new protocol would define a simple request: I am here and would like to go there. A distributed ledger might record all its users’ past trips, credit cards, favorite locations — all the metadata that services like Uber or Amazon use to encourage lock-in. Call it, for the sake of argument, the Transit protocol. The standards for sending a Transit request out onto the internet would be entirely open; anyone who wanted to build an app to respond to that request would be free to do so. Cities could build Transit apps that allowed taxi drivers to field requests. But so could bike-share collectives, or rickshaw drivers. Developers could create shared marketplace apps where all the potential vehicles using Transit could vie for your business. When you walked out on the sidewalk and tried to get a ride, you wouldn’t have to place your allegiance with a single provider before hailing. You would simply announce that you were standing at 67th and Madison and needed to get to Union Square. And then you’d get a flurry of competing offers. You could even theoretically get an offer from the M.T.A., which could build a service to remind Transit users that it might be much cheaper and faster just to jump on the 6 train.

How would Transit reach critical mass when Uber and Lyft already dominate the ride-sharing market? This is where the tokens come in. Early adopters of Transit would be rewarded with Transit tokens, which could themselves be used to purchase Transit services or be traded on exchanges for traditional currency. As in the Bitcoin model, tokens would be doled out less generously as Transit grew more popular. In the early days, a developer who built an iPhone app that uses Transit might see a windfall of tokens; Uber drivers who started using Transit as a second option for finding passengers could collect tokens as a reward for embracing the system; adventurous consumers would be rewarded with tokens for using Transit in its early days, when there are fewer drivers available compared with the existing proprietary networks like Uber or Lyft.

As Transit began to take off, it would attract speculators, who would put a monetary price on the token and drive even more interest in the protocol by inflating its value, which in turn would attract more developers, drivers and customers. If the whole system ends up working as its advocates believe, the result is a more competitive but at the same time more equitable marketplace. Instead of all the economic value being captured by the shareholders of one or two large corporations that dominate the market, the economic value is distributed across a much wider group: the early developers of Transit, the app creators who make the protocol work in a consumer-friendly form, the early-adopter drivers and passengers, the first wave of speculators. Token economies introduce a strange new set of elements that do not fit the traditional models: instead of creating value by owning something, as in the shareholder equity model, people create value by improving the underlying protocol, either by helping to maintain the ledger (as in Bitcoin mining), or by writing apps atop it, or simply by using the service. The lines between founders, investors and customers are far blurrier than in traditional corporate models; all the incentives are explicitly designed to steer away from winner-take-all outcomes. And yet at the same time, the whole system depends on an initial speculative phase in which outsiders are betting on the token to rise in value.

“You think about the ’90s internet bubble and all the great infrastructure we got out of that,” Dixon says. “You’re basically taking that effect and shrinking it down to the size of an application.”

Even decentralized cryptomovements have their key nodes. For Ethereum, one of those nodes is the Brooklyn headquarters of an organization called ConsenSys, founded by Joseph Lubin, an early Ethereum pioneer. In November, Amanda Gutterman, the 26-year-old chief marketing officer for ConsenSys, gave me a tour of the space. In our first few minutes together, she offered the obligatory cup of coffee, only to discover that the drip-coffee machine in the kitchen was bone dry. “How can we fix the internet if we can’t even make coffee?” she said with a laugh.

Planted in industrial Bushwick, a stone’s throw from the pizza mecca Roberta’s, “headquarters” seemed an unlikely word. The front door was festooned with graffiti and stickers; inside, the stairwells of the space appeared to have been last renovated during the Coolidge administration. Just about three years old, the ConsenSys network now includes more than 550 employees in 28 countries, and the operation has never raised a dime of venture capital. As an organization, ConsenSys does not quite fit any of the usual categories: It is technically a corporation, but it has elements that also resemble nonprofits and workers’ collectives. The shared goal of ConsenSys members is strengthening and expanding the Ethereum blockchain. They support developers creating new apps and tools for the platform, one of which is MetaMask, the software that generated my Ethereum address. But they also offer consulting-style services for companies, nonprofits or governments looking for ways to integrate Ethereum’s smart contracts into their own systems.

The true test of the blockchain will revolve — like so many of the online crises of the past few years — around the problem of identity. Today your digital identity is scattered across dozens, or even hundreds, of different sites: Amazon has your credit-card information and your purchase history; Facebook knows your friends and family; Equifax maintains your credit history. When you use any of those services, you are effectively asking for permission to borrow some of that information about yourself in order perform a task: ordering a Christmas present for your uncle, checking Instagram to see pictures from the office party last night. But all these different fragments of your identity don’t belong to you; they belong to Facebook and Amazon and Google, who are free to sell bits of that information about you to advertisers without consulting you. You, of course, are free to delete those accounts if you choose, and if you stop checking Facebook, Zuckerberg and the Facebook shareholders will stop making money by renting out your attention to their true customers. But your Facebook or Google identity isn’t portable. If you want to join another promising social network that is maybe a little less infected with Russian bots, you can’t extract your social network from Twitter and deposit it in the new service. You have to build the network again from scratch (and persuade all your friends to do the same).

The blockchain evangelists think this entire approach is backward. You should own your digital identity — which could include everything from your date of birth to your friend networks to your purchasing history — and you should be free to lend parts of that identity out to services as you see fit. Given that identity was not baked into the original internet protocols, and given the difficulty of managing a distributed database in the days before Bitcoin, this form of “self-sovereign” identity — as the parlance has it — was a practical impossibility. Now it is an attainable goal. A number of blockchain-based services are trying to tackle this problem, including a new identity system called uPort that has been spun out of ConsenSys and another one called Blockstack that is currently based on the Bitcoin platform. (Tim Berners-Lee is leading the development of a comparable system, called Solid, that would also give users control over their own data.) These rival protocols all have slightly different frameworks, but they all share a general vision of how identity should work on a truly decentralized internet.

What would prevent a new blockchain-based identity standard from following Tim Wu’s Cycle, the same one that brought Facebook to such a dominant position? Perhaps nothing. But imagine how that sequence would play out in practice. Someone creates a new protocol to define your social network via Ethereum. It might be as simple as a list of other Ethereum addresses; in other words, Here are the public addresses of people I like and trust. That way of defining your social network might well take off and ultimately supplant the closed systems that define your network on Facebook. Perhaps someday, every single person on the planet might use that standard to map their social connections, just as every single person on the internet uses TCP/IP to share data. But even if this new form of identity became ubiquitous, it wouldn’t present the same opportunities for abuse and manipulation that you find in the closed systems that have become de facto standards. I might allow a Facebook-style service to use my social map to filter news or gossip or music for me, based on the activity of my friends, but if that service annoyed me, I’d be free to sample other alternatives without the switching costs. An open identity standard would give ordinary people the opportunity to sell their attention to the highest bidder, or choose to keep it out of the marketplace altogether.

Gutterman suggests that the same kind of system could be applied to even more critical forms of identity, like health care data. Instead of storing, say, your genome on servers belonging to a private corporation, the information would instead be stored inside a personal data archive. “There may be many corporate entities that I don’t want seeing that data, but maybe I’d like to donate that data to a medical study,” she says. “I could use my blockchain-based self-sovereign ID to [allow] one group to use it and not another. Or I could sell it over here and give it away over there.”

The token architecture would give a blockchain-based identity standard an additional edge over closed standards like Facebook’s. As many critics have observed, ordinary users on social-media platforms create almost all the content without compensation, while the companies capture all the economic value from that content through advertising sales. A token-based social network would at least give early adopters a piece of the action, rewarding them for their labors in making the new platform appealing. “If someone can really figure out a version of Facebook that lets users own a piece of the network and get paid,” Dixon says, “that could be pretty compelling.”

Would that information be more secure in a distributed blockchain than behind the elaborate firewalls of giant corporations like Google or Facebook? In this one respect, the Bitcoin story is actually instructive: It may never be stable enough to function as a currency, but it does offer convincing proof of just how secure a distributed ledger can be. “Look at the market cap of Bitcoin or Ethereum: $80 billion, $25 billion, whatever,” Dixon says. “That means if you successfully attack that system, you could walk away with more than a billion dollars. You know what a ‘bug bounty’ is? Someone says, ‘If you hack my system, I’ll give you a million dollars.’ So Bitcoin is now a nine-year-old multibillion-dollar bug bounty, and no one’s hacked it. It feels like pretty good proof.”

Additional security would come from the decentralized nature of these new identity protocols. In the identity system proposed by Blockstack, the actual information about your identity — your social connections, your purchasing history — could be stored anywhere online. The blockchain would simply provide cryptographically secure keys to unlock that information and share it with other trusted providers. A system with a centralized repository with data for hundreds of millions of users — what security experts call “honey pots” — is far more appealing to hackers. Which would you rather do: steal a hundred million credit histories by hacking into a hundred million separate personal computers and sniffing around until you found the right data on each machine? Or just hack into one honey pot at Equifax and walk away with the same amount of data in a matter of hours? As Gutterman puts it, “It’s the difference between robbing a house versus robbing the entire village.”

So much of the blockchain’s architecture is shaped by predictions about how that architecture might be abused once it finds a wider audience. That is part of its charm and its power. The blockchain channels the energy of speculative bubbles by allowing tokens to be shared widely among true supporters of the platform. It safeguards against any individual or small group gaining control of the entire database. Its cryptography is designed to protect against surveillance states or identity thieves. In this, the blockchain displays a familial resemblance to political constitutions: Its rules are designed with one eye on how those rules might be exploited down the line.

Much has been made of the anarcho-libertarian streak in Bitcoin and other nonfiat currencies; the community is rife with words and phrases (“self-sovereign”) that sound as if they could be slogans for some militia compound in Montana. And yet in its potential to break up large concentrations of power and explore less-proprietary models of ownership, the blockchain idea offers a tantalizing possibility for those who would like to distribute wealth more equitably and break up the cartels of the digital age.

The blockchain worldview can also sound libertarian in the sense that it proposes nonstate solutions to capitalist excesses like information monopolies. But to believe in the blockchain is not necessarily to oppose regulation, if that regulation is designed with complementary aims. Brad Burnham, for instance, suggests that regulators should insist that everyone have “a right to a private data store,” where all the various facets of their online identity would be maintained. But governments wouldn’t be required to design those identity protocols. They would be developed on the blockchain, open source. Ideologically speaking, that private data store would be a true team effort: built as an intellectual commons, funded by token speculators, supported by the regulatory state.

Like the original internet itself, the blockchain is an idea with radical — almost communitarian — possibilities that at the same time has attracted some of the most frivolous and regressive appetites of capitalism. We spent our first years online in a world defined by open protocols and intellectual commons; we spent the second phase in a world increasingly dominated by closed architectures and proprietary databases. We have learned enough from this history to support the hypothesis that open works better than closed, at least where base-layer issues are concerned. But we don’t have an easy route back to the open-protocol era. Some messianic next-generation internet protocol is not likely to emerge out of Department of Defense research, the way the first-generation internet did nearly 50 years ago.

Yes, the blockchain may seem like the very worst of speculative capitalism right now, and yes, it is demonically challenging to understand. But the beautiful thing about open protocols is that they can be steered in surprising new directions by the people who discover and champion them in their infancy. Right now, the only real hope for a revival of the open-protocol ethos lies in the blockchain. Whether it eventually lives up to its egalitarian promise will in large part depend on the people who embrace the platform, who take up the baton, as Juan Benet puts it, from those early online pioneers. If you think the internet is not working in its current incarnation, you can’t change the system through think-pieces and F.C.C. regulations alone. You need new code.

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Block.one, a software startup registered in the Cayman Islands and lacking a central office, has accomplished an astounding feat: So far, it has extracted $700 million in real money from the global public by selling tokens, called EOS, in an initial coin offering. It is by far the largest ICO ever.

An ICO is similar to an IPO, but here buyers got nothing other than the digital tokens – no ownership in the company (unlike what an IPO offers), no promises of any kind, no participation in anything, not even any fake promises of free future products. No matter how awesome and world-changing the blockchain platform or whatever the company might be developing might turn out to be, it won’t be connected to the tokens.

The purchase agreement that buyers in the ICO must sign states this very clearly and explicitly:

The EOS Tokens do not have any rights, uses, purpose, attributes, functionalities and features, express or implied, including, without limitation, any uses, purpose, attributes, functionalities and features on the EOS Platform.

By comparison, with an IPO, investors actually end up with shares in the company. They become part-owners of the company.

The only thing buyers in this ICO got was the hope that the price of the token, given the current cryptocurrency mania, would surge by thousands of percent in the shortest time span – on the principle that the less people get, the more they’re willing to pay for it, and if they got nothing at all, they’d be willing to pay the most. Those hopes have been realized.

The price of the token has skyrocketed, though prices vary around the globe, depending on the exchange where EOS is traded. At the moment I’m writing this, on the top 10 exchanges by EOS volume, prices range from $9.67 at Bithumb to $8.54 at Binance.

In mid-October, the price was still in the 50-cent range. So to people who bought at the time, it doesn’t matter that they own not even one iota of the company or its world-changing technology platform or whatever because since mid-October the price has multiplied by 19. That’s all that matters (via Coinmarketcap.com):

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To pull off the mega-ICO, block.one “made a public relations splash, hosting numerous informational sessions, sponsoring post-conference receptions, giving out free t-shirts and even advertising on a Times Square jumbotron,” Coindesk observed. Its executives “have spoken at myriad conferences and met colleagues and potential clients at “meetups” in cities like London, Amsterdam, Singapore and New York,” the Wall Street Journal observed.

The sale of EOS has started in late June. And it’s not finished yet. Every day, block.com sells two million tokens via an auction process. According to Brock Pierce, a co-founder of block.comcited by the Wall Street Journal, the company plans to keep the ICO going until next June to raise “well north of” $1 billion.

But even at $700 million raised so far, this ICO is leagues ahead of the prior records:

  • The second largest ICO, Filecoin, raised $262 million from August 10 to September 7, which broke the all-time record for ICO funding at the time.
  • The third largest ICO, Tezos, raised $232. It is now embroiled in lawsuits, controversy, and allegations of US securities laws violations and investor fraud.

The most recent class-action lawsuit, filed in the Tezos case a few days ago, stated:

In sum, Defendants capitalized on the recent enthusiasm for blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies to raise funds through the ICO, illegally sold unqualified and unregistered securities, used a Swiss-based entity in an unsuccessful attempt to evade U.S. securities laws, and are now admittedly engaged in the conversion, selling, and possible dissipation of the proceeds that they collected from the Class through their unregistered offering.

Practically anyone can sell tokens in an ICO. So far in 2017, 165 companies have raised more than $4 billion via ICOs, up from $226 million in 2016. Often, companies promise investors something of perceived value for their money, such as something for free down the road, other than ownership. It’s really more like a donation. The main thing is the digital token that can be traded for instant riches if enough buyers can be dragged out of the woods.

Regulators are just now beginning to wake up. A week ago, the SEC ruled Munchee’s $15-million token sale illegal and halted it. SEC Chairman Jay Clayton, still rubbing his eyes from having slept through much of the mania so far, warned “main street investors”:

The world’s social media platforms and financial markets are abuzz about cryptocurrencies and “initial coin offerings” (ICOs). There are tales of fortunes made and dreamed to be made. We are hearing the familiar refrain, “this time is different.”

Since the SEC started issuing warnings about ICOs in June, block.one has closed its ICO to residents in the US. China too cracked down recently on ICOs, and block.one also closed its ICO to residents of China. But cryptocurrencies are transnational, exchanges are everywhere, and people in China and the US who want to buy into the ICO can probably figure out how to do it.

Oh, and over the time that it took me to write this, EOS spiked another 23.8% on Bithumb, to $11.97. So it really doesn’t matter that it doesn’t convey any kind of ownership of the company or anything else, as long as it continues to surge exponentially forever.

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A definition of money is that it provides the function of [universal] indirect exchange. Currently, Bitcoin fails that test. The use or acceptance of Bitcoin in indirect exchange is still restricted to [mostly] early adopters.

The current surge of interest in Bitcoin, myself included is as a vehicle of speculation. I have no interest [currently] in using Bitcoin as ‘money’. It is an asset class that to date has increased in value and could further increase in value.

One major issue [for me] is that in the event of war, possible invasion, could I store any wealth in Bitcoin and could I, if necessary, access it? Currently you need a computer and access to the internet, assuming an internet still exists. Sure this is an end-game argument, but it is an argument put forward by advocates of Bitcoin. This however is a scenario where fast access to a gold coin, to offer a bribe, comes out streets ahead of, I’ll just login and transfer to you a Bitcoin.

As to transferring money around the world, it can already be done. True it’s not invisible to the authorities, but most people have no real need of the anonymity provided. For the few that do, then this is a major advantage.

The jury is still out on whether Bitcoin will go mainstream as a money. This is however an argument that drives the valuation of Bitcoin, that Bitcoin will replace fiat money and to do so, Bitcoin will be valued at the current value of all available money in the world. I have no idea whether that will happen. I personally just couldn’t be bothered to use it as a medium of exchange, in its current form it’s just too much effort. To date, your average person does not understand Bitcoin, although due to the phenomenal rise in money prices, they have heard of it.

 

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