The Ethereal Summit Shows Blockchain’s Transformative Potential

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I bent down, rested my knees on a prayer cushion, and began typing into a small computer. In front of me were dozens of candles, flowers, Japanese lucky cat figurines, and several wallet-sized picture frames. They held photos of Vitalik Buterin, the Canadian programmer who cofounded the computing platform Ethereum, as well as of Satoshi Nakamoto, a man in his 60s with the same name as the founder of Bitcoin. He was misidentified as its creator by Newsweek in 2014; because no one knows what the actual Nakamoto looks like, the California man’s image has continued to serve as a stand-in.

At the altar, a message on a small computer screen prompted visitors to write prayers to the real Nakamoto, which were then algorithmically transformed into random private keys, which were in turn used to guess the password that unlocks the Bitcoin inventor’s abandoned cryptocurrency fortune—estimated to be worth over $8 billion. I entered in a halfhearted prayer, waited a few beats, and was greeted with a message: “I’m sorry my child. You are not the chosen one. Have more faith in the HODL. Spread the good word of decentralization.

The artist collective Vapor Ants conceived of the shrine as a commentary on the near-religious fervor that devotees have for blockchain technology, which they believe will transform the internet and global economy. The interactive art piece was displayed at the Ethereal Summit, a two-day conference hosted at Brooklyn’s Knockdown Center by ConsenSys, one of the most prominent companies betting that blockchain tech, and Ethereum specifically, will disrupt nearly every industry imaginable. Ethereum differs from Bitcoin in that it allows for a variety of applications—and even other cryptocurrencies—to be built on top of it, like how apps are built on top of the World Wide Web. ConsenSys plans for a future where Ethereum-based apps eclipse the web as we know it, creating what it calls Web 3.0.

The two-day, $1200-a-person conference was hosted at an art and performance space in Queens, and served as the start of New York’s blockchain week, which includes a series of other events—including a conference confusingly called Consensus, hosted by the publication CoinDesk. Attendees included plenty of young men in their 20s and 30s, but also lots of women, and a fair number of people who looked to be retirement age. Think of Ethereal as Google I/O or Microsoft Build, which both also took place last week, but for Ethereum.

‘This is either the biggest scam or the most undervalued asset in humanity. It could still be either way.’

Ronny Chieng, The Daily Show

To strain the analogy a bit, it also helps to think of ConsenSys as the Google of blockchain tech. The company has its hands in nearly every aspect of the Ethereum landscape, the same way the tech giant dominates most facets of the digital economy. ConsenSys has nearly 1000 official employees, some of whom work on projects related to supply chains, real estate, music, journalism, and other industries. But the heart of its business is in developing foundational blockchain tools, which can then be utilized by other companies, like how Google developed Gmail, Google Drive, and Google Cloud. So far, Consensys’ offerings include uPort, a tool for managing user identity, as well as Truffle, an Ethereum development framework, and more.

The company was founded in 2015 by Joseph Lubin, a Canadian entrepreneur and a cofounder of Ethereum. His net worth is estimated to be over $1 billion, amassed from investing in ether, Ethereum’s cryptocurrency, before it gained traction. Lubin’s personal fortune helps to bankroll the company’s ventures.

Perhaps befitting of its name, Ethereal hosted mostly vague talks, including several that might leave blockchain skeptics unconvinced. The tech’s great promise is that it will decentralize the internet, putting power back into the hands of the people. When you transact with a traditional bank, it’s in charge of keeping track of who you send money to and when. But with blockchains, that information is verified and stored by everyone on the network, stripping institutions like banks of their historical power. That’s why no single person controls Bitcoin, and it’s not regulated by an entity like the Federal Reserve. Sometimes, though, it’s unclear how that tech applies to many of the things blockchain believers say it can disrupt. Or how it can improve on the status quo.

One Ethereal’s first sessions was led by the founders of Viant, a ConsenSys project designed to disrupt supply chains. Attendees nibbled on yellowfish tuna that had been tracked using Viant’s blockchain app all the way from Fiji, where it was caught. It’s heartening to think of a future where you can know exactly where your food came from, but also hard to see how Viant’s tech differs entirely from, say, what UPS uses to track packages. Even if entries into the blockchain are permanent and verified, it’s not clear what would stop bad actors in the supply chain from fudging them in the first place.

Ethereal also featured speakers from outside of ConsenSys, like Yorke Rhodes, a blockchain engineer from Microsoft, who spoke about the power of blockchain tokens, and Amber Baldet, a bonafide cryptocurrency celebrity and the former blockchain lead at J.P. Morgan, who primarily discussed the importance of privacy.

Ethereal’s attendees, by design, were not fully insulated from skeptics cautious of blockchain’s power to transform the world. During one session, Ronny Chieng, a correspondent from The Daily Show, debated Lubin over the hype and promises of the cryptocurrency industry. It was the second time the pair had sparred; Lubin came on Chieng’s show in December.

Chieng argued that decentralized technologies have long existed, like BitTorrent, a file-sharing platform developed in 2005. Lubin retorted that the platform had been stigmatized, and that now was the right time for decentralized tech to really flourish. Chieng wouldn’t relent. “This is either the biggest scam or the most undervalued asset in humanity. It could still be either way,” he said.

The conference also offered ample distractions, including a meditation session lead by Deepak Chopra, a prominent alternative medicine guru. “Blockchain is a construct,” Chopra said to an audience of 75 or so attendees. In fairness, he later added that everything else in the world is a construct too, aside from our “awareness.” Chopra gracefully answered a question from one audience member, who asked whether he saw connections between the Ethereum blockchain, yoga, and awakening one’s chakras. “I like the idea that blockchain can address all needs,” he responded, in part.

Lubin spoke last at Ethereal, before the event’s closing art auction. In a t-shirt reminiscent of something one would wear to Burning Man, Lubin explained how blockchain technology will allow all of us to become “well-educated, festival-going gamers.” Once the tokenized-utopia arrives, he said, everyone will have more time to develop their personal interests as well as socialize. That’s been the promise of nearly every iteration of new technology, but so far, it hasn’t come to fruition.

‘Blockchain is a construct.’

Deepak Chopra

Ultimately, we’ll expand our species beyond Earth, according to Lubin’s vision. The entrepreneur, who is in his 50s, spoke in short, endearing sentences, sprinkled with plenty of “ums.” He said ConsenSys was an “experiment,” and that after Web 3.0 will come Web 4.0, in which artificially intelligent agents will enter into contracts on our behalf.

The audience acted mostly unsurprised by the speech, though it booed at the mention of some of today’s leading tech platforms, like Uber and Airbnb. “They’re just resource aggregators,” Lubin said, dismissing them.

“He’s Steve Jobs times times 100, when this is all said and done,” an attendee nearby said of Lubin as his speech was closing.

The closing auction was hosted by Codex, a platform that uses—what else—the Ethereum blockchain to register and catalog art. Proceeds from the event went to the Foundation for Arts & Blockchain, a group that funds artists whose work incorporates blockchain tech. One piece, a white canvas with HODL—a term that signifies holding onto cryptocurrency instead of selling it—printed on it in red went for $8,000.

The final item up for bid: an exclusive Cryptokitty designed by Guilherme Twardowski, director of art for the game Cryptokitties, which is kind of like the digital equivalent of Beanie Babies. Users trade and breed digital cats on the Ethereum blockchain. More valuable kitties have rare traits, like say, green eyes. Getting a rare kitty is kind of like capturing a rare Pokémon in Pokémon GO.

As bids for the Cryptokitty crept above $100,000, a group of attendees wearing shirts that read “ARTISTS DESERVE MORE” cheered and hugged one another. The digital feline sold for $140,000.

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