The “next internet” isn’t just for crypto-anarchists anymore. Some mainstream companies see Blockchain as the future for pretty much everything.
oe Lubin was Living in Jamaica in 2014 when he had the meeting that would transform him into a crypto billionaire and a high priest in a new technological ecosystem that some believe may one day prove more significant than the internet.
Lubin, a 53-year-old Princeton-educated engineer with a résumé that included stints at Goldman Sachs and several hedge funds, had long since “checked out.” Alarmed by global debt and what he was seeing on Wall Street and in Washington, D.C., he had considered hoarding precious metals long before the 2008 financial crisis was in full swing. He’d even trekked through Peru and Ecuador with his brother, looking to buy South American farmland that might help insulate them from what he saw as an inevitable global reckoning.
Instead, once the crisis finally hit, Lubin decamped to the Rasta nation with a female friend. They built a home recording studio in Kingston, not far from the beach, and began producing music and videos. For a time, Lubin did all he could to avert his gaze from the carnage he’d left behind. “We felt like doing the music project in Jamaica would be much less expensive and more fun,” he says. “I’m a terrible guitar player, so I was more of the facilitator.”
Then, in 2011, Lubin read about bitcoin, the cryptocurrency invented by a mysterious figure known only by the pseudonym Satoshi
Nakamoto. Like countless others,
Lubin became “infatuated” with
Nakamoto’s idea of digital money that could operate outside global financial systems, remaining impervious to the manipulations of governments and central bankers. Lubin began buying coins and reading everything he could find about the technology.
Nakamoto’s singular innovation was the creation of an encrypted, parallel ledger system known as the “blockchain,” along with an incentive structure to get people to run it on their computers. Using Nakamoto’s software, thousands of people could simultaneously serve as custodians of a continuously updating body of records. The time and origin of every bitcoin transfer and transaction were recorded and revised at the same time on a multitude of independently run computers. A majority of these computers had to validate any new “block” of transactions to make it stick. For these reasons, it was virtually impossible for anyone to hack it, cheat it or manipulate it.
Still, it wasn’t until five years ago when Lubin encountered a 19-year-old math savant at a meeting for crypto enthusiasts in downtown Toronto that the Canadian-born engineer’s time as a recording impresario drew to a close. The young man was Vitalik Buterin, a college dropout whose own infatuation with cryptocurrency had led him to co-found Bitcoin magazine. That evening, on January 1, 2014, Buterin told Lubin he’d been working on a wholly new blockchain application—similar to but far more ambitious than the distributed ledger created by Nakamoto.
Buterin’s platform could indelibly record not just bitcoin transactions but any kind of transaction on a distributed ledger. It could be programmed to automatically execute complex agreements, or “smart contracts,” involving the sale of a stake in a property, the adoption of bylaws by an organization or the purchase of 1,000 bales of cotton in six months at $1.50 a pound. And since it would be run in many places on many computers around the world at the same time, all of it could be done beyond the jurisdiction, and without the interference, of any government or corporate entity. Buterin had already given the platform a name: Ethereum.
To most people—particularly those who haven’t spent time contemplating how much we are at the mercy of corporations
I REALIZED IT WAS GOING TO CHANGE THE WORLD. I CAUGHT BLOCKCHAIN FEVER. EVERYTHING SUDDENLY MADE SENSE.
and governments that control the internet’s servers and data centers—buterin’s pitch might have elicited a blank stare. But when Lubin read Buterin’s proposal, or white paper, he realized it was the solution he had been waiting for: a tangible way to finally put into motion the possible global transformation he’d envisioned with the introduction of bitcoin.
All of those centralized servers could be replaced by a hive mind composed of independent, individual actors—one controlled by everybody and nobody at the same time. The toll keepers and middle men would be cut out, enabling new kinds of institutional, commercial and governmental structures, and a different sort of World Wide Web—a truly democratic “virtual machine.” We could take back our data from the Facebooks, Googles and Amazons of the world. Even the disrupters would be disrupted.
“This technology has the potential to shatter the silos of power and re-balance the information asymmetries that disadvantage so many,” Lubin would later write.
Almost five years later, that vision has grown into a global movement.
As many as 250,000 developers are now building on the Ethereum platform, launched in July 2015 by Buterin, Lubin and a small core of other pioneers. It has spawned scores of imitators, spin-offs and would-be usurpers, and made Lubin and his young friend unimaginably rich. How much Buterin’s pioneering re-engineering of blockchain will actually change the world remains to be seen. But we may soon find out.
A Virtual Avalanche
in recent months, the first of what many expect will be a virtual avalanche of blockchain-based projects—on Ethereum and on the many distributed ledger platforms that now compete with it—have begun to move from their pilot phases to full implementation. The group of people pushing these new technologies is no longer limited to a small band of crypto-anarchists, disillusioned Wall Street cast-offs and geeky computer programmers. It now includes corporate and government leaders at the center of the power structures many of blockchain’s early converts once hoped to disrupt.
Although the uses these leaders have in mind for the technology are prosaic—supply-chain custody tracking, back-office banking settlements, the re-engineering of food safety systems—they talk about blockchain with an almost religious fervor. That has created a manic hype around a technology many people are too embarrassed to admit they don’t really understand.
“Every consulting company is obsessively engaged with this stuff now,” notes Sheila Warren, who heads a blockchain project at the World Economic Forum focused on encouraging the development of common technical protocols and common standards. “There are a lot of blockchain labs in big companies—ibm, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, SAP. All these companies are paying attention.” Some of blockchain’s more radical early innovators look askance at the efforts of Big Business to co-opt their idealistic visions for a universal “truth machine” and modify its architecture to better suit more mercenary uses. But others, like Lubin, see this development as a useful step toward a larger vision of a new World Wide Web for transactions of all kinds. Corporate spending on blockchain technologies is expected to rise from
BUTERIN’S WHITE PAPER HAD BEEN WIDELY READ, AND ANTICIPATION OF THE ETHER COIN LAUNCH HAD BEEN BUILDING FOR MONTHS.
BRAIN MAN College dropout Buterin channeled his early infatuation with cryptocurrencies into a far more ambitious application of blockchain technology: one that could execute “smart contracts.”