Heard much about Solana? Or Cosmos? Does Tezos, Cardano, or Flow ring a bell? How about Avalanche? The one that has nothing to do with snow. Or Polkadot, not in a sartorial sense. Perhaps the unimaginatively named Binance Smart Chain might explain what I’m talking about.
Now, I feel all 1988 again, I see the same thing. That the mainstream, legacy media, is missing the big story about blockchain, cryptocurrency, Web 3.0, whatever you want to call it. You get some oohs and aahs about Bitcoin as its price goes up and down. Bitcoin itself, now that Elon Musk and Tesla have charged in, and Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs have bent the knee, is steady copy.
And Ethereum, the first and still the most potent smart-contract blockchain have had some desultory coverage. But hardly anyone has noticed that everything has changed. The story of blockchain is to be found on Twitter, YouTube, Medium, Reddit, Telegram, Discord, Tik Tok, and a few specialised websites like Cointelegraph, Decrypt, and The Daily Hodl.
Last month the American artist Beeple had a digital art work entitled “Everydays: The First 5000 days” sold off at Christie’s auction house for 69 million dollars. A big news story. That made sense, it was the usual gawking that someone still breathing could get away with making that much money, another familiar chapter in the winner-takes-nearly-all system of art. Beeple stepped up to join David Hockney, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Banksy.
So sharks and canvases are out, pro software, and digital is in. That it was the first major auction of an NFT (Non-fungible token, a sort of digital certificate of uniqueness) also got some notice. NFTs are the latest craze in the craze-ridden world of blockchains.
The mania for NFTs is at such a height there’s a sporting chance you could NFT a photo of your kitchen sink and bag a generous offer. The merit of an NFT however is that you can verify provenance and ownership because an NFT is a smart contract on a blockchain. NFTs also allow for the possibility of a “creator’s share”, an automatic, no-waiting-for-the-cheque royalty. An artist starving in his garret, who initially sells his work for a small sum might get a cut of future brain-bursting sales.
Beeple was already popular with the Crypto faithful, but this sale unleashed a rampage of euphoria. One of the boys (and they are principally boys in Crypto) had dun good. Beeple had delivered a jawbreaker to the Poussin-selling ponces, to the crumbles like Warren Buffett who had dismissed Bitcoin as “rat poison”. Consternation followed when Beeple, who had been paid in ether, the “currency” of the Ethereum blockchain and most NFTs, opted for the dead presidents. He cashed out into good old US Dollars. And he cashed out, according to his statement, completely.
What was most intriguing (and infuriating for the zealots) was complete. Because in the Crypto world you can make, in the lingo, “face-melting” gains with ether, if you like to take some risks, and even if you don’t, the price of ether, like bitcoin is on the rise, and if nothing else you can earn some 5% interest (as opposed to current the high-street APY of 0.1%). The appeal, the unique selling proposition, of Crypto is beautifully simple: you can make money.
Ethereum was created in 2015, after Bitcoin, and while the Bitcoin blockchain basically does one thing, running Bitcoin, Ethereum, to borrow from Chairman Mao, lets “ a hundred flowers blossom”. Ethereum’s smart contract functionality means you can create DAOs, decentralised autonomous organizations. A business, an office, whatever, in code.
Ethereum, however, has become crippled by its own success. Like a new motorway overwhelmed into a traffic jam, transactions are often slow and expensive. NFTs and DeFi have exploded. DeFi, decentralised finance, runs mostly on Ethereum. Do anything you wanna do. Lending. Borrowing. Investing. Futures. Weird derivatives. Gambling. Even boring stuff like real estate, insurance. DeFi is usually easier, cheaper, and faster than trotting off to a bank or a pawn shop. DeFi is also a business that has gone from practically nothing to over fifty billion dollars in a year or so. Apart from coke-trafficking, I can’t imagine anything else has had that sort of growth.
So, Ethereum, like Pablo Escobar, can’t cope with the frenzied demand. Step forward the so-called Ethereum-killers, the challenger blockchains that want some of the smart-contract action. Solana, Cosmos, Tezos, Cardano, Flow, Avalanche, Polkadot and many others. Big talk abounds in the Crypto world. Devs brag about what they are planning in white papers and roadmaps, yet nearly everything runs late. Very late.
Nevertheless, this summer should see some serious delivery from many of the newcomers. Binance Smart Chain has already walked off with a lot of the Dex (decentralised exchange) trade from Ethereum; indeed, Binance is looking very much like the undisputed superpower of Crypto (for the moment).
Like the Railroad barons of the nineteenth century carving up territory, the blockchains are racing for dominance, although they are all working on interoperability (doubtless in the hope of assets defecting to them). Nearly everyone in the game plays up the philanthropy, to emphasize that they’re not soulless quick-buck merchants, to insist that all these delights can reach the less fortunate in the less fortunate countries.
There’s some truth in that, that the barriers to financial and other services have been lowered, but if you have an internet connection and some capital, you’re probably not amongst the least fortunate. And if your government is evil they’ll just use a classic hack, hitting you over the head with a big stick, until you hand over the keys to your NFTs or bitcoin.
So what about the authorities? What’s the Man doing? Because the bankers in the West didn’t take Bitcoin seriously in the beginning, because they were too busy sniggering, they didn’t get their pals, the governments, to stamp down hard. Bitcoin is now too big to fail, too fluid to stop. The US has made peace with Bitcoin and most Crypto entities. It would be nearly impossible to roll back on that.
India and China intermittently huff and puff about Bitcoin, but you know, money works wonders. The Norwegian billionaire Øystein Stray Spetalen, a week after calling for Bitcoin to be banned like a good Scandinavian (because of its supposed environmental impact), announced he was buying bitcoin and joining the board of a crypto exchange as he couldn’t bear to see others making fat profits.
The Dexs will be subjected to some attempted muzzling, and some will go along with some regulations for the sake of peace and quiet, but even more so than Bitcoin, they’re probably too fast and too mobile to be snared. You could set up a Dex in the middle of the Sahara desert, or the middle of the Atlantic.
The greatest irony about Crypto is that Bitcoin was created to provide an alternative to fiat money (constantly devalued by wastrel governments). Bitcoin, the would-be nemesis to fiat, has inadvertently given sickly fiat a transplant. Like an octogenarian billionaire with a young wife, there’s new pep. Stablecoins, crypto coins that are pegged to the dollar, or the euro or pound, are some of the most popular. USDC, one of the more reputable dollar stablecoins, can get you as much as 10% APY in Crypto markets, whereas the dollar bill can’t.
Of course, not everything is glorious in Crypto. Those hostile to Crypto are right to point out bugs in the code, that there are good old-fashioned failures, as well as thefts and swindles, or “rug-pulls”. It’s a pity that the participants of Crypto haven’t all been as probity-heavy as the magnificos of the City or Wall Street, where, we all know, with the clever, well-thought-out regulations and well-paid regulators, nothing ever goes wrong.
It’s also true that if you have a problem with a Crypto transaction, you’re very much on your own. You’re more likely to get a solution from Google than the customer support team of even the big Crypto exchanges. Lack of prompt help is probably the biggest failing in this fast-growing business, but then what has your bank done for you lately?
That Bitcoin is where it is, isn’t a miracle. It’s a pageant of miracles. So is DeFi. The exhilarating aspect of blockchains is it’s all-new, and no one, no one knows how it will turn out. Whatever regulations, taxes, and changes will come, there’s plenty of room in the trough for more snouts. But who knows? As Jesse Powell, the co-founder and CEO of Kraken, one of the most venerable crypto exchanges, respected in the business as a true crypto OG, recently tweeted: “After 10 years in crypto, for the first time, it feels like we are entering the early stages of mainstream adoption. Am I relieved? No. I'm fearful because it marks the end of our ability to be ignored. Get ready to fight.”
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