What is cryptocurrency? I imaging for most of us the answer to that question is fuzzy at best. We could go read the whitepapers on Bitcoin and blockchain, but it won’t take long for our eyes to glaze over with terms like cryptographic hashing algorithms, Byzantine fault tolerance, and distributed ledgers. I imagine some of you are going that route already. So let’s start with a different question…
What is Money?
This is a deceptively simple question. What would chunks of metal, green pieces of paper, and shells all have in common? What are the underlying principles that allow us to see these things as equivalent?
Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens describes the essence of money. Here is what he has to say about money based on two universal principles. First is quote, “Universal convertibility: with money as an alchemist, you can turn land into loyalty, justice into health, and violence into knowledge.” For example, oil is extracted from the Earth; the oil is sold and the company buys more land; the landowner from which that land is purchased invests in his daughter’s college fund; his daughter uses her law degree to prosecute environmental violations of oil companies. The oil is converted into land, which is converted into investment into someone’s future, which is converted into knowledge, which is ultimately converted into justice. This is part of why money plays such a central role in our lives, it is the means by which we can facilitate so much of what we want out of life in a free flowing, dynamic way.
The second underlying principle is quote, “Universal trust: with money as a go-between, any two people can cooperate on any project." Trust…this is an essential aspect of our human experience and something worth exploring in depth. Trust is ultimately what I'm here to talk about.
The US dollar has value because the world has a measure of Trust in the US government; Trust in the stability of our society, Trust in our ability to pay our debts, Trust that the world of the future will include the United States who will still be able to make good on the "value" of the dollar. The dollar is, after all, just a green piece of paper. More specifically a piece of paper with the signature of the US Treasury Secretary on it. And therein lies the Trust that we put into the dollar. The dollar, as with all currencies, deal in the same intrinsic value….Trust.
So how does cryptocurrency and blockchain fit into this picture? Quite simply actually, once we have shed light on these two principles. The cryptocurrencies and tokens that we have heard so much about – bitcoin, ether, litecoin, etc. – provide the mechanism for Universal Convertibility. And the blockchain — the technology on which these cryptocurrencies are built — is the mechanism of Universal Trust.
There is an idea floating around that cryptocurrency is bound to fail because it lacks an intrinsic value. Alan Greenspan (former chairman of the Fed) said this, “You have to really stretch your imagination to infer what the intrinsic value of bitcoin is. I haven’t been able to do it.” The underlying assumption -- of course -- is that the US dollar, gold, and other currencies contain some measure of intrinsic value that cryptocurrencies lack. What seems to be missed in those arguments is the fact that Trust is the underlying intrinsic value of any of these systems.
This reminds me of a parable I heard awhile back…in ancient times there was a group of very wealthy kings. The world was relatively peaceful and trade and economic activity were booming. Gold was the currency of the day but being a very heavy material, these kings got tired of the time and expense it took to ship gold from city to city. They all collaborated and decided to build a centralized system of vaults and ledgers on an undisclosed island, hidden from their enemies. All the kings sent their gold stores to the island. The ideas was that whenever loans were issued, payments were made, or any transaction processed between their kingdoms, a set of Trusted Accountants would maintain an independent Ledger and transfer the gold from vault to vault to process the transactions. The system was put into place and for many years everything operated as expected. Transactions were efficient, the kingdoms collaborated and traded, and peace was maintained.
After ten years all the kings decided to celebrate their ingenious idea and travelled to the island to check in on the system they put in place. Upon their visit, they found all the books to be in perfect order. They had their own accountants pour through all the ledgers. Every account was exactly as expected, every ounce of gold accounted for. The kings were very pleased. As the last part of their visit, the kings all wanted to tour the vault system to bask in their stashes of gold. The ledger keepers hemmed and hawed, encouraging their visitors to drink more wine and take in the local culture. This worked for a time but the kings eventually became impatient and unsettled.
Finally, after much pressure the ledger keepers brought all their visitors together. The lead accountant stood up in front of all the most powerful men at the time and informed them that five years ago a massive earthquake hit the island. The entry shaft into the vaults had collapsed. All the gold was completely inaccessible under the mountain. The gold was lost to history, never recovered, and passed into legend.
I think there is a key lesson to take from this parable. That lesson is this…the value of the system always resided in the Trust in the accountants and the reliability of the ledger. The material value of the gold was always a mirage. Even when all the material value of the ledger system was lost beneath the mountain, it still operated because the accounts were in proper order. The ledger was still maintained.
It is in this way, blockchain and cryptocurrencies are quite analogous. If the blockchain ledger can be Trusted, there is no need for a material transaction. In fact, this is not so different than our current financial systems. When I send you money via Venmo or PayPal, there’s no Goblin at Gringotts that moves the dollar bills from my vault to yours. There is merely a change made to the ledger. And if you didn’t Trust PayPal to maintain that ledger, you wouldn’t use it.
It’s Trust all the way down, it always has been.
Let’s shift gears a bit here. Some of you may be thinking, “why should we be caring about Trust in the first place?” Why? Because the world is in desperate need of Trust. There seems to be a sort of background radiation of distrust. Consider for a moment the state of our voting systems, our news media, our political climate, big tech firms, Wallstreet…does Trustworthiness even remotely describe what comes to mind in these contexts? It doesn't for me.
Don't Trust me? (you probably shouldn't) For an objective view, we can look at the Edelman Trust Barometer which has been monitoring global trust for almost 20 years. They find that Globally we stand at a "distruster" level. In 2017, the US feel to the bottom of the heap among the informed public in terms of Trustworthiness. Of 28 countries surveyed, the US was 28th. Dead last. And in terms of global industries, Financial Services has been the least Trusted sector for 5 years running. If this isn't a crisis of Trust, I don't know what is. I’m sure we all know people who don’t vote in elections, refuse to invest in the stock market, don’t let their children go outside unattended, or refuse to see a doctor. I think a lack of Trust is a large (if not primary) factor in these sorts of positions. I am not saying they are necessarily wrong. As a skeptical person myself, I can see many reasons not to Trust institutions, authorities, and strangers. But the fact remains, Trust seems to be in short supply.
Now back to cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrency offers a unique approach to establishing Trust. Bitcoin (the prototypical cryptocurrency) was born out of the 2008 financial crisis. A time when Trust in financial systems was at an all time low. Bitcoin sought to implement a solution that could prevent such breaches in Trust from re-occurring. These technologies seek to instantiate Trust via computer code and protocol design rather than Trust based on a legal frameworks, Wallstreet executives, or geopolitical organizations. The idea was to remove human error and human manipulation from the system. This is the next step in shifting our Trust more completely to algorithms and computer systems – a process which has been underway since the emergence of credit cards, digital payments, and bots in the stock market.
So rather than try to describe the technical details of how these cryptocurrency systems are designed (much of which even I don’t understand), let’s focus on some of the conceptual components of Trust that blockchain seeks to implement. Namely…
- Resiliency. The lack of central authority can result in a more resilient network and no need to Trust any individual actor. Single points of failure are a common cause for economic and political turmoil. Nations that over-emphasize the importance of a single leader are often destabilized with a transfer of power and anyone familiar with supply chain management knows how over-reliance on a single supplier can bring an entire business to its knees.
- Transparency. Every transaction is visible in a public ledger. Transactions cannot be hidden or deleted if they are processed through the blockchain. While the fact that the transaction occurred is fully transparent, the details of such transactions are not. Which brings us to the our next point…
- Security. Transactions are encrypted and once completed, are robustly resistant to tampering. Blockchain differs from many other financial technologies due to the fact that it is “secure by design.” In other words, security was considered as a core component of the protocol rather than afterthought as is often the case with our computer systems.
Resiliency, Transparency, and Security…now that all sounds peachy but clearly cryptocurrency systems have not earned our Trust, and for good reason. Every day there is news of hacks, scams, and speculation undercutting our Trust at every turn. It’s worth noting that these issues are often not related to the blockchain itself but rather the social context in which it resides.
At the end of the day, I think there are social aspects of Trust that cannot be defined programmatically within the blockchain. In my opinion, there are two essential components that fall into this category:
First, we need a Bridge. We need a transition of Trust. A bridge of Trust. I’m talking about a strong position staked out by a Trusted entity. This could come in many forms. Maybe that’s explicit government backing. Maybe that’s Amazon support. Or maybe it’s the blessing of Warren Buffet. Whatever it is, it will be someone or something that the world can rally around and support. Think about the difference of interacting with a stranger on the street vs. being introduced to someone by a close friend. If your close friend holds that person in high regard, that person will probably jump a couple levels of Trust in your eyes almost automatically.
Second is Time. These technologies are so new and so foreign that it is natural for us to be suspicious. No matter how secure or transparent a system is, Trust needs to be built incrementally, over time, as understanding and usability progresses. We Trust our partners and our friends because we have known them through many phases in our lives. We have come to rely on them based on the way they conduct themselves at many points in time. So it also goes with all new technologies, including cryptocurrency. Do you think you will Trust autonomous vehicles the first time you ride in one? I doubt it. You’ll probably be on edge – watching the street carefully – but by the time you have taken one to work every day for a month or a year, you will begin to seamlessly Trust it.
I’d argue that cryptocurrency is not going away. Largely because the world is in desperate need of new mechanisms of Trust and our financial systems are the low hanging fruit. It may very well change shape, change hands, or re-brand itself in some way but it will persist. The fate of cryptocurrency is inextricably linked to the Trust in cryptocurrency. The question only becomes…
How long will it take to earn that Trust?