Revolutions start in small rooms, and several of these rooms were set aside in a corner of the Orlando Marriott World Center in mid-October. Revolutionaries are often aware of how things are, and their gift to society comes from their inquiries on how things ‘ought to be.’ MERGE! provided some insight into both how things are, and how what ‘ought to be’ looks a little different in the 21st century.
My travels and arrival in Orlando for MERGE! were covered in Part 1.
My credentials said TokenVerse, as I was reporting on their behalf, but as a writer my role as a reporter was eclipsed by my curiosity as a walking use case for the Embermine platform. All people are self-interested in one way or another; it’s the closest to objective truth I am able to currently convey with a reasonable degree of certainty. This un-truth should explain the myth of objectivity and the need for decentralized blockchains in one fowl swoop, but here we are, talking about birds.
It was sure to be a long weekend within the Marriott’s 450,000 square feet of convention rooms and the long hallways. I would have to stay active. The pain of believing in some underlying truth means an inherent addiction and blind belief in the power of words, but short bits of misplaced wisdom such as this are for the birds on Twitter. The point hidden somewhere between the lines, however, was that to cover such a convention I would need to maintain a nimble mind. Listening to people talk, even those that are particularly good at it, drains the senses, which can dampen your mood. The plan was simple; rest as often as possible, and moderation for everything else.
Saturday morning had various roundtable discussions scheduled that ranged from an empty news/media table to an overflowing ICO (initial coin offering) discussion. It was strange that blockchain talk would captivate and awe roundtable discussions and simultaneously be completely unheard of and absent from conversation at tables just feet away. Other discussions included domain registries and marketing, but two tables dominated the morning and then went on to lead the day and drive the week, and those tables talked about blockchains.
The roundtable discussions made one thing abundantly clear: this technology is very real and happening all around us, and it’s not just bitcoin. There are hundreds of legitimate blockchain/crypto companies with real world applications and genuine use cases, with many more hundreds that do not. One of the important things discussed was the importance of being informed in the community, the ‘do your own research’ phrase was used and agreed upon many times. Some of the genuine entities brought up were Bitcoin Network, Embermine , the MakerDao and it’s stablecoin, Superbloom, and Monero among many others. The discussion briefly touched on ICANN and the existing system of domain names, but it was early—nobody was talking about ICANN by the end of the convention.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had pulled up a chair next to a Shannon Ewing, who is in charge of Community Engagement at Presearch, a woman with a great sense of humor and a sense for the open road. She and a few others from the Presearch team were engaged in a cross country tour of blockchain events in a tour bus, calling it the HODL Tour.
Shannon Ewing summed up the far-reaching economic implications of blockchain technology at the ICO roundtable by describing the certainty it can give individuals. “We all can create surplus and manage it ourselves.” She summed up the potential economic impact on individuals. It really is exciting and worth geeking out over. Presearch is a blockchain-based startup with the balls to enter the search engine market with Google, death to centralization I suppose. Also visible was James Drake, CEO of Embermine, self-proclaimed blockchain evangelist and certified professional of unrealized markets.
Also at the table was Patrick Maguire, Director of Marketing and Community Development at RChain, a springy, young blockchain fanboy with extensive knowledge in the subject. He could be found frequently with Alberto Jauregui, the CMO of Raincube and Director of Growth for the Blockchain Education Network.
MERGE! would reveal two things I very rarely encounter in the same place: the right questions first and foremost, coupled with the presence of someone who can actually answer them. As I walked from the last morning roundtable session to one of the first panels, trying to wrap my head around the immense implications of blockchain, a small garden bird that had somehow got into the convention center landed in the middle of the hallway. I couldn’t decide if it was a common pest or an important omen.
Another blockchain advocate who recognizes the Steve Jobs’ Problem currently plaguing the industry, that is, the disconnect between the capability of the technology and the user experience, was Ken Hansen. As a part of Blockchain Roadshow and an advisor for Farsight Security, he highlighted the importance of education in the community. Ken pointed out projects like Open Bazaar, saying, “These things are already happening and government regulators don’t seem to significantly affect it.” He went on to reference the recent China ban on Bitcoin. However, Mr. Hansen pointed to the fact that financial regulations apply to investments, and the exception is a utility. THAT, dear reader, is what makes cryptocurrency a candidate to transcend the current financial system; it has the capability to act as currency, playing a role in actual commerce, that could be inextricably linked to a utility. Also mentioned in the “already happening” category of Ken’s panel was the impressive attempt by Blockstack to create a decentralized internet browser. The point, as I’m sure you’ve gathered on your own faculty, is that there is capital flooding into this industry for the simple reason that it’s more efficient and useful than existing systems. Efficiency in business means profit, and in society it means a chance to level the balances of inequality. The stars certainly seem aligned for the blockchain evangelists.
After sharing an overpriced beer and brief conversation with some businessman from another convention in the Marriott lobby, I wandered back into MERGE! to skulk around and look for an angle. The hallway seemed oddly empty with a convention hosting so many companies, but as I continued down the hallway it seems the perspective I was looking for would not take any skulking around at all, just a bit of dumb luck after lunch.
Turning the corner in the hallway I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw an overcrowded roundtable in the back of an otherwise empty convention room, with the attention on Embermine CEO James Drake. If there was ever a conversation about Embermine or blockchains in general that includes the difficult questions as well as their complex answers it was an exchange at an afternoon roundtable discussion between an investor and the CEO of Embermine James Drake.
The full transcript can be found here.
The conversation can be summarized by an exchange between James Drake, his director of research Garrison Breckenridge, and an investor present at the conference:
Investor: “…you’re talking about creating something – “
James: “-that hasn’t been done before,”
Investor: “…that’s massive on scale, otherwise nobody’s going to be able to work with you. It’s either going to be huge or be nothing, right?”
Say what you will, but the immensity of what Embermine is trying to accomplish deserves respect.
Investor: “You think you can be …that big? Like are you on target for that? If you could explain to me, technically, how I shop on the platform, buy the book and read it on my Fire tablet. Assuming I have access to the Embermine platform and all of that, how do I read the book?”
James: “In some way, shape, or form you have to be logged in to the Embermine platform. The first thing it’s going to do is it’s going to go through the IPFS network and it’s going to grab that file, it’ll say this person is accessing this file-”
Investor: “You have to mount another process in there.”
Garrison: “It’s really important to note that there is no file storage on the blockchain.”
Investor: “An Amazon Fire tablet is probably not going to be very open to this.”
In a stroke of Jeffersonian politics, James asks, “My question is, why do we let them have that power?”
Investor: “We don’t give them that power.”
James: “Everytime you buy something that’s only available on one set of devices you’re giving someone the power to control your usage of that product.”
The full conversation is comprehensive in it’s criticism as well as its defense of the platform, and I’ll let the reader make his or her own judgements, but the entire thing was beautifully summarized by a certain Embermine team member with an interest in archeology when she said, “We’re circumventing these companies that are creating monopolies on product communities.”
There are questions about the future of blockchain that will find answers sooner than anyone seems to be comfortable with, because these new blockchain technologies are already being pioneered; the focus and specialization will only become more precise.
Debt is essentially the reason a company like Embermine can be so attractive. Instead of taking the traditional route for collaboration that starts with incurring debt, this platform could eliminate such risk by writing royalties into smart contracts and controlling the Digital Rights Management by giving them to the actual content creators and collaborators instead of distributors.
Benjamin Franklin said, “When you run in debt, you give to another power over your liberty.” Ralph Waldo Emerson echoed this sentiment when he said, “A man in debt is so far a slave.” There are five countries in the world that are debt-free, yet around 20% of Americans bear that burden. What makes a population stick with an economy that excludes huge groups of people and bankrupts the rest? In a country where well over half of Americans don’t vote, the lease on life is getting expensive.
It’s really about trading Fear for Incentive as the major driver of economic activity and trading. In the current system, in damn near every industry, workers are forced into contracts that inherently limit their economic freedom and can only be signed once occupational licenses are obtained. Occupational licensing, although necessary in some industries, are required in almost all industries, and they double as a strong-arm tactic against the poor in several states to leverage people who can’t pay their debts. Gee, it’s really a good thing we don’t have debtors prisons anymore…
This is how the disenfranchised are kept out of the economy like a bird trapped into a convention center. Sure, it’s ‘free’ but it can’t really satisfy its needs. The answer will be as complicated as the problem. The blockchain startups at MERGE! are pioneering ways to avoid debt and economic exclusion by creating value based on digital certainty and digital scarcity. We as a society need money that is more than just debt, we need to reorganize how value is created, traded, and distributed and I think companies like Presearch and Embermine coming together at conventions like MERGE! will be the baby steps that start a Revolution of Value.
The alarming level of corporate mergers and elimination of regulations designed to limit their power create an environment where in order to maintain a level of economic freedom the only option is to go around these companies and assign our own value to peer-to-peer, open, and secure transactions.
The current monetary system is based on debt and is unsustainable, centralized and concentrated in the hands of a few, and most importantly only a function of our belief in such a system. The only thing that gives the dollar bill its value is our belief in its value, while faith in the economy and governments that rest on that belief is crumbling, if not already collapsed. Critics like to point to crypto as having too much speculative value or being too volatile, but a new industry that may “contend with the SEC” is no more speculative or volatile than the dollar bill, the only difference is crypto volatility leads to intense day trading, the volatility of the dollar leads to military intervention to protect it.
The economy is going global, it essentially already has, and we need what James Drake calls “global channels of consensus” and protocols to provide and protect economic rights for every citizen and startup alike. In conclusion, I suppose the bird that found it’s way into the Marriott Center could be both; a pest to the existing systems and an omen to actual economic freedom.
With Liberty and Justice for All,
Image via Adobe Stock