The Utopian Problem with Cryptocurrencies

A new era of technological innovation dawns. Web 3.0 and the decentralised future are here, and the world is finally good! But where actually is here? And where is everybody else?

The blockchain future we’ve all been promised would mean truly decentralised exchange of value, borderless communities of asset-sharing, open-source international business as standard, and no centralised control of owned or managed assets. A true futurist’s utopia where the architects of our wildest dreams solve all of our problems at once. But let’s take a step back and have a look at what that might mean for the imperfect, functioning world we all live in today.

For almost ten years now, some of the smartest people in the world have been developing technologies based on something called a distributed ledger, or a ‘blockchain’. Without diving too deep into the jargon sea (yet), the blockchain is a public record of data or value maintained by thousands of contributors at once. This prevents tampering and maximises security, and removes the need for a big old government or bank we used to need to organise that sort of stuff for us.

What this means for normal people is there is now an entirely alternate way to distribute, measure, and exchange value from individual to individual. It’s the first feasible replacement for that money thing we made up a while ago to form the basis of civilisations around the world.

But, though we all know how to send $20 to our mates for drinks last night, or withdraw $100 from an ATM, interacting with the blockchain is not only unfamiliar, but prohibitive. Take Bitcoin, the first and most well-known example of blockchain technology. Bitcoin is a protocol, much like the internet or email, used to send and receive value across the internet.

But to actually use Bitcoin, you’re going to need a few things. Firstly, you need to generate a wallet address, write down your private key (usually a 24-word recovery passphrase), then create yourself an account with an online cryptocurrency exchange. Purchase your Bitcoin and enter in your 25–36 character address from earlier to receive your coins.

If you get this even a little bit wrong, your Bitcoin is gone. Zip, nada, with no current method to recover it. An estimated $35,000,000,000 USD in Bitcoin has to date been irretrievably lost thanks to people screwing this up. Alternatively, you could ‘mine’ Bitcoins by creating a mining rig of multiple high-powered graphics cards strapped together, used to solve complex equations as quickly as possible to get a chance at ‘winning’ a Bitcoin. Sound like a bit much yet?

All this is before even considering the potential of Bitcoin’s technologically advanced cousin, Ethereum. If you thought just transferring value on the blockchain was hard, wait until smart contracts, custom tokens, and gas limits are introduced.

If after reading all that there’s a part of you that feels like a stiff drink, that’s absolutely fair. It’s also a huge problem.

The problem isn’t one we haven’t seen before. This isn’t the digital world’s first innovation rodeo. We’ve been through computers, the internet, wireless, mobile, cloud computing, and everything in between. If you look at each of these major innovations, there’s a key common thread that almost too conveniently matches up market capitalisation and user enablement.

Technology needs reciprocity to make progress. The vast majority of tech adoption comes through businesses simplifying the use case of their most advanced product offering to an addressable consumer need in a manageable package. When Apple released the Macintosh with the world’s first consumer-facing GUI, the promises were word processing and greyscale raster image editing. Neither of these functions even began to represent the scope of what had been achieved, but the units sold and opened the world up to using graphic user interfaces to solve increasingly complicated problems.

Technology also needs widespread compatibility to make progress. The Macintosh wouldn’t have gotten far if emails could only be sent to other Macintoshes, or if those images could never be printed out and shown to your Mum. Currently cryptocurrency suffers from a lack of compatibility with the world around it. Though it’s perfect for trading and transacting within the blockchain ecosystem, if you’re trying to buy a can of Coke with your Bitcoin you’re going to have a hard time.

Cryptocurrencies have a utopian problem. They’re designed to interface only with other cryptocurrencies and cryptocurrency-based platforms. Consumers around the world aren’t interested in re-learning how to use money, and it should be evident if 38% of the world’s population do not have bank accounts, jumping from financial illiteracy to comprehensive understanding of cryptography and distributed technology is a stretch at best. Blockchain foundations and decentralised applications need to interface with the existing world (even if only for a transitional period) to accelerate public adoption of the technology, and bring consumers and businesses in to drive volume to these products and services. This is the first step in teaching the world about the benefits of the distributed web.

The goal is global decentralisation, but the walled garden approach is slowing us down. Foundations and applications need to use centralised infrastructure and resources to make blockchain work for normal people and normal businesses, and while it might be off-putting in the short term to once again bow down to the big banks and payment networks, it will do more for the cause than any isolated approach.

Read more about how The LivenPay project is building a stable cryptocurrency for the real world, and making the capabilities and benefits of blockchain technology accessible for brick and mortar businesses and everyday consumers in this announcement.

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