Crypto is one of those topics that calls to mind the parable of the blind men and the elephant – there are so many aspects of how it works and what it means that you can interpret it many different ways and seize on one part or another to make whatever point you want. A lot of people, for example, seize on the money part, and either glorify it as a new kind of monetary system that liberates mankind from the nation state, or crucify it as a danger to economic stability and the ability for governments to tax. All of these are interesting arguments, but I think they all miss a more fundamental point, which is that crypto represents an architectural shift in how technology works and therefore how the world works.
That architectural shift is called distributed consensus – the ability for many untrusted participants in a network to establish consistency and trust. This is something the Internet has never had, but now it does, and I think it will take 30 years to work through all of the things we can do as a result. Money is the easiest application of this idea, but think more broadly – we can now, in theory, build Internet native contracts, loans, insurance, title to real world assets, unique digital goods (known as non-fungible tokens or NFTs), online corporate structures (such as digital autonomous organizations or DAOs), and on and on.
Consider also what this means for incentives. Up until now, collaborative human effort online either took the form of a literal adoption of real-world corporate norms – a company with a web site – or an open source project like Linux that had no money directly attached. With crypto, you can now create thousands of new kinds of incentive systems for collaborative work online, since participants in a crypto project can get paid directly without a real-world company even needing to exist. As great as open source software development has been, far more people are willing to do far more things for money than for free, and all of a sudden all those things become possible and even easy to do. Again, it will take 30 years to work through the consequences of this, but I don’t think it’s crazy that this could be a civilizational shift in how people work and get paid.
Vaclav Smil, writing in Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities:
Taking temporarily high rates of annual exponential growth as indicators of future long-term developments is a fundamental mistake — but also an enduring habit that is especially favored by uncritical promoters of new devices, designs, or practices: they take early-stage growth rates, often impressively exponential, and use them to forecast an imminent dominance of emerging phenomena.
Many recent examples can illustrate this error, and I have chosen the capacity growth of Vestas wind turbines, machines leading the shift toward the de-carbonization of global electricity generation. This Danish maker began its sales with a 55 kW machine in 1981; by 1989 it had a turbine capable of 225 kW; a 600 kW machine was introduced in 1995; and a 2 MW unit followed in 1999. The best-fit curve for this rapid growth trajectory of the last two decades of the 20th century (five-parameter logistic fit with R2 of 0.978) would have predicted designs with capacity of nearly 10 MW in 2005 and in excess of 100 MW by 2015. But in 2018 the largest Vestas unit available for onshore installations was 4.2 MW and the largest unit suitable for offshore wind farms was 8 MW that could be upgraded to 9 MW (Vestas 2017a), and it is most unlikely that a 100 MW machine will be ever built.
This example of a sobering contrast between early rapid advances of a technical innovation followed by inevitable formation of sigmoid curves should be recalled whenever you see news reports about all cars becoming electric by 2025 or new batteries having impressively higher energy densities by 2030.
But the final, inescapable power of this reality may seem inapplicable in those cases where exponential growth has been underway for an extended period of time and when it keeps setting new record levels. More than a few normally rational people have been able to convince themselves — by repeating the mantra “this time it is different” — that performances will keep on multiplying for a long time to come.