And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? Am I wrong?
– Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime
That classically bizarre tune has become my personal soundtrack as of late. It seems like only yesterday that my vernacular didn’t include terms like ‘sharding’ and ‘soft forks’. Hashing? Ha! I had just gotten to the point where I was comfortable as a liberated hashtag artist within my own social media circles. But now, here we are. The crazy winter of crypto madness is thawing out and some short-term capital is already on its way out the door. A colleague recently asked me, “Should I still get into this crypto thing?” Without hesitation, I replied in the affirmative but attached a healthy dose of questions for her to consider. Primary among them was this: Why do you want to invest in crypto currencies?
Take some time to consider this question. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that your interest goes beyond the bumper sticker memes of #LambosOnTheMoon. Which is good, because with only a few potential exceptions (#RrarisOnMars, anyone?), most of those Lambos have already left orbit. Let that sink in for a moment. If I told you that our coin stacks were not going to make us overnight millionaires, how would you feel about that? Are you still in?
Good. Me, too.
I am a blockchain enthusiast with a passion for supporting the technology’s mainstream adoption. Researching this stuff brings me joy, and I understand how completely insane that sounds. I just like to see things in this world work better and more efficiently…for all of mankind’s benefit. This sounds great, but where exactly are we headed and what awaits us when we get there? There’s been plenty of talk about what these mystical chains of digital Trapper Keepers will do for the world, but how close are we and is it really even feasible?
As I write this, the term blockchain quickly earns itself a bold red underline. Even my own damn computer is doubting me – “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” it seems to say, and it’s not alone. Investors and analysts, politicians and regulators? They’re doubting you and me, too. They’re shouting about the charlatans in this field that have no interest in doing things for the common good. They’re pointing at all the leveraged capital that’s being handed over so quickly and without centralized oversight – and not without some good reason. After all, nearly half of all ICO’s unleashed in 2017 have already failed and those investments have vanished. Are you sure you’re still in?
I was hoping you’d say that. Because when times are tough for the crypto market at large, it is easy to forget what all of this is about from a technology perspective. What this could all…be. For you and for me. For those that we love and everyone that comes after us. I find it comforting to periodically take a moment and reflect on that dream; to refresh the energy that fueled my excitement and hope (and partial terror) on Day 1 of my own crypto journey. Because otherwise, why are we doing any of this? I invite you to take a quick break with me now and look to the horizon of our brave new world.
“Abstract. A purely peer-to-peer version of electronic cash would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution.” – Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System
As far as blockchain applications go, the payment function will always hold pole position by virtue of its location in the opening sentence of Satoshi Nakamoto’s historic white paper. For crypto fundamentalists, the ability to conduct electronic financial transactions without third-party oversight is the critical answer to the question I posed above. And it’s important to celebrate the fact that this milestone’s first iteration is already in the history books.
Starting with Laszlo Henyecz’s pizzas in May of 2010, the purchasing power of digital currencies has commenced a rocky ascent that continues today. While the value is there (albeit highly volatile), the facilitation of crypto currency payments is where the true innovation is underway. Bitpay allows merchants to accept payment from customers who wish to pay with bitcoin, requiring a 1% service charge for conversion of BTC into the merchant’s local fiat of choice before issuing the direct deposit. This fee is less than the average fee for processing a credit card payment. But what if you want to HODL your bitcoin and pay with your Vertcoin, Dash, or Basic Attention Token? Coingate is similar to Bitpay and matches their 1% fee but can convert ether, litecoin and 50+ altcoins in addition to bitcoin by using Shapeshift’s ecosystem to quickly swap currencies.
TenX and their COMIT network are promising the seamless internet-of-things functionality of having a physical [debit-like] card and mobile application linked with the ability to securely scale off-chain. PumaPay promises to deliver a pull payment capability (think in terms of your monthly Netflix subscription) that is a far better experience than today’s standard set by credit cards. And while payment platform Stripe will step away from their bitcoin compatibility next month, crypto-fixture Coinbase will further establish their brand in the payments space with the launch of Coinbase Commerce, a tool that allows merchants to accept any of the exchange’s current currencies (bitcoin, ether, bitcoin cash, litecoin) directly into their own user-controlled wallet.
These are just a few examples of the innovative technology and end-user benefits that projects are beginning to deliver with real world applications. While some form of fees and an element of third-party reliance persist in a majority of these scenarios, I believe there is a great deal of hope and tangible progress towards the realization of Satoshi’s opening statement.
The continued rise of the internet and digital technologies has completely disrupted just about every industry involved in modern commerce. Energy companies are facing a future where distributed resources transact through full cycles – generation, transmission, distribution – without them. Meanwhile, manufacturers and retailers have gained easy access to their customers through omni-channel strategies. These include mobile e-commerce applications and fully digital user experiences that have undeniably captured market share for successful, early adopters. Interestingly, most merchants must still synchronize their digital efforts with brick-and-mortar facilities to suit all customer preferences.
Not to be left behind, service industries have taken the same approach. Our medical records and health care programs are, at the very least, being digitally preserved – if not made fully accessible online with the option to communicate with specialists and customer care representatives at anytime, 24/7. We can pay our taxes online and manage our library accounts.
Speaking of accounts, am I the only person who cringes every time I am forced to endure the profile and access setup process? I literally need a Dewey Decimal System to organize all of my usernames and passwords. I know there are apps for that and this information is always recoverable. And I know this protection is highly important because ensuring cybersecurity is more challenging than ever. But is blockchain technology helping at all with any of this?
The answer right now is – probably. This is the very essence of a distributed ledger system; features such as consensus mechanisms, operational resilience, data encryption, audit-ability, transparency, and immutability are inherent in its design and function. Those are some big words that we discuss regularly here at Crypto101, but they all come down to the same thing: the accurate and safe preservation of accessible data. Blockchains provide no ‘hackable’ entrance or a central point of failure and this alone thrusts it ahead of database-driven transactional structures. Firms like REMME, Guardtime, and Obsidian are just a few examples that are deploying first generation blockchain security protocols right now. Most of them build upon the two principles of removing the weakest link (human factored authentication) and decentralization of the data, thereby dispersing the single “honey pot” of value for potential hackers.
Supply Chain Management (SCM)
Here’s another real-world application that is already underway – and moving quickly! Between September of last year and February, no less than Forbes had changed their “too much hype” appraisal of blockchain’s pending impact on supply chain management to a sincere admiration of its maturity and exciting potential. You really can’t blame them.
Three of the top players in the business application blockchain space are some names you may be familiar with: IBM, Oracle, and SAP. While official deployment of their respective supply chain solutions has yet to occur, most experts agree that 2018 will be the year when we see the transition, successful or not, to business implementation. For now, test cases are all but making promises for some incredible results ahead.
One scenario involved the challenge presented by compliance with the Drug Supply Chain Security Act passed in 2013. For the pharmaceutical industry, this legislation establishes a system for tracing products through their supply chain. It also sets a licensing standard for third-party logistics and wholesale distributors and establishes criteria for how stakeholders must handle suspect and illegitimate products. Tracing data is what blockchain technology does best, and the immutable linking of item-specific product information with the item as it makes its way through distribution, sale, and resale processes could have a significant impact on the industry from both a consumer safety and inventory preservation standpoint.
In addition to the solution-providers mentioned above, other global companies are already engaging in pilot programs as early adoption clients. Walmart is testing the ability of their employees to track products from origin through store display. International shipping company Maersk is using a blockchain application to track its cargo. In an early test of this application, multiple organizations from different countries were able to simultaneously access information on the ledger and confirm shipment details. UPS and Federal Express are looking into similar applications for their freight while British Airlines is utilizing a blockchain platform to collect and preserve flight data for performance analysis. The applications are logical and the test cases are returning favorable results – I think that Forbes is correct in their prediction that 2018 will be an exciting year for blockchain deployment in SCM.
It’s only fitting that blockchain technology and the energy industry should find themselves in collaboration. As two phenomena that are experiencing similar waves of significant and constant change, they are also inherently similar by virtue of their respective network structures. A utility can be defined by the physical journey of electric power as it makes its way from generation to transmission and finally to distribution for consumption by consumers. Likewise, conceptual analysis blockchain can trace the journey of bits of code as they make their way from an original point source outward, hitting the network’s nodes for consensus algorithms to either confirm or deny its validity in parallel with its fellow nodes. So, it is quite poetic that the digital distribution of code within a blockchain might be the very key that unlocks mainstream adoption and functionality of distributed energy resources in a new energy economy.
Distributed energy resources (DERs) such as privately owned solar panels have been around for some time. But DER owners and their local utilities are only just now beginning to hash out the details of how each will work together in the use and management of public energy grids. How DERs will be integrated into the system and then properly compensated for any energy output they might be able to contribute is a logistical challenge. Typically, the utility owns, maintains, and runs the grid from an operational perspective, so their interests are equally important in deciding how the two parties will work together to maintain a reliable and safe supply of energy for consumers.
Blockchain technology is a potential solution for this problem because the expedient, immutable nature of the ledger is ideal for tracking peer-to-peer and wholesale energy trading activities. As an example, let’s take a public grid scenario where you have both the utility and DERs (think privately owned solar panels) generating electricity and supplying that power to a common transmission and distribution system. At the same time, energy consumers are drawing from the same system to power their homes, machinery, or whatever else they wish. The grid operators maintain a continuous balance between supply and demand (a fundamental requirement for closed electrical systems), but the individual transactions are so frequent and variable that it becomes very difficult for either side to efficiently separate out and define who owes what to whom.
Current processes are cumbersome and involve multiple intermediaries that review distributed generation data after the fact. They often broker secondary energy swaps that quickly diminish distinction for renewable generation and may even charge additional fees for performing these tasks before any compensation makes its belated way back into the hands of the DER owner. The process is highly inefficient.
Numerous energy blockchain projects are hoping to flip this model on its head. By allowing the DERs to send their generation data directly onto a distributed ledger, the network’s computing power can be harnessed to match this supply with demand in real-time. The system can then calculate and authorize appropriate compensation without any third-party intervention, delays, or additional costs. This expedited process improves the financial calculus for current and future DER owners. And while this model is an easy win in closed or private grid ecosystems, it does represent a significant disruption to some aspects of legacy business models for utilities.
However, utilities are beginning to chart their own advantages for early involvement and adoption of energy blockchain applications. By leveraging their undisputed expertise and experience with generation, regulatory matters, and grid infrastructure, utilities are playing a key role in project development. Some are embracing the market potential for DERs by exploring new business models where they serve as suppliers and maintenance vendors for DER owners. This type of approach to cultivating new and stronger relationships can only help to enhance customer satisfaction and improve overall market efficiency.
Social Media and Music
Content is the key concept in this market sector and we haven’t seen such disruptive potential in the treatment of personal and artistic content, or the use of and difference between the two, since Napster invaded college dorm rooms circa 1997. Interestingly, the general issues remain the same: how compensation and credit is protected for content creators while at the same time preserving consumers’ rights to access, enjoy and share the content they have rightfully acquired.
For several years, some enterprising artists have embraced the possibilities of blockchain and what it could do for their craft. In a well publicized example, musician Imogen Heap released a song in 2015 and made it available via the Ethereum-based blockchain company, Ujo Music. The UI was clunky at the time, but the principles were sound. Fans could use ether to pay for the song and the artist was rewarded with those royalties without the need for copyright application and payment or an expensive publisher to facilitate payments. Upon purchase, smart contract functionality (a distinct feature of platforms powered by Ethereum) automatically sent transferred the payment to Heap and even distributed it among contributing musicians according to terms previously set in place by the artists.
Social media’s grip on our daily lives grows stronger with each new day. Younger generations in particular are spending more and more of their time engaged with the technology (some estimates as high as nine hours per day, on average), and while there are many advantages to being so well connected and creatively empowered, there are also significant disadvantages. Personal content often becomes the property of the centralized platform owners and can be used for their own commercial advantage. For example, Facebook can employ an algorithm to purposefully drive other users towards that awesome cat meme you posted last night. This could be great news for your popularity but only Zuckerberg & Company will profit off of the ad revenue that is boosted by your meme’s spike in traffic.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe Facebook should profit off of this scenario and applaud social media companies for creating such a world-changing phenomena. They built the network, designed the protocol, and maintain an awe-inspiring global network of data management facilities to keep it all running. Advertisers aren’t being threatened to hand over their marketing funds and as I mentioned before, there is a lot of social good that comes out of social networks and their capability. But what if you could capture some of that compensation in return for your time, personal creativity, and cat-meme innovation?
That’s where blockchain presents itself yet again as a potential solution. We’ve already covered the technology’s ability to secure data through encryption in conjunction with advances in privacy and user anonymity. These features are crucial for many social media participants who desire to be connected with their world and maintain control over their own content without the need for full disclosure. But blockchain-based social media can also deliver the promise of cryptocurrencies that can be used to buy content and pay for other services. Think of it as a crossroads for peer-to-peer commerce, marketing, socialization, public relations, and communication.
Numerous projects are already delivering platforms that want to set up shop in this area. Indorse is a professional networking application that is built on the Ethereum blockchain. Users can be compensated for their contributions but own all rights to their personal content. Steemit maintains a “blockchain-based rewards platform for publishers to monetize content” and grow their community. It’s been operating since 2016 and has paid out more than $22M USD worth of rewards to its users.
Where Does This Highway Go?
These are just a few of the top news-makers in blockchain and crypto with current and/or pending real-world applications in everyday aspects of our lives. As the crypto market continues to bounce along in 2018, I am heartened by the tangible evidence of progress towards full deployment of the technology. There is a real potential for our lives to improve here, in my opinion, and for things around us to work better and work together.
Our personal portfolios may be suffering on any given day, but these stories give me confidence that there is a considerable chasm between serious projects and harmful actors. These crypto pretenders continue to circle our pioneering tribe with the goal of profiting off the excitement and the risk-taking spirit that fuels any innovation. There have been casualties and, unfortunately, there will continue to be victims of their deplorable tactics.
This is why enthusiast communities such as Crypto101 are so very important, in my humble opinion. Whether you are brand new to this space or a seasoned veteran from the ancient days of 2017…there is strength in our numbers and our unified quest to understand just what in the hell is going on. It speaks right to the very fundamental principles of Satoshi’s vision, doesn’t it? Strength in numbers. And it is this strength that leads me to believe that this is all a worthwhile venture, with long-term returns that aren’t entirely monetarily based. That future might not deliver a Lambo on the Moon, but I know that we will look back at our collective crypto journey as the right way, in the end.
About the author: Ryan LaMonica is a management consultant and blockchain enthusiast with a background in engineering, energy, marketing and risk management. The views reflected in this article are his own and do not reflect those of his employer. He currently resides outside of Atlanta, Georgia where he and his wife manage the energy and risk of their four amazing children.