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Unprecedented — we hear this word entirely too often. Storms are unprecedented. Elections are unprecedented. It would appear that, literally, nothing has ever been preceded.
Of course, I exaggerate, but when it comes to the world of decentralized finance, we hear this word quite a bit. Every time I pick up the paper and read some fret piece about cryptocurrency or decentralized finance, I wonder if I’ve been sucked in a time warp back to 1999 when the only three syllables anyone could ever utter were “Y2K.”
Two decades ago, no one knew where the internet would lead us, but the knee-jerk reaction to it was one of mistrust and misunderstanding, as though it were some kind of witchcraft.
So too with blockchain technology today: Rather than start the conversion by asking how DeFi might level the playing field and make banking and money management more accessible in remote areas and in communities of great disparity, we wring our hands about the rich getting richer and the environmental degradation that will surely ensue. We are incorrigible catastrophists: NFTs must be useless street art; crypto is a scam. Surely, it’s all garbage, with no promise whatsoever.
But here’s the thing: I’ve heard it all before. I’ve earned my bona fides as an optimist if only because so many of today’s predictions look terribly familiar to me.
A little less than 20 years ago (not long after Y2K), I started a business with my best friend and a single laptop between us. After burning the midnight oil chatting about how exciting the internet seemed to us and how much potential it held, we lighted upon an idea. My friend had access to events tickets through a ticketing company; I could write code. What if, we mused, we were to sell tickets to theatrical events online? What if the consumer could buy tickets without queuing up?
I was able to create a very basic website and London Theatre Direct took off from there. At the very beginning, we couldn’t even accept credit cards, and everything was paid for by checks. Remember those? This was at the time of Lycos and AltaVista. It was a heady time, but thinking back to the build-up to when we first got on the map versus when the business truly kicked off seems strangely long. Why? Well, no one had ever bought tickets online before. The notion of doing so was as unfathomable to people then as buying tickets in the flesh is to people now.
Rather than seeing the possibilities in terms of access that the internet allowed, the theater world hid behind their hide-bound ways of conducting business. The industry refused to adapt for some time — or even acknowledge that there might be a better way of doing things that ultimately leads to a larger customer base and greater cultural reach.
I believe this is what we’re seeing today with the proliferation of new tech like blockchain.
Everyone thought the internet was a fad — something with an expiration date built in. It was the time of the laserdisc, fax machine and the 8-track. It was three years before we were both in a position to quit our day jobs and work for ourselves from home. We were forced to persuade people that this was a different way of working and selling. It took many years before I think we became a significant player, but through that time, we focused very much on technology.
As entrepreneurs, taking the lead through disruption puts us in the unique position to change the way the world operates.
From my vantage point today, I can see we as leaders across industries have no choice but to be disruptive. Although there is a sea of skepticism around many technological developments that personally excite me, I am heartened that people are more receptive than they were maybe 20 years ago. There’s a big contingent who want to invest, as the investment itself is now more grassroots-oriented than it once was — thanks to the internet.
As an entrepreneur who started out when the internet first took off, I believe, for example, blockchain holds just as much transformational power — if not more. However, when we obsess over the volatility of the cryptocurrency of the week or over Elon Musk’s new baby’s name, we lose the plot. We let Twitter suck all the air out of a vital conversation about our shared future and what it might look like and who might control it.
Blockchain is a truth machine; it’s a distributed ledger. If you sell or buy something, normally someone will make a note of it — but not everyone has access to that note. Blockchain allows anyone to scrutinize that ledger. It provides truth. It’s the technology that makes sure we empower people and allows people to really see where the transactions are going from and coming to. Blockchain is a technology that could allow the construction of a new global financial system: open, fair and accessible to all. That’s why it’s exciting.
Ultimately, it means there’s a truth across the whole system, which can lead to the rise of smart contracts and so many other tools that can help so many people from different walks of life. It holds the promise of making sure that power and accountability are with the many and not the few.
We need to get out of our own ways and talk about potential, not fear. And that, I, for one, believe would be unprecedented.