Blockchains: It’s not even funny anymore

Halfway 2017 I wrote quite an extensive article about our adventure in the world of blockchains. By that time my colleagues and me had spent over three years deep diving into both the technical and societal aspects of blockchains. How we went from awestruck by the sheer genius of Sakamoto’s idea to the disillusionment in the applicability, the engineering standards, and the cult of ignorance fostered by the ‘blockchain visionaries’. We built companies, products, communities and technologies to get this blockchain revolution going, but we ended up concluding that the only way you could earn a living with blockchains is by either talking about it or building proof of concepts. So we spent years trying to tell the truth about the true potential of blockchains but we were regarded as party poopers. The audience simply didn’t have the technical frame of reference to understand why most use cases would never work. Their response basically boiled down to, “All fine and dandy all this technical mumbo jumbo of yours, but look at all these billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions of dollars spent on it. and all these incredible nerds, and all these successful entrepreneurs. They can’t all be wrong, can they?”. Read all the details in the article but in the end we abandoned ship and never looked back. Over the past years I haven’t been following blockchain news, I haven’t visited conferences, I haven’t talked to companies that wanted to ‘do something with blockchains’ (I spent my time reading books and learning skills in an area that actually does have a future, AI). In the meantime blockchains have apparently entered the mainstream. It’s on the news, it’s in the newspapers, it’s on the website of every big corporation and it’s in at least one slide of a presentation of some middle manager.


But a change has been brooding over the past year in the technically more advanced circles. As is often the case the ones with a thorough understanding of the subject matter are the only ones that can grasp the true potential of a technology. (This insight was for me personally the reason to complement my alpha master’s with a beta master’s and PhD.) The word ‘blockchain’ nowadays results in a quirky smile on their faces. The result of having heard so many stories from uninformed ‘visionaries’ that the revolution is neigh and everything will change that the only reaction to so much naïvety they have left is to laugh. I personally got so fed up that about a year ago I presented my tongue-in-cheeck game “Berco Beute’s Blockchain Bullshit Bingo”. On the bingo card were all the cliché statements every apostel of the church of blockchain uttered. For example:
–  It’s going to disrupt EVERYTHING. It’s following the Gartner hype curve, but it will be successful in the long run.
– We don’t need trust anymore.
– Nor trusted third parties.
– Bitcoin will replace fiat currencies.
– Etcetera…
So the word ‘blockchain’ and its cult following are slowly becoming the laughing stock of the industry. Mind you, I’m not talking about the technologists working on it simply because they love to work on interesting technical puzzles. I’m talking about the ‘visionaries’ not bothered by knowledge that fail to apply some modesty to their behaviour. At the time of this writing even mainstream media start to question whether blockchains could ever fulfil all the promises they have been attributed by the visionaries. Yesterday the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant published an extensive writeup about the failure of all the blockchain projects to come up with truly viable solutions. And even the projects that lived past the ‘pilot’ phase are so simple that most experienced software professionals would agree they could be implemented much faster and cheaper with other technologies.
Although this recent trend makes for some good laughs and a few told-you-so’s, we shouldn’t dismiss it so easily. Not because the promise it still holds, but because the damage it has done. “Damage it has done!?”, you might react, but yes, let me explain. The blockchain is a hype that deserves its own category solely by the sheer amount of resources it has consumed of the past decade.
1. Energy. The proof-of-stake algorithm by now consumes about as much energy as Ireland. Or roughly twice as much as mining copper and gold. Combined. What we get in return is bitcoins, a mysterious entity that’s neither money nor gold, but has proven itself to be an effective way to buy nerds around the globe a couple of Tesla’s (each).
2. Money. Companies, investors and governments have invested billions and billions of dollars in blockchain technologies of the past years. A truly staggering amount of money has flowed to startups, ICO’s, consultancy companies, schools, etc. The awkward aspect of this is that blockchains were invented to create money (bitcoin), not vaporise it.
3. Brainpower. Likely even bigger than the energy consumption has been the brainpower that got sunk into the intellectual blockchain blackhole. Sure, there have been a few technological innovations but that pales in comparison to the amount of intellectual effort that led to nothing. The buzz, billions, technological marvel attracted most of the greatest brains of our era.
Think about it, these resources combined could have been invested in healthcare, fundamental research, battling climate change, fighting cancer, and many other truly important causes. But instead it was spent on a pipe dream. A troubling conclusion for which I think those responsible should be held accountable. All these so-called visionaries that got rich by misleading the general public with smoke, mirrors and visions of the promises land should repay the societal damage they have caused. Although I realise it is highly unlikely this will ever happen, I do think it’s important that this message gets out. As I said, it’s not even funny anymore.