A letter for programmers who aren't interested by blockchain

I'm writing this post for people who love programming -- people who like to talk about programming languages, compilers, algorithms, and application architecture. The people who write blog posts about monads, databases, Rust, WebGL, lambdas, Linux, neural nets, and Emacs. I like these people. And yet some of them wince when I tell them that I work at a blockchain company.

It's subtler than a "wince", but there is a certain look I sometimes get... It's something like "that's gross but I'll try to keep listening to you without reacting." It's characterized by a grin and a raising of the eyebrows. Maybe an eye twitch. If you watched the conversation without volume, you might think I just said a something slightly offensive, and the other person doesn't want to show their disagreement, but they feel a little gross about it. They might respond with, "Oh yeah, blockchain. Ethereum... it sounds... cool", or "I hear there's a lot a lot of money in that industry", or "cool, I'm gonna go talk to someone else now."

And I get it! But I don't want these conversations to invariably turn into me explaining why they've got the wrong impression: "Yes, I've seen the John Oliver segment, and yes it's accurate, but..." Or, "I'm sure you would be fascinated by this space if you thought about it this way." I've have this conversation too many times.

So I'll lay out the case here. If you are fascinated by technology and love creating things that have potential to shape industries, cultures, and economies, but you don't want to have any part of the blockchain industry, then read on my friend. This is for you.

Should not be taken as investment advice?

Do I need to start by saying: The content here is for informational purposes only, and should not be taken as investment advice -- or be used to evaluate any investment or security? Most podcasts, articles, YouTube videos, and other media start with this disclaimer whenever the content is related to crypto. And that sucks. I don't see that disclaimer on other tech media, and for a good reason -- price is not integral to other technologies or protocols.

The crux of the grimace

And this is the crux of where the grimace comes from: prices. When people talk about monads, the conversation has no chance of veering into speculation about the price of monads. Or how much money one of their friends made trading monads before people knew about them. Or how they got burnt by buying monads in late 2017. Or how their mom lost her secret key, so she lost all her monads. If you google monads, you don't get inundated with results of chart-whisperers proclaiming that the monad bear market is turning a corner because 'institutional investors' are getting on board.

No, price is not a part of monads. Price is a technology that deals with scarcity, and scarcity is easily built into cryptocurrencies.

Speculating on magical internet money prices is gross. But prices are not intrinsically gross. Actually, prices are awesome. Prices are why "an army of workers has mobilized to fashion the bread we partake."


In other words, prices signal to producers what and how much to produce. You don't have to be a free-market Austrian economist to recognize that prices are an incredible technology, capable of allocating resources in an infinitely complex world, with unparalleled efficiency. Maybe that sounds super-libertarian, but libertarians fetishize prices for good reason. And you don't have to be a libertarian to be excited to build with them.

So no, the current price of Ethereum is not so interesting to me, but the fact that it has a price, is. That the efficiency of my code affects the literal price of running my code on a world computer is fascinating. And that's just the start...

Prices matter when scarcity is involved, and this is important on the internet for many reasons. Creating scarcity is one of them (check out non-fungible tokens). Crypto also has the potential to open up secondary markets where liquidity is scarce, such as in real estate, sports organizations, and shares of private companies. It also matters for supply chains, where transparency and resources are scarce. The scarcity (and price) of your online data may be important to you. Even scarcity of storage. And possibly most importantly, scarcity is an integral part of governance/voting mechanisms. So blockchains like Ethereum open up new models of governance which can take the simple form of voting on pull requests all the way to running corporations and theoretically governing societies. Can modeling game-theoretic incentives for the governance of a protocol, that said governance is built on, be uninteresting?

With prices built into an internet technology, we start to see words and phrases like "borderless payments", "uncensorable, "instant settlement", "liquid", "auditable", etc... These are mechanisms that we get to play with now.

But the technology isn't interesting

"The technology itself is not that interesting, so I'd rather work on something else."

I've heard this before, and I sort of agree with the premise, but not the conclusion. The premise essentially says "cryptography is not new, and neither are protocols for governance, nor the internet for that matter. Blockchains are a combination of those three technologies." And that is correct (sort of -- there is still lots of cryptogrophy work and scaling solutions that are have a long way to go). But if you are only interested in technologies that are novel and deeply, inherently, fascinating, then what are those? What are the technologies that are interesting not for what they allow people to do, but merely on their own merits? I'm not sure, but I also don't really care. Why should we be uninterested in what we create? In what we enable? It's cliche to say that we write code for humans, but why else would we be doing it?

In Conclusion

Speculation about crypto prices is not interesting and is often a bit gross. But prices are one of the most important and interesting technologies in the world. With prices being built into the internet on a fundamentally new level, we've opened up a brand new field that necessitates economic thinking in design and development decisions. We can solve old problems, and create entirely new paradigms (such as systems of governance). Of course, there are tons of interesting things to make outside of the blockchain space. Just don't let the chart-whisperers and scammers scare you away.