Believe the Hype: Blockchain Technology Outgrowing Its Cryptocurrency Roots

New applications emerge as virtual currency values drop

After years of bullish buildup, 2018 ushered in a decidedly bear market for cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin dropped more than 70 percent of its previous value, while Ethereum and Ripple each shed over 80 percent of theirs. While a cloud of uncertainty may hang over such virtual markets, the future remains bright for blockchain—the decentralized database technology that serves as a distributed ledger for recording cryptocurrency’s acquisitions and transactions.

A number of tech leaders have welcomed blockchain’s currently diverging prospects as a chance to differentiate it from its roots. Commercial use cases can be found in such disparate settings as international shipping (Maersk’s TradeLens), diamond mining (Tracr, from De Beers) and even advertising. Amber Baldet, former blockchain practice lead at JPMorgan Chase and now co-founder and CEO of the application marketplace and developer resource Clovyr, finds blockchain critical to what she calls the “Internet of Value.”

 
Amber Baldet. Photo by Benjamin Spradley

Amber Baldet. Photo by Benjamin Spradley

 

“Blockchain as a technology gives the potential to secure trust without getting a third party involved.”

“What’s really revolutionary about blockchain is that you can credibly send something and then not have it anymore, and that’s not something you can do with traditional Internet protocols. So there’s this push to tokenize things and then be able to move ownership rights around the world,” she says. “That works whether you’re talking about a dollar or a record of a mortgage or a piece of fine art.”

The ordering of information matters tremendously in such exchanges, and the transparent nature of blockchain is key to establishing and maintaining trust. Baldet acknowledges that such an approach is not without an element of risk, especially in these early days. “Possession is still nine-tenths of the law, and you might have a digital token that says you own something, but you don’t have physical ownership. So there’s a lot to be worked out with this blurring membrane between the digital and the physical worlds,” she says. “But certainly the ability to manufacture tokens to trade them and to bring down the barriers to creating micro-economies is a huge opportunity to every industry.”

That opportunity extends well beyond industry and commerce. Designer and artist Yin Aiwen is experimenting with blockchain in both Phi, a renewable energy exchange, and ReUnion, a new concept for structuring modern families. She finds the technology a natural connective foundation for grassroots, collectivist efforts.

 
Yin Aiwen

Yin Aiwen

 

Blockchain has by no means been isolated from the hype and hangover that surrounded the cryptocurrency boom. “I think blockchain hit its winter in 2018,” Yin says. “The community started to have a lot of self-reflections on their practices, especially on practical and philosophical details regarding governance issues.”

While Baldet agrees, she notes that all the early attention has a definite upside: “What’s been so fantastic around the hype in this space is that there’s been so much money funneled into research and development. Sure a lot of money has been wasted on teams that are never going to deliver things or things that are quite honestly pretty scammy … But there’s also a fantastic amount of funding going to academics and researchers and technical teams and project teams that have otherwise languished in obscurity in the basement of institutions for 30 years.” All this investment will soon bear fruit, Baldet believes.

“There will be credible advancements coming out that are going to help the next crop of projects actually be able to deliver on what people said they were going to do in 2017 and 2018 but didn’t have the fundamental technology to complete,” she concludes. “What gets me excited here is that it’s still so early.”

Amber Baldet and Yin Aiwen will both take part in Blockchain & Cryptocurrency Track sessions at the 2019 SXSW Conference.

SXSW will be held March 8-17, 2019. The Interactive Badge gets you primary access to all SXSW Conference Interactive & Convergence Tracks, as well as secondary access to most Music and Film programming. See you in March!

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