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“Blockchain Week” gives us presidential candidates, parties, and signs of crypto spring

It might have been less exuberant than last year, but crypto hype isn’t going away anytime soon—and there’s still clearly big money to be made
Image of New York Coindesk event at midtown Hilton
Image of New York Coindesk event at midtown

In case you hadn’t heard, it’s “Blockchain Week” in New York City. The main event: CoinDesk’s Consensus conference, which wrapped up Wednesday evening. The largest annual crypto-focused gathering in the US attracted over 4,000 enthusiasts and industry members to Midtown Manhattan to celebrate decentralization, dream about how blockchains might revolutionize finance and business, and argue about which of today’s systems and products we’ll still be talking about 10 years from now.

Oh, and party, New York style.

The conference just happened to coincide with some big upward momentum in the crypto market. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Bitcoin's price neared highs that it hadn't seen since last July (The run has since dissipated). Optimism that the run might signal the end of “crypto winter,” the market downturn the industry has endured since late last year, was palpable inside the conference center. But the trickle of exuberance was nothing like the rushing flood I witnessed at Consensus a year ago.

In May of 2018, the mania of 2017 had yet to wear off. The Hilton Midtown was overrun by more than 8,000 attendees, and at times it felt as if there was barely room to move about the conference center. There were far more suits in the crowd, which appeared to be full of “investors.” Initial coin offerings were a big topic of conversation. “Lambos” (Lamborghinis, the ironic symbol of new crypto wealth) were parked outside the hotel.

This year, the conversations were on the whole more sober and pragmatic, likely reflecting crypto winter’s bite. There was much less talk of token sales. “The tourists are gone,” I heard someone say as a way to explain why only half as many people were there.

The most serious discussion involved whether it is realistic to think that crypto could help citizens in countries with unstable governments and national currencies. This debate particularly focused on Venezuela, where political volatility and hyperinflation have caused a humanitarian crisis. In theory, the answer is yes, Bitcoin could help. In practice, the problems in Venezuela are not simply technological ones, said Jill Carlson, co-founder of the Open Money Initiative, a nonprofit research group that has studied how people in Venezuela use money.

“We want it to be this simple problem that if we just understand it well enough, and if our code is clean enough, we’ll fix it,” she said. “It’s really a human problem.” She explained how difficult it was to teach merchants in Venezuela about what Bitcoin even is, and convince them that it can be trusted like real money.

There was also a debate over whether privacy in financial transactions is a universal human right. (The jury’s still out.)

Photograph of Andrew Yang
Clara Lu

To top it all off, the conference even featured a US presidential candidate. Although Andrew Yang is polling at just 3% nationally, he’s number one in the hearts and minds of many crypto enthusiasts. On stage at Consensus, he played to the crowd with what appeared to be genuine enthusiasm for blockchains, and he called on policymakers to provide more clarity to the industry or risk missing out on the technology’s “immense potential.”

Yang is obviously after the nerd vote, which helps explain why he’s the only one of the 23 Democratic candidates to have put out a detailed stance on cryptocurrency policy. “It’s very, very hard to invest and innovate if you don’t know what the heck the regulatory landscape’s gonna look like, and if you’ve got multiple agencies who may or may not have a say in what you’re working on,” he said, adding that a framework that differs from state to state would be a “nightmare” for innovators. Clear, consistent rules of the road are needed, he said: “And if you don’t have that, then—shocker—other countries will end up being more on the forefront of this technology wave.”

As for the parties? Well, Snoop Dogg didn’t make it this year. I can’t speak for the whole scene, but one night I did manage to get into a party thrown by the charity arm of Binance (yes, that Binance) and a startup called Bloq. As I witnessed the charity foundation raise $100,000 in about 10 minutes—with several donors making big gifts by scanning a QR code projected on a screen—I was reminded that no matter what anyone says about the merits of this blockchain and crypto stuff, or where they say it’s all headed, it still mostly boils down to the pursuit of large sums of money.

So if we really see another extended bull market, won’t the tourists come back? I’ve heard over and over during the past six months that crypto winter has actually been good for the industry, since it made people focus on building new things. The feeling is that it weeded out those who weren’t serious about developing the technology and using it to change the world. By that logic, I’m left wondering: if crypto spring is here, is that bad for the industry? By the time Blockchain Week 2020 rolls around, maybe we’ll have an answer.

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