When we were planning this special issue back in January, someone asked, “What if most of the things we’re writing about don’t even exist by the time we publish?”
He was being only slightly facetious. As I write this, a bitcoin is trading at little more than a third of its value in December, when it peaked at nearly $20,000. Other cryptocurrencies have taken similar tumbles. Regulators in several countries are cracking down on the unregulated crowdfunding schemes known as initial coin offerings (ICOs), which exploded in 2017. A casual reader of the news might be forgiven for thinking that blockchain mania is over.
Obviously, we don’t think it is, or you wouldn’t be reading this. Cryptocurrencies and ICOs are just one aspect of the blockchain universe. Other kinds of blockchain startups are still proliferating, and big companies and financial institutions are exploring the technology’s applications. But whatever survives the hype cycle will almost certainly look different from what exists today.
In this issue’s opening essay, Michael Casey and Paul Vigna argue that just as the 1990s dot-com boom laid the foundations for today’s technology industry, the tide of speculative capital and the detritus of countless failed blockchain startups will wash away to leave the infrastructure and talent pool for a future wave of technology giants. James Surowiecki argues that cryptocurrencies will never work as foundations of the world financial system, and Kathryn Miles reports from Quebec on how they could be sunk by their ravenous need for electricity. In a Jordanian refugee camp, Russ Juskalian examines an attempt to use a blockchain to restore legal identity and self-sufficiency to people who’ve lost everything, while from Beijing, Yiting Sun relates how China’s crackdown on cryptocurrencies last year has unexpectedly given some blockchain entrepreneurs a boost. Douglas Heaven looks at the forensic teams helping to crack cryptocrimes. And Morgen Peck draws out three futuristic scenarios in which Bitcoin, the original and still the biggest cryptocurrency, might become irrelevant, supplanted by rivals.
There’s much more, too. We sent photographers to capture portraits of the blockchain believers, who turn out to be a lot more diverse than you might expect. We look at whether ICOs can ever be truly useful, why there aren’t more women in blockchain tech, and whether blockchains are really as secure as they’re claimed to be. If you want to start with the basics, check out our guides to blockchain and the industries that could be revolutionized by it. And finally, gaze into the future with a science fiction story by Hannu Rajaniemi on how blockchains might govern our lives and relationships.
This issue also marks a new direction for MIT Technology Review. From now on, each of our bimonthly print issues will cover a single topic. Our aim will be to leave you with a better grasp of a complex technological issue and all its ramifications for the world. Please write to firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know if we’ve succeeded.