At Ethereal Summit, A Human Face On A Blockchain Future

“Raise your hand if you don’t know what ‘bitcoin mining’ actually is.”

At an impromptu Q&A at Ethereal Summit on May 11, Consensys software engineer Ashoka Finley encouraged the audience to ask embarrassing questions they might have about cryptocurrency and blockchain.

“What’s ‘hashing’? Don’t know what a bitcoin is?” Finley went on, encouraging attendees.

The questions spoke to the sentiment on day one of the two-day conference hosted by the company, a Brooklyn-based ethereum startup incubator, characterizing the inclusive atmosphere CEO Joseph Lubin appeared to be aiming for with the whimsical conference set in New York City.

Indeed, there was no shortage of eager blockchain enthusiasts onhand to discuss how they hope blockchain can change society and the world.

While cryptocurrency and blockchain technology has so far been relegated to mostly to a community of techies, Lubin drove home the message of inclusion at a press conference around lunchtime. He told the group of a couple dozen members of the media that after attending a number of banking and trading conferences focusing on blockchain, he wanted to put on an event that “really spoke to normal people” – to artists, musicians and others whose primary focus wasn’t blockchain.

He spoke about ways that the uninitiated could learn more about ethereum and blockchain technology, including a “stunning” amount of YouTube videos and ConsenSys’ own Academy offerings, plus Ethereal itself.

Appropriately for a conference hosted at a reclaimed glass factory in Queens, Lubin predicted that Silicon Valley’s dominance over the tech sector would wane, because “as we move forward having large pools of capital is going to become less valuable than having great ideas.”

Network decentralization, in other words, may lead to geographic decentralization, and with it, much needed change.

To that point, he stressed blockchain’s potential to restore ordinary people’s ownership of their personal data through projects such as uPort, an ethereum-based self-sovereign identity play. Rather than forking over massive amounts of data to centralized firms like Facebook, users could monetize their own information, selling it on marketplaces – but only if they want to.

That kind of message may once have appealed only to a cypherpunk fringe, but that seems no longer the case.

Speaking to that increased interest from outsiders, Lubin said:

“Cambridge Analytica is helping our case.”

Driving financial inclusion

True to the mission of inclusion, a number of talks focused on how cryptocurrencies could solve the “financial inclusion” problem.

“The conversation about this tech shouldn’t just be about U.S., China and Russia, because if it is, I’ll be really disappointed,” said Global Blockchain Business Council CEO Sandra Ro, whose talk focused on smaller, Caribbean islands who are looking to blockchain in various capacities.

She continued:

“I think we have an opportunity here to give the small guys a fighting chance.”

Along these lines, Tricia Martinez, the founder and CEO of Wala, which recently launched a crypto token, dala, painted a bleak picture of banking in Africa.

Unlike banks in the developing world which subsist off the traditional savings and loan model, she argued banks across Africa make their money by charging fees for every action a customer makes: opening accounts, buying a coffee, or, perhaps most jarringly, even inquiring about fraudulent activity in an account.

Given all that, it’s no surprise most Africans aren’t using banks at all – 94 percent of transactions on the continent are in cash, Martinez said.

While that works, cash might not be enough, she continued, pointing to digital money’s obvious advantages as a fast-moving form of payment that can easily be sent across borders.

Speaking to CoinDesk in a separate interview, Martinez said the Wala mobile app (where dala is the native cryptocurrency) is trying to do everything the banks do, except without fees.

The company does this by sending the ERC-20 token across the micro-raiden network, a scaling technology launched in December that pushes transactions into channels off the ethereum blockchain.

So far it seems to be working. According to Martinez, there are 50,000 people currently using dala to top up on airtime, pay electricity bills or send money to friends and family.

“Let’s solve this financial inclusion problem,” she said during her presentation.

Offsetting the abstract

Yet, it wasn’t just the mainstage speakers that were pushing the idea that the cryptocurrency community should reach out to those not already versed in the technology.

The Knockdown Center has a number of different rooms and alcoves that the organizers used to showcase projects that are trying to bridge the gap between art and blockchain.

For instance, in an area called “the crypt,” ConsenSys showcased its Cellarius project – a collaborative sci-fi writing exercise (whereby anyone can participate by writing, drawing or rendering a piece of the story and then the community votes on its inclusion) that advances a new genre it calls “blockpunk.”

“It’s a bit more positive, it’s not as dystopian as cyberpunk. There’s room for hope in this world and a bigger emphasis on decentralization,” Frank Apollo, a leading writer on the project, told CoinDesk.

Right outside the crypt was the meditation zone with massages and yoga sessions, intended to provide an antidote to the high velocity that is typical of industry conferences.

Artistic director for Ethereal, Saraswathi Subbaraman told CoinDesk that the creative side of the event emphasizes experiential, immersive artworks, to offset what is mostly an abstract industry.

“This space is so cerebral. It’s a high pressure, cerebral space,” Subbaraman said.

Subbaraman added that the featured artworks were selected for their critical value, which was divided into two fundamental themes. On the one hand, there was art that illustrates the potential of blockchain technology, for example, a project named “Bail Bloc” that mines monero in order to get people out of jail.

But there were works that spoke to the more dystopic aspects of the industry as well, such as a “CryptoJacked” popup shop for malware themed cryptocurrency mining solutions, and a handful of works that reflected on the occasionally cultish aspects of the industry.

“Art is a moment for critical pause,” Subbaraman told CoinDesk. “I came to this space because I thought I heard ‘human first,’ but I’m not sure I heard correctly. Art can show us where we’re falling short so we can build better.”

Subbaraman’s words seemed to echo those of Aya Miyaguchi, executive director at the Ethereum Foundation, who was the first to take the stage on day-one of Ethereal.

“Ethereum has a community that cares. The level of impact is still not all known but there is a lot of potential,” she said, adding:

“It’s happening guys. It’s happening everywhere.”

Ethereal Summit images via CoinDesk

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