Bill Tai is a truly inspiring person. It’s not so much his success as a VC – though, that is pretty off the charts – but, more, the fact that even with this success, Mr. Tai continues to keep pushing; expanding out beyond traditional Venture-based activities (if there is such a thing), into endeavors that are as focused on impact as they are profit.
Along with Susi Mai, Mr. Tai created MaiTai Global, which holds events across the country that focus on not only advancing and elevating the discourse on relevant topics, but also is focused on philanthropy. [Disclosure: I will be participating in the upcoming MaiTai event on the Music Industry.]
My conversation with Mr. Tai was wide-ranging, and, at some point, we may offer the entire transcription as a free downloadable PDF. For now, below are excerpts related to bitcoin and blockchain, and, specifically, how blockchain technology could help solve what I believe to be the fundamental issue for today’s creator — be they a musician, writer, visual artist, etc. — attribution.
In my exploration of blockchain technology, I am very encouraged by the technologies ability to better track and transact efficiently - once content has been registered on the ledger.
What I am deeply uncertain of/concerned by is the fact that – to date – neither blockchain/bitcoin technology nor anything else is remedying the problem of attribution for what is being entered on the ledger.
That is, if someone puts something on the distributed ledger that they don’t have the rights to, the blockchain tech will only exacerbate problems around rights and identity, rather than fix them.
Watch this space for future excerpts of my conversation with the fantastic Bill Tai; including his thoughts on the recent bitcoin fork.
As stated, what is below is an excerpt of a longer conversation, and so you’re joining us somewhere in the middle of our talk (it has been lightly edited for content and clarity):
George Howard: So, this does lead me, I guess, in a strange way to Crypto or blockchain. Insofar as, data has to be track-able from some sort of source, right? I’ve been writing about this for a few months, and it’s been amazing to watch the energy in the space.
Zoë Keating was one of the first people I talked to about blockchain technology and its relationship to the arts, and she did a great piece with me, and I talked to people like Imogen Heap, and I keep just going down this rabbit hole. Not only just because I want to talk to people who are smarter than I am, and get insight, but what it’s opened up for me is this broad, expansive potentiality — and, I’m going to use a phrase here that I know is wrong — but blockchain tech is almost like a shot at replacing the internet. It’s almost a shot for us to do it again. And do to so thinking about things like attribution.
I would love to hear you on this. I know you’ve funded a company called BitFury, and so I know that this is something that’s very much on your mind. Give me your thoughts on blockchain tech, and how it relates back to data.
BT: Valery Vavilov founded BitFury. It’s of one of the bigger companies in the space of running infrastructure around the world that processes bitcoin and blockchain, and to go back to the big picture of what you said of a “chance to do it again.”
Basically, I think the – what I see is that the internet allowed us to packetize information and make it fluid and accessible everywhere — and what crypto-currency does is it packetizes values; it allows us to transmit it in a mobile liquid way anywhere. So I think that…
GH: So make a distinction for me. That’s incredibly insightful, and make the distinction for me between “packetizing information” and “packetizing value.”
BT: Yeah, so to the extent that you can take little tiny pieces of information, and if you sort of look at the alphanumeric, you know, the alphabet that we all use, if you could express letters and numbers in 1s and 0s going across air, or wires, you could convey words, and sentences, and thought, and express ideas, and allow the information to flow anywhere. And what something like crypto-currency does is, instead of letters or numbers, it’s basically taking tiny amounts of value that can be aggregated in any amount, and sent anywhere any time; like you could send an email.
BT: So, it’s revolutionary in that it totally reduces friction and overhead related to instant payment. You know, if somebody does good work on something, and you want to reward them with some value, it’s instantaneous.
GH: So, it’s not just about – I’m sorry to interrupt you – but it’s not just about the, sort of, reduction of transaction costs. Obviously, that’s incredibly important, but it’s also, as you said, “Somebody does good work,” and you want to, sort of – I forget your phrase – but compensate them, give them some value, but…
BT: I’m with you.
GH: One of the key things is, from me — I’m wrestling with and I hope you’ll shine some light on it — is that it’s also that sort of… what’s the word? “Credit” is the wrong word, but it’s “validation.”
BT: Tipping. There’s a tipping thing that’s…
GH: No, well, there is that, but it’s – well, let me give you a personal example: So, I write an article the other day for Forbes, and it’s about how blockchain could allow us to sort of reinvent the internet, right?
And then, like, two days later, 400 people send me some link to some other article, and say, “George, this sounds an awful like your article.” And I won’t dignify the fact that – I won’t mention who wrote it. Whatever. It doesn’t matter.
But, they didn’t reference back to my articles. They did reference Imogen Heap, and I thought, “Oh okay, they’re gonna quote back to the 4,000 words that I wrote on Imogen in my article on her.” They didn’t. There’s no plausible way that they didn’t know my articles existed. They chose not to give me attribution, and that’s okay. I guess.
But then, there were these sort of SEO blogs, right, and they had taken my article, and re-blogged it all over the place, and no attribution. Took my byline away, all those types of things.
GH: And so, how does blockchain tech remedy this?
BT: Right, so, there is a way to do that. Yeah, so, the technology exists, the implementation is not there yet. But blockchain is a – it’s an identity management system.
BT: And when we talk about how value can be transmitted in a liquid way. The only way the value can be transmitted is because the underlying technology knows and identifies the sender and the recipient, and knows who they are, and also uniquely identifies a piece of content, or a piece of value that goes from Point A to Point B, and it records it and knows it, and it’s indelible. It’s written down, it’s copied, you know – it’s kind of like it’s imprinted in a ledger, it’s there permanently.
GH: But, the problem with that is: If I put something up onto the ledger that I don’t have the initial rights for, how does that then — and I’ve heard different answers to this question — how does that then get disproven?
Like, what’s to keep me from putting stuff on the ledger that I don’t have the rights to, and claim it as mine?
BT: Right, so, this is why I said the technology – the functioning of technology is there, but the implementation is not what it should be. Whatever the standard should be has not arrived yet.
GH: Got it, okay.
BT: But one of the things we talked about at the Necker Block Chain Summit; there’s a person named Oliver Luckett you should get to know… And in the group that we broke up into teams of seven or eight people, and asked the entire group on Necker, in their teams, to come up with things that could be implemented on the blockchain that could be game changing.
And Oliver, who’s a social media expert, the essence of his idea was that they rallied around was a social media genealogy system.
BT: Because — as you’re saying about the articles that you write — say that happens to some kid that posts a really cool video on YouTube, and then somebody downloads it, and reposts it on a blog that they may have built up into a little media site. They get like 3 million views and lots of ad dollars, and that kid got nothing.
GH: You got it. That’s the music business, by the way, that you’ve just described. But go ahead.
BT: Yeah, so what if there were a way that, when a there’s a piece of content that is originated, as like a piece currency would be originated, it gets listed on the blockchain with the identity of the content, and the identity of the person tied together, and every time it moves — like in the bitcoin case — every time, you know, somebody repaid me, and then I took a piece out of it and paid you, it would record it as a transaction, but it would know where that source was.
So, if there were a way to almost look at the genealogy; like you can look up your ancestry of any piece of content from where it was originally created.
GH: And, so, the premise there would be – to use your example – the kid puts up something that she didn’t have the rights to or didn’t create or whatever, by downloading it the first time, if that first creator had put it up, and then there’d be a ledger that says, “Hey, wait a second. This wasn’t yours,” and so you’ve created a derivative work, and now we can track down the “genesis block” or what have you.
BT: Exactly, exactly. Right.
GH: Yeah, I mean, I get that, but I’m not sure. The other thought, the other things that I’ve heard people talk about is more sort of almost like Xanadu Project type stuff where you get sort of credibility over time and by your association.
And so, I’ve written a hundred articles for Forbes on this thing or whatever, now I’ve got a sort of credibility level, it’s unlikely that I’m going to rip somebody off. And you almost build a currency based on reputation and legacy, you know. Maybe that works, I don’t know.
BT: That could work too, reputation engine on top of it.
GH: Exactly, but this is so, so unbelievably fundamental to the music business when we talk about how blockchain may help rights holders. I mean, if you don’t have that original, unfettered copyright, and you sign up on some registry, all you’re doing is exacerbating the problem at that point.
BT: Right. Yeah, the technology does have the potential. You know, what I think what needs to exist is what is being built now, from a technology perspective, which is a super scalable, very low cost infrastructure.
BT: So you can track everything. And, I think that if the currency movement really takes hold and takes off, then there’s lots and lots of infrastructure that’s being subsidized by the currency movement. That other things can be built upon.
And then you can run stuff on top of it for some low nominal fee to stimulate usage, because it has to be very pervasive, which it can be and it has to be low cost. And those two elements do exist and now I think one of the things I would love to see BitFury do is build this out.
You know, we have this very cool project to put bitcoin miners in light bulbs and kind of give them away or sell them at low cost and stimulate usage. Each one of those is an effort to get the gigantic of nodes out there that could be running a blockchain under them.
Therefore, there is no one company out there that has to bear the burden of processing all the information out there on the web and people could develop applications. They just access it. They hold it. And they let the market forces rule and things that are needed win out.
GH: Right. Right. We need that stimulation. And again people get “pissed” at me when I say this, but I always say “bitcoin is to the block chain as porn was to the internet.” And I know those are tethered together and everything else. But, because of the economic imperatives there, and the potential for riches and everything else, bitcoin is going to drag other use cases connected to the blockchain behind it. I think.
BT: I agree.
Along with Susi Mai , Mr. Tai created MaiTai Global , […]