The futility of cryptocurrency white papers is one of many running jokes on the “CoinTalk” podcast, hosted by Aaron Lammer and Jay Caspian Kang. The joke is that, during the recent feverish period of cryptocurrency investment, people preferred to invest in mysterious long-shot coins rather than coins with relatively cogent white papers (Mr. Lammer regularly cops to this approach).
There’s any number of reasons for this bullish investment in shady cryptocurrencies, known as ‘altcoins.’ A supportive tweet from a quasi-reputable source is often more persuasive than any white paper. Some investment is strategic, such as buying a scammy-looking altcoin then hoping that either a white paper emerges or that social-media hype delivers you to a big return.
On the “CoinTalk” podcast, Mr. Kang’s explanation for the surge in non-Bitcoin cryptocurrency investment tends to be more simple: people are bored and they like to gamble. When it comes to altcoins, the average investor knows little more than the name, which is how so many people recently wound up with largely useless crypto coins instead of coins that might one day actually serve a purpose.
If the preceding paragraphs contain recognizable words but make no sense whatsoever, then Stephen P. Williams’ new book, “Blockchain: The Next Everything” will help you clear the terminology bar. He explains blockchain quickly and effectively (you’ll prefer his explanations to my feeble attempts). He also explains how blockchain is not Bitcoin.
Mr. Williams then begins to explore what I have come to think of as the “CoinTalk” paradox: does the blockchain sector need clearer messaging or will the average person invest in and trust blockchain-backed products even if they don’t understand the technology? And if comprehension isn’t a prerequisite for trust, doesn’t that encourage the blockchain companies to act as mysteriously as they want?
I’m guilty of posing overly dramatic questions when it comes to blockchain. Williams is more even-handed. He argues that, much like Microsoft Word or Spotify, “we don’t need to understand exactly what’s under the hood. We just need to understand what we can do with it.”
But understanding the uses of blockchain is difficult, given the evolving and seemingly endless array of possibilities (and the lack of tangible, usable products to-date). Williams covers as many paradoxes as possibilities. Will the blockchain usher in the “Crypto Enlightenment” or will its era pass as quickly as that of the Segway? Will blockchain-backed innovations help combat climate change or will its gargantuan electricity usage accelerate the energy crisis? Yes, blockchain enables a decentralized ledger system, but “what prevents someone from entering false information in the first place?”
In short, Williams is not an evangelist. He’s a skeptical optimist. His interest in blockchain is born of genuine curiosity, and his own personal deep dive into the subject reveals that “blockchain is not quite as simple or as immediately transformative as we might wish.”
Seeing as publishing houses are paradoxically imperiled by innovation and dependent on it for subject matter, there will be many more books on blockchain, many of which will occasionally combat the same foe Williams is up against: time, i.e. that the world of blockchain is changing rapidly. He references a blockchain-backed journalism venture, Civil, which has since proved “CoinTalk’s” theory about the inverse relationship between white papers and investment (Civil published a well-argued white paper then missed big on its sales projections). Williams notes Facebook’s interest in cryptocurrency, and there are now SEO-obsessed news stories on the subject seemingly everyday. Topically, Williams could not have chosen a more mobile target.
He also could not have possibly chosen a better structure. It is the book’s signature achievement. Chapters are brisk, anywhere from a paragraph to a few pages. The first line of each section is bolded and hyper-topical, almost as if he’s completing a composition exercise assigned by an especially strict parochial-school nun. He’s well aware that the material is dense, and his solution is to let some air into the pages.
So: will you understand blockchain better if you read the book? Yes. Does it matter if you understand blockchain? As a writer and educator, I’d like to say: yes! Language and comprehension always matter! If more people understand blockchain better, it can be applied to a wider array of social problems, such as our decrepit voting system.
Yet here I am, typing on an nine-year old laptop that I comprehend shockingly little about. I never consider its social function. I am incurious beyond asking: does it work?
Patrick McGinty teaches in the English Department at Slippery Rock University. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @PatrickMMcGinty.