Ambrose, Gavin, Jeremy, Shan and Shuen from the Audacity community were invited by the Ethereum Foundation to attend Devcon VI on October in South America. Thanks to the pandemic, this is the first time this annual convention was held in 3 years.
What you know about Devcon VI before coming here, and what kind of expectations did you have?
Ambrose (cybersecurity@Audacity): I knew there’d be a lot of content on technical, theory, people and society, and the quality of talks will be pretty awesome because it’s a paid conference.
Gavin (human performance@Audacity): I knew Devcon was “the” Ethereum event where its community gets together and celebrates the protocol’s success. I was expecting to meet people in the web3 space that devoted their skills towards impact driven projects. To be amongst people that shared the same value beliefs I did, to speak the same language in terms of creating a regenerative future with Ethereum.
Shan (coder-polymath@Audacity): I knew it was the biggest conference for the biggest protocol for internet money and expected it to be full of interesting people, talks, and commentary on how Ethereum fits into the global context. I was also looking forward to the technical talks on some of the underlying mechanisms of the protocol, and the talks about governance and coordination.
Shuen (regenerative engineer@Audacity): Initially, I was a little apprehensive about whether it would be worth a 36 hours flight, but I wanted to experience the Ethereum magic myself before passing a judgement. I was looking forward to learn more about the different projects and tech stacks that the community has developed on coordination, public goods funding, governance and community building.
Jeremy (community organiser@Audacity): I knew Devcon to be the flagship annual conference for the Ethereum community. Although I have no strong feelings about blockchain and have huge reservations about crypto, most of the Ethereum people I know have been extremely intelligent and socially likeable. I was 50-50 about attending because of the distance, but a rare chance to see my long lost friends Shan and Shuen tilted the balance.
What were your Devcon VI week highlights (including side events)?
Ambrose: I did not expect such a fun experience. Schelling Point was insightful and related to most of the talks I attended. I especially enjoyed the talks by RadicalxChange and Gitcoin founders which resonated with my ideals, and the talk “Data Dating” by Disco that needs to be solved by Habitat Health. Devcon VI’s opening let me know that the EF was pushing for more public goods and less DeFi, to the entire audience, which was awesome. Especially Aya’s talk on Subtraction. I liked all the RadicalxChange panels and Gitcoin panels, where there was discussions on change and impact. The design talks were insightful too, and the technical talks fun. The majority of people and talks resonated with us, which is a really hard community to find elsewhere.
Gavin: Starting off the week with Schelling Point where I met the people from Gitcoin and DeSci that I have been communicating with remotely, in the flesh. I particularly loved the various talks on governance and coordination, opportunity and global impact, and layer 2s. One of the understated highlights are the random conversations with strangers within the convention centre. The sheer intellect and hunger for impact filled the room with optimism in that Ethereum is the future. The only way to that is to onboard the Next Billion. The talk that stood out to me still was Aya’s subtraction philosophy and it’s something that I have resonated with practising servant leadership.
Shan: The talk I enjoyed the most part as also one I happened to stumble into: by @ben_chain on Optimism and retroactive public goods funding. The ambition with which Ben articulated the plan for making public goods economically viable was no doubt one of the most inspiring moments of Devcon. I also felt that the value of Devcon is really in the people over the talks, making the workshops a whole lot of fun. I especially enjoyed the DeSci Lego workshop with Paul, where I designed a better scientific publishing system with some pretty incredible teammates. I do wish we had planned our side events better, raave and daifinity sounded like a blast but we didn’t get a chance to drop by.
Shuen: The opening ceremony was a blast, the energy was so good and the community spirit was really strong. You could feel the Ihope and optimism in the air. Everyone was excited to hear the collective achievements of the community in the week to come. It was also interesting to see the presence of UNICEF in a couple of sessions, and it does send a strong signal on the potential blockchain & ethereum has even in the impact space.
Jeremy: There are so many but I will just give my top five. Anecdotally, the cybersecurity breakouts were the most oversubscribed which tells you where the immediate tactical needs are. Secondly, Danny Zuckerman’s Schelling Point presentation of how to scale up social capital through decentralised data storage resonates strongly with what our friend Shan has been articulating earlier this summer. Thirdly, Venkatesh Rao’s premise of civilisational hypercomplexity is something very new and original – I look forward to this idea growing and evolving. Fourthly, This is the first time I heard Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin present, and he is such a natural technical visionary who can humbly but easily connect with the 6,000 audience. Finally, Aya Miyaguchi’s experience with philosophy of subtraction, about distributing opportunities rather than capturing them, validates some personal thoughts about sustainable leadership pathways moving forward.
What role do Ethereum and other distributed ledger technologies play in solving the problems of global coordination – or is global coordination an issue of human mindset and behaviour that technology cannot change?
Gavin: I think blockchain technology and DAOs, the future of work, can solve coordination problems. Ethereum rides on the belief and value systems that collaboration is triumphed by competition every time. The overarching vision is present but I think the Next Billion initiative can tailor the approach in regions of the world to ultimately obtain global coordination.
Ambrose: I think Ethereum can play not just as a method but a signalling tool to push for more open, interoperable, decentralised systems of coordination. It can become a core layer in the modern digital infrastructure. However, there is still a risk that Ethereum will be used by the masses in a centralised, conventional manner, resulting in the same problem the web today faces (decentralised protocol, centralised services), which is where we loose all the benefits of Ethereum. Global coordination is an issue of human mindset and behaviour but Ethereum needs a community big and strong enough to signal this new mindset of open, interoperable systems.
Shan: To answer this question, I invoke a quote from my favourite talk: “The technology is necessary but insufficient”. The potential of a global, permissionless ledger is in our ability to equitably create and transfer value. Indeed, for the first time, the ethereum blockchain enables anyone to make money in a literal sense. And if at the root of global coordination lies a global system of money transfer, then programmatic money comes with the potential of reconfiguring global modes of money transfer and incentives.
But the technology intrinsically doesn’t imply change. It is in the definition of value that the opportunities presents itself. Devcon showed me that the opportunity is there but the details are still being ironed out.
Shuen: I believe tokenisation creates new ways to recognise value created and a reliable system that can be trusted. It therefore opens an opportunity to create new incentives mechanism to solve the global coordination problem. However, I think it remains to be seen if the technology can find good use cases, and whether the community could create great user experiences on top of the tech to really shift the needle on the way the world works.
Jeremy: There was a fantastic presentation on the first day of the conference by blogger and aerospace scientist Venkatesh Rao. He introduced the concept of the Whitehead Civilisational Advance and why current innovations like machine learning and Ethereum could be comparable to modern markets and the rule of law in that they all automate important operations and relationships within a civilisation.
The pertinent quote from the Cambridge mathematician A.N. Whitehead (who co-authored the legendary Principia Mathematica with my favourite thinker Bertrand Russell) is as follows: “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.”
How does Ethereum rank in impact compared to other computing technologies like AI and BioTech?
Ambrose: I think it’s hard to compare them, but if Ethereum is successfully adopted by the masses, we’ll see an impact greater than AI and BioTech because it will result in a systemic change of how the world operates. I think the open-source movement is an example of a movement that has already made an insane global impact, and Ethereum has the potential to make a similar level of impact. But that is only possible if the world makes use of the unique properties of Ethereum when using it.
Shan: If money is one of the oldest technologies of mankind, then Ethereum is likely to have a bigger impact that one might expect. A reframing of the fundamental coordination systems that power our civilisation will ripple onto how we use other adjacent technologies like biotech and AI, and whether we use them in a way that is humanity centric.
Money influences power influences the use of technology. The wrong incentives with powerful enough technology would be very bad.
Jeremy: I am unable to rank them, but I would put them all in the first tier. AI, BioTech and blockchain are all horizontal innovations, meaning you can combine them. It is interesting to see that you compare Ethereum to the entire categories of AI and BioTech.
Gavin: I would categorise Ethereum differently from the two as the technology proves to be a tool that not only solves technical problems but behavioural and coordination problems too. All while fostering the broader impact of ownership for the little guys.
Shuen: I would think that they are all equally important in shaping the way of our future and intersections between technologies could also set powerful trends in creating impact.
How much of Ethereum is techno-optimism? How do we apply Ethereum to local contexts in a way that delivers value today?
Shan: Most of it is. However, most of computing was techno optimism in the late 1900s too. Category defining the technologies always start off looking like toys with no purpose. The bet to be made here shouldn’t be finding applications for currently existing “toys”, but rather on experiments to push the boundaries of the design space.
Jeremy: Oh, I see lots of techno-optimism and dreamers at Devcon IV but not many of the speculators and mountebanks that I associated with this space that turned me off crypto about a decade ago. What most impressed me are the motivations and execution competency of the Ethereum Foundation braintrust. In terms of immediate applications, social and reputational capital is an interesting space (especially in multiple localised settings rather than a single globalised approach).
Gavin: I think Ethereum’s thought leadership in techno-optimism has been put to the test of reality. Yes, so far in the crypto native world but I have no doubt with the tangential initiative and efforts to onboard the Next Billion, that the community will reap the benefits of not only spreading optimism, but practising it too.
Ambrose: I think Ethereum is 95% techno-optimism, and 5% real-world impact right now. But that will increase over the next few years if people build open-source, interoperable abstractions and properly utilise and show the unique properties of Ethereum, to bring it to the masses. I think there is a future where the next billion users (unbanked, etc) are using apps on their phones without being aware that they’re using Ethereum and decentralised capabilities, but that future is still very optimistic. The path to getting there is full of hurdles because avoiding accidental centralisation is hard. (Imagine building a decentralised ride-sharing app: there’s so many points where centralisation makes building it 100x or 1000x easier and more economical). Building Ethereum-based systems needs even more careful consideration than web2 systems. Most use cases can benefit from decentralisation+governance, and it isn’t impossible to build such systems, but the cost of doing so right now is too high. Right now, to apply Ethereum, we need to look at cases where there is a lack of centralised systems (the unbanked) and cases where the unique properties of Ethereum can flourish and replace existing systems.
Shuen: A lot of it is techno-optimism at the moment. This questions reminds me of Aya’s sharing on the Japanese word that means just shut up and do. I feel like that’s exactly the beauty of Ethereum community and also why it is a powerful force for impact that should not be neglected.
Does Ethereum actually have applications outside of financial products and DeFi, or is that all wishful thinking?
Shan: DeFi is the most trivial application of Ethereum, I find myself agreeing with Jeremy that the number of wallet startups are simply a section bias. I don’t think we fully grasp or understand the design space of decentralised ledgers, and it’ll require the intersection of expertise from politics, economics and technology to fully uncover the possibilities.
Jeremy: DeFi is simply the lowest big hanging fruit which is why we see so many rushing that way. In the next 5-10 years, impact and DeSci are two sectors which I look forward to interesting applications happening where finance has a secondary role, as in profits are made as a by-product rather than as a result of overwhelming intention to maximise transactions and fees.
Shuen: I feel like it serves an important role to decouple finance from profits, or rather profits that are made from extracting value. Changing the financial system is a fundamental role to changing societal norms, hence even though it could be a financial product, it will redefine what finance is about.
Ambrose: I think there’s a lot of potential for Ethereum to impact the future of work, compensation and value flow, in a game-theoretic and open-system manner. However, we need to educate people in the space to always use Ethereum in a differentiable manner (and not treat Ethereum as merely a general purpose computer and economic system and end up building centralised systems that merely interact with Ethereum).
Gavin: I would argue Ethereum has more applications outside of financial/DeFi dApps like Uniswap. The impact that Ethereum is creating transcends beyond financial incentive. Communities like this are built with cypherpunks that share a moral alignment towards a decentralised, private and secure future let alone layer 1 blockchain.
Any final reflections?
Ambrose: Devcon is a gathering of many builders, passionate and like-minded people in one city. It reminds me that the world is working towards a future where Ethereum plays a significant role in society, and we’re just getting started. The world also needs to focus more on public goods.
Gavin: Devcon has illuminated the light at the end of the tunnel and revived my optimism in the world’s efforts towards a regenerative future.
Shan: Devcon is a microcosm that explores what a globe of villages looks like as opposed to the world move towards a single global villages. People are pluralistic, community bound, and see more dimensions of value than normal capital. It is refreshing re imagination of what the world could be, and it’s up to us and to push it there.
Shuen: It is a really humbling experience to meet the Ethereum community!
Jeremy: If Devcon VI is a snapshot of the motivations, talent and competence of the Ethereum community, then I am a convert.