Crypto pulled off its big upgrade. Even larger ambitions await

FILE PHOTO: Representation of Ethereum, with its native cryptocurrency ether, is seen in this illustration taken November 29, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Representation of Ethereum, with its native cryptocurrency ether, is seen in this illustration taken November 29, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

Published Sep 22, 2022


The platform that hosts many of the world's NFT and cryptocurrency trades just completed one of the trickiest upgrades in modern technology.

Now come the really big goals.

Earlier this week, Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin and his team successfully finished a long-awaited transition of their blockchain – shifting how it verifies transactions from a system based on complex computer calculations to one that relies on humans.

A blockchain is a digital ledger that records and shows all transactions made on it.

The shift, known as the Merge, will save huge amounts of energy and prevent carbon from spewing into the air. As a result, it will also expand Ethereum's transaction capacity, from a measly 15 per second to as many as 100 000, a change developers hope will make ethereum a bigger part of modern life.

But for all the crypto world's hype about the Merge, it is just the latest step in a grand plan Buterin has been plotting for years. In Buterin's future, digital life isn't just more immersive – it's a hierarchy-free place in which ethereum enables people to socialise differently, set policies free of governments and borrow money without problematically large intermediaries.

"If the Merge fully works, then I think we'll truly be able to build ethereum into a tool for a more democratic and more equalised society," said Merav Ozair, a former professor at Rutgers who recently started the crypto consultancy Blockchain Intelligence. "With a lot of ideas," she added, "that could make the world a better place."

The Merge's long-term success is not guaranteed. Ethereum's new security system relies on the squishiness of human behaviour, leaving it vulnerable to exploitation. Many crypto critics are also sceptical of Buterin, asking if his ideas that limit the influence of large institutions can be implemented, and worrying about the potential for abuse.

That hasn't stopped Buterin, a 28-year-old crypto wunderkind, from having a slew of lofty plans.

Buterin had a Doogie Howser-like early start in advanced research tools. He came from Russia to Toronto with his father at age six, and quickly showed a childhood penchant for Excel spreadsheets.

At just 19, Buterin published a seminal white paper that laid the groundwork for ethereum and NFTs – the unique digital creations that would become a speculative bubble – expanding well beyond what bitcoin was doing.

He has since cultivated an air of the rootless idealist. Despite much wealth from holding ETH – essentially Ethereum's version of bitcoin – Buterin lives nomadically, hopping from one friend's couch to another. (He counts 360 flights in nine years.) Buterin was not available for an interview for this article.

Buterin has long filled his blog with his own academic-style papers and, this month, he and crypto academic Nathan Schneider curated them in a book titled "Proof of Stake," after Ethereum's new human-centric protocol.

In one post, Buterin and Glen Weyl, a Microsoft Research New England economist, propose a new way of voting they say better captures preferences: by allowing people to register not just a simple yes-or-no vote on a ballot but how strongly they feel about their yes and no.

"The ultimate effect of these schemes rolled out in their full form could be as deeply transformative as the industrial-era advent of mostly-free markets and constitutional democracy," Buterin wrote.

Another of his ideas has him slowly complementing or even supplanting NFTs, or "non-fungible tokens", with SBTs, "soulbound tokens", a term borrowed from gaming in which digital assets are forever tied only to one person. Instead of tokens that can be auctioned off for large amounts of money, as NFTs often are, soulbound tokens could not be appropriated by the highest bidder. An SBT could represent a diploma, for example, or attendance at a historic concert.

"A common criticism of the 'web3' space as it exists today is how money-oriented everything is," Buterin writes in the book, using the term for the world of crypto and blockchain. "People celebrate the ownership, and outright waste, of large amounts of wealth. Making more items in the crypto space 'soulbound' can be one path toward an alternative, where NFTs can represent much more of who you are and not just what you can afford."

But Molly White, the well-known crypto critic, said she had concerns about Buterin's approach.

"He seems to have given very little thought to real-world usage and the potential for abuse – even suggesting that criminal records could be uploaded to the blockchain," she said of SBTs.

"One thing I've found about Vitalik is that his new ideas often don't seem to account for human behaviour or potential abuse," she added.

A different Buterin proposal would allow a city's citizens, not politicians, to make governance decisions directly, with algorithms in place to keep things tallied and fair. People would be given digital tokens they could use to formulate policy on everything from zoning to traffic laws.

All of this is made possible, he argues, by ethereum, which records entries with high levels of sophistication.

Those who work with Buterin say he wants to reimagine web3 and ethereum before they get even more entrenched as get-rich-quick schemes than they are.

"Vitalik's goal is to find solutions to what he sees as profound problems in our social structure and apply them in the ethereum ecosystem," Weyl said. "Then he'll take what he learns in ethereum and apply it outside the ecosystem."

But if the sceptics are right, he might have no effect at all.

"I am deeply unconvinced any of these ideas are worth anything, because they seem concocted without reference to anything that people who aren't weird crypto ancaps want," said crypto-sceptic author David Gerard, referring to anarcho-capitalists.

Gerard said the soulbound idea "was already literally a Black Mirror episode." The dystopian Netflix show once had social-status scores float next to people. Gerard said he has no issue with Buterin, whom he believes is well-intentioned, just with his ideas.

And for all the benefits of the Merge, there's little evidence yet that even an improved ethereum can help Buterin's ideas flourish in the real world. Simply accommodating more users does not guarantee a shift from a financial to a social tool.

Even Weyl, Buterin's collaborator, isn't convinced. "The Merge expands the reach of ethereum, no question. But it won't change the distribution of activities," he said. "We're going to need other motions for that."

That would look different from at a traditional company. There are few hierarchies at ethereum; ideas come from developers and members of the community. The non-profit ethereum Foundation is overseen by a three-person board that Buterin is on but doesn't lead.

Some experts, however, think he can change the world. Jaron Lanier, the Silicon Valley pioneer and contrarian, said in an interview that he was sold.

Noting he liked Buterin because, "unlike so many tech billionaires, he doesn't have 'mogul-brain,'" Lanier said those who dismissed Buterin were missing an opportunity.

"I don't agree with Vitalik on everything," he said. "But I think we can have a society in the future that works better than it otherwise would and makes people happier than they otherwise would be."

He said he was heartened by how much time Buterin spends grappling with the questions.

"In fact, it's a little surprising that everyone in tech isn't thinking this way," Lanier said.

The Washington Post