When most people hear “crypto,” the first thing they think of is “currencies.” Cryptocurrencies have skyrocketed in popularity over the past few years. And they’ve given rise to an entire ecosystem of financial speculation, get rich quick schemes, and in some cases outright fraud.
But there’s another side of crypto that gets less attention: the segment of the community that is interested in the way the technology that powers crypto can decentralize decision making, make institutions more transparent and transform the way organizations are governed. That’s the side I find far more interesting.
There are few individuals as central to that latter segment of crypto as Vitalik Buterin. When he was still just a teenager, Buterin co-founded Ethereum, a decentralized platform whose token Ether is the second most valuable cryptocurrency today, surpassed only by Bitcoin. But the vision behind Ethereum was that the blockchain technology could be used for more than digital money; it could create a sort of digital infrastructure on top of which organizations and companies and applications could be built — ostensibly free of centralizing structures like banks and governments.
Over the last decade, Buterin has become arguably the core public intellectual on the nonfinancial side of crypto. His new book, “Proof of Stake,” is a collection of long, thoughtful essays that taken together lay out a vision of crypto as a truly transformative technology — one with the potential to revolutionize everything from city governance to voting systems to online identity.
I myself have dueling impulses about Buterin’s vision. On the one hand, I believe many of our governing systems and institutions are badly in need of the kind of reimagining he is engaged in. On the other hand, I’m deeply skeptical of whether the issues Buterin and his ilk are focused on are actually technological problems that blockchains can solve. So this is a conversation that sits squarely within that tension.
(A full transcript of the episode will be available midday on the Times website.)
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