On the day Stephen Hawking died, in the week Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos admitted she hadn’t ever visited a failing public school in her home state, in the year that the West’s faith in liberal institutions seemed to crumble faster than ever, it was comforting to hear, in the PlayStation Theater in Times Square, after a prelude of sliders and bao, that the future had arrived.
And it was a piece of technology, no less.
True, Silicon Valley’s utopian hype machine has sputtered after scandals at Zenefits and Theranos, fake news crises at Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and amid looming fear of a bubble, or worse, regulation. But there remains a group of technophiles unbowed by the past two years, still publicly committed to a vision of a future radically transformed for the better: cryptocurrency and blockchain enthusiasts.
The exact shape of this future was a mystery to many of the 1,000 men and women (mostly men) filing into the underground chamber, past a sign for something called the Big Best Innovation Group. Hardly anything about this future had been posted to the internet, perhaps on purpose. Still the event had sold out in hours. There were rumors that the Winklevoss twins would be there, and the speed skating champion Apolo Ohno.
Also, because this future was a distributed ledger, like the blockchain — this much was known — it was also agreed that almost no one would be able to explain it.
“There’s a lot of hype around it because people are very surface on what they know,” an investment banker named Kevin confessed, before the revelation of the future.
And yet there it was, in large letters on the wide screen at the back of the PlayStation Theater stage: “Hello Future.”
More confirmation soon came from Mance Harmon, CEO of Hedera, whose public ledger is called Hashgraph.
“We are Hedera, and tonight we welcome you to the future,” Harmon said, onstage, to whoops.
The future, according to Harmon and Hedera cofounder Leemon Baird, is a distributed public ledger that can do anything Bitcoin or Ethereum can do, but faster and more securely. The Hedera Hashgraph platform, as it is officially called, is faster because it uses a different kind of math than those platforms, and is so secure, its founders claim, it has achieved something called “asynchronous Byzantine fault tolerance” — basically, it can handle a lot of liars lying at the same time.
The reason the audience was there, for the most part, was speed. Hedera’s tests show that the Hashgraph platform can process hundreds of thousands of transactions per second — Bitcoin usually does less than ten — fast enough that they think it can be the first distributed ledger tech to be used for microtransactions.
That speed could enable all kinds of new and fascinating applications, a group of three programmers, who had been working with Hashgraph for months, said before the event.
Jordan Fried, Hedera’s business development boss, told the room that the speed and security of the tech “has implications that stretch all the industries on planet Earth” — from ad tech to smart cities to gaming.
“But what will it actually be used for?” I asked the engineers.
“Cryptocurrency,” they responded, in unison. Kevin, the investment banker, said he suspected much of the audience was mad they didn’t get rich on Bitcoin and were hoping Hedera was the next big thing.
And yet, despite the number of cryptocurrency enthusiasts in attendance, Hedera hardly mentioned money in its two-hour talk. Harmon did confirm that there would be a coin (louder whoops), but did not say when it would be traded on exchanges. There was instead much more talk about big concepts like governance (the Hashgraph platform would be governed in part by a council of 39 “world-class organizations” providing “sector-specific expertise”), regulation (there would be a Distributed Ledger Foundation charged with pulling the “best and brightest into a conversation” and informing the government) and fairness.
“We have fairness,” Baird, a thin man with big dimples and a PhD from Carnegie Mellon earned so quickly that it has become part of the Hedera marketing pitch, told the audience. “Let’s be clear what we’re talking about when we talk about fairness. It’s not fairness. Its fairness of timestamps, fairness of ordering, and fairness of access.”
Harmon promised the audience, loudly, that the platform would not split into separate versions, or “fork,” as Bitcoin and Ethereum had.
Trust, fairness, governance, security, reliability: Not words the public usually associates with the cryptocurrency frontier, with its promises of fast money and no central oversight. But Hedera’s founders have experience building distributed applications for corporate clients, and they’ve convinced a major credit union consortium to use Hashgraph. They seem much more concerned with institution building than stoking the excitement of the cryptocurrency culture that has emerged in chat apps and forums and led to a profusion of scams.
Yes, despite the PlayStation Theater, despite the raucous applause when livestream stats were announced, hell, despite the sliders, everything onstage was more or less grown up.
After the last speaker, the crowd, mostly under 40, milled outside the theater, plucking donuts off of a pegboard wall of donuts. Many of the group had fantastic names, such as Jean-Philippe Innocent, the cofounder, along with former Guns N’ Roses drummer Matt Sorum, of a distributed ledger company called Artbit; and MJ Barcelona, who was two months into her career as a cryptocurrency accountant. It had started out a little slow.
An enthusiast named Zach said he had been impressed by Hedera, which unlike “most shit coins” had “actual tech” behind it. The challenge would be getting anyone to use it. Another enthusiast, named Kazi, said he had quit his job as an operations manager at JFK after making $50,000 in December on Bitcoin. He was mostly there to hang out with a buddy from his cryptocurrency chatroom who was visiting from Texas.
Kazi agreed with Zach that Hedera was cool and better than “most ICOs, which have no point.” He didn’t think it was an easy way to make money, though. He was seeing sophisticated currency traders descend on the exchanges. The stupid money was gone. Nor did he think the platform promised to do much more than enable a faster Bitcoin. Like several others in the audience, Kazi said that none of the potential uses of the Hashgraph, like voting or smart contracts, were anything new. It was just faster and more secure.
The consensus around the room, fairly well distributed, was that the future had some potential, and had been very well marketed.