WBD082 Audio Transcription
Andreas M. Antonopoulos on What Happens When Bitcoin Takes Over
Interview date: Thursday 28th Feb, 2019
Note: the following is a transcription of my interview with Andreas M. Antonopoulos. I have reviewed the transcription but if you find any mistakes, please feel free to email me. You can listen to the original recording here.
In this interview, I talk with Andreas M. Antonopoulos about what happens when Bitcoin takes over. We also discuss Bitcoin use cases and the ah-ha moments which can shift your perception of what Bitcoin is and what it means.
“We’re talking about a change in how humanity organises itself.”
— Andreas M. Antonopoulos
Peter McCormack: Hello Andreas. How are you?
A. Antonopoulos: I’m doing great Peter, how are you today?
Peter McCormack: I’m very good, Thank you. So I’ve been trying to get your attention for about a year now and finally managed it… Well somebody else managed it for me with a giant hairy ass! So here we are!
A. Antonopoulos: There’s this little corner of Crypto Twitter that is relentlessly silly and I absolutely love it, because it gives me a break from all of the seriousness and all of the nastiness that goes on often. So this being CryptoEuclid and his gang of merry friends…. I did end up in that thread and it was just a meme factory for like two hours and sometimes weird things get my attention!
Peter McCormack: And now you’re going to come and be an advisor on my ICO, right?
A. Antonopoulos: Absolutely, yeah of course! Are you monetizing hairy asses or was that a side job?
Peter McCormack: I’m putting hairy asses on the Blockchain!
A. Antonopoulos: Well that’s really where they belong!
Peter McCormack: So it’s funny actually, I’ve obviously wanted to interview you ever since I started and then once you agreed and I heard from you. Then I was like, ‘shit, I don’t know what I’m going to talk to you about’ because everybody else I interview is usually in a niche. When I interviewed Zooko, it’s ZCash so it’s privacy, but with you, there is so much and unlike everybody else, I’ve watched hundreds of your videos and followed your Twitter and then I’m like, ‘how do you know so much stuff’
A. Antonopoulos: About Crypto or…
Peter McCormack: Everything! Just like everything! You seem to know exactly how the world works, how money works, how the economy works and I don’t want an origin story, but what are all these influences that got you to here?
A. Antonopoulos: Well, I do have a weird path. Then again, everybody does. I’ve been tremendously lucky in my life and have found myself following a very, very bizarre path to where I am today. I started off as a middle-class kid in Greece during a dictatorship, a currency crisis environment, that sort of thing influenced me a lot. I think probably one of the biggest influences in my learning and my desire for knowledge has been my parents, who were both very much all about education. But especially my mother who was a huge book reader and this is probably the biggest influence I’ve had, I grew up in a house where every single room had wall to wall, ceiling to floor, bookcases that were filled with books. Probably a fire hazard, but a learning environment and not just serious books, it was the whole range from the silly to the trashy, to the very serious, to the classics.
It was an environment in which everyone was reading all the time and reading was seen as an important activity. So even though when I was young, I didn’t read as much, once I was an adult, I started reading voraciously and it’s only increased. I read two to three books a week and I dedicate a lot of time to reading, across a whole range including from the trashy to the serious, technical, non-technical, fiction, non-fiction, biography, history, geography, business, but also trashy sci-fi and ridiculous books. I just love reading! It’s the reason I love learning about new subjects. It’s also the reason that I became an author because I love words. It’s the reason I think I do a good job as a public speaker. Words are just such an important part of my life.
Peter McCormack: What are you reading right now?
A. Antonopoulos: So generally I’m usually reading two or three books simultaneously so I’ll flip from one to another and I’d have to pull up my Kindle to tell you specifically. So I’m reading a book called ‘The Denial of Death’ by Ernest Becker, which is about how much of our behaviour in life is driven by an underlying fear of death and facing our mortality. It’s part of a series of books I’m reading now about ageing and mortality, in order to understand my own journey in that. I’m reading a book called ‘Boundaries’, which is about how to manage expectations and boundaries and interpersonal relationships. I’m reading, ‘The Killer Collective’ by Barry Eisler, which is a spy thriller. I’m reading Charles Stross, ‘The Labyrinth Index’, which is a part of his Atrocity Archives, magic and zombies book, with higher order competitional math…. You know, across the range.
If I want to learn something, probably the first thing I do is buy two or three books. I want to be better at project management. I’ll buy two or three books. I want to learn more about statistics. I’ll buy two or three books. I’m trying to develop my comedy timing for my public speaking, for example, I read two or three books on that subject. So that’s my go to.
Peter McCormack: So give me one book that I will never have read that I should read. I’ve got to get a flight to New York on Sunday, so give me a book to read!
A. Antonopoulos: I think that’s a very, very personal question and it depends on what level of reading you do and what you enjoy. But I would say bar anything else, find something that you think will be fun. Reading shouldn’t be about a goal. It should be about the process. It shouldn’t be about getting somewhere. It should be about the time you spend in the book and enjoying that time and the more you enjoy the stuff you’re reading, the more you read. Then the more you’ll enjoy the new things you read. So really as a personal piece of advice, find the book that you think you’re going to really enjoy and use that to enhance your reading.
Peter McCormack: Do you know I don’t enjoy any books, I enjoy film! I love films! I get on a plane, I want to watch two or three films.
A. Antonopoulos: There’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t won’t be a book snob here. Every person has their own learning mode. Some people are very visual. Language happens to work for me. That doesn’t mean it’s for everyone.
Peter McCormack: Well, we should really talk about some Bitcoin because this is why we’re here.
A. Antonopoulos: Sure, why not!
Peter McCormack: Firstly, what are the unsolvable problems in an open, decentralized, public, transparent, neutral, censorship-resistant, global trust-less, network platform? I’m just winding you up!
A. Antonopoulos: Well, I can tell you what the unsolvable problems… Human nature. There’s this assumption that I see floating around a lot, especially around technologists, that you can solve a deep seeded social problems and really societal problems, which are squarely in the area of sociology and are deeply rooted in human behaviour and human motives and human biology really. You can solve these with technology. You can’t change humanity with tech. Well, you can, but you can’t change the deep-rooted human behaviour characteristics or some of them at least. It’s naive to think you can. So bad behaviour will always exist.
You’re not going to eradicate that. Irrational behaviour will always exist. Emotional behaviour will always exist and you can’t change that. You can’t turn people into cold, rational actors, just because you introduce a different form of money or you use a new organizational model for Blockchains.
Peter McCormack: Well that made me think of something because I was watching one of your presentations and you were talking about cartels, the banking cartels and how they’ve got away with so much. I was like thinking… Is this one sinister organized system or is it just the sum of a bunch of bad people making bad decisions?
A. Antonopoulos: It’s not even the sum of bad people making bad decisions. It’s the sum of good people and bad people, very few bad people, mostly good people, stuck in organizational structures and institutions that collectively and in aggregate guide towards decisions that are not particularly bad necessarily but are amoral. They have no moral compass. Towards good or bad, they simply follow a different set of guidelines, mostly profit driven.
Because the distance between the decision maker and those affected by those decisions is greater and greater in these hierarchies and because of the dilution of responsibility where each person contributes a tiny part and they don’t see the big picture, you end up with organizations that act in ways that go against good outcomes in society. It’s not about bad people. If it was, it would be easier to solve. It’s about the architecture of the system that leads to good people making tiny decisions that in aggregate and through the institution become very, very negative for society and that’s a problem that’s much harder to solve.
Peter McCormack: So I guess there’s a lot of temptation that comes in with as well?
A. Antonopoulos: That may be the case for some of the bad actors, the amoral actors, the narcissist, the people who are sociopaths and lack empathy and rise to the top of these organizations. But again, that’s a systemic issue. It’s not about personal decisions. The average banker, the average person who works at a bank, even those highly placed, is a perfectly nice person who on a day to day basis is making choices for the betterment of humanity. But mostly to pay their mortgage and raise their kids and create a good environment for their family. It’s the system they work in that produces bad outcomes. So it’s very important to distinguish between the two because if you take this Manichean approach of good versus evil, it clouds judgment.
There are no easy answers and if you take a simplistic black and white view of the world where there are good people doing good things and there are bad people doing bad things, well that would be a hell of a lot easier to fix. You just find the bad people. But that’s not the case. The problem with the world I think is when good people make bad choices or their decisions add up to bad outcomes without wanting to, or where they can be manipulated and corrupted by bad people who gain power. So those are much more complex problems to solve. They don’t have simple solutions. They’re not simple to understand or analyze and that’s why it’s satisfying and also easier to just go for a black and white view of the world, a simplistic view of the world where bad things happen because bad people do bad things deliberately, that’s very, very rarely the case.
There are such cases, of course pure malice does exist. There are disturbed people who deliberately do things to hurt others, but there’s such a vanishingly small percentage and they can’t account for most of the evil that happens in the world. Most of the evil that happens in the world happens because good people are not aware of the impact of their actions and are not taking enough interest and personal responsibility to change those.
Peter McCormack: What would you say, therefore, in this failed or failing system that doesn’t work? What are the pillars of the architecture that caused the problems?
A. Antonopoulos: Well, the primary issue and I look at this architecturally, is that of scaling. We’ve got to remember that banking institutions today were enormously liberalizing institutions for the vast majority of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century. Before the introduction of retail banking, people banking was introduced in the 15th, 16th century. The only people who had access to banking were Princes and Kings. So you had to be a member of the royal aristocracy, not even a lower member, you had to be a higher member of the aristocracy. The only person who could write a cheque was a King, drawn on the treasury.
So these institutions, which were started by a merchant class in medieval Europe, was very, very strongly persecuted by the aristocracy for making banking available to the masses, which in many cases had historical implications beyond that. These institutions freed up billions of people and literally gave freedom to billions of people by empowering them to join in corporations, associations to manage their money, to have free commerce, to be able to save, to have banked for the masses. At some point however, the institutions themselves, because they’re scaling in a hierarchical model in the form of a pyramid structure, the industrial model of bureaucratic organization where you have layers and layers and layers and layers, in order to scale an organization. That scale collapses at some point.
At some point, the distance between the decision makers at the top of the pyramid and the people affected by those decisions at the bottom becomes too great. The responsibilities to dilute and the organization fails to make good decisions. So it’s an architectural problem. The way it’s solved is by decentralized flat architectures that are enabled by software where governance is done on a network rather than through a bureaucracy. So bureaucracies are the great invention of the 18th century. Banking is a great invention of the 16th century. Those inventions raised billions out of poverty, they were great and now they’ve failed to scale. Now we need new institutions to survive the 21st century without destroying our planet.
Peter McCormack: And is Bitcoin one of those?
A. Antonopoulos: Bitcoin is absolutely one of those and it is one of those because of its decentralized flat governance model.
Peter McCormack: Well look, we’re 10 years in now. Where do you see it? If you look at the last 10 years and then try and picture forward, where do you see us in the journey of Bitcoin and how Bitcoin can change things?
A. Antonopoulos: Oh, I think we’re making tremendous progress. The technology has proven to be enormously resilient, surprising me many times with its resilience. It’s been attacked, both from the outside and the inside a number of times by different power structures and embedded interests, both within and without the Crypto space.
It’s managed to repel these attacks and maintain the fundamental structure. It’s very resistant to change, which is a huge benefit once you see these attacks happening and it’s also spawned thousands of imitators, some of which are actually doing interesting things in the periphery that also benefit. So I think it’s going pretty well, better than I expected.
Peter McCormack: So there’s a question I ask a lot of my interviews and I know you’ve answered it before, but the first time I heard it was actually asked to Adam Back and I love the different responses I get. So before we go on, I just want to ask you it…. What is Bitcoin? Because this leads us onto a bunch of other things.
A. Antonopoulos: Well it depends, the context which I’m answering that question and the audience I’m answering that question. I would say Bitcoin is the fifth evolution of money in its most abstract form, coupled to a new governance model, that delivers the purest form of network governance we’ve ever seen.
Peter McCormack: I’m guessing you believe therefore it can become…. I mean I guess it already is a global currency of sorts, but do you actually see a scenario where it becomes the primary currency within certain countries or all countries?
A. Antonopoulos: You know, I don’t know yet and that depends on many other factors, many of which are externalities. It depends on what fiat does across the globe in the meantime. I don’t think that’s necessarily a very good goal because in some cases, I think certain types of mainstreaming of this technology require compromises that I personally wouldn’t make. So I would rather see something that is a bit less mainstream and a bit more niche, but delivers the maximum amount of freedom and empowerment for the people who use it and becomes a choice that is available and resistant to capture, than to see it become endorsed by governments, endorsed by banks, mainstreamed to people who care less about privacy and monetary soundness and centralization of power.
So if the price of mainstream is compromising on those principles, I’ll pass on mainstreaming, it doesn’t matter. I define success differently. I define success as maintaining its resilience and building even better privacy to deliver more power to individuals around the world. To use it as a choice if they need it. Depending on how fiat goes, more and more people may end up needing it. So that’s a whole other issue.
Peter McCormack: But therefore you see it having a symbiotic relationship with fiat?
A. Antonopoulos: Absolutely. I think that there are many reasons why people choose to use currency and not all of them are rational or based on sound monetary policies. People have irrational approaches including being influenced by nationalism, by tribalism, by various other instincts that make them or guide them to making a choice that is not perhaps in their best interest but satisfies other emotional needs belonging in group thinking, things like that.
If you account for these externalities and you also account for the friction and changing systems that already exist, that means we’re likely to have an environment in which all of these systems co-exist for quite a while, if not permanently. For the same reason that even if you have a dominant language that is very, very useful to the vast majority of the human population, that doesn’t eradicate all the languages. Even if you have a dominant religion that seems to satisfy the spiritual needs of most people, that doesn’t eradicate all of the others. In fact, if anything, they’re increasing.
Finally, in terms of currencies, even if Bitcoin has a dominant position in a power law distribution, it captures a very big percentage of the market, that doesn’t eradicate all of the other things that might exist. I’m comfortable with these things co-existing. We’re 25 years into the internet, but I can still find fax machines out there, most in government offices! They serve a purpose for those who use them. I don’t agree. I wouldn’t use them, but they’re not going away. There are still horses on the street being used as transportation as well as mechanical work. Why after 200 years of industrialization, are we still using beasts of burden? Because things don’t happen in equal measure everywhere and because there are other reasons why people make those choices.
Peter McCormack: Okay, so if they co-exist, then I guess Bitcoin is a couple of things really. It’s a tool obviously for sending value around the world, hopefully transacting privately on occasion, but it’s also an assurance against fiat.
A. Antonopoulos: Absolutely. It’s an exit. It’s an escape valve. It’s a lifeboat and the thing about lifeboats is that you hope you don’t need them if anything. It’s nice to live in countries where the currency has problems, but it still works, right? I don’t believe in blowing a hole in your ship because you think it’s not structurally sound just to see if you can test the lifeboats. I want them to be there, but I don’t necessarily wish that everybody only uses those.
So I see Bitcoin as a lifeboat. In fact, a lot of its power comes simply from the fact that it exists as a choice ready to be exercised and that constrains the options of those who are trying to create a monopoly vision of the world where those choices are fixed. So if you’re a dictator who’s decided to go fully committed to some kind of crazy policy that leads to hyperinflation, well, if you know you can take your population hostage and close the borders and impose currency controls, then your power is maximum. But if you are constrained because you know that as soon as you start doing that, people will start exiting, which will start drawing power out of your currency, then your choices are constrained and so you may not even choose to create the conditions that would require a lifeboat.
The fact that it simply exists, prevents you from doing it. That’s powerful. If the next hyperinflation country doesn’t go hyperinflation because long before it does, people start exiting in large enough numbers or the leaders know they might, that changes the power dynamic between people and their government and that’s an important role.
Peter McCormack: Okay. So it’s an assurance, but it’s also, I guess it’s a carrot for dictators. But I think we’re a long way from seeing that. But it is also a tool. I’ll give you a great example this week Andreas. So I was out in Japan a week and half ago to interview Mark Karpeles and I had to hire a cameraman because I videoed the interview and I haven’t paid him yet because I tried to pay him from my bank of the UK to him in Japan and it just wouldn’t work. I had bad information. It just won’t work.
A. Antonopoulos: That’s a use case that anybody who operates on an international market already understands.
Peter McCormack: Yeah. But I’ve got somebody who had to pay me from Hong Kong. They send me the Bitcoin. I think it confirmed in just less than an hour. I then sold it on an exchange and I’ve transferred to my bank account. I think from their Bitcoin to my bank account it’s been like three or four hours.
A. Antonopoulos: That’s if you count the time to convert from fiat. I do a lot of work with partners and suppliers and my staff who earn, spend and use Crypto directly and don’t convert it to fiat. So that process is now down to about 10 minutes for international fulfilment and settlements of invoices. I get paid and I pay others. I’m not converting from fiat, I’m not converting to fiat.
As a result, by living most of the time in the Crypto environment for my businesses, I’m down to 10 minutes; seamless, frictionless international commerce. The style of which we haven’t seen since the early 17th century. We’re back to the type of international commerce that was enabled by gold forint coins in the Venetian Renaissance. It’s beautiful because it means it’s a lot easier to operate as a truly multinational company. A multinational company that has less than 10 people, but truly operates across borders.
Every time I tried to do a wire transfer, something goes wrong. It usually takes weeks, unless it’s one of the recurring payments that I have from one of my clients. We’ve already gone through those hurdles. If I tried to do a new one to a new person, it’s weeks. The longest has been seven months, to get a payment to a translator who translated one of my books into Russian. That system’s broken. What most people don’t realize is the kind of impact that has on international commerce.
Peter McCormack: So would you say we’re just scratching the surface of the possibilities here? I mean you’re doing it and I’m doing it, but there must be benefits out there to hundreds of companies, thousands, tens of thousands.
A. Antonopoulos: Absolutely. I’ve used this metaphor before, but this is a bit like using FTP on the Internet in 1991, 1992. You can see the benefits. We can now move data across the world in minutes, something that was not possible before. But that’s not the web or Netflix embedded in your TV. That’s going to happen. So we’re barely scratching the surface.
We’re the early pioneers dealing with very ‘klugey’ interfaces that just about barely work to do what we need them to do and we can see within that a vision of what could happen and will happen if this technology is developed and matured and polished and reaches mass access. That’s really where we are. So very early days.
Peter McCormack: But you found a flaw in my process in that I’ve done the conversion back to fiat rather than just staying in Bitcoin. So if significant numbers of companies around the world, hundreds of thousands start moving value around in Bitcoin and not converting back to the local fiat currency, what actually happens then? What happens when Bitcoin starts taking over?
A. Antonopoulos: Well, even if they do convert, the more volume of transactions we seem, the more liquidity we see, the more people moving money regularly, that’s going to have an immediate impact of volatility. The market as it gets bigger, it becomes harder and harder to budge. When people are making long term decisions and using this as part of their business and embedding it into their accounting systems, that changes the attitude towards this. It becomes less speculation and more medium of exchange. At that point, I think we’ll see a very rapid drop in volatility.
This is one of those chicken and egg problems. Bitcoin’s volatile because it doesn’t have enough adoption. It doesn’t have enough adoption because it’s volatile. People say, ‘well, how could it ever be adopted if it’s volatile?’ That’s a bit like asking how could it ever be big if it’s small? Because volatility is a symptom of size. So when it’s big, it won’t have volatility. It will no longer be as small as a result. So it’s a cyclical argument if you see any part of that means that in order for it to reach adoption, there have to be motivations that overcome the initial difficulty of dealing with volatility.
Those motivations exist and plenty parts of the world where either the local currency is more volatile or other elements of friction in international commerce, particular use cases and needs of censurability, immutability, cross border transactions, refugees, hyperinflation, etc. All of those things create conditions where the need is greater than the temporary inconvenience of volatility and difficult user interface etc. So that’s how adoption starts. As that adoption grows, it drives down volatility which opens up the door for more people to adopt who have less friction, who then drive volatility down until eventually, the friction drops to zero.
Peter McCormack: What else happens then? So if Bitcoin takes over, what are the other areas, what’s the kind of chain effect? What happens in governments, markets? What happens to companies? Is it like a chain effect across the world that changes everything?
A. Antonopoulos: I think it has very, very significant and deep implications. Primarily because I see Bitcoin as the next evolution of the internet, meaning I see this as a part of the internet, an evolution of the internet. It’s the internet plus the internet of money, the internet of value, adding another dimension if you like, to the internet. So the Internet started with data, then it became communication, then it became socialization.
Now with Crypto, I think it becomes, the internet of commerce, the internet of value of the internet of money. So what implications will yet another evolution of the internet have on the world? Enormous implications, just like the previous two or three evolutions of the internet. This is much deeper than simply… It’s simultaneously much deeper than just money and at the same time, just money is an enormous killer application that affects every aspect of society and is often underestimated. So it’s impossible to predict the implications it has. We’re talking about a change in the way humanity organizes.
The previous time we had a change…. We’ve only had three; so hunter-gatherer, agricultural society, industrialised society. Now we’re seeing the first 25 years of transitioning into an information society and part of that is changing our form of money to conform with the rest of our information society. But what implications will it have? Bigger implications than the industrial revolution. It doesn’t just change society, it changes humanity and that’s not because of Bitcoin. It’s because of a deeper transition to an information civilization.
Peter McCormack: Yeah. It’s funny because when I talk to my friends about it and they’re like, ‘yeah, what is Bitcoin Pete?’ Well, I used to be like ‘it’s money and it’s digital gold’. But now I’ve started and I think the big influence has been the lightning network for me. I now just see it as a financial infrastructure, which you just plug yourself into.
A. Antonopoulos: Yes, and that’s just the next wave. Then you start seeing it more broadly as a governance infrastructure of which finance is one part, a very important part, but it starts putting tendrils and other aspects of governance, not just commerce. It’s a bit like trying to explain the internet and again, I keep going back to this because that’s been one of the forming experiences of my life was growing up with, not the internet, then the early internet, then everybody having it.
So I watched that transition and it formed my experience because when I was trying to explain the internet to people in 1989 or 1990, the best explanation I could have is, ‘well, it’s about moving data around, kind of like the post office only instantaneous and digital’. That in itself was radical and earth-shattering, right? The ability to move data around, but it didn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what was going to happen next. So that’s the same problem we have now. Which is that if you really express the full vision of where you see this going, you immediately get classified as a kook.
People can’t handle that much change in that short period of time and I’m quite comfortable being the kook. I’ve been there. My entire internet experience was me shouting from the rooftops as a 16 and 17 year old, ‘this will change the world’ and the response I get, ‘do your homework and clean your room’… ‘But this will change the world!’… ‘Eat your vegetables!’ I still feel that enthusiasm with Bitcoin it’s just that I don’t have to clean my room anymore. I’m taken a bit more seriously now as an adult. Not very seriously, it depends on who I’m talking to.
Peter McCormack: We talked about at the start that we’re 10 years in and you’ve been at blown away by how resilient and the attacks it’s survived, but it’s still very early days. If you sat me in a room with 10 of my friends, I’m the one that knows about Bitcoin and maybe one other will have bought some at some point and the rest just don’t know about it or don’t understand it. Actually, they find it really difficult to understand what it is and sometimes I find it difficult to really articulate what it is. In your eyes, how do we… It’s easy for someone like you or me because I was there with the early internet. I used to build things online or learn HTML. We’re the kind of people who go and try and figure stuff out, you more so than me. But how do we bring everyone on board because it isn’t easy?
A. Antonopoulos: We don’t. I mean that’s the other thing, which is one of the things I’ve learned from long experiences with technology. I see myself as a technology educator, but I often get called a technology evangelist and I think that’s the wrong way to look at it because evangelism is about promoting something that is based on faith and opinion rather than facts and persuading others to see a truth that they haven’t discovered on their own.
I think that’s the wrong way to go about the technology, especially a technology as important and critical to society as money. The truth is that many people don’t need Bitcoin. Especially in the affluent Western societies that we tend to spend most of our time in. So why persuade them? It’s a technological curiosity for most of the people in the places we live now. You go to places where that’s not the case and I try to visit and spend most of my time in developing nations and nations that are facing economic crises, in places where this stuff is really necessary. There is no persuasion needed. It’s unnecessary to persuade anyone. They are already on the stand.
Here you have to overcome all of these cultural, assumptions that exist, which are based on more than more than two, three centuries of business as usual in terms of who runs money, how money works, what money is, how government works, expectations, institutions and institutions that are quite honestly fairly robust, have survived for a fairly long time and not perfect, not scaling particularly well, but at the same time, not completely failed. So why replace them? People are not comfortable with change. The average American who has a VISA card and a bank account and an investment portfolio or something like that, it’s difficult to persuade them that that system is broken because for them it isn’t.
Now, if only the other 90% of the planet could have that level of privilege, but that’s not the case. So the question is why do the people in the other 90% of the world, the other 90% of the population need this? You don’t need to tell them. You need to ask them and listen and learn from that. I find these enormously invigorating, these experiences where I go to places most recently Argentina where I spent a couple of months this winter again for the fourth time, is sit down, shut up and listen and ask and learn. How are you using it? Where are you using it? Why are you using it? What can you tell me about it? Sometimes I learn things that surprise me.
Often I learned things that surprise me and that’s not the job of an evangelist. That is the job of someone who teaches in order to learn and learns in order to teach. That involves really looking at…. People have different needs and they will use this technology for different reasons, often not the ones you intended it for and that’s fine.
Peter McCormack: It’s not peer to peer electronic cash?
A. Antonopoulos: Yeah, maybe peer to peer electronic cash happens later. In some places, it’s happening now, but it requires a different set of friction points in order to happen. Bitcoin is most definitely not peer to peer electronic cash in North American, Western Europe. Why? Because it’s not necessary because we already have a very wide availability of fairly robust, stable currencies that are almost entirely digital and can be transmitted just as easily at equivalent or lower cost, with better interfaces and better security models.
Centralized, yes. With massive costs in our democracy and the capture of our institutions. Yes. But those are side effects that are not easily noticed. The average experience of the person swiping a card to get a cup of coffee is perfectly fine and they don’t see any reason to change it and trying to persuade them doesn’t help Bitcoin adoption. It just makes us look like Ponzi Scheme, pyramid scheme, weirdos who are trying to recruit more bag holders. It’s unnecessary. In fact, I try to actively discourage that.
Peter McCormack: So what are you finding in places like Argentina? What are the things that you’re hearing about that surprise you?
A. Antonopoulos: Well my experience has been that cryptocurrency is best experienced and explained. It doesn’t matter how it works, doesn’t matter why it works, for the people who need it, all that matters is that it does work and that it solves a specific friction point they have. Once they experience that it solves that problem, at that point, they’ll start asking questions.
I’ve experienced that with contractors who I’ve paid in Crypto and in their country they’ve compared that to the experience they’ve had with PayPal or bank wire transfers and that is persuasive enough. Generally, the method I’ve used to help demonstrate that is, ‘listen, I’m not going to try and pay you your salary or your services in Crypto’ because among other things, as a British person going to a developing nation and trying to pay people in what they perceive as coloured beads has a very, very long history of being unacceptable and generates enormous scepticism.
If I as a British person, go to an Indian and say, ‘hey, would you like me to pay in this magic internet money?’ They’re like, ‘oh, we remember’. But what I can do often, and I do often is I can structure a bonus. So money that is found, not earned, like extra money that you didn’t expect. In my case, I did this with a subcontractor, I’ve done it several times. But I did it most recently with one of my subcontractors who does audio/video and it was Diwali which is the festival of the lights, kind of Christmassy time and I was like, ‘I’m going to give you a bonus’, approximately one month’s worth of pay for the work they were doing previously.
But I can give you this bonus in Crypto and here’s a set of instructions on how to go on LocalBitcoins and find someone who you can meet in a public place and go and exchange this into Rupees. And they do. They find that because Bitcoin is selling at a premium of between 25 and 40% in India, depending on the location and the service, the effective transfer fee compared to PayPal, goes from approximately 5% to approximately minus 30%. Meaning they got $200, they sold it for $240. The transfer earned them money.
Now that experience is self-demonstrating, meaning that once they do it once, inevitably and invariably they come back to me a month later and they say, ‘well, could I do half PayPal half Crypto?’ There’s a bit of scepticism still. It worked once, but surely this is a scam or a scheme or some weird thing. It’s probably going to fail next time. They risk a bit more and a bit more and a bit more and within about six months, all of their pay is in Crypto and they’re cursing PayPal and watching my videos. So that’s how I do that kind of education because I think it’s something where the facts matter and they speak for themselves and you know there may be cases where people say, ‘it’s not worth the risk for me to do this’.
That’s okay. I will accept and pay in any currency that works for my partners and I’m not going to be ideological about this. I take a very pragmatic view. What currencies do I accept? Anything that I can convert to the store of value of my choice or the investments of my choice. That includes fiat, it includes Doge, it includes a whole handful of cryptocurrencies that are easy and liquids that I can exchange with little risk. I will pay people whatever the fuck they want depending on what needs they have and can exchange liquidly themselves. I’m not going to take doctrinal positions on that.
Peter McCormack: Even Ripple coin?
A. Antonopoulos: No ones asked me for it or asked to give me it. If I could find a way to exchange it liquidly without too many privacy and security risks, I don’t see why not.
Peter McCormack: Okay. We’ll pass on that one! I think what it is Andreas, is that I think you need an “Aha” moment and I think most people who’ve bought and sold and traded Bitcoin, they haven’t even had one. I’ve only had my first one recently where it genuinely made a difference to me. So my first “Aha” moment actually got me into it, where I had to buy a treatment for my mother that was illegal, but I kind of forgot about that. Then I held Bitcoin and then I lost Bitcoin and I traded it and blah blah, all this stuff happened.
A. Antonopoulos: You’ve been through the rollercoaster!
Peter McCormack: Yeah, I’ve been through the rollercoaster of having lows and then losing pretty much all of it. But I then had another “Aha” moment recently where it was much easier to be paid in Bitcoin and now I’ve had that, any of the people I deal with internationally, I want to pay them in Bitcoin and I want them to pay me in Bitcoin. Now I guard my Bitcoin a little bit more safely because I’ve had that “Aha” moment and I kind of get it. But I think most people on Crypto Twitter probably haven’t even had an “Aha” moment. They’ve just traded.
A. Antonopoulos: Yes, that’s absolutely true and that’s the difference. That’s the fundamental difference between treating this as a speculative investment and using it as part of your income, earning Bitcoin rather than buying Bitcoin and that applies to all Crypto. You start treating it fundamentally different when you earn it and use it, in your day to day, then you start having “Aha” moments. Otherwise, you just have a rollercoaster ride that is mostly dopamine and fear driven. It does not give you insight into the purpose or importance of this technology. It simply becomes a gambling thing
That’s why I discourage people from approaching it from that angle. People say, ‘well what should I do to get into Bitcoin?’ My advice is not to sign up for an exchange, give them all of your ID, buy some, hold it and see what happens. That is not good advice. My advice is always, what do you do for a living? What do you do for a hobby? Can you do that plus crypto for those who want to? Cut hair? Cut hair for Bitcoin. Drive a car? Drive a car for Bitcoin. Sell baklava? Sell baklava for Bitcoin. Then use it to collaborate with other people across the world. Even simple things like tipping with it is a more meaningful experience then than simply the investment speculation.
Peter McCormack: I haven’t had my “Aha” moment with Ethereum yet.
A. Antonopoulos: I haven’t either. I’ve had a couple of moments that came close. I mean I’ve learned a lot more of writing the book. I don’t think Ethereum is yet at the point where many of the really important applications have matured. But really you’ve got to recognize that one of the things that Ethereum did is it created an environment for yet another burst of crowdfunding in the form of ICOs. From one perspective, probably the majority perspective, for the majority of these issuances it was scamtastic all across the board and disappointing in terms of that it attracted a lot of the sharks that infect the entire ecosystem with their greed.
But it also introduced a wedge into the fairly stagnant VC market, especially internationally where VC isn’t as developed as it is in say California. It showed us a glimpse of what could happen in terms of governance and crowdfunding for applications in the future, especially applications that people don’t want to run. Where there are interests against running them or interests to shut them down. What I believe is one of the key elements of Ethereum, which is unstoppable code.
It hasn’t yet matured to the point where there’s really any strong applications. The other one that’s really interesting to me is games. I think a bit with CryptoKitties, a bit with a couple of the other games. I mean at the moment they’re very silly, they’re very basic, they’re very immature. But again, just like FTP in the early internet, giving you a glimpse of what happens when you open data to the world. If you have a bit of vision or experience with technology, you can already see the seeds in that.
Gaming might be the breakout application for Ethereum specifically. It’s well suited to that kind of application and that’s an enormous application. That’s TV, radio, music, theatre and movies combined are smaller than the video gaming industry. It’s not a silly thing to have the possibility of building cross game economies, at scale with the ability to establish ownership over assets, in-game assets like non-fungible tokens, which is the technology and the terminology used in Ethereum and I find that exciting. I haven’t had the “Aha” moment yet. But I can a glimmer of it.
Peter McCormack: I keep company with maximalists at times and I’m not there myself. Sometimes I think I might be and sometimes I think I’m just a sympathizer, but whenever I talk to them they’re like, ‘if you support Ethereum, you don’t understand money’. So what is it that maximalists don’t get about Ethereum?
A. Antonopoulos: If you can’t see the value or the possibilities in Ethereum, I would say you don’t understand software and that’s okay. Not everybody has to understand software. Not everybody has to understand money. Those two are not 100% overlapping in a Venn diagram. There are different domains and those two different domains have different motivations and different reward schemes and different sweet points if you like or friction points. The bottom line here is that…. I find maximalism to be a very, very slippery topic.
Part of the reason is that there is no definition and maximalism was coined as a term primarily in a derogatory fashion by Vitalik because he was mocking that perspective. Whenever I tried to pin down maximalism, the goalposts keep moving and there’s a lot of no true Scotsman fallacy being banded around, ‘but here’s what I see from the maximalist’, ‘well that’s not a true maximalist’, ‘no, no, I’m the true maximalist, they just pretend maximalists, you know I have the real doctrine!’
So it’s a very slippery concept and I don’t think it’s a useful label. It’s not a useful label for the people who identify with it. It’s even less of a useful label for those who criticize maximalism because it’s too broad and too poorly defined. So are we talking about monetary maximalism or are we talking about platform maximalism, are we talking about maximalism as in…. There will be only one highlander maximalism I’ll call it? There can be only one! Or is it the parental maximalism? It’s going to be a nice power law distribution where 60 to 80% of the market capitalization or use cases will be expressed by one dominant system and then a long tail of thousands of competitors?
These are very different forms of maximalism and some are very absolutist, some are very mild. If you want to claim that in the narrow area of monetary applications, not platform applications but monetary applications, things that only have economic value or predominantly have economic value, that there will be a power law distribution where a majority of value will be captured by a system that expresses sound monetary policies — I’m a maximalist. There you go. I’m a monetary parental maximalist but that is meaningless because that has nothing to do with the claims being made against, say Ethereum or other systems where it’s not about monetary maximalism and it’s certainly not about Pareto maximalism. So again, not a useful term. I don’t really care. I get to choose what I want to use.
To me, the fact that other things exist in the ecosystem do not bother me. I like to take a live and let live, use and let use attitude to this, which is it doesn’t detract from my value or my appreciation or my future if you decide to use something different. I don’t feel the need to criticize that choice or to correct people on that. If you have a different opinion and a different perspective, good! Enjoy it. Do your thing. I don’t see the value in maximalism as this strident persuade everyone movement, which at least in my experience on my Twitter feed, is extremely intolerant of any opinion that deviates and it’s very doctrinal and I find that limiting I think.
Peter McCormack: I think that’s fair. I listened to your interview with Stefan and I was sat in the gym listening to it like, ‘oh, okay, yeah, I kind of get it. I see that there is no harm in other projects and there’s no harm in Ethereum’. But then I’m like, it’s still a traded asset and people could lose money and I know they can lose on Bitcoin. I’m not a technical person Andreas, but unstoppable software sounds like a great dream, but….
A. Antonopoulos: Of course they could lose money. Absolutely they could lose money. You see, the thing is my interest and work in relation to Ethereum has nothing to do with the tradable asset. The tradable asset in fact is counterproductive in the use of Ethereum.
One of the things that Ethereum maximalists don’t get, to switch this a tiny bit, is that if your tradable utility token becomes valuable in a monetary sense, it destroys the utility aspect, meaning that you can’t use it to run an efficient network where fees arbitrage between different uses of software that’s running on the network because it becomes too expensive to fucking run and the friction is too high. So the other aspect of this is a successful Ether platform that creates a successful Ether investment, destroys the software platform and that’s what people don’t get.
Peter McCormack: But then how do you have an incentive? What’s the incentive to run the system?
A. Antonopoulos: You need an incentive. But that incentive is a unit of account for computation. It is not a store of value and that is a very different function. A unit of accounts for computation is absolutely needed to prevent denial of service and attrition of the network. You need that as an incentive mechanism. But if that ever becomes even slightly a store of value, it destroys the other function.
Peter McCormack: Would Ethereum be better if the incentive was paid in Bitcoin?
A. Antonopoulos: Perhaps, but no, for a very specific reason. By the way, when Vitalik shared the white paper, it was about three weeks before he published it and he sent it to me and I read it and I immediately wanted to get on a call with him and I skyped him. The first question I asked him is, why is not Bitcoin the unit here, why are you doing this on another Blockchain?
I’m still satisfied with the answer I got, which is that the fundamental issue here is that you need a set of consensus rules to validate the software itself. So the smart contracts have to be within the domain of validation of the consensus rules. One of the problems you see with things like counterparty Omni and other layers on Bitcoin is that the tokens or smart contracts that are operating within that environment are not subject to the underlying consensus rules of Bitcoin. This is a fundamental problem because it puts them outside of the security model and you can have various effects where essentially there’s….how do I put this? There’s boundary violations between the layers. So you can do things above the consensus layer in the software that affects what’s happening below and vice versa.
So that argument says that in order for a platform for smart contracts to be effective, the smart contracts have to be subject to the consensus rules? Well, if the smart contract is the subject of the consensus rules and the units of account for computation is subject to the consensus rules, and in fact, that is the critical component, that units of account have to also be within the same consensus rules. You can’t have that unit of account be in a different system under different consensus rules. They have to be in the same domain so that the security model is internally consistent so that you can’t have boundary violations between the two. An attack on one should not succeed without an attack on the other. So that explanation and Vitalik explained it much better than I did just now.
That has still been satisfying for me since 2014 and it forms my understanding of why platform Blockchains work differently than monetary Blockchains and why they still need an incentive system. But it has to be of a different nature. But again it doesn’t freaking matter if people invest in this and treat it as an investment instead of a platform and lose money, that’s on them. In fact, it’s a useful teaching experience for them and it’s a lesson for the broader Blockchain ecosystem. Here’s the thing, I’ll be brutally honest with you.
I think maximalism is a fear response. I think it’s no coincidence that maximalists and I’m not talking just about Bitcoin maximalism because I see the same in Ethereum maximalism and EOS maximalism and Tron maximalism and absolutely Ripple maximalism. In every one of these domains, one of the things that I’ve noticed is, it emerged most strongly after the precipitous decline in 2018. When the pie shrinks and you start feeling that this might be a zero-sum game and the market is not necessarily aligned with your idea of which ones should win, suddenly there is a lot of turning inward, circling the wagons and trying to defend the turf that exists.
Now because it’s seen as a zero-sum game, someone being interested or investing in the other thing, automatically means that that happens at the expense of your thing. So everybody gets much more defensive. I’m maximally confidence about Bitcoin and minimally maximalist. The reason I’m maximally confident is because I believe it doesn’t need to be defended from competition. I don’t think it needs to be clarified to other people that their choices are wrong and yours is right. I don’t think that we need to keep emphasizing that this is the only path forward because first of all, it’s not, but secondly because even if it was that’s unnecessary. If it is, it will show it on itself.
I’m confident that the market will operate to discover the truth of which system is best for which application and because of that confidence, I don’t feel the need to fence around that position, circle the wagons and defend it. I think I’m more confident about Bitcoin than some of the maximalists out there or self proclaims maximalists. I think a lot of that…. And I’m not judging here! Fear is something that everybody experiences. It’s something that is very difficult to reconcile. It also creates, and this is key.
Fear has been proven scientifically to magnify cognitive biases when people are acting under the influence of adrenaline and stress hormones. That is the worst possible time to do analytical thinking because the brain automatically shuts down those areas of analysis. Your frontal cortex shuts down. This is something that is useful to know for any human being because the worst time to try to evaluate why you’re terrified, upset, depressed, whatever, is when you’re terrified, depressed or whatever because what happens is confirmation bias, selection bias, survivor bias, black and white thinking are magnified by the influence of adrenaline and stress hormones on the brain, which means that the very thing we’re trying to use to work out why we’re in this situation has been compromised by the hormones flowing through our brain.
Maximalism is a natural thing. I think it’s a reaction of fear because when people are scared, they’ve made an investment, they’ve committed a big chunk of their lives and I can totally empathize with that, I feel the same at times. That is the worst time to try to evaluate the evidence for and against your position. Your brain can’t do that. You’re going to fall prey to all of the cognitive biases. So I think it’s a fair response and I think we’re going to see maximalism gradually dissipate once things get fun again. Once the market recovers and if people seem to be agreeing with your position, I don’t think people will find the needs to defend these positions as strongly. Again, I’m trying very hard to not sound patronizing. I’m not judging here. I’ve been there, we all operate from fear at times. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just not a very helpful tool to make decisions.
Peter McCormack: I mean I wouldn’t say everyone does it from fear. I think for some people, it’s a rational dislike for other projects.
A. Antonopoulos: Some people, some of the time.
Peter McCormack: But you don’t need to put an unstoppable software on a Blockchain or can you even do it at scale? At scale, can this even be done because there’s an awful lot of information that’s stored in software? So I think there’s a variety of reasons. I think fear is one, I do agree with you there, but I do also think some of it’s from a rational point of view, some is from a technical point of view, there will always be different reasons why.
A. Antonopoulos: But why, what is the motivation in what is essentially an attempt to prove a negative? Because from a rational point of view, you can’t put software on a Blockchain or you can’t scale a Blockchain to do software or you can’t X, Y, Z is fundamentally proving a negative. The simple answer in technology is, if you paint yourself into a corner where you use words like “can’t” or “never”, technology has a way of making you look like a fool within a very short period of time.
I look at it from the exact opposite perspective, which is that there is enormous benefit from people trying to do these things that other people say cannot be done. In fact, I think we’ve seen some of the most important developments in the research of scaling come out of the fact that Ethereum scales like a dog. It sucks at scaling and it has to scale in order to fulfil its mission and as a result, it puts pressure on the researchers, effectively puts evolutionary pressure on the system to go in a certain direction where scaling is very, very important research and therefore it’s getting funded. It’s getting attention, it’s getting researchers to do it.
On the other hand, Bitcoin needs to go in the direction of privacy and fortunately, especially due to surveillance attacks and things like that, that’s getting a lot of emphasis. So “can’t” is not a rational position. It’s in fact a non-falsifiable position, A rational position is one that is based on what it can do. Saying that it can’t do something as simply a matter of where you put the goalposts and how you set the timeframe.
Peter McCormack: I guess sometimes though maybe it’s because it has a net negative…. Has Ethereum had a net positive or net negative on the world so far. If you look at everything, the scams and the money lost, I mean I would probably say it’s in the net negative now. Can it become a net positive, perhaps, maybe it can be.
A. Antonopoulos: No, I disagree entirely. I think that same criticism from that same perspective could be levied on Bitcoin and it’s a fundamental mistake to see value selectively.
Peter McCormack: I’m not sure I agree.
A. Antonopoulos: The same argument could be made that Bitcoin’s a net negative because the vast majority of its use cases lie in illicit illegal drug seeking and gambling behaviours.
Peter McCormack: Yeah. But we know that that’s factually not true.
A. Antonopoulos: I don’t actually know that that’s factually not true.
Peter McCormack: I think there was a study done. It was less than 5% of transactions are illicit.
A. Antonopoulos: Are you counting speculative investments as gambling in that? Because I am and I would consider that a net negative.
Peter McCormack: Well, I wouldn’t call investing a negative because speculative investing is investing.
A. Antonopoulos: I think the fundamental motivations behind the majority of people, especially during a boom-bust cycle has been greed, FOMO and is not based on any rational understanding of how Bitcoin works, but simply….
Peter McCormack: Yeah, but hold on. It’s still an investment and it’s an investible product. All investment is based on at one level, greed. It’s a spectrum of greed, but it’s still a spectrum, it’s still an investment.
A. Antonopoulos: Yes, I understand. By the way, I’m not making that argument. I think that the outcome is net positive because even in the case of greed and gambling and all of that, you get positive externalities. You get learning about investments, you get learning and exposure to the technology and it funds research that improves the technology. I would make the exact same arguments for all of the ICO scams.
The people who got burnt choose to do so because of greed, they get penalized by the market, they learn a lesson and they also fund a ton of activities, some of which trained developers, who may eventually leave that ICO once it crashes and go and work on something more productive, because the market will weed out the bullshit. I trust in that process and that process of creative destruction of attempt and failure and even the greed has driven motivations behind it are net positive in the long run.
Peter McCormack: But hold on, you can’t say in the long run because it hasn’t happened yet. We don’t know if it would be net positive in the future.
A. Antonopoulos: No we don’t and that’s the problem with saying “can’t” or trying to measure success on a fixed timeframe, which is that we don’t know if you just keep moving the goalposts.
Peter McCormack: That’s a fair point.
A. Antonopoulos: I was having this conversation with Stefan recently, the idea that…. Okay, so Bitcoin will become the only reserve currency. When? In 10 years. So the explosion of alts we’ve seen now is a temporary phenomenon and is going to reverse itself into a singularity. So we go from a big bang, Cambrian explosion to alts, which then due to monetary gravitation, reverses itself into a singularity and everything converges back into Bitcoin and everything else goes away. Yes, maybe! That requires setting a very specific timetable, in which you’re going to be wrong for a very long time until you’re finally vindicated as being right.
To me, that doesn’t matter. We can’t predict how these things are going to go and we can’t evaluate whether the net positive or net negative unless we take an arbitrary timeframe. Anybody who’s a proponent is going to keep moving the goalposts and say, ‘we’re going to have success anytime now’ and anybody who’s negative is going to say, ‘move the goalposts again’ and say, ‘oh, it’s going to collapse into a singularity anytime now’. None of which is productive. None of which is predictive.
So I’m much more interested in just seeing how it plays out and I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to observe this from a position of knowledge and learning and involvement than to be on the sidelines. To me, that’s a blessing. The fact that I can be actively involved in these spaces and watch them evolve from up close.
Peter McCormack: Yeah it’s funny because despite what we’ve just discussed now, it was actually listening to Stefan’s show that I’ve become a little bit more open-minded to Ethereum and there’s things happening that I can’t ignore. I do think there’s a lot to prove. I personally think so far it’s been a net negative, but I do think there’s things being built that I can’t ignore. I can’t ignore Maker Dao, I just can’t ignore it.
A. Antonopoulos: Right? I mean that is a fascinating application of financial engineering that quite honestly can’t be done on Bitcoin and that’s okay that it can’t be done because the compromises and security that would be required to pull off something like that on Bitcoin are not worth doing because they would destroy the features that I care about in Bitcoin. So there’s space for that. Now is that going to be a killer app? Is it going to work? Is this going to succeed? Is it going to scale? I don’t know.
I’ll tell you one thing. All of these questions motivate me to ask more questions and learn. They don’t motivate me to go back to basics and focus only on one thing. They actually motivate me to go read more probably. Part of the reason for that is because, one, I’m very curious. Two, I’m a geek. I really enjoy technology. Not that it’s for any end goal, but purely for the elegance of design, the intellectual stimulation, the interaction with other people who think the same way as me, the looking into the future and imagining different scenarios that come out of it and I’m going to continue to explore those things.
That’s the most fun part of this and at the same time, here’s the most important thing. I am very suspicious of certainty. I am not certain about any of this. I think anybody who claims to be certain needs to consider some of the blind spots. We all have them. If you believe you don’t have any blind spots, that’s a very big blind spot.
Peter McCormack: Well I’ve already overstepped my mark, I think that’s a great point to end. So, firstly thank you, Andreas, for coming on, I probably could have talked to you for another 12 hours. I’d love to do it again in the future.
A. Antonopoulos: Absolutely. Let’s just pick up from here and do it in a few months or whatever and just continue the conversation. It’s been a pleasure.
Peter McCormack: I want to do it in person though. I try and do… I think about half of my interviews have been done in person. I prefer that, we’ll find a time. We’ll get to a conference together. Just tell people how they can follow you. Give a shout to your Patreon.
A. Antonopoulos: @aantonop on Twitter, on Youtube. People who support me on Patreon allow me to scale and deliver better results with a big team behind me who help me leverage my work and Twitter, of course.
Peter McCormack: Brilliant. Great to have you on. Can’t wait to do this again sometime. Thank you!
A. Antonopoulos: It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much.