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Crypto conferences ain't what they used to be

This week, in the grand surroundings of the Methodist Central Hall in London’s Westminster, a conference was convened with a rather noble title: "Blockchain and the Future of Humanity: Economy. Environment. Ethics."

The proximity of the Crypto Challenge Forum to the Houses of Parliament’s corridors of power didn’t seem purely incidental. Among the speakers at the conference were not one but two Tory parliamentarians, who took to the stage to espouse the glory of the distributed ledger.

We’ve written about the Conservative party’s love affair with all things blockchain and crypto before — so much, in fact, that we last week began a series on the subject. Readers might remember one of the conference speakers, Eddie Hughes, MP for North Walsall, who in the summer was pushing for a "blockchain for Bloxwich" — one of the towns in his constituency — because "blockchain for Walsall North wouldn’t have the same ring to it". More on him later.

Another of the conference speakers was Lord Chris Holmes of Richmond, a nine-time Paralympic medal-winner and now lifetime Tory peer. He put out a paper last year on the use of distributed ledger technology "for public good", in which he talked about blockchain as a "game-changer" (he released an update to the report this week).

Monday’s speech was in a similar vein, with the technology pitched as a central part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution — "4IR" — and the presentation delivered with plenty of enthusiasm as well as a few good jokes. The problem — as so often in the world of blockchain — was trying to make sense of any of it. Lord Holmes told the audience:

Reasons to be cheerful – we know everything we need to know to make a success of blockchain, of AI, of all of the elements of 4IR. We know everything we need to know because we know economics, politics, psychology, social theory, behavioural theory, on and on and on. We know all of it, we just have to optimise it, and to understand that these things aren’t to be afraid of.

Yeah! When did everyone stop optimising stuff? He continued:

To avoid the shock of the new, just don’t make these things look too good. It’s got to have the modicum of sh*t in the design. That’s enabling people to feel the comfort, to connect to it, rather than thinking of it being a whole new world of which we know nothing about so we stay well out of.

Sorry, what? Maybe that bit about the modicum of sh*t was a joke? But was it all a joke or what does any of the rest of it mean?

At one point Lord Holmes’ tone became positively priest-like, with the kind of repetitive and proselytising phrases one would normally expect to hear in a sermon:

And everything and nothing is changing, so we should feel that confidence. Everything and nothing is changing. We’ve never been more connected — never been more connected and yet look at the rise of nationalism, populism, protectionism, retreatism. Those two things at the same time — everything and nothing changes — and what doesn’t change is us as humans, living, loving, dying. What kind of world do we want? How do we deploy? How do we engage with the tools of the Fourth Industrial Revolution to make the organisations, the societies, and the world that we always could have had and now really have a tantalising opportunity to realise? So that’s why the report – DLT for public good. 

Eddie Hughes, speaking on the "blockchain and the future of the world economy" panel, took a slightly less evangelising tone. He gave us his verdict on the recent report from the Treasury select committee’s inquiry into crypto assets — which we thought was quite good. His take was pretty damning:

Unfortunately I don’t have great faith in the government leading and getting out ahead. The recent select committee report from the Treasury select committee suggested that they didn’t seem to have great faith in the idea of a blockchain or a crypto asset, although they completely understand there are innovations going on across the world and they’re scratching their heads and they’re vaguely interested in it. Unfortunately, the rest of the world seems to be moving on at quite a pace without us. 

Oh dear. First Brexit and now blockchain — Britain is screwed. Hughes also told us he’d spoken about blockchain on a panel at the Tory conference earlier this month (the same conference that Philip "Spreadsheet Phil" Hammond suggested that distributed spreadsheets could solve the Irish border problem):

I spoke on a panel at the Conservative party conference a couple of weeks ago and a company called eToro gave away 21 pounds’ worth of blockchain, if that’s the right way of putting it.

No, that’s not the right way of putting it. And if he weren’t speaking on blockchain panels and putting out 36-page reports on the subject, that would be a fine mistake to make. (He did later clarify that to say it was 21 pounds’ worth of bitcoin, after one of the other panelists pointed this out.)

"Not just any crypto conference"

The rest of the conference was also a little unusual. It had caught our attention because of an impressive line-up that included Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, Apple co-founder-turned-token-offerer Steve Wozniak, and "Bitcoin Jesus" himself, Roger Ver. But none of those people actually showed up. A pre-recorded video of Ver was played on Tuesday. The other two were not mentioned.

For an event that was pitched to us as "not just any crypto conference, but the crypto conference", we thought we might at least get a mini pain au chocolat and some watery coffee, but no. The "networking breaks" featured no refreshment, and the "networking lunch" featured… no lunch! "We made a mistake with the programme", the compere told the audience. "It’s a self-organised lunch."

We were later told by the conference organiser that it was too expensive to put on lunch. As members of the media, we didn’t pay for our tickets so didn’t mind too much popping out to Pret during the break, but we might have been a bit peeved if we’d spent the £660 the conference tickets cost — plus VAT — without being given so much as egg and cress sandwich.

For another £800 plus VAT it was possible to buy a ticket to the "Halloween Crypto Gala & Awards Giving Ceremony", at another venue near Trafalgar Square. This was a glitzy affair featuring actual food and drink, an £8m Stradivarius violin and some awards, which all somehow went to attendees of the gala! Here’s a picture from inside:

One of the award recipients was HYGH, a Berlin-based blockchain firm, who won ICO of the year. They also happened to be one of the conference’s main sponsors.

We asked the conference organiser at the gala whether he thought it was a bit off that sponsors were being given the awards, but he said that while HYGH had provided "support" to the conference, that support was "not pecuniary" in nature. HYGH is listed on the conference website as a key sponsor and HYGH told us that had cost them at least $15,000, so that all seemed a little off too.

All in all, it was a strange conference. At one point we were told by a speaker that "citizen mining" via the blockchain could eliminate recessions and inflation; at another that the most famous bubble of all time — the tulip bubble — wasn’t a bubble. Business cards were being handed out that had "embedded tokens" in them. (Our personal highlight was interviewing artist MIA about the idea of blockchain in the music industry. Here we are! "Jemima Davis!")

But the conference’s failure to generate money — or even to successfully cover up the fact it was struggling — was telling. Only a few months ago, when the crypto bubble had definitely already started to burst, people were at least still trying to pretend it hadn’t — remember the pair of Aston Martins being "given away" at the Consensus conference in May? And the hired lambos?

We’re no crypto analysts, but we’d read the idea that a couple of sarnies are too expensive for a conference to lay on as a bearish signal.

Related links:
At a crypto conference in New York, it feels like 2017 all over again – FT Alphaville
Building a blockchain Britain in Bloxwich, because …? – FT Alphaville
No one is killing it in crypto (not even Woz) – FT Alphaville

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don’t cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.

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