How a movement dies and an industry rises

Technologies don’t have the same kind of life cycle as human beings. They’re more akin to species, coming into existence and then slowly evolving with their complex habitats. ICO funding peaked in March 2018, when blockchain startups brought in $1.75 billion. In November, that figure was down to $360 million, and the ICO market that looked unstoppable as the manic cash grabbers packed up their swag last year ended the year bringing in less than half the money it did in 2017. Oh, and the price of Bitcoin, the event’s namesake, had fallen by about two-thirds. The bursting of an ICO bubble was inevitable, a necessity of the maturing process of this new technology.

Two hundred fifty million years ago, volcanic eruptions began in Siberia that eventually covered an area of 770,000 square miles with lava and didn’t stop for a million years. It’s estimated that 96 percent of marine species and 70 percent of land dwellers went extinct. It’s known as the Permian-Triassic extinction event, or, colloquially, the Great Dying.

Of course, the life that made it through, after many more trials and tribulations, became us and every other species on the planet today. In the grand narrative of life on Earth, a catastrophe of proportions we can’t begin to comprehend has been reduced to a Wikipedia page and a few shows that run late at night on the Discovery Channel.

With perfect hindsight, we construct narratives about how technology changes the world. The internet flattened the world. Cars replaced horses. But what we miss, the often-catastrophic messiness during those transitions, is so much more interesting.

In the past year, a movement has died and the seeds of an industry have been planted. When a bunch of small, independent entrepreneurs find a big new idea, they often decide they’re part of a revolution that will upend the status quo. Nowhere has this been more true than with blockchain technology.

The nature of the technology, where individuals are empowered without big third-party intermediaries, allowed people to see its applications as an elixir to whatever political problems they saw in the world. Libertarians and Occupy Wall Street-ers could both dream of tearing down old orders they despised. Opposition to the technology made strange bedfellows too: the most ardent goldbugs and socialists both saw threats to their currencies of choice.

Meanwhile, we had just seen the internet transform society in countless ways, and the temptation to find the next big thing was overwhelming. Blockchain technology therefore became less a piece of promising new information technology and more a litmus test of one’s politics. Shades of gray were lost, and predicting the future became the order of the day. The chatter in which people scream on social media that blockchain is either the foundation of a utopian society or a great swindling will drag on a bit longer. But it no longer really matters.

Blockchain technology will not change the world in the revolutionary sense that we’ve been arguing about for the past several years. But the survivors of 2018 will go on to change the world. A few of them might start mega companies that will become household names. Others will be hired by Facebook, Google, or Wall Street banks, which constitute the status quo they sought to upend. Those companies will change them, and they will change those companies.

And 20 years from now, we will have a clean one-sentence story about blockchain technology that forgets about all of this. Last year was a chaotic transition from a formative period for blockchain technology to something new we can’t yet foresee. In hindsight one day, it will all appear to make sense, and that will satisfy most people.

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