Future Tense

Cryptocurrency’s Terrible 2018

Prices plummeted. Scams abounded. But this bitcoin evangelist sees positives in the “year of consolidation.”

Bitcoin logo and chart showing value decrease

After attention-grabbing growth in 2017, cryptocurrency markets spent most of this year in turmoil as values alternated between slumping and plummeting. Around this time last year, Bitcoin hit a record value of $19,783.21 after several whirlwind months on the market. It is now worth about $3,700. Other cryptocurrencies had similar trajectories: Litecoin fell from $366 last December to $30 now. Ethereum fell from $1,400 to $130.

This was also the year that regulators like the Securities and Exchange Commission moved in to stymie the overwhelming number of cryptocurrency scams. Research indicates that up to 85 percent of initial coin offerings are scams, and the SEC in 2018 began more aggressively fining companies for failing to register their ICOs. There have also been reports that the Justice Department is investigating Bitfinex and Tether Ltd., major crypto players, for a wash-trading scheme that may have inflated bitcoin values in 2017. Even boxer Floyd Mayweather and music producer DJ Khaled have had to pay penalties for improperly advertising cryptocurrencies.

Critics have pointed to cryptocurrencies’ paltry market performance and the preponderance of scams as proof that the technology is doomed. But how would you look at 2018 if you were someone who preaches the power of cryptocurrency? In order to find out, Slate spoke with prominent bitcoin evangelist Andreas M. Antonopoulos. A teaching fellow for the University of Nicosia’s digital currency program and a host of the Let’s Talk Bitcoin podcast, Antonopoulos began immersing himself in the bitcoin community in 2012. He’s since then become one of cryptocurrency’s most vocal advocates, encouraging laypeople to participate in the space through numerous books and speeches. Prior to the interview, Antonopoulos emphasized that his expertise is in computer science rather than investment.

Below is a transcript of Slate’s conversation with Antonopoulos, which has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Slate: Looking at 2018, do you think we saw the crypto bubble burst?

Antonopoulos: We did see a bubble burst. This was the sixth or seventh bubble, depending on how you count it, in the cryptocurrency space, which is actually closely related to how the cryptocurrency markets work: causing cryptocurrency to grow in this kind of explosive way that results in sudden bursts followed by sudden contractions.

How would you characterize the state of cryptocurrency this year, beyond the crash?

It was a year of consolidation. We saw a lot of very interesting developments in a couple of different areas. 2018 was the year of rapid growth of a system called the Lightning Network, which is a micropayments network that’s built on top of bitcoin.

We also saw a bunch of consolidation around the crowdfunding activities that happened in 2017, when there was a lot of exuberance over crowdfunding, and a lot of that died down. We’ve got a more rational market for that.

So you see developments toward making cryptocurrency into more usable currency, rather than an asset for speculative trading?

Yeah, the technology continues to mature, and the amount of work that’s happening in terms of technical developments has continued to grow at a very, very rapid pace across the whole space of cryptocurrencies.

One of the other important things we saw in 2018 was the impact that cryptocurrency had in some of the emerging markets where they’ve had capital controls and currency crises—specifically Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, and Turkey. So even while the general market of cryptocurrency reduced its volumes, in those countries volumes more than quadrupled through 2018.

You’ll hear, often, people ask what is the use case of these cryptocurrencies. And what we’re seeing the market respond is that, at this stage of its development, one of the key use cases and applications for cryptocurrencies is a capital protection during a currency collapse, which is very useful in emerging markets.

What about countries that are not facing a currency-collapse situation? Why is this useful as a currency?

Well, it’s not at the moment. We’re not at the level of technological maturity where it’s particularly useful to developed nations. But then again, if you look at the number of countries that have currency crises—historically most of the developing world has faced currency crisis after currency crisis every 15 or 20 years. So even though it’s primarily for emerging markets, that’s an enormous application for [the crypto] market right there.

Would you say that the success of cryptocurrencies is going to depend on a growing number of currency crises?

No, not necessarily. I think that’s one of the applications that has emerged at the moment because of how effectively cryptocurrency can be transmitted across borders and how quickly you can move liquidity into areas where it’s needed, which is one of the key differentiators of cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrency is neutral politically. It doesn’t do geopolitics. It doesn’t do embargoes and sanctions and currency controls of the traditional currencies. That it’s mathematically neutral and borderless means that it has found a niche where it’s thriving.

I think in the long term, however, the really interesting applications emerge when cryptocurrency can do things that you can’t do with the current payment system. That means being able to settle payments across borders in milliseconds and making payments that are extremely small at a very low cost. The ability to make payments not just under a dollar, but less than a penny, in less than a millisecond, and have that settled across borders—I think that’s where we’re going to see some really novel applications emerge in the future. The average American who uses Visa is not going to see an immediate use case for [crypto] other than speculation.

So you want to get to a point where you’re not looking at the purely speculative value of bitcoin.

[Speculative trading] is useful for generating excitement, but that’s not really where the interesting aspects of this technology lie. The interesting aspects of this technology [appear] when you open up completely new application domains that haven’t existed before.

Was there anything about the declines in 2018 that concerned you about the potential for using cryptocurrency as an actual currency? For example, it seems like the volatility we saw this year would be a major barrier to implementing a micropayment system.

No, not really because that’s looking at it with a kind of circular logic: [Cryptocurrency is] too small to be big. The volatility is a factor of fairly limited adoption, fairly limited application use cases, and those application use cases are really not very affected by volatility.

If and when the system grows in terms of available liquidity and adoption, volatility naturally goes down. The more people are using it, the more they use it for day-to-day applications, the less volatility you see because speculation isn’t the primary driver.

I use cryptocurrency on an almost daily basis in my business. And from my perspective, the volatility is irrelevant because I earn in cryptocurrency directly. When I earn in cryptocurrency at $300, and then I spend cryptocurrency at a price rate of $300 that same week, it doesn’t make any difference. If instead of $300, it’s $3,000, it doesn’t make any difference to me because, again, I earned that week. So when the price goes down, it costs me more on the spending side, but I’m earning more on the earnings side so it doesn’t really matter. It’s a wash.

What do you make of attempts by the SEC and other regulators to combat crypto scams? It seems like scams were still a major part of the cryptocurrency space in 2018.

My personal opinion there is that education is more effective at combating scams. I’m not convinced that trying to regulate on a global basis on a very rapidly moving technology that is jurisdictionally very nimble is going to be effective. I think that it would be much more effective to look at providing clear guidelines for those who want to do it the right way and building more education.

What are you keeping an eye on for 2019 after the burst in 2018?

I don’t want to be flippant, because I know that a lot of people made some poor investment decisions, which may have been quite painful. And I advise people to invest in education and skills technology, not to treat this as a speculative instrument, because it’s dangerous and it’s volatile.

Ironically, these are the good times for those of us who were focused on the technology, focused on developing, focused on building new applications and new capabilities. This is the time when we get the most productive work done, because all of the distractions and the noise go away for a bit. I had that experience in 2014 and 2015, did some of my best work that year. And actually it was a year of tremendous innovation in the space because all of the loud speculative voices went away. The people who stay are obviously in it for not just the price.

So would you say that your 2018 was more productive than 2017?

Without a doubt. I published my fourth book, Mastering Ethereum, in 2018 because I had a chance to breathe and calm down and not be answering hundreds of emails and saying no to people who wanted me to be an adviser on their ICO. The silliness has stopped. Now we can get on with the serious work. The people looking at this from the outside see the noise dying down and they’re like, “OK, cryptocurrency is dead.” Well, guess what? We’ve heard that before.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.