Cryptography is challenging, both technically and politically. While strong, end-to-end encryption, properly deployed, helps to safeguard you and your personal information online, it can equally provide near invisible safe harbours for those intent on causing harm. And proposals for surveillance and security legislation, banning or restricting cryptographic software could significantly impact an engine of new wealth, financial activity and job creation, namely Bitcoin. No surprise then that the fourth Hackers Congress in Prague last weekend should turn its key panels and the majority of its presentations over to topics of financial freedom, and to the combined futures of money and banking.
The sold out, three day event at Paralelni Polis’ Bitcoin Cafe, Paper Hub co-working and Institute of Cryptoanarchy welcomed variously masked and disguised cryptographers, developers, activists and cryptocurrency evangelists from around the world – the final ticket reportedly selling for 1Btc (approx. £3600.00) In addition to the talks on banking and currency were a broad a series of lightning talks, panels, presentations and exhibits on bio-hacking, unschooling, sex and fashion with the adjacent Fabrica nightclub hosting the larger events.
Though many attending will have come hoping to advantage their investment in Ethereum-derived initial coin offerings (ICOs) – a Bitcoin variant cryptocurrency that has turned the space into a hotly speculated fund-raising tool of late – the quality of ICOs came in for some aggressive challenges over the course of the three days. So too the smart-contract concept upon which they are based. And as the event progressed, a critique of technology for technology’s sake emerged as both speakers and panellists gave pause to the rollout of new crypto, and to new technology in general.
In stark contrast to the optimism and unbridled enthusiasm of start-up and tech conferences in Silicon Valley a degree of caution could be found in most of the presentations. Though it never detracted from the intensity of the debate, nor from the uniqueness of the opportunities presented and was, for the most part, completely understandable. There is a lot here to get right and the stakes are increasing. Estimates of just how much of the ICO market is pump-n-dump scam or likely to fail even when it isn’t ranged from ninety five percent on the low end to ninety eight percent or more at the top. Concerns were raised that these new reputational concerns may join those from Bitcoin’s darker Silk Road past. Not so great for a technology seeking broader public adoption and acceptance.
Concerns, yes. But a deep sense of pride in what has been accomplished so far too. The current stage of Bitcoin, and Ethereum development was frequently likened to that of a pre-www stage Internet; that, while the protocol layer was in development very little if any understanding of the final applications to emerge could be found. And engagement with the technology, even at this early maturity level, has been undeniably fabulous. In comparison, a masked Smuggler offered, “I only knew of about five people using PGP in the early 90’s, and I was two of them!”
Much as you might expect at an event forecasting the future of financial technology, one where your Czech crowns will be declined and the only currency options are Bitcoin and Litecoin – to the amusement of board-member of the Czech National Bank, Oldrich Dedek – the siren call of Buckminster Fuller could frequently be heard; “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” And as the event closed, consensus seemed to form around the asking of some new questions. “How might a multiple of systems of currency, investment and value occupy the space simultaneously?” and “How might they come to learn from each other’s differences?” I wish I could say I know how that will happen – I don’t. However, after my first weekend at Hackers Congress, I think I might know where.
Liberate! Hackers Congress Paralelni Polis 2017 ran from October 6th to 8th in Prague, Czech Republic. HCPP18 begins October 5th. https://www.paralelnipolis.cz