Several thousand convened under gray skies for the third Ethereal Summit on May 11 and 12. The two day event was massive but was only a slice of the larger phenomenon which gripped New York City for over a week. Blockchain Week is a starkly visible eruption of the battle between decentralization and capitalism trying to eat each other.
Organized by Consensys, the globe-sprawling venture studio that employs over 900 people, the Ethereal Summit brought decentralists and venture capitalists together in the renovated husk of an industrial factory between Brooklyn and Queens.
The main stage continuously hosted talks seeming to convince the audience that Ethereum was going to bring tremendous value to the masses… very soon. One speech encouraged attendees to switch from the “HODL” mentality and “BUIDL” instead: to not just hold on to tokens, but to build out the apps that would make the network actually give value to our lives.
Once my rush from raiding the media room’s bagel supply started to wane and the boredom from superficial talks started to set in, I began to roam. The halls and outer, concrete and gravel yards were covered in people eagerly sniffing each other out for possible synergy. A couple of smaller stages hosted more specific talks, such as Mike Goldin’s presentation on Token Curated Registries [summary] and a guided meditation hosted by Deepak Chopra.
Out back behind the main hall was a squat building not much larger than a hut. Inside, four people dressed in all white were teaching each other the rules for a game they would be hosting. Literal tumbleweeds were scattered on the distressed wood flooring. On one side of the room was a large, circular table where the game was played. 3D printed art filled the remaining space. The dealers hosted a game called of Minority, where players use a combination of game theory and deceit to be in the ‘in’ group. These tokens were a physical/digital hybrid: they could be turned it at the gaming event in exchange for art, or they could be snapped in half, revealing a pair of codes to redeem Ether instead. The potential for these hybrid physical/virtual tokens can not be understated.
In the dimly lit cellar under the casino, artists created content for Cellarius, a collaborative sci-fi universe. Anyone is free to make derivative content, but there is some consensus mechanism for adding content as ‘canon’. The project seemed to focus on inequalities and sub-servience to artificial intelligence, and is perhaps a way for the culture to reflect on the direction it is heading. Blockchains are revolutionary tech which are just as capable of putting us into immutable chains as liberating us from political oppressors.
On the other end of the complex, a long hallway was covered in gesture-sensitive picture frames that showcased rare digital art which would be auctioned off later. At the end of the hall a darkly lit room contained more art as well as a tree-like shrine to Vitalik and Satoshi, illuminated by glow rope and tea candles. One could enter a prayer to Satoshi on a retro terminal. The prayer’s text was then converted into a private key in the hope that it would unlock Satoshi’s bitcoin stash. Needless to say, no one’s prayers were answered by this terminal, but the concept was next-level hilarity.
Joe Lubin, Consensys’s founder, gave a press conference both days. The reporters present seemed to only throw softballs, so I asked him whether or not it would be appropriate to label Consensys as an Ethereum maximalist organization. He said that for now, the Ethereum eco-system is “light years ahead” of other projects, before noting that other decentralization technology such as IPFS is used by Consensys projects as well. Ethereum has suffered from scaling issues; with such significant investment already sunk into its development, however, it will be difficult for any project to derail Ethereum from being a pillar of the coming age.
The Ethereal Summit did have some variety in its attendees - rather than just developers and investors, there was a sampling of artists and visionaries. The diversity just about ends there, though: the majority of the people of color at the summit were there to take out the trash and guard the media room from the plebs.
Although this author is thirsty for the decentralized future, I can’t shake the feeling that Consensys is trying too hard; presenting itself as a revolutionary force for good without recognizing that profit is still the same underlying motivation. Joe Lubin reportedly lets few, if any, startups into the Consensys fold without receiving a majority share of the equity. Unless Ethereum is unseated by more lightweight solutions like Holochain, Joe will likely become the next Jeff Bezos.
I’m still not sure if Consensys is the exaltation of my generation’s collective imagination, or the capture and exploitation of it. Will the hierarchies of capitalism eat blockchain, turning the movement into business-as-usual with fun buzzwords and unicorn t-shirts? Or will the forces of old choke on decentralization before bursting open like an overly-ambitious python?
I don’t have an answer, but please feel free to peruse some of the pictures I took while pretending to be a crypto-fashion editorialist at the 2018 Ethereal Summit!