I had family that lived in Rypin, Poland.
We went to visit every few years during the 1980s and 1990s, the whole American side winging over to Warsaw in an LOT 747 with a wonky overhead projector that played third-run movies and a staff that was at once kind and surly.
We’d ride from Warsaw’s airport in a taxi piloted by a mustachioed man who asked for about $60 to carry us 155 kilometers in his FSO Polonez – popular in the 1980s because it fit more than two people and wasn’t quite a death trap.
When we finally got to the small town in the middle of nowhere we would end up in what looked like an abandoned settlement. A delicate skein of coal smoke fell over the streets at night – people were home – and dogs barked in the distance but there were few people visible in town.
Then there were the rows of empty houses.
The 1990s brought a post-soviet drain that sapped Poland of its professionals, and in 2004, when the EU opened the border, Poland lost many more. The resulting exodus emptied out towns like Rypin, leaving homes desolate and construction unfinished.
Row after row of houses were left incomplete, plastic billowing in empty windows and wooden floors ruined in the rain.
The plan for many was to send cash home to complete the job but, in the end, it was easier to abandon all their hard work.
Movement of money
This was the first time I saw the power of migration.
It was the first time I understood what happens when a poorer country is welcomed by a richer one, the things that change, the things that improve, the things that fail. Some of my relatives had left earlier, long before the drain, but I understood the results of their actions. They had brought me up in a place that had no empty houses and no migrations.
But this exodus happens in every country almost every year and for almost every reason. Poland’s brain drain was, in the end, beneficial to those that emigrated and it spurred an intellectual and entrepreneurial revolution when all those Poles came back home.
But in some sad cases – Syria’s escaping refugees are the most poignant – the moves are forced and the results are terrible.
These mass migrations create problem after problem, and the problems are primarily rooted in the motion of money. The unmoored become the unbanked and the unbanked fall prey to all sorts of predators who dedicate their lives and businesses to charging predatory fees for basic services we take for granted.
Why was construction halted in Rypin? There was no way to get money back home to finish the work. Why are the refugees giving up everything and leaving their homes? Because there is no sane way to move wealth out of war-torn areas into safer ones.
In short, there is a gulf between the reality of sending money and the reality of money transfers. In both cases – for the unbanked and the overly mobile – the fees associated with sending money are based on technologies pioneered in the 19th century.
It’s like we’ve connected our entire modern economic system to a noisy steam engine and expected it to perform like a V8.
That’s my prediction for 2016: the world will change in ways that are yet unrecognizable to us. I’m not so naive as to say that bitcoin will help the refugee crisis. But I am optimistic enough to see a way forward for the unbanked and underbanked. I see a way for the escapee to send money home back to those she left. I see a way for the foreign worker to keep the fires burning in the hearth of home and for grandma to get the food and medicine she needs while her children and grandchildren are off changing the world.
Rypin didn’t have to empty out and, if you go back today, you’ll find a thriving little community. The doldrums of my youth have been replaced by a city on the edge of prosperity.
A quiet revolution
I’ve watched technological advances help the few over and over again.
While efforts at 3-D printing and STEM education are aimed at the world, they often fall short of the mark. Why? Because they require investment on the ground and that requires a solid and usable money transfer system.
For every feel-good story of technology air-dropped into remote areas, we find 10 places where that technology does not exist. But just as the Internet tore down informational disparities, technologies like bitcoin tear down economic disparities.
There can be no more excuses for a dedicated person not to learn from the world’s biggest store of intellectual value, and there can be no more excuses for a dedicated person not to gain from the world’s newest store of economic value.
The seemingly sad thing is that the coming revolution will be a quiet one.
Like all great technologies bitcoin will be soon be hidden deep behind a myriad of services and tools. It will become an anonymous pipe, understood by a high priesthood yet used by everyone. There’s a reason Satoshi, bitcoin’s inventor, is anonymous: he or they or she cannot become a figurehead for this new technology, just as Sir Tim Berners Lee cannot be the prime mover of the Web.
The web of money is coming and it will soon saturate our world as deeply as the Internet has.
In the end, the web of money is about sending money to places that need it. It is a great leveler, a way to make quiet places full of drifting coal smoke and lonely dogs vibrant again.
It’s a way to empower the poor as they move over borders to better lives and it’s a way to bring them home again when they are ready to reclaim all that they left. And, in the end, money becomes a message of home, divorced from the mess that came before. That’s my hope for 2016 and beyond.
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