It’s 2031. The last decade was a time of incredible change.
As the pandemic of 2020-2021 yielded to the power of biotechnology, the world surged into a V-shaped economic recovery and a period of unprecedented prosperity. But it was also a decade of political upheaval, war and tremendous technological transformation.
There are two kinds of jobs now: those done by artificial intelligence and those assisted by it. AI drives cars and helps doctors detect cancer faster than ever thought possible. People walk out of stores without ever talking to a checkout person and the vision system charges them automatically. AI disrupted whole industries and created new ones people never imagined.
Biotech ballooned to one of the biggest businesses on Earth. The mRNA COVID vaccines proved the best-selling drugs in history and got the world off a “Black Mirror” timeline of economic collapse. Billions poured into R&D labs, radically accelerating how we treat everything from cancer to aging.
Outside of AI and biotech, industrial 3D printing revitalized manufacturing everywhere and many countries saw their first homegrown manufacturing boom since the Second World War.
But one technology stood out among all the rest: cryptography.
For a technology that started as nothing but a way for militaries to protect their secrets, we've come a long way. Cryptography mushroomed into one of the cornerstones of the modern world, powering everything from digital rights management to a vast array of digital collectibles.
Crypto stood out from the surge of other technologies because it changed the very nature of one of the most important technologies on the planet: money.
Money touches everything and everyone. It slices across every religion and nation-state, every border, every culture and belief. When money changes, society changes with it. It was tiny bits of silk used as international money along the Silk Roads that once opened international trade in the ancient world, and now money is changing the world once more.
The golden age of analog money is over. Money made of ink, wood pulp and metal is dying a slow death, replaced by bits of information zipping around the world at lightspeed. In more and more places, physical cash is illegal or on the way out. Governments have deep eyes into every aspect of people’s lives with central bank digital currencies (CBDC), but a parallel economic operating system of private money flourishes alongside it, moving peer-to-peer for everything from loans to buying a used lamp at a tag sale.
But money isn’t everything. Money is just the beginning. The applications of crypto and blockchain go way beyond mere money. They have unleashed a surge of new kinds of applications, everything from a distributed internet that replaces much of the cloud to zero-knowledge social networks with unbreakable privacy.
How did crypto go from a niche community of true believers to changing the world?
To find out, let’s flash back in time to 2021 to see how the seeds of the revolution were there all along, even if most people couldn’t see them being planted.
Back to the future
In 2021 it’s hard to imagine crypto everywhere, as ubiquitous and easy to use as WhatsApp or Instagram. Even for the crypto community, the technology is hard to use. Imagine your grandmother trying to set up a wallet, getting signed up and KYC’ed [know your customer] on an exchange, wiring money and buying crypto. If you can teach her to get it done in less than two weeks you’re a genius.
A great friend of mine passed away recently and he left a USB stick with my name and number on it with his mother. After days of sifting through wallets and exchanges and having someone else read off digits on his old smartphone to deal with two-factor authentication, I realized how ugly and early the technology is right now. How can any normal person deal with this when I can barely deal with it as a 25-year veteran engineer?
Today, most people's coins will die with them. That has got to change.
In the next decade, it will. We’re still very much in the early adopter phase on the famous diffusion of innovation curve. When you’re in the early adopter phase, it’s sometimes hard to see what’s coming in the early majority phase.
That’s because change itself is a relatively new phenomenon. Most folks are still wired to focus on the present because, throughout most of history, your life was much the same as your parents’ and their parents’ before them in a long unbroken line. But along the way things started to shift, first slowly and then rapidly, rising up an exponential curve of change.
Now it's common for us to live totally different lives every decade rather than just a life different from our parents. My phone used to do nothing but make calls. Now a massive chunk of my life goes through that smartphone, from renting places to live with AirBnB to calling cabs with Uber to listening to music with Spotify; 90% of the apps didn't even exist a decade ago and now they dominate my life.
It may seem like a mystery how we get from one era to another, but it's all connected like beads on a string. Technologies start as early innovations that are clunky, complex and hard to use, and morph over time into something even a child can use.
When my friend's young daughter came across a time limitation on watching children's videos on YouTube, she danced around it with ease. The video prompted her with a math problem to keep watching, one she couldn't solve. But she figured out she could just ask Google to solve it for her and keep right on watching.
Let's take a deep look at how the ugly and rough edges of today's crypto tech will get smoothed out, setting the stage for the Cambrian explosion of universal crypto tech tomorrow.
Moving up the stack
Blockchain interoperability and the explosion of new apps
One of the biggest changes will come from interoperability. Today's blockchains are totally unique technologies. They don't interoperate easily or at all. Every coin and chain is its own siloed standard.
We have some atomic swaps and some ability to transfer assets from one to another but not much else. Even now, it's clunky. If you've ever tried to get some bitcoin or ethereum into CAKE, the PancakeSwap protocol, you've seen the problem. I had to install a new wallet, transfer coins to it, swap some BTC for BNB and then switch from BNB to Binance Smart Chain just to do the conversion to CAKE.
If it takes watching three YouTube videos and pouring through a few broken tutorials on half-maintained websites just to do something that won't work for most people just yet.
That will change in the next decade. As Cardano founder Charles Hoskinson said, we'll have a "Wi-Fi moment" in blockchain. Everything just works with Wi-Fi. You don’t need to think about it and we won’t need to think about whether we use Ethereum or Solana.
That will make the integration points between different standards much cleaner. It will also drive people to use the cheapest and fastest chain. At some point we reach a moment where blockchains stop being the chokepoint. Tomorrow's blockchains will make Visa's 65,000 transactions per second look paltry by comparison.
As speed and scale fall to engineering ingenuity, that will let developers move up the stack to solve much more interesting problems. We'll stop seeing new kinds of chains because we'll converge on a solution that just works and everyone will adopt it. Nobody wastes time designing a protocol to replace TCP/IP or HTTPs anymore. They just use it and do more interesting things like building apps and games.
We'll also see the decoupling of the function of the chains from the protocol. TCP/IP doesn’t care what kind of information is moving over the top of it, whether that’s streaming video on Netflix or a monero transfer or you reading this article. In the next decade, it won’t matter if you’re sending money, minting money, selling CryptoKitties or running decentralized identity transactions. It will all look the same to the chains underneath it.
All of this will make it easier and easier to build apps, and before you know it we'll have moved from early adopter to early majority. Crypto will come out of the hands of people who know how to use MetaMask to people who have never heard of MetaMask.
They’ll install, click, run and buy. They'll download an app and start happily buying stuff with nothing but a QR code and their phone.
As developers move up the stack, catering to end users rather than early adopter masochists, it will lead to a Cambrian explosion of apps.
We'll have multi-factor wallets with role-based access control so Mom can easily grant access to her kid to buy a few things without having the little rugrat drain the whole wallet and run up a thousand bucks in charges on gems in a game.
We'll have smart contracts that embed in real-world legal contracts like wills. The escrowed money won’t need a custodian to disperse the money. It will automatically pay out after consulting an oracle to verify the person actually passed away.
Money will zip along on encrypted messengers. Your messenger will have an entire emporium of incredible things to buy, from digital stickers to concert passes to chocolate and books, all of it running like a decentralized Amazon of micro-entrepreneurs.
When you want a loan, you’ll go to your peers and pull from a universal liquidity pool instead of a bank.
Influencers will get paid every time someone watches their latest video for a few minutes, as microtransactions feed a swarm of new content around the world and mint new internet millionaires.
It will all run on the back of a parallel economic operating system of private money that exists alongside traditional government-issued money. The clash of those two monetary systems will shape the coming decade.
The death of cash and the war for the future of money
We’ll have surveillance money and money that sets you free
Central banks are more than a decade behind private money, and they're scrambling.
Satoshi stayed anonymous because Satoshi realized that decentralized money is a dangerous idea that would draw the eye of Sauron. He/she/they knew governments would come for his head and kill the idea before it ever got started. But Bitcoin is a hydra – cut off one head and two more grow back – and it won the first battle.
But will it win the coming war?
Governments everywhere are back on their heels and they're looking to build their own digital money. They’re terrified that private, decentralized money, or corporate coins like libra (since renamed diem), or stablecoins backed by a basket of currencies would strip them of the power to control the flow of money and change the rules that underpin it. They’ve struggled to control the rise of decentralized money like bitcoin and monero, but they reacted swiftly to any centralized entity that tried to launch its own currency, just as Satoshi predicted.
When Facebook tried to launch libra, the U.S. Congress and other world governments went after the company. When Telegram tried to build a fully scalable digital currency that could easily fly over encrypted messengers, the U.S. government crushed it, despite the fact the company raised all that money from accredited investors.
The rise of CBDCs will mean one thing: The death of cash.
Physical, paper-based money will die. The release of bitcoin marked the inevitable death of physical cash even if it won’t cause that death itself. By making digital money truly workable at a global scale, it signaled the end of paper and metal money for good.
The move to cashless societies started years ago. In late 2016, Prime Minister Narenda Modi suddenly banned most of the country’s currency with the stroke of a pen. It was supposed to cut down on corruption and get people paying their taxes. The government backtracked a year later but that’s only because it moved too fast. Australia tried to ban cash for purchases of A$10K or more. That measure failed because of the coronavirus pandemic because it put too much pressure on small businesses. But these early failures don’t mean the war is won, just the battle. Eventually, governments will kill cash.
China is already a largely cashless society, a massive and swift change from only seven years ago when I visited in 2014 and cash was still king. A mere eight years later, 86% of all people in China use mobile payments, skipping the ancient Visa and Mastercard PoS system in favor of ubiquitous QR codes.
While other superpowers were sleeping on blockchain, China got building. China’s CBDC is explicitly designed to kill cash and increase control, as reported by Reuters.
China’s digital yuan is the spark that will light the fuse that speeds us to the explosive and sudden death of cash worldwide, not laws or bitcoin.
Instead of seeing the wild price fluctuations of bitcoin, China saw a way to warp the initial libertarian design of bitcoin to build a centrally controlled powerhouse of digital surveillance. It came up with a way to build a state-sponsored system that can easily cross borders, break through international sanctions with ease and eventually even smash the U.S. dominated international banking system.
China will seed the currency through its Belt and Road Initiative, which has the Chinese investing heavily in developing economies, building roads, bridges and infrastructure or offering loans to do it. In no time, China will expect developing countries to pay back those loans using the digital yuan. It might face some resistance at first, but eventually small countries that don’t have heavily built payment and banking infrastructure will see how simple and painless it is and they’ll start to use it more and more often.
Of course, the Western world doesn’t want to see a Chinese nation currency come to dominate in Africa and the Far East. Western powers will eventually catch-up and soon we’ll have an all-out arms race of nation state digital currencies, all vying for supremacy.
With those new CBDCs, countries will have full surveillance right in your pocket at all times. Every transaction you ever make. Everywhere you ever go. All of it tied to your identity and history and geolocation data.
A decade after that you won’t file your taxes, they’ll get yanked out automatically every time you buy a second-hand toaster at a garage sale. If there’s a mistake, you’ll call to fight it or have an accountant try to get you a refund while the government takes a free loan from you for a year. The money won’t even pass from central banks to private banking institutions, it will go right into your pocket and those panopticoins will know everything you ever did from cradle to grave.
The death of cash will put tremendous pressure on the system that governments can't yet see. Its effects will ripple out into society and cause tremendous change.
Governments that crush their citizens with a punishing tax burden may find themselves pushed to the brink when whole industries that relied on cash to avoid suffocating bureaucracies collapse under increased scrutiny.
Central banks may cheer their ability to smash industries that run on the back of illegal immigrants, like picking crops or cleaning houses, but they may quickly find there are no citizens to do those jobs, and that the price of asparagus skyrockets.
Even in societies where the laws more closely match the will of the people and the tax burden is balanced, there are still laws that don't line up with what people want. Humans are remarkably innovative creatures. The “war on drugs” cost the U.S. over a trillion dollars over the last 40 years for a net 0% decrease in drug use, because people still found a way to get drugs. When people don't get what they want, they get very creative and that creativity will increasingly spawn innovation in private money to get around surveillance coins.
The next decade will be an ongoing battle between decentralized, privacy focused digital money and centralized money that gives nation states iron-fisted control over our lives. The battle is still up for grabs.
We have two potential futures. The first is a "Black Mirror" timeline where central powers successfully annihilate cash and personal privacy and replace it with digital surveillance money that can peer into every aspect of our lives. The second is one where decentralized, privacy-focused money forms a parallel economic operating system in the world, providing checks and balances on the power of CBDCs.
The "Black Mirror" timeline seemed likely almost a few years ago, but increasingly I see the parallel economic operating system working seamlessly alongside it. The time to kill bitcoin is over. It’s too entrenched in the system and it will only get more entrenched as time goes on and that will save us all from a future that could look very bleak without it.
While the mainstream media is touting CBDCs as groundbreaking, the truth is they’re way behind the curve.
Crypto’s killer app won’t come from a central bank, it will come from the world of private, decentralized money.
Bitcoin and Ethereum are not the killer apps
DeFi will likely prove the first killer app of crypto but it’s got to evolve fast
Maybe you think Bitcoin or Ethereum is the killer app. But it’s not.
When it comes to the Internet, people don’t use TCP/IP or HTTPs or DNS. They use apps that run on top of it. Those technologies are invisible to the average person. They don’t care about DNS and they shouldn’t have to care about it. They just want to use Amazon to buy books, or watch movies on Netflix, or use WhatsApp to chat with their friends and lovers.
In the next decade we'll start to see the killer apps catch on with the people everywhere. Some of those killer apps are still hard to predict but peer-to-peer finance, aka decentralized finance, or DeFi, looks like one of crypto’s first killer apps. In essence, DeFi is automation of the business of banking: loans, investments, savings accounts, wills, collateral. Everything you do with a bank could be an algorithm and those algorithms will cut out the middle man.
We'll see the rapid rise of peer-to-peer lending programs and micro-loans that will first rival and then dwarf traditional loan platforms a few decades later. Banks will evolve or get left behind. Young money will rapidly move to algorithmically controlled liquidity pools and distributed trusts, while old money lives on in citadels of marble and stone.
Tomorrow’s kids will trust smart contracts more than they trust banks. Those kids won't go to the bank to restructure their school loans. They'll go to an open platform and get it from a machine without ever talking to a human being. Entrepreneurs won't go to the bank to get a loan to open their bakery, they'll hit the same open platforms and borrow directly from a group of bakery enthusiasts who might also take a small share of the profits over time, giving us a swarm of blue-collar micro-VC investors across the world.
But peer-to-peer finance, for all its promise, is still early and it faces a lot of uphill battles. Governments may cripple this innovation. They'll want all kinds of tracking and compliance and know your customer/anti-money laundering rules built for old-world finance but there won't be anybody home. There won't be a big compliance department because there won't be a bank, just a lot of open source code running on micro-nodes in the cloud and the fog, doing atomic swaps and matching lenders and borrowers without any people in the mix at all.
It will evolve and it will likely survive the regulatory crush. By 2031, people will turn to an app of peer money when they want to finance making artisanal sourdough bread or buy the house of their dreams.
But it won’t be the last killer app, just the first.
And maybe not even the first. For that, we have to turn to digital kittens.
Art and the surge of collectibles
NFTs aren’t just a passing fad and microtransactions will change the very nature of the web, maybe for the worse
It all started with CryptoKitties but it won't end there.
Collectibles are big business. Think $370 billion a year big.
Any kid who grew up collecting baseball cards took part in the collectibles economy. Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) represent a new kind of collectible, but they're so much more than that, too. In the coming decade, they'll confer ownership and offer rights management throughout the entire lifecycle of the collectible.
NFTs won't replace physical collectibles but they'll enhance and augment them. They'll form an increasingly larger share of the $370 billion pie, as they get easier to find and use.
The National Basketball Association already gets the power of NFTs and it's doing brisk business with people buying up their favorite highlight reels of slam dunks and shots from beyond the arc. The Flow blockchain, forged by the creators of CryptoKitties to overcome the speed limitations of Ethereum, already boasts big partners like Ubisoft, Warner Music, Samsung and the NBA. In the coming decade, expect everyone in the collectibles business to have NFTs. We'll see digital collectibles in everything from video games with microtransactions, to every major sport from soccer, to American football, to baseball, and every big e-sport, too.
NFTs will change the market. The collectibles market has always been centralized. Topps made the money, not the baseball players. The same is happening again, with sports leagues like the NBA minting money on NFT videos. But that's just in the short term. Big companies will always make money, but expect more players and artists to get in on the action. The rise of NFTs holds the power to tear down some of those walled gardens and put power back in the hands of the creators and the athletes.
Expect every celebrity and sports star to have an NFT side hustle, fed by their social media platforms. Let’s not forget artists either. Artists are amped about NFTs and for good reason. It's the next stage in a long-running trend of artists going more direct, connecting to fans without middlemen.
Beeple's record-breaking Christie’s auction for $69 million got everyone in the art world buzzing. The artist himself thinks the NFT craze is a bubble that will pop like the early internet bubble, but that's not a bad thing because it "didn't kill the Internet. People kept using the Internet, it just ... wiped out all the crap." It's Darwinian evolution in motion. Thousands of platforms compete and eventually most of them go the way of the dodo bird, but tomorrow's Amazon, eBay, Google and Netflix are already out there somewhere.
Think of NFTs as one element of a next-gen Patreon and Kickstarter. NFTs give artists another way to sell their artwork without a middle man. While some artists are pushing back on the big energy consumption of blockchains, expect those concerns to fade away as blockchains become more energy efficient with PoS protocols and consensus protocols we haven't even dreamed up yet. The money and the direct connection with fans will prove irresistible in the long run.
Take an artist like Ben Mauro. He's already a successful working illustrator and painter. He made a good living working for the biggest arts and entertainment companies in the world, but he was still a worker, trading time for money. Any wealth management advisor will tell you, you don't get rich from trading time for money, no matter how good you are at working hard. But a $2 million NFT drop changed Mauro's life and let him start working on his own concepts, outside of the system.
Today's NFT industry is a tiny drop in the bucket to the global collectibles market but expect digital collectibles to eat up more and more of that space over the next 10 years. NFTs will change form over that time too. They'll start to confer real ownership with globally distributed property registries.
NFTs will bring a dark side, too. Unbreakable DRM. The IP providers are investing in NFTs as a way to have more iron-clad control of IP in the future. They'll be supported by global digital rights management tracking chains like Mattereum showing who owns what and who gets paid when. As people listen to songs on streaming music channels or watch them on YouTube, fractions of a cent (or sats) will flow back via micro-transactions to the rights owners of that song or video in a near constant stream.
The question is whether we'll really like this new digital utopia we're building?
When every song costs a micro-transaction and your Spotify bill is variable based on how much you listen, will it be a better world? One month you'll pay $2 eUSD to Spotify and the next month you'll pay $19 eUSD because you went on a road trip listening to music non-stop and you threw a rager all weekend with your friends.
Will we choose to reward people who keep the DRM light or will big IP firms gain a stranglehold on media that keeps you paying to watch the exact same video you "own" on your tablet for the next 20 years?
The truth will probably end up somewhere in between. New artists and emerging media companies will keep the DRM light and simple to attract fans, but expect big behemoths of mass media to increasingly get an iron grip on the content you once could buy outright in a simpler era of analog records and CDs.
The free, surveillance Internet economy we’ve all grown up with has reached a natural end. Crypto will form the foundation of a new micro-subscription economy, with our wallets constantly feeding a vast and shifting array of goods and services and media.
"Banks must be trusted to hold our money and transfer it electronically, but...their massive overhead costs make micropayments impossible." – Satoshi, 2009
Crypto makes it not just possible but inevitable. If you have 10 subscription services now you’ll have 100s in a decade. Everything from your car to your bike will be a subscription. Will we actually own anything anymore beyond our house and the clothes on our backs?
You'll top off a wallet and fractions of a cent will flow out of it over time to watch various videos or play games or rent an app. The payments will be so small that you won't really pay attention to them, until you login to your dashboard to see what you spent. You'll get a warning that it's running low and that your ability to watch YouTube or play that new gem collection game is at risk.
The ultimate question is whether we'll really love this or hate it?
Are we building a better tomorrow, or will we long for a return to the era where everything on the internet was free and we paid for it with some annoying ads that most of us ignored anyway?
Tomorrow’s social media and messaging protocols will deliver unprecedented privacy for both good and bad
We may hate the microtransaction internet, but we’ll love the privacy of tomorrow’s apps.
One of the most under-appreciated effects of cryptocurrency is how the technologies underpinning them ripple into other areas. Cryptocurrency is nothing but cryptography used creatively. That creativity cross-pollinates with other areas of technology, transforming it.
We'll identify ourselves to digital networks not through a centralized ID and our address but through verified transactions over time that come to form a digital footprint of our actions in life. We'll stop needing a new credit card number every other month because yet another site got hacked.
DARPA is already working on general purpose zero-knowledge proofs "that can generate mathematically verifiable statements that can be shared publicly without giving away sensitive information." They're really talking about sharing information on a need to know basis. How do I know the general really sent these orders and whether those battle plans are real and didn’t get swapped with fake plans by the enemy?
We'll also see the rapid rise of peer to peer encrypted, zero-knowledge forums, messaging and video that prove nearly unstoppable as they let people talk freely in even the most authoritarian regimes. That will spark new revolutions in thought and expose people to a richer diversity of information. It will have its dark sides too, giving fringe groups and hate groups safe harbor to spread lies, fear and new waves of ultranationalism.
Innovation and freedom are a double-edged sword. You can't get the good without the bad.
We often blame technology for human nature. It's fashionable now to blame social media for spreading propaganda, but people spread propaganda long before social media ever existed. Humans didn't need Twitter and Facebook to spread lies and genocidal hatred before World War II.
These new networks will give us freedom to talk privately and we should embrace it even if it will let bad folks talk privately, too. That will let us move away from the complete lack of privacy most of us have today, with governments sucking up every bit of unencrypted data and hurling it into massive databases to track our whole lives.
Zero-knowledge will transform internet security, which is a towering inferno of patched solutions today. That after-thought security gave us a brittle infrastructure that’s seen nearly every major government and company on Earth get hacked multiple times. Check out the visualization on Data is Beautiful and you'll be hard pressed to find a single major institution that hasn't suffered a big breach in the last decade, and those are just ones we know about.
Zero-knowledge can revolutionize something as simple as logging into a website. Today's websites force you to transmit your username and password across the network, even if its obscured in some way or protected by transit layer security. But zero-knowledge proofs do away with that danger and allow websites to prove you know your password without you ever sending that password across the web, where it can get picked off by hackers with man-in-the-middle attacks. We'll stop having to create usernames and passwords that get lost in yet another gigantic data leak.
The end and the beginning
I fell in love with crypto early and wrote my first widely read article for Bitcoin Magazine in late 2013. The magazine got started by a brilliant young man who was talking about a little idea he had called Ethereum on the writer’s Skype channel, with about 20 other writers and early Bitcoin true believers. I read Vitalik’s original post on Ethereum with a friend and we thought we were just around the corner from a true revolution.
Turns out, revolutions take a long time. I’ve since come to respect just how long real innovation needs to take root and flourish in the world.
All dreams tarnish with time as they come up against the hot friction of reality. Eventually you see that dream used in ways you never wanted.
I’m still incredibly passionate about crypto and see it as a revolutionary change to money, privacy and distributed information sharing but increasingly I see the dark side of it, too. The dark side isn’t buying drugs on the dark web as governments would have you believe. It’s how distributed ledgers will enable DRM and sophisticated tracking and tracing, as well as how those original ideas of openness and freedom will get warped by centralized powers to create surveillance money and eliminate cash.
Technology is always a double-edged sword. Too often we tend to think of technologies in black and white. But the truth is always somewhere in between.
Technologies, people, companies, nations and cultures always do both good and bad in the world. If we’re lucky, technologies do more good than bad. The light balances the darkness.
Cryptocurrencies and cryptography are powerful, society-shaping technologies and we’re only beginning to understand their reach and influence now. They’ll enable the best and worst of us. Crypto will deliver both unprecedented freedom and even more barbaric authoritarian control.
The question will be how much of each? That’s up to all of us.
The future is always in motion and we have a hand in shaping it. The world we choose will be one of our own making. It’s up to us to choose.
As the character Sarah Conner once said in one of the "Terminator" films, “There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.”
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