At the height of so-called blockchain week in New York City, a near-tornado descended on the financial capital of the world. It was as if Mother Nature wished to smite the unruly tribes of cryptocurrency enthusiasts gathered on Manhattan island.
Conditions were ripe for a squall: The week’s main event, Consensus conference, tripled in size over the year prior, drawing roughly 8,500 people to Wall Street’s home. The confab’s organizers had relocated the summit from the Marriott Marquis to the allegedly more spacious Hilton Midtown in a futile attempt to accommodate the surge in attendance this year. In a venue so crowded, one could scarcely traverse the floor without rubbing elbows, literally.
Anyone who is anyone—in the odd and unexpectedly ascendant cryptocurrency universe, that is—was there. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Square and Twitter, spoke of his hope that Bitcoin will one day become the Internet’s “native currency.” Fred Wilson, the Union Square Ventures investor, and Balaji Srinivasan, newly appointed chief technology officer of Coinbase, the biggest U.S. Bitcoin exchange, pontificated on the future of money, entrepreneurship, and fundraising. And two former JPMorgan Chase executives unveiled a new startup, Clovyr, that aims to help businesses dabble with blockchains. (You can read more about the ex-bankers’ project on Thursday of next week, when a feature I penned for our Fortune 500 issue publishes online.)
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Incredibly, the main stage sessions were a sideshow compared to the week’s after-hours activities. On Monday night, cryptocurrency giant Circle’s cofounders hosted a dinner at Gramercy Tavern, where they answered questions about their decision to accept an infusion of capital from Bitmain, China’s biggest Bitcoin miner. The investment marked up the company’s valuation to nearly $3 billion. At the private dining room table, I sat next to Jim Breyer, an early Facebook investor, who politely declined to reveal the content of his recent discussions with David Marcus, Facebook’s new blockchain lead, despite my prodding.
On the next night, I made my way to a Snoop Dogg concert hosted by Ripple, stockpiler of XRP, the world’s third-most valuable cryptocurrency by market capitalization. En route, a Zeus-like bolt of hot plasma—larger than any I had seen in my life—crashed down Avenue of the Americas, and briefly illuminated the city; I forged onward. On stage at a venue in the West Village, the “Gin & Juice” crooner passed around what appeared, from my vantage point, to be a lit blunt. “Wanna get fucked up?” he asked an obliging crowd.
Yet even this paled in comparison to the next evening, when I boarded the Cornucopia Majesty, a luxury party ship that cruised through the Hudson River gloom. Decentral, the Canadian cryptocurrency shop that sponsored the soirée, treated its guests to an outlandish welcoming video. The clip featured a computer-generated avatar of Anthony Di Iorio, a cofounder of Ethereum, the second biggest cryptocurrency network next to Bitcoin, blasting off while using a cartoon penguin as his jet pack. Throughout the evening, partygoers wore light-up bracelets that pulsed in synch with the DJ’s electronic dance music. Two lucky individuals would leave that night with keys to brand new Aston Martins as part of a raffle.
“Look at this!” marveled Nolan Bauerle, CoinDesk’s director of research, while gesturing at a mass of people bobbing and grooving on the dance floor. “Two years ago there were no parties.” But after an explosion of cryptocurrency prices this winter, a set of newly minted millionaires has reason to celebrate.
The blowout continued to thump underfoot at the climax of the voyage, when the ship turned its bow in view of Lady Liberty. She stood, unflinching, in the harbor as the heavens spit wind and rain on her. I recalled, while meeting her gaze from the rooftop of the yacht, what Erik Voorhees, a longtime Bitcoin bull and CEO of Shapeshift, a cryptocurrency exchange, said on stage at the Hilton a day prior. “Here we are two miles from the Statue of Liberty,” he told the audience, “and you cannot sell CryptoKitties in the state” without a BitLicense, a stringent piece of regulation particular to New York. His point: that the Empire State—home to the most iconic symbol of the free world—is a hypocrite for restricting people’s financial freedom with harsh cryptocurrency regulations. “That’s the absurdity of what’s happened here,” he said.
Somehow, floating in the storm-churned waters around Manhattan on a booze cruise funded by ethereal Internet money, this suggestion of absurdity seemed misplaced.