By Adam Lashinsky and Jeff John Roberts
December 4, 2018

I’ve been a committed skeptic about cryptocurrencies and their underlying technology, blockchain, pretty much since I started learning what they were. Given the plunge in values of currencies no one seems to need and the high hype-to-utility ratio of the tech it is based on, I’m feeling pretty good about my skepticism.

And yet, two sets of comments I heard at the Fortune Global Tech Forum in Guangzhou last week gave me pause. After all, it’s somewhere between ill-mannered and foolish to refuse to be open-minded about topics others find so redeeming.

The first argument, voiced by Chinese entrepreneur Lei Chen of the digital services company Xunlei, is that blockchain offers an alternative to an Internet dominated by a few giants who mastered its technology 10 to 20 years ago. I’ve heard this line of reasoning before. The Internet giants control our data and all meaningful digital commerce. The only way to opt out of their system is to build an alternative system that doesn’t rely on the first one. Enter blockchain, a framework for tracking goods and services not dependent on the Internet. I can’t judge if blockchain is the answer. But it is persuasive that the best and the brightest would look for a way around the tyranny of Google and its ilk.

Similar was the there-must-be-something-to-this rationale of venture capitalist Jim Breyer regarding cryptocurrencies. Breyer acknowledges not being able to see the value of “crypto” himself and also that the field is currently all but dead. And yet, again, he sees the passion of researchers at the likes of Stanford and Tsinghua devoting their careers to figuring out applications. When the best minds pour their passion into something, Breyer reasons, something good typically comes of it.

Fads follow predictable boom-bust cycles. If the ideas were any good to start with, what happens next is something more substantive. Even if I don’t see it, it’s certainly possible that phase is somewhere on the horizon.

Adam Lashinsky


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