EDCON 2018 in Pictures
[NOTE: This is an incomplete look back at the conference. For a more complete view, have a look at the slides and videos posted on the conference website]
There are many ways to evaluate the strength of blockchain projects. Investors may size up the team and market potential. Technologists may look at the code and underlying technology. Some may focus on decentralization. Newcomers may look at market capitalization (although there are strong arguments against this). What doesn’t get mentioned enough is the strength of community.
It’s probably harder to measure.
Sure you can attempt to gauge using online channels, but nothing beats going to a dedicated community conference.
One of three main Ethereum-themed conferences (the other two being Devcon and EthCC), EDCON, organized by LinkTime, seeks to improve communication and integration between various global Ethereum communities.
This conference definitely had a different vibe from an earlier conference I attended. Most notable? First, no one bombarded Vitalik for a random selfie. Maybe it was because of the more “serious” developers/researchers in attendance. Or maybe it was this conference badge:
Second, no one mentioned ‘price’ once. Nadda.
As with all good conferences, this one started with a dance. I’m not quite sure why there were cute badgers and snakes. It was refreshing nonetheless to see Ethereum foundation members bring some levity to the event. This would not be the last cute animal featured at EDCON.
Fred Ehrsam, arguing that the best blockchains are ones with economic incentives to contribute to the core protocol, had pointed out the disproportionate number of people working on tokens vs. core protocols. Not unique to Ethereum, this tragedy of the commons problem threatens to slow down the development of common, public infrastructure due to lack of individual incentives.
To address this, major projects in the Ethereum ecosystem have self-organized to form the Ethereum Community Fund (ECF) with the (initial) stated purpose of funding crucial infrastructural level projects. The fund is growing (and they’re also hiring).
A similar initiative to attract talent for research and tooling development for Ethereum and Aragon is Aragon Nest.
Real ‘Buidl’ Economy
Although a positive way to incentivize infrastructure development, grants and funding are finite. So, what happens when they eventually run out? Jon Choi discussed the importance of real goods and services being exchanged on Ethereum for long term sustainable growth. An important metric for Ethereum’s growth is the shift from the grey activities towards the blue ones.
First, there is needed infrastructure to enable the real economy. Jun Hasegawa of OmiseGo, presented a vision for how the OMG Network would allow cryptocurrencies to be an ideal asset. More exciting is their end game: the ability to support a level of financial transactions that rival traditional financial institutions, with a decentralized exchange and interoperability with different blockchains (OMG roadmap).
Cosmos, allowing for interoperability between chains, is another crucial infrastructural level project. Aion is another project that addresses interoperability and scalability.
There were plenty of applications with real use-cases present at the conference.
Alice, a social funding platform, leverages Ethereum to combine donations and impact investing:
Ambrosus provides solutions around data collection, storage and sharing to ensure authenticity and quality in food and pharmaceutical supply chains.
In the spirit of buidl, there were many new applications highlighted during the super demo in the areas of:
Charitable Giving (Giveth, clip); Technical Knowledge Curation (Kauri, interview); Decentralized Exchange (DDEX); Smart Contract Management (supermax.cool); Healthcare Data (Sagrix, demo); Lending and Borrowing (Badla.io); AI/AR/VR (Atsushi Ishii, Couger); Social Finance (Mirian); Payments for the Entertainment Industry (Festy); dApp launching tutorial (Chainshot).
Personally, I find the strongest indicator of a community’s future to be its education initiatives.
For newcomers, the learning curve for getting up to speed is quite steep, not to mention a lack of resources (particularly for non-devs), the fact that knowledge is scattered and that formal education just hasn’t caught up yet. Blockgeek, featured at the conference, is doing its part to address these challenges.
The projects that can successfully onboard new people will, in the long run, win out. Therefore Karl Floersch’s presentation on perhaps the most crucial aspect of public blockchains — cryptoeconomics — was a welcomed sight (also, more cute animals!).
Karl gave a high-level overview of the course, from implementing a centralized payment system (i.e., Paypal) to a decentralized bitcoin, to a proof-of-stake and Plasma chain implementation.
In addition to lectures, there is a forum and a forthcoming book to fully immerse yourselves in cryptographic primitives, layer 2 scaling solutions and other cryptoeconomic mechanisms (see cryptoeconomics.study for details).
It’s evident in the course overview that a lot of time was spent in designing the curriculum scaffolding, taking newcomers from our current state of affairs (i.e., centralized systems) towards a decentralized future (talk about alignment with the conference theme: “Never Forget Why You Started”).
The following day, Karl would follow up with a very lively and visual walk through of all the progress the team’s made on FFG Casper. I highly recommend checking out the behemoth of a deck here (251 slides!); it provides a nice overview, starting with proof-of-work and its flaws, before introducing a hybrid Casper solution, slashing conditions, economic incentives, discouraging attacks, a roundup of progress made over the past year and basically everything you need to build your own open protocols. I especially appreciate the highly visual nature of his slides, if anything to get a conceptual understanding before digging into the technical details (note: Vlad would do the same for CBC Casper).
If that weren’t enough, Vitalik himself gave a step-by-step tutorial on becoming a Casper Validator.
Kudos to all Ethereum researchers for making their work so readily available for public education!
Cryptoeconomics continued to be a running theme with several speakers dropping additional knowledge for the audience.
Vlad Zamfir discussed the use of deposits to provide economic security — a unique feature of Ethereum’s Casper research strands (there are two main proof-of-stake research strands in Ethereum: 1. Casper Correct-by-Construction; 2. Casper Friendly Finality Gadget).
I appreciated the discussion on the inherent trade-offs in cryptoeconomic systems, something which tends to get swept under the rug by overzealous types looking for the “next” Ethereum.
Josh Stark, in an expansion of a popular blog post he wrote last year, attempted to draw boundaries around what cryptoeconomics was and was not. This is especially helpful for newcomers to the field, given the liberal use of the term. Nevertheless, the jury may still be out about where the exact edges of this emergent discipline are.
To date, his is the most succinct yet comprehensive definition of cryptoeconomics I’ve seen. Moreover, it was informative to see him lay out all the applied areas of cryptoeconomics including: consensus protocols, layer 2 scaling solutions and applications (i.e., decentralized prediction market, auctions and computational storage markets to name a few).
Alas, it’s impossible for a growing ecosystem to be flawless. It so happens that when you’re building on top of the second largest blockchain ecosystem that your missteps get scrutinized more heavily. Jutta Steiner’s somber acknowledgement of Parity’s past mistakes over the well documented multi-sig wallet issue is a reminder that building decentralized system is riddled with security challenges.
Growing pains are one thing, but developing a process for deciding and handling those pains is tricky and falls squarely in the realm of governance.
Organically, the community has debated (for, against), voted (alt) and discussed various ways of moving forward. There’s also been broader discussion around forking, other creative solutions proposed, as well as a self-organized fellowship (see also)to produce high quality EIPs that will undoubtedly shape the conversation around future contentious issues.
Preethi Kasireddy’s presentation was tremendously helpful in framing the context around EIP-999 which tries to unfreeze funds by a single state transition, which unlike previous attempts does not introduce a standardized process (i.e., EIP-867) nor violate established invariants in Ethereum. She thoughtfully considered previous attempts to unfreezing the funds and, rightfully, points out how this is a culture defining moment for the community. However, her last slide has stuck with me, even after the conference.
Take the third bullet point. When you internalize that having a formal system of governance (or lack thereof) is of little or no importance for success, you begin to realize just how amorphous governance can be.
Whatever limited progress the community has made on governance — it’s not for the lack of trying. Definitions have been proposed (in addition to Preethi’s see here, here, here, here, here). Yet, it remains, currently, a black box. Lane Rettig has taken steps to document Ethereum’s governance processes. The EIP0 summit was organized to support Ethereum governance initiatives (live streamed).
Although little consolation, governance is difficult outside of Ethereum, and blockchain in general. Needless to say, we haven’t heard the last of governance.
The Wider Community
It was very encouraging to see the Ethereum community engage with academics and researchers from the wider community.
Professor Emin Gun Sirer presented longitudinal research studying just how decentralized Ethereum (and Bitcoin) really are.
Their research suggests that centralization may, to some extent, be unavoidable. The study found that while BTC nodes may be more geographically close than ETH, mining power is fairly centralized for both. The researchers suggested Ethereum has lower power utilization (than Bitcoin) which suggests an advantage for larger mining pools. Thus, there is pressure to centralize.
Potential solutions proposed include centralized designs that do not require trust (i.e., trusted computing, attestation, SGX, verifiably correct operation, bloXroute).
The final presentation by Glen Weyl provides a glimpse of the Ethereum community’s future. Prior to the conference, Vitalik had written a review engaging extensively with the ideas in Radical Markets, which appear to intersect well with the Ethereum‘s philosophy for a better society.
Instead of reining the market in, the authors argue for drastically expanding the scope of markets to make it as open, competitive and free as possible. This results in a set of ambitious proposals around property taxes, quadratic voting, human migration, anti-trust laws and data labor markets that are sure to stimulate discussion and debate within the community for years to come.
Although their ideas may be radical, the community is more than willing to experiment with them. In fact, Ethereum foundation is already looking to implement these ideas!
At EDCON, I saw a multi-faceted and diverse community self-organize to fund infrastructure projects, celebrate applications impacting real goods and services, showcase educational initiatives to bring on newcomers, support fellow members after missteps, hold meaningful discussions around governance and engage with civilization-shaping(!) ideas.
If this doesn’t give you optimism about the Ethereum community, I don’t know what will.