Every successful new technology undergoes a Cambrian Era-style explosion of growth in which we try to use it for everything. Email, search, social networking—each passed through its “this will solve all our problems!” phase before we figured out what its best applications and limitations were. With the Bitcoin bubble testing astronomical prices every day, cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology that drives them are now taking their turn in this one-tech-fits-all role.
A blockchain is a cryptographically protected distributed ledger—it’s what protects you or anyone else from making a copy of that Bitcoin you just bought. You’ve probably heard about the popularity of blockchain tech in the financial business. In fact, anything that you can make a list of, you can manage with blockchains. Ambitious developers and entrepreneurs are aiming to use them to rework everything from how we track land ownership to how we distribute medicine and how we grant diplomas.
Some of these ideas are brilliant, while others are ridiculous. Do we really need a blockchain to run an online encyclopedia or pay for news? Whether we do or not, in 2018, we’re probably going to see it tried. That’s partly because of a glut of venture capital and the salivation of investors thrilled by Bitcoin’s wild ride. But it’s also because this is the exuberant but wasteful process by which the tech industry determines what each new platform is actually good for. And it’s a process that will play out whether the Bitcoin bubble keeps soaring or finally pops.
In the coming year, the motto of financial-tech developers is going to be “cryptocoins for everything!” Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs), which introduce new cryptocurrencies to the world, have raised $4 billion so far, mostly in the last year—and that has turned them into a craze of their own. A future in which each of us has our own personal currency remains improbable. But one in which each big tech platform issues a token as the coin of its realm is probably not far off.
Before that can happen, here are three issues that the industry will need to resolve: Are ICO tokens primarily investments, or tools? Can we give up the idea that cryptocurrencies are a new species of traditional cash? And can developers end the plague of technical problems surrounding Bitcoin and every other cryptocoin? The continued rise of cryptocurrencies in 2018 will depend on how much progress the crypto world can make on these questions.