One of the best content producers in the space, I caught up with Arthur to discuss the new podcast, his views on Ethereum, his time at ConsenSys and a whole lot more…
What is your background and how did you first become involved in the blockchain space?
AF: I grew up on an orchard in New Zealand. There were few opportunities in NZ for either educated or uneducated people so much of my generation moved to Australia or London to earn better money. I moved to Australia. The best paying jobs there are in the mines in Western Australia. They are awful, so while many of my friends moved out there for work I took advantage of my US citizenship (my mother is from the US), and worked in the Maine Lobster Fishery. Obviously, there were many jobs along the way and for a while, I was a tree surgeon, salesperson, telemarketer, etc. The fancy name for people like me is “itinerant laborer”. Along the way, I’ve had various interests and I stumbled across Bitcoin in early 2013. I was completely captivated and having obsessed over it for a year but having no applicable skill to the space I began a podcast – Beyond Bitcoin – so that I could contribute something and speak to the people whose work I was following.
You’ve recently launched a new podcast called The Third Web. Could you explain the concept behind it and why you decided on that title?
AF: The reason for the title change is a series of emerging technologies which compete with Ethereum for influence in the new trustworthy computing and value bearing internet future. Berners-Lee suggested that the third phase of the internet (1 = read-only (information websites in the 90s), 2 = read-write (social media & ecommerce 2000-present)) was the semantic web where the meaning of content was machine readable. Gav Wood’s vision of Web 3 was blockchain computer driven and that is the view I’m looking at with The Third Web.
You started with Beyond Bitcoin, switched to The Ether Review and have now created The Third Web. When and why did you decide to retire the previous projects and do you see this as a continually evolving process?
AF: With Beyond Bitcoin I covered the early stages of the blockchain space and the first ICO boom of 2014. At the end of 2014 it was clear that the tech wasn’t going to work so I ended BB. When Ethereum launched it had an unlimited feature set and claims of huge scalability. It gave cause for a new podcast, The Ether Review. Two years on progress had not been made on scaling and other platforms had more promising trajectories so I changed the name to The Third Web.
Does it make life a bit easier for you now that you have a platform agnostic name? Will it broaden your horizon in terms of the topics that you’ll cover?
AF: It both broadens them and narrows them. With The Ether Review I had all of Ethereum, with The Third Web it’s more challenging now because I’m looking for really specific, likely contenders for what is going to power the next generation of the internet, or power the next generation of blockchain technology. So, within the Ethereum ecosystem you’ve got interesting stuff like Casper, sharding, the Raiden Network and other state channel implementations and you’ve got Plasma; all interesting approaches that are being taken within the Ethereum ecosystem.
The reason that I’m not enthusiastic about a lot of this stuff is that I don’t believe the Ethereum Foundation is functional right now – I don’t think they’re a credible entity at this point in time, that’s very clear. The people who work there are brilliant, but they have $300 million that they’re not deploying and that to me suggests very deep systemic inability to function. I don’t believe that it just takes a few good developers…it takes a good plan and people with broad skillsets to actually come up with good solutions to scaling problems. So, I’m not really convinced by anything coming out of the Ethereum Foundation today.
Brainbot, who are working on Raiden, I think they’ve had a really hard time implementing this state channels network. It’s interesting, I like it as an idea, it’s really powerful but the things that concern me about it are; it requires two transaction costs to open a channel because you need to be able to open and close it and then you’ve got to keep funds in limbo in that channel whilst it’s open. In the Raiden implementation you only have to do that once, so that’s pretty good but there’s still a friction…all of the remaining transaction friction is compressed into the very start of that transaction series. So while sure, it reduces transaction friction on the whole, it compresses all that remains into the start and that’s greater than a single Ethereum transaction. So that’s a problematic design paradigm.
And then Plasma, it’s too early to tell…Plasma isn’t actually on the radar. People are talking like Plasma is ‘a thing’ and that to me is indicative of the lack of credibility because Plasma is not ‘a thing’ yet, it’s just a white paper. While it’s promising, it’s not something where you’d just go spouting off, ‘Oh, we’ll just use Plasma…’, to me that’s a very problematic attitude and it diminishes the credibility of the people saying it and it diminishes the credibility of the rest of their claims. So that’s kind of my view of all of the Ethereum stuff.
That being the case, you want to look elsewhere because we’ve got to make this Web 3 thing happen right? So, the other future is a multi-chain future where we have a tonne of different chains of all different kinds that communicate through a central medium. That medium could be Cosmos…Cosmos looks really good, however it only does tokens – we want state. So Polkadot is another alternative that is very similar…the problem with Polkadot is that it’s a central chain. I can’t run a node of any kind on my Mac Mini hard drive computer…and that’s interesting, none of this software – not Bitcoin, not Ethereum – can run on a hard drive based computer. So there is a minimum spec that is above the bottom. So, say I’ve got a much nicer computer and I’m running Polkadot, Ethereum and Bitcoin nodes, that’s a huge minimum node size – and that’s a huge amount of resources being consumed by all that software running on that computer. Because these networks are only as fast as the slowest node, if you’re cramming this whole thing up with additional software like Polkadot, then you necessarily have a slightly dysfunctional paradigm anyway. So, I’m not that big a fan of Polkadot’s approach…although it is very pragmatic, I do like it, I just don’t like the idea of running two high load bearing pieces of software.
The next one is BTC Relay, which was developed by Joseph Chow at ConsenSys. That’s really good; what it does is basically have an SPV node embedded into the smart contract on a turing-complete blockchain computer. What that SPV node can do is validate transactions from other blockchains, so that gives you at least a one way system for transferring value into Ethereum or any other general purpose blockchain computer.
But these are all boilerplate solutions…why can’t we just have the super fast Ethereum that was promised? The original promise of Ethereum was infinite functionality and mass scalability.
Why do you think that hasn’t been achieved?
I think it’s difficult to do and I think the Foundation is dysfunctional, I don’t think they have the right skills in there. When I see a team, I want there to be veteran distributed computing specialists, veteran cryptographers – and I don’t see many of those people in the Ethereum teams.
But there are other teams out there right, so there’s one called Zilliqa, based out of Singapore who have got some interesting tech and a really great team and are highly academically driven. What’s interesting is that they use a blockchain as a registry for the validating nodes and what’s important about that is, it’s kind of a new paradigm; so instead of playing an economic game to determine who your block producer is, you have some way of selecting a block producer from a registered base of validators. That registered base doesn’t exist in Ethereum or bitcoin, yet. But in Ethereum, with your stakers and especially if you look at how Casper works, each epoch can get a new set of validators and those validators are the validators for that epoch – that’s an actual registered set. You see that in lots of Proof of Stake systems and I think that one winning design is going to be having registered validators.
We’re starting to see some design paradigms emerge that are actually going to give us the scalability we want. The one that ticks all the boxes for me is DFINITY; they have an incredible team – Dom Williams came up with a whole bunch of cool stuff in 2014 and he is a distributed computing specialist. Then you’ve got Timo Hanke who did AsicBoost – he’s the man as well, he’s from mining fame and he’s a professor of computer science. And then you’ve got Ben Lynn, who’s the ‘L’ in BLS Cryptography.
That’s what I want to see right…building a global computing resource, this is supposed to be the be all and end all of the internet, that’s what I want to see, teams like that….not a hodgepodge of people who are confused, disparate and misspend funds – I want to see something awesome!
Is The Third Web mainly going to be podcast focussed or will there be written/video content too?
The thing about written content is there are tonnes of people who can produce really great content but they just don’t really know how to get it out there. What I thought was that I could just get some of this content and publish it myself. But what I found was that it’s just exhausting to follow other people and something I really can’t do – I need people to hound me to publish it!
They’ll be some video stuff, we’ve been filming for some mini-documentaries…it may be a feature film. I did a trip and interviewed close to 100 people on camera and then I just did another trip and interviewed another 15 people.
What I found is, it’s very hard to make good video content so what I wound up doing is I hired a multimedia journalist, Alexis Kenyon, to help me with it. She’s become the director and essentially the writer and she tells me what to do and I just go round and ask the questions. The cool thing about that is that one of my core philosophies behind podcasting is that you should just make it a personal journey. Admittedly, that way you are going to lose most of your audience because it’s your journey and you’re ignoring the actual audience – but you’re going to enjoy it more and you’re going to do better work for people who are just like you.
Because there’s really poor onboarding content to explain the space to people, really I feel the best way to do it is to give someone who is the ‘everyman’ – or in this case Alexis, who is a woman – the ability to have this exploration themselves and create really compelling content. I’m hoping together we can make a series of mini-documentaries, maybe ten minutes long, that can explain some of the more opaque ideas and more interesting things in the space.
How do you pick your topics? Is it people pitching to you or do you seek out the projects that you’re personally interested in?
People pitch me stuff but honestly, I never, ever do it. I’ve never tried to make any money off the podcast so for me, I just do what’s interesting. I often find myself covering all these projects that are done by friends but it’s like, ‘Ah yeah, but really I want to be talking to Zilliqa at the moment or, I know DFINITY are working on a paper and I really want to get on to that…’.
I was fortunate that I got the DFINITY paper in advance, it’s being peer reviewed and it’s one of the best that I’ve ever read. That was about two months ago and I’ve got an awesome podcast sitting there but I can’t publish it until they give me permission!
Up until fairly recently you held the role of Director of Media at ConsenSys. What did this role entail, how did you find your time there and what do you see as ConsenSys’ role in the wider Ethereum ecosystem?
AF: As Director of Media at ConsenSys I produced a ConsenSys specific podcast – State Change – and ran the company blog. Initially, the intention was to build a media outlet. This didn’t eventuate so I didn’t have as much relevance to the organisation as I needed to justify spending my time there. ConsenSys is a powerful advocate and force of innovation in blockchain. The partnerships they have formed in large-scale enterprise is what has made Ethereum the leading technology in the space. The policy at ConsenSys is to support the capabilities of each member to the fullest, which makes it a great place for people with outlier or divergent ideas to find funding and the highest calibre guidance.
Is The Third Web your full time project now, or will you be looking to get involved in other projects alongside it?
AF: Yep, I’ll definitely get into another project. Recently I interviewed someone and got maybe 45 minutes of audio, then I spent five hours editing that down to 15 minutes. Then when you add to that publishing, answering a few comments, tweets, the fact that I actually needed to organise and do the interview in the first place…suddenly a 15 minute podcast consumes 15 hours, which is like two working days. It used to be a big hobby right, this is what I did on the weekends, but now in a big way, this has become work. It’s still something I do for free and I do it for the gratification but when you then also do this kind of stuff for you job, it’s like, ‘man, is this my entire life now?’. So yes, I am going to be doing other projects but podcasting takes up a lot of time…especially doing good stuff!
As someone who has interviewed hundreds of people and been exposed to countless projects, could you name two or three that you are personally excited about?
What in particular excites you about these projects?
AF: I’m kind of playing favourites in a bunch of different fields…I’m a big fan of Cosmos, I’m a big fan of Polkadot – I don’t want to list too many because then I start leaving some out, so that’s an incomplete list, but you could class DFINITY as my favourite of all of those.
Centrality is interesting because while I really liked ConsenSys, the company was moving really quickly but lacked a kind of a core; there were all of these disparate projects that weren’t contributing to a synergistic whole. What Centrality have done is said, ‘ok, scaling is a problem’, so let’s build a central blockchain platform that also has data services, hosting services and payment rails and let’s use that central platform to power a bunch of different applications. They did an ICO and they also got a grant from the New Zealand government and they invested in a whole bunch of applications that would run on this central platform. So they’ve got these applications and this central hub for payments, blockchain style evidencing of transactions, identity and other services and they’ve got it running in a private configuration right now. As soon as they can find a suitable public solution they’ll switch over to that, but until then they’re just building up their little ecosystem. It’s rudimentary and rather than try and be perfect off the bat they’re just building it up piecemeal, they’re doing what they can with what they’ve got – it’s really, really impressive. What I like is that they are very similar to ConsenSys, on a much smaller scale obviously, but instead of having all of these disparate projects, they’re working on building on a central platform and enhancing the value of an ecosystem – rather than assuming that Ethereum will be that central platform which, as we’ve already discussed I’m not convinced it necessarily can be or is necessarily the best choice.
Spankchain – first of all I know Ameen really well, I remember meeting him at a Microsoft hackathon in 2016 and he was just a real funny guy. He wound up working at ConsenSys and ultimately he left and I think part of the reason he left was that he’d spent a year doing state channels research and I think that there wasn’t appetite at ConsenSys to get into the porn industry, which is actually indicative of the very problem that they’re solving.
I’ve got a really great Spankchain podcast coming out soon and it’s really gritty – the porn industry is ghastly. This is a commodity that virtually all of us consume but it’s taboo, it’s like how it used to be dicey to say that you’d smoked weed, it seems that it’s still dicey to say that you’ve watched porn. So you’ve got this huge industry that is treated really appallingly by financial intermediaries, the classic example is how Chase Bank shut down the bank accounts of all adult industry workers who were with them – and that’s totally unfair.
You see these large financial institutions just flexing their muscle at will without any real thought or reasoning behind this stuff, it’s just, ‘oh, we don’t like porn, there’s no benefit to us to be seen doing business with the porn industry and at the end of the day we’re only interested in big enterprise, consumer banking just doesn’t make us any money’. So adult industry workers are subjected to really, really aggressive treatment by financial intermediaries and it’s a huge industry, so if someone can provide a better solution that doesn’t mistreat them so severely then they’re going to switch to it. Just like criminals, people in these fringe industries have to be innovative and lateral thinkers – so I think it’s a perfect application of blockchain tech.
Even though it doesn’t have a big team, I know Ameen personally and not only do I know he’s a really smart guy, I really trust his judgement and his ability to self-criticise and also he seems to have a really great relationship with the porn industry and I think that’s really important.
You got quite involved in covering the legal aspects of the space. How did that come about and where do you sit in terms of regulation – does there needs to be more and sooner or is it ok as it is?
AF: I just called all of the people I knew who were in blockchain law, because these lawyers had been having these international discussions for years, but they had never been open to the public and no one had thought to turn this into content. So I emailed all the best lawyers that I knew and said, do you guys want to participate in a legal discussion call, just general discussion and then we’ll see if we can turn it into a piece of content.
After a couple of calls, it was like, this is pretty good and so I started recording them; all up there were probably ten calls, three or four of which became podcast episodes. I just think that it’s really important that we examine how blockchain is going to interact with the world. The idea of blockchain is to evidence real world events in a digital context and by doing so, import real world state into the digital world, so that the digital world – and this is an unfortunate use of terminology – can be a more accurate analogue to the physical world.
That’s what we kind of want to do here right, is we want to make the digital world mirror the physical world as much as possible – and that’s what blockchain allows us to do, by giving us this, ‘code is law’ idea. Actually, there’s a lot wrapped up in that…that’s become a kind of tropian, weird statement now, but the idea is that if you can map that digital world through evidencing events in a blockchain by using mathematically un-manipulatable tools, then you can use that data to do more interesting stuff.
But in order to do that, you need to make sure that you’re operating with the current version of doing that; our entire system of doing business through contracts and representing real world state in the legal realm is done through contract law. So we need to be able to bring these two things closer together, but you find that geeks don’t want to hear about it because it’s too hard – it’s easy to chip away at code, but what you really need is a way to make that code mirror the existing organisational abstraction of the real world.
What does a hypothetical (positive) future look like two years from now?
AF: First of all, I am really optimistic, I think we’ve moved really quickly. We’re privileged to be so critical of this space, because things have gone so well. What I want to see and really, I guess what the Third Web is about, is getting past the paradigm of 2014; most of the tech we’re seeing right now is all 2014 technology. Very, very little has happened since then technologically speaking. So, I want to see new tech.
The other thing is, I want to see stuff that is not tokens. In 2014, that was when Mastercoin kind of started it but the one that really kicked it off was Counterparty, and we haven’t moved past Counterparty. It’s still all bloody tokens…‘Woah, tokens great – woohoo’, but for me tokens are boring. I know people love them and it’s all interesting but I’m yawning over here – I want to see some real cool stuff.
I want to see real systems being built using these technologies, I want to see..it’s funny eh, what do I want to see? I don’t know what I want to see actually, I don’t know…I just want to be surprised and I want to be amazed again. I want to be amazed again in the same way that I was when I read the bitcoin white paper, that’s what I want and honestly, I haven’t been since. The DFINITY paper tickled my balls a little bit but I’m yearning for something new and I’m seeking it like a drug addict that’s looking for a drug.
That was an incredible high, getting into bitcoin was amazing and I want that again and it’s got to be out there right, I don’t know what that would look like when we get there.
Any other topics you’d like to cover?
AF: What’s really strange is just the wealth that has been generated in the space, how it’s being deployed and what it’s doing to people…I don’t really like it. One thing that I really liked about 2014 was that everyone was poor and everyone was just doing it for the passion, 2016 not so much and 2017 that’s gone. Everyone is rich now and that’s a major change in the way the space is going to operate.
In 2014 admittedly there weren’t that many people but they were super serious…Manfred Karrer of Bisq – once Bitsquare – watching him build that platform, this one dude, tooth and nail, the emotional rollercoaster he went through…it was amazing! I actually gave him some of my own money and I didn’t have any money to give…it was unbelievable, I was so amazed and so impressed by the way that one guy bashed through and made that thing. And it turned out great – it needs a bit of work – but what he’s built is something unique, powerful and an incredible piece of software and one of my favourite things in the space.
I’ve never seen anyone that hardcore again and I think it’s going to be increasingly hard to find people like that given that the space has been filled with all this money.