Written by Matthew Dove (Digital Editor)
The first day of the Crypto Challenge Forum held at London’s Central Westminster Hall proved to be more heated than your average Monday afternoon in October. The roster featured big hitters from the worlds of politics, crypto, banking and business – including a rousing turn from Baron Holmes of Richmond – but the spotlight was well and truly seized by a feisty exchange between Mattereum’s Vinay Gupta and BTCC co-founder Bobby Lee. Delegates could be forgiven for thinking that the day would be rounded off in a more sedate fashion with a “fireside chat” addressing the implications of blockchain technology for the music industry. They would’ve been mistaken.
Mathangi “M.I.A” Arulpragasam used the platform to give full vent to her discontent regarding a range of subjects including the aforementioned music trade as well as the centralised elitism of modern filmmaking and the failure of the internet as a tool for democracy.
At around one o’clock on the forum’s first day, moderator Erik van der Kleij introduced a debate simply entitled, Blockchain: Reality or Hype? between Gupta and Lee, described by our host as “titans” of distributed ledger technology. Gupta represented blockchain exponents who see far-reaching innovation and diversity of application as inherent in the fledgling technology, whilst Bobby, well, he begged to differ…
Lee’s opening salvo set the pace for a dialogue which was fractious without ever becoming ill-tempered;
“Blockchain is fundamental to Bitcoin and cryptocurrency, however a bunch of the uses of blockchain technology for real-world activity, some of that or most of that, is hype. It’s marketing used to attract investors and users, whereas the technology powering these use-cases and applications is just traditional database technology”
His argument centred on the notion that no private, and therefore centralised, enterprise could possibly operate a fully decentralised blockchain on the grounds that a master key would always be needed to correct internal mistakes and imbalances. The use of a master key or the appointment of a permissioned custodian would, in turn, render the system a glorified spreadsheet lacking the truly distributed consensus of a vast network of nodes.
Vinay Gupta, who has decade’s of experience at the bleeding edge of digital innovation and whose company’s business model is prefaced on the use of blockchain tech in the exchange of land and property deeds, was suitably unimpressed and hit back by saying;
“The crux of this is, what can you do with a blockchain that you can’t do with distributed data? And I think the answer is; business between people who really hate each other”
The real utility of blockchain, as Vinay Gupta sees it, is in the establishment of trust where there would normally be none, “basically it’s a good technology for putting into dirty places.” He went on to add that;
“Most of the blockchain apps are in environs where people are in very high distrust environments”
Lee countered that whilst he agreed with Gupta that blockchains solve “the Byzantine Generals Problem” of trustless transfers of value and information, he remained unsatisfied with its application in areas beyond cryptocurrency. Lee insisted that the transfer of physical assets – examples on the day included oil, gold and real estate – can’t be facilitated without a centralised authority or third party intermediary holding final judgement. To this point, Gupta was generous enough to partially conceded that this dilemma, “is inherent in the nature of fiat assets.”
As with most clashes between purists and pragmatists, the encounter ended in a stalemate, Gupta suggesting lightheartedly that it continue over drinks. However, it seems unlikely that any amount of alcoholic lubricant could bring a duel between this pair to a frictionless conclusion.
One speaker at the Crypto Challenge Forum, whose discourse with Vinay Gupta is presumably more amiable, was Gupta’s good friend Mathangi Arulpragasam, better known by her stage name M.I.A.
Invited by Gupta to share her thoughts on the blockchain and decentralisation with the FT’s Jemima Kelly, Arulpragasam was, at first glance, an anomalous addition to the agenda but more than held her own in the techy surrounds. A rapper, musician and songwriter by trade, M.I.A is no ordinary pop star and is as well-known for her incendiary opinions as she is for her musical output.
In 2013, she declared in VICE that her pick for “Person of the Year” would be N.S.A. whistleblower Edward Snowden, her 2008 Tour was called People vs Money (note the fitting historical context, if you will) and she tweeted, “F*ck the New York Times” after she felt the paper had unfairly criticised her. M.I.A is also an outspoken advocate for Sri Lankan Tamils and her father, Arul Pragasam, is a political activist and founding member of the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS). With all this in mind a became far clearer as to where the fire in the “fireside chat” would emanate.
When asked by Kelly about her upcoming documentary, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A, Arulpragasam explained her ambivalence toward established avenues for producing politically charged films and the appeal which alternatives like the blockchain hold. She said that making the documentary lead her to start, “thinking about building some other way you can put out political films without having to suit the agenda of the distributors”
She then added that;
“What’s so obvious these days, is that to have political work released you often have to side with the elite and with the establishment, otherwise you get buried.”
The rapper was also quick to assert that her presence at the event had nothing to do with promoting the removal of middlemen from the music industry in order to connect artists directly with their audiences. Instead she champions any application of technology which helps, “build a space where creativity can be what it is without having to fit the framework of an agenda.” She cited that the obvious use-case for the blockchain in pop would be to ensure full remuneration for singers and songwriters but if new payment channels are all it has to offer then it will too closely “mimic” the status quo. And if one thing was made abundantly clear during her time on stage, it’s that innovation without social progress doesn’t much interest M.I.A;
“I think that what’s important, in terms of where we’re at in the world and how things have gone, is having the freedom and a space to be creative and express yourself without having to conform”
With arguably two of the three hands that feed her already bitten, Arulpragasam made it a hat-trick by turning her attention to the internet itself, a platform which, in the early noughties, did more to propel her to stardom than any other. M.I.A spoke of her dawning realisation in 2010 that the internet, “was no longer a democratic space and also a liberal space” and, “since then it’s gotten worse.” However, whatever her reservations regards the old order are, don’t mistake M.I.A for a dewy-eyed convert to the blockchain cause. She confirmed as much when stating;
“I get it, you know, but whenever creatives and people with good intentions invent something, it often gets taken over … and wouldn’t blockchain become the next monster?”
Considering the audience, M.I.A’s appearance on at the Forum on Monday may have proved as sharp and bracing as an October dip in the Thames but it also served to highlight an exceptionally important point. It doesn’t matter how big and clever blockchain technology becomes, it will never be truly revolutionary unless it serves the people who need it the most.