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Getting to the bottom of blockchain and cryptocurrencies with Joshua Buirski
November 23, 2017
Blockchain and cryptocurrencies are part of 2017’s vernacular, but do we even know what they are? We went all the way to Melbourne, Australia to talk to Joshua Buirski, founder of the Distributed Technologies Institute (DTI), which is based within Australia’s top-ranked technology hub, the York Butter Factory (YBF). YBF hand-selects the most innovative technology startups, gives them a place to work and create, supplies funding, advisory services (Joshua is an adviser there), puts them in front of large corporates and generally creates an ecosystem where growth, innovation and success compound. And just so you’re fully up-to-date, Melbourne is edging up to Silicon Valley as a major technology precinct.
Back to Joshua Buirski and DTI. DTI supplies training and consulting on blockchain (a.k.a. distributed ledger). While the rest of us are just introducing these words into our vocabularies, Joshua’s been on the scene since 2011. He’s sat on government trade delegations, served on the advisory board for the cryptocurrency-enabled CanYa freelancing marketplace and is a global ambassador for both the Decred cryptocurrency and the Alexandria/Open Index Protocol projects.
So, we were pretty lucky that Joshua had the time to sit down with us and prepare us for the future. We also talk style – not only is Joshua an authority on imminent currencies and data storage, he has killer style.
Hi Joshua, thanks for talking with us. Crypto currencies are getting a lot of column inches and airplay at the moment, with celebrities talking about investing and touting advice, however, you’ve been at it since 2011. How did you get into cryptocurrencies and blockchain?
When I got started there were three primary reasons people entered the space; computer games, cryptography, and the online black markets. I was the former – a gamer. Back then Bitcoin was the only cryptocurrency around, and were about $2 to $3 each from memory, it recently broke $8,000 USD, which was interesting.
And wait, let’s go back. Can you explain what blockchain technology is?
It’s really nothing sexy, it’s just a type of ledger (database) technology that is particularly good at demonstrating that a particular record was entered at a particular time and has not been altered since. Blocks are just grouped transactions that are cryptographically combined, each block contains a cryptographic link to the last, stemming all the way back to the very first set of transactions, so any attempt to go back and change a record will be immediately obvious and rejected. The video below will clear it all up for you though.
And a cryptocurrency?
Cryptocurrency, through Bitcoin, was the first example of a blockchain ledger in action. There are now hundreds of cryptocurrency projects, some of them with their own monetary policy built into the protocol. It’s unique. This is one of my favourite learning resources on cryptocurrency/blockchain to point people to:
This is not investment advice…
Decred (DCR) and Florin (FLO) are my current go-to’s. Decred is its own completely decentralised, global self-funding organisation. The people who contribute to the project from around the world are top class. [It’s] definitely one to watch for the next six to twelve months. Florin is a less obvious pick, but what most don’t realise is they’re a component of what history is likely to point back to as the first instance of the distributed web (web 3.0). The Florin blockchain is the ledger component read by the Open Index Protocol, which is fueling game-changing media applications such as Alexandria (check out Alexandria.io/publisher if you want to try it out), one of their founders, Amy, gives a great explanation of it here.
I am also advising a decentralised freelancing marketplace called CanYa (think a gig economy app for ‘digital nomads’). They’re doing well at the moment and are about to offer their currency to the market.
We went to one of your talks and regarding Bitcoin, you used the term ‘maximalist’. I’m thinking that has a completely different meaning to our definition in fashion.
Yes, it’s someone that will only support Bitcoin and thinks that there should only be one cryptocurrency.
Does the world need a variety cryptocurrencies?
I believe so. Many of these currencies have drastically different features. Currencies such as Decred have taken this a step further by creating their own monetary policies. Naval Ravikant, who co-founded AngelList, had a great Twitter thread on this recently.
Personally, I feel that it is important that we experiment as much as possible whilst the technology is growing. If we expect all experimentation to occur on one project as opposed to a hundred experiments tried by a hundred different projects concurrently then we’re going to struggle to get anywhere any time soon.
Another important thing to consider is that unlike traditional currencies or mediums of value exchange, cryptocurrencies are easily swapped/exchanged for one another and don’t come with the high exchange rates we’re used to with sovereign currencies. More importantly, many cryptocurrencies are what we call ‘utility’ tokens, and are individually designed to have an inherent purpose within a particular platform/service. Amy James from the Alexandria project describes it perfectly; she describes it as services being turned into fungible commodities.
Jason Potts, who is an economics professor at RMIT and the head of their recently-established Blockchain Innovation Hub, recently noted that “Academic economists are still waking up to the idea that the cryptospace is building whole new economic worlds, and not just an n+1 commodity or a new technology. The idea that they’re each designing a monetary POLICY is still dawning”.
You’ve sat on a government’s blockchain-specific trade delegation, so it’s safe to say, you’re pretty much an expert. If someone is late to the game in blockchain and investing in crypto, how would you advise them to go about it?
Nobody is an expert in this space yet. We’re all still learning.
It’s important to note that whilst cryptocurrencies are an example of blockchain technology, they’re not the same thing.
That being said, I think they are the best point of entry for those keen to learn more about the technology. My advice? Find a project that you vibe with and get active in their online communities. Reddit and Slack tend to be the best. Avoid Telegram. Oftentimes the projects are small enough for you to liaise with the team directly and they’re typically very happy to answer questions.
Or, come and take one of my courses [laughs]!
We recently talked with a London-based art curator who was talking about using blockchain for recording and tracking art. Is this something that would slot into the Interplanetary File System? And can you explain what that is?
One of my favourite early implementations of blockchain technology was the tokenisation of digital artwork and memes. There are now entire meme economies where limited-edition digital memes are being sold for thousands of dollars.
However, any time you begin to link blockchain technology with the physical world it starts to get a little tricky depending on what you’re doing. If you’re looking to record and track art sales then you could certainly use a blockchain to do it, however if you’re expecting a high volume of records, you might be better off using a blockchain anchoring system such as Decred’s Politeia in order to take data stored in a traditional database and anchor it ‘on-chain’. You could absolutely use the Interplanetary File System to store said data.
How else can blockchain be used for other industries?
A few potential applications of the technology that I am watching closely are for medical/birth records, academic transcripts, and digital identity. As someone who travels frequently and has lived in multiple countries, there is nothing more frustrating than having to re-establish your identity every few years. I’m hopeful that we’ll begin to see decentralised global databases for these things that can be tapped into and verified internationally. I’d like to see a planetary society in my lifetime.
You have really good shoes. Can you talk us through your style?
Thanks, they’re the Sanluis Brushed Skates by Superglamourous, they’re all handmade in Italy.
I love a good slip on, but I’m also a big fan of tassels and as you’d imagine the two don’t normally mix, so I was pretty pleased when I found them. I’m unlikely to wear anything else for the next few years.
I wear three colours: black, charcoal and navy. Pressed trousers and a long sleeve jumper or crew-neck tee is normally my go-to look. Simple, but suave.
For a red-carpet event in the distributed-technology world, what’s your go-to look?
A nicely-tailored black suit with peak lapels and a black shirt and the Superglamourous shoes above. If it’s formal, I would wear a white shirt and a bow tie, if less formal, a simple mono-colour tie – probably black.
Any favorite brands?
Rhye, AC/DC and Sinatra.
And you’re a watch enthusiast?
I am a watch fanatic. I spend quite a bit of my spare time working on watch movements; it’s strangely therapeutic.
I’ve got a few watches currently on my radar:
- Rolex DayDate Presidential Custom ‘Black Onyx’
- Patek Philippe Nautilus 5980R
- Richard Mille RM035 Baby Nadal or the RM67-01 Ultraflat. The Ultraflat is going to be a classic one day.
Do you collect anything else?
At your talk that we attended, you also said you’re definitely not into Lamborghinis. What is your luxury motor car of choice?
Rolls-Royce Wraith all in black or two-toned black and white with white leather interior and piano-black wood.
If all goes well, I’ll get a Wraith and a Range Rover, but I’ve never driven and never had a car. I’ve always lived in cities. I’ll also move to Italy, specifically Umbria. I’ll deal with people until I don’t have to [laughs]!
Before we wrap, Web 3.0 – talk us through it. What can we expect?
Web 3.0 is the decentralised/distributed web, across all components from the database layer to storage, computation, protocols and infrastructure. The web as we know it today is incredibly fragile and people have absolutely no idea how vulnerable they really are. So in lieu of people educating themselves on operational and information security, Web 3.0 is probably our best bet at avoiding a global cyber disaster in the next ten years. The recent Equifax hack was just the beginning. Storing large amounts of critical data/information in a central repository is rarely a good idea.
What this will mean for the average user is a more cost and resource-efficient web infrastructure that is significantly less prone to hacks and data loss. You’ll probably see it emerge as a top buzzword over the next two to three years as people realise blockchain technology is just a small piece of a large puzzle.
Ok, one last one, how can people get in touch with you if they would like to learn more?
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