In another splash into the Bitcoin space for Microsoft, the tech giant's Civic Innovation team organized a Bitcoin event in New York earlier this week. Co-organized by MIT Media Lab's Digital Currency Initiative – which currently funds Bitcoin Core development - the evening's headliners at the newly opened LMHQ event space in lower Manhattan explored Bitcoin's potential for “social good.” With one topic conspicuously absent: bitcoin.
The event was hosted by John Paul Farmer, Director of Technology & Civic Innovation at Microsoft. Outlining his role at the tech company, Farmer explained that his Civic Innovation team is tasked to solve big, real-world problems in society, utilizing technological innovation.
As Farmer put it:
“We're here to work on the really hard problems. The hard social problems. And to figure out what role technology can play in helping to address them.”
From that perspective, Farmer is interested in exploring the possibilities of Bitcoin and blockchain technology, he told the attendees at the LMHQ. The Microsoft Director and former senior advisor for innovation in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy explained that the purpose of the session was to see how blockchain technology can be used in new and creative ways.
Posting the questions of the evening, Farmer said:
“What can be done to use the blockchain for social good? What impact can people have when they use this new technology in new and creative ways?”
Although officially a guest speaker, it was clear that head of MIT Media Lab's Digital Currency Initiative and former White House colleague of Farmer, Brian Forde, was really the co-host of the evening. And like Farmer, Forde set out to take his audience on a journey through the possibilities of blockchain technology.
Speaking to the event's attendees, Forde explained:
“When people think about Bitcoin, when people think about digital currency and the blockchain, they naturally think of financial institutions. They think of it as a financial currency. What I hope in achieving tonight is actually broadening that. Because if you know anything about Bitcoin or the blockchain you'll know that if you think that it's just for the transfer of money, that's like thinking the internet was just build for email.”
The other four speakers of the event were MIT's Chelsea Barabas, Factom CEO Peter Kirby, senior business operations lead at IDEO Anne Kim, and co-founder and CEO of OneName Ryan Shea. And notably, all speakers at the Microsoft-organized event were really excited about Bitcoin.
Forde, at the forefront, even described the state of understanding Bitcoin as “nirvana.” Barabas, Kirby, Kim and Shea, meanwhile, tackled use cases varying from land title databases to the democratization of decision-making, and from blockchain IDs to voting systems and canonical media notaries.
As opposed to bankers and the financial sector, exemplified by American Banker's Blockchain event that was also held this week, speakers at the Microsoft actually cared about Bitcoin. While financial sector representatives often misuse the term “blockchain,” seem to prefer permissioned ledgers and rather hear Bitcoin critics offer alternative solutions, Microsoft's event delved into the actual possible applications of Bitcoin itself.
But there was one application notably missing, of course. As predicted by Forde, there was little to no focus on bitcoin with a lowercase b. As has become fashionable lately, the cryptographic currency itself was hardly mentioned; it's the underlying technology that is increasingly considered the real revolution.
At the end of the day, however, this seems a bit ironic. Not only because bitcoin the currency is accepted as a means of payment by Microsoft itself, or because the Bitcoin blockchain relies on bitcoin the currency to remain secure. But also because the existence of a peer-to-peer, uncensorable, and potentially anonymous money free from banks and governmental control is probably the greatest “social good” blockchain technology has realized so far.
Whether it's used as a hedge against inflation in Argentina, or functions as a safe heaven for investors getting out of the stock market in China, or because it allows citizens to circumvent capital controls in Greece... the actual bitcoin currency is easily the most disruptive use case of blockchain technology that is actually working today. And that will probably only gain in significance heading into the future.
In an economy shaped by too-big-to-fail banks, artificially pumped up stock markets, where ramping inflation is a daily reality for millions, and where the populations of entire countries are shut out of their bank accounts overnight, a Bitcoin event set out to solve “hard social problems” while ignoring the currency aspects of this revolutionary invention feels a bit... empty.