Tim Swanson, head of market research for the R3 technology group, is a divisive figure within the world of cryptocurrency. But whether you enjoy reading Tim's views on the blockchain ecosystem, or he makes you a bit upset, no one can deny the depth and originality of his research.
Swanson told IBTimes UK that when he is not talking to banks and financial institutions, he does a kind of private investigation work. "I spend about 25% of my time talking to financial institutions, either current members or potential future members. I spend probably about 30% or 40% of my time talking to start-ups or vendors.
"That's always interesting because it's like doing private investigation work. The downside of this is to filter through the noise. You see all these start-ups saying they have some kind of product or some kind of thing - and it's kind of fake it til you make it.
"So maybe they go on stage and make some fantastic claims, but then they don't really back it up - not immediately. Maybe if you give them some time, a few of them may create a usable MVP. But so far out of the 250 or so companies we have looked at, I'd say just a small handful have either a legitimate team or legitimate product."
Swanson was invited by Ethereum to DevCon and gave a presentation at the Global Blockchain Summit. Rather than talking directly about the merits of private blockchains, Swanson returns to a favourite subject: the nature of the internet itself. Whereas many would view the internet an open, albeit highly centralised network, Swanson likes to point out there is no such thing as the internet – rather there's a bunch of ISPs that connect to each other through peering agreements based on quality of service guarantees.
And it's from this perspective he loops back to the analogy between the emergent blockchain world and the early days of the web, a comparison often used to highlight the inconsequence today of the intranet/internet debate.
"Nobody ever debated that," says Swanson. "Anyway, I don't want to go into all the minutia of quote/unquote private chains, but fundamentally we live in a world in which you have basically a bunch of intranets that connect to each other to make an internet - and I don't see why that's a bad thing. There has been tremendous measurable value created on KYC'ed networks."
Despite likening his presence at DevCon to "an atheist at church", Swanson applauded the Ethereum community for its openness and amiability. He likes to use the term "anarchic" to describe public blockchains because of their lack of governance.
"All these anarchic chains fundamentally will have the same ad hoc governance unless they are able to build in an on-chain dispute resolution mechanism as a prearranged set of mediation and arbitration venues. Otherwise the only way to handle these disputes is to yell and scream on social media.
"And even under those circumstances we still can't say that one anarchic chain is the right, or de jure chain. So all you have is one chain has more hash rate than the other. That's not de jure, that's de facto. That's on purpose.
"If you could tie any of these anarchic chains into traditional legal infrastructure, then you are going to start holding participants legally accountable, and if the whole purpose of having a censorship resistant system is to prevent that from happening, it would be kind of self-defeating.
"If you have to rely on external court systems to handle disputes, then anarchic chains are no longer anarchic. They are then basically accountable to the court systems. I don't want to speak on behalf of all private chains, but the goal of these is to purposefully tie into legal infrastructure, the opposite of what the architects of Bitcoin and Ethereum had in mind."
Further to this Swanson invokes a cryptocurrency "law" introduced by Robert Sams, CEO of Clearmatics, premised on the fact that all these systems have trade-offs and all of them are designed for specific environments: anything that needs censorship resistance will gravitate towards censorship resistant systems or networks, anything that doesn't need censorship resistance will do the opposite.
Swanson explains that his trajectory into cryptocurrency came by "complete accident". Four years ago while living in China he started mining Bitcoin, encouraged to do so by the fact that his landlord had heavily subsidised, effectively free, electricity. "In late 2012, I started mining Bitcoin with GPUs and then after the halvening switched to Litecoin. I didn't become rich or anything."
The experience left him with a deep interest in the technology but also an enduring appreciation of the environmentally damaging and pointless business of accumulating lots of hash power to secure a network like Bitcoin. He recounts how his wife, a chip designer who has helped design and tape out more than 25 chips, was aghast at all the machines and GPUs he was running in his small apartment.
"She had actually been on the design team for the chip used in the Radeon 7950 and thought I should use the graphics card for something productive like 3D rendering. Her other complaint was: look our air sucks in China, the last thing we need is people destroying coal just to create these things that, in her view, didn't provide any value for people in China since products like Alipay and WeChat could quickly move money between consumers and merchants.
"I actually looked into doing ASIC mining itself in early 2013, but I had a really small apartment and it's hot in Shanghai during summer. The last thing you need is all these machines pumping heat into your living room.
"And of course it's the antithesis of environmentally friendly. Obviously there have been a lot of debates about that. So it took a little while to convince my wife that that this was a very interesting project. She let me do it but still hates it."