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Crypto/Blockchain Interviews

Ian Panchèvre (YC 15), Ex-PM of Intuit’s Blockchain R&D Initiative (Part I)

Ian Panchèvre is Founder & Principal of Amplified Software, which aids the engineering and design efforts of early and growth-stage software startups by providing outsource development resources. Previously, Mr. Panchèvre worked as a Product Manager in Intuit’s Innovation and Advanced Technologies group (now Intuit Futures). He contributed to Intuit’s R&D and product efforts for blockchain and distributed ledger technologies as one of the first people pulled into the project and the first non-technical contributor. While on an extended leave of absence from Yale, he founded and ran three different technology companies. After returning to campus, he wrote “Techno­Tyranny: Introducing the Decentralized Autonomous Organization” and Immaterial World: The Virtual Politics of Bitcoin, the first-ever political history of Bitcoin. Mr. Panchèvre is now in his second year of study at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Part 1 of a 2-Part Series. Mr. Panchèvre expresses his sincere gratitude to Hélène Landemore, Associate Professor of Political Science at Yale, for her supervision of his senior thesis on Bitcoin.

The Politic: What’s your background and how did you get involved in cryptocurrencies and blockchain?

Ian Panchèvre: I took a class on the intersection of technology, digital media, and political science. We had to write three papers, and one of them was about changing the nature of politics in some capacity. Lots of my classmates would write about social media and public opinion formation, or big data and electioneering. I wanted to do something a little different– something on the cutting edge.

I went on a deep Google binge, and I stumbled across some Reddit forums where people were musing about the potential of the Bitcoin Blockchain to power a digital voting system. You could host decentralized elections while securing your vote and protecting your privacy throughout the voting process. The thought was that–if you really did have this sort of technical innovation–you could have secure and reliable online voting. From there, you could rethink other avenues of political participation and then reimagine the nature of Democracy. 

I became fascinated in Bitcoin and blockchain through the process of writing that paper, and in my senior year, I decided to make cryptocurrency the topic of my thesis. As a Political Science major who was writing a political theory essay, I came up with the “Virtual Politics of Bitcoin” as a thesis topic– the political events and structures which have emerged within the Bitcoin community.

I was actually the first person to write a political history of Bitcoin. At the time, people were very hostile to the idea that Bitcoin could have any sort of political characteristics or attributes. This was post-Mt. Gox in 2014/2015. Bitcoin is still very much supported by hardcore anarchists and libertarians who really want to overturn longstanding institutions. They believed that Bitcoin was either apolitical or non-political. They believed that nobody is “in control” of Bitcoin… and that it’s better than all the political systems we’ve experienced to date.

In my essay, I disproved their claim that Bitcoin is apolitical. I showed that there are power-levers within the space that determine the technology’s roadmap and development. Moreover, various network operators have usurped power and taken control of these levers. So while people think the currency is apolitical because there’s no government backing it, a sort of shadow government has emerged that has co-opted its levers. 

I used “State of Nature” theory to model how Bitcoin went from a condition of monarchy, to anarchy, and then to politicization. Bitcoin was initially birthed as a monarchic system. Satoshi Nakamoto wrote the whitepaper. He was the first miner, owned the keys to deploy updates to Bitcoin Core, and obviously was the spiritual leader of the entire project. So, Bitcoin started out in this condition of monarchy. Then, he abandoned the project and turned it over to the community, moving Bitcoin from monarchy to anarchy. From that anarchic condition, political events followed very quickly. It was a really, really fun paper. I ended up writing over 100 pages, but I ended up getting a B+ because I submitted it two weeks late. That was 2015.

When I graduated, I had a job lined up working as a product manager at Intuit, the Silicon Valley company that owns QuickBooks, TurboTax, and a bunch of other financial productivity software. First day on the job– I’m asking the other product managers about our blockchain strategy. Pretty universally, they answered, “Oh. We’re not doing anything with that…” Some time elapsed, and I started to hear rumors that I wasn’t the only person at the company asking for a blockchain strategy. It turns out that our Executive Team also wanted to know Intuit’s blockchain strategy.

I sent my thesis to a handful of people, it got forwarded around, and it ultimately made its way to the Innovation and Advanced Technologies group, which has since been renamed as Intuit Futures– that’s the team that does emerging technology R&D for Intuit. I was one of the very first people pulled into the blockchain project, the first non-technical contributor, and essentially the product lead on Intuit’s blockchain effort. That was a great opportunity. I strengthened my technical perspective on the technology and its potential use cases. I was also able to professionally network with the extended community and understand the contours of the market. Through the course of it, mind you, I was trading crypto-currencies, too. I was riding the boom and bust cycle– and that was super exhilarating.

Now, I’m an MBA student at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. I employ a software team through my outsource software development business, Amplified.  We’ve done a number of different startups and projects together, and in 2018, we joined a global coalition to launch a new blockchain network, which is a fork of the EOS code-base.  

So, I started academic, became corporate-professional, and then became more scrappy-entrepreneurial. Even just trying to launch a blockchain network taught me a lot of the nitty gritty mechanics– it allowed me to gain a first-hand understanding of the politicized nature of these systems. So now I’m onto my fifth year of being plugged into the world of blockchain/cryptocurrency, but I must say that at the moment I’m burnt out from all of it. Lately my focus and interests have been elsewhere.

What happened with the thesis? Did people read it?

I shared it digitally on Academia. The essay has gotten a healthy number of hits online. I’ve shared it with people, but it wasn’t really written for public consumption. I would have needed to restructure it into a book, or aggressively cut it down into a dense Medium article. I’ve never really gotten around to that. But anyone who is interested is more than welcome to download it from Academia, or hunt the paper copy I stashed in the Hopper library.  

Was there any negative reaction from the ‘apolitical’ / ‘non-political’ Bitcoin enthusiasts?

I got some real hate from the Bitcoin community. As I’m writing this paper, I’m connecting with people online, commenting on public forums, speaking on podcasts– and yes people really resisted the idea that Bitcoin could have any sort of political qualities. The timing was actually really interesting because April of 2015 was when the Bitcoin Foundation collapsed. In my paper, I characterized the Bitcoin Foundation as a Hobbesian power usurper that sprung forth from the ether and tried to exert control over the network and the community. I was already very far in the writing process, when suddenly the Foundation collapsed, so I had to bring this event into the narrative of the paper. At that point, Bitcoin was six years old. I went on a podcast to talk about the Bitcoin Foundation and the observations and findings of my research. Some really hostile commentary then spread online.

What did you find in the Reddit subforums?

I really enjoyed reading the early forum conversations among the hardcore Bitcoin enthusiasts. It was as if they were recreating the dialogue in Plato’s Republic. They’re having these conversations about the origin of government, the legitimacy of political authority, the rights and responsibilities that we owe each other, etc.– and they’re acting as if they’re the first people in the history of mankind to ever pose these questions. They don’t understand that there are thousands of years of deep political thought on these exact topics. 

As the community has broadened, they’ve gotten a lot better about it. The anarchist energy has quieted down. Suits have showed up who are less interested in overturning the financial system and more interested in augmenting it and making money from it. We’ve also had academics with backgrounds in political science and legal theory enter the space. 

And then, of course, since 2015, we’ve seen the explicit failures of poorly governed blockchain networks. For example, the Ethereum and Ethereum Classic fork that came as a response to Vitalik Buterin’s decision to undo a massive ETH heist in 2016. Or the debate over block size that lead to the Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash fork in the summer of 2017. The network just copied itself over, and the community literally divided itself over it. We witnessed this kind of schism– this doesn’t happen with the U.S. dollar. 

So because the community has expanded and matured, and several events have occurred that have made it painfully obvious that there are political qualities to these networks, people are pretty aware now that these blockchain systems are politicized– it’s not just an academic perspective anymore. At the time when I was an undergrad, though, it was blasphemous to even suggest that there was a political character to Bitcoin or the underlying blockchain.

How did you come up with the title of your thesis?

The title of the thesis is Immaterial World, which is a term that I coined in the paper. I defined an immaterial world as a “unique and self-contained virtual realm” that is “global, intangible, artificial, and very real.” Immaterial worlds operate according to the boundaries of their platform’s underlying technical specifications. Their inhabitants congregate on web forums. And even though these realms are artificial and intangible, they can often create “spillover” that affects the real, material world.  

How bullish are you on blockchain generally?

Before answering that question, you first have to establish “what is a blockchain?” You’ll learn there’s no universally-accepted definition of a blockchain. People could point to Ethereum and Bitcoin as examples of a classic blockchain. If so, “blockchain” has a number of technical properties. A blockchain is “decentralized” because there isn’t a single dominant operator running the network. It’s “permissionless” because anybody can use the underlying token or run the mining protocol themselves. It’s “public” because anyone can view the recorded activity. It’s “immutable” because you can’t go back and change the records; all you can do is add to the records; it’s irrevocable so you can’t recover mistaken or fraudulent transactions.

It’s also a “ledger” in that it contains a record set of something’s transaction history. In the case of Bitcoin, it’s purely a transaction history of people’s balances. In the case of Ethereum, it includes the records of computational logic. It tracks the flow of Ether and the operations of smart contracts–these digital agreements that self-execute according to pre-programmed parameters and triggers–deployed on the network.

You also have distributed ledger technologies (DLT) in the space. The architecture of a DLT may be inspired by a blockchain, but it doesn’t have the same technical properties. For example, DLTs aren’t necessarily permissionless: there’s usually some sort of administrator who can manage network activity, access rights, and controls, etc. Moreover, traditional blockchains are public, such that anyone can view the network’s transaction history. DLTs may restrict such visibility. There’s a sort of spectrum with blockchain on one end, distributed ledgers in the middle, and traditional databases that keeps track of records as if it were all a giant spreadsheet on the other end. That’s broadly how I view the space.

When you look at specific cryptocurrency blockchain networks, you’ll notice how they start to deviate. There are all of these different knobs. A purist would look at something like EOS–which feels very much like a blockchain–and ask, “Does the fact that only 21 nodes are able to produce blocks for EOS at a time make it less of a blockchain?” There’s sort of a political process to these definitions. You look at others like Monero, for instance, where they have a lot of cryptographic techniques to hide ledger activity– do the privacy protections make it less of a blockchain?

These are just variations. All you have to do is change the setting on one of these knobs to change the type of network. I start with this answer because the space is very diverse. And I think it’s productive to first level-set and establish what a blockchain is, exactly. I’ve been in rooms with a bunch of blockchain professionals who were completely talking past each other because they had in their minds different notions of what a blockchain is. 

Personally, I define a blockchain as a technology that allows you to securely store and exchange ownership claims to digital assets without relying on third-party intermediaries to maintain your ownership records. I identify a classic blockchain as having certain technical properties. A classic blockchain is decentralized, permissionless, public, and immutable. 

Back to your original question: using “blockchain” in a rather traditional sense, what are the prospects of real, widely-used, blockchain-based applications being deployed in the near future?  

First, if a bunch of banks create a network among themselves, I’m going to write them off because they aren’t using blockchain technology, they are just managing a shared database, which they’ve branded as a blockchain or a DLT. Second, I’ve gone from being wildly bullish on the technology, thinking it would replace so many different functions of what we do online and the underlying architecture of the internet as it’s currently constituted, to now feeling fairly bearish about it, thinking that its impact will be rather limited in the long-run. 

What’s changed? Why are you skeptical now?

If you asked me three years ago, I would have said, “Yes, there’s a lot of potential.” 

I thought it was only a matter of time until blockchain-based services would be built out– ones that would ultimately displace traditional services in use today. I thought blockchain could establish itself as a sort of value-protocol for securely storing ownership claims to digital assets online. Whereas the internet is well architected as an information protocol that facilitates communication, it does a poor job of securing valuable assets online. Accounts get broken into and files get pirated, for example, so you need all of these intermediaries and gatekeepers to officially control those systems. 

With blockchains, the internet would finally have a value protocol that securely stores and exchanges ownership claims to digital assets without relying on centralized intermediaries. The web would be totally re-wired so that the end-user has true, final control of their digital profile and their digital assets– without compromising their security. That’s the answer I would have given you years ago.

But after having spent years trying to figure out what we can commercialize while doing R&D work for Intuit, and then after launching a network myself and working on a separate startup that tried to use that blockchain network– I have finally come around to accept the fact that we’re actually way better off using traditional databases, at least for the vast majority of use cases. 

The core problem preventing wider adoption of blockchain-based applications and services is that, at the end of the day, the issue of decentralization doesn’t really speak to a compelling pain point for the end-user. How many times have you been using an app and honestly thought to yourself, “Ah f***, if only this were decentralized it would liberate me as a person!”

On the other hand, you actually really do appreciate that whatever you’re using has a centralized administrator behind it. If there’s fraud on your credit card, you like calling your bank and asking them to reverse the charges. If you forget your password to an account, you like being able to go through a recovery process. Both of those things are easy to do because there’s somebody in the middle who can verify whether you are who you say you are.

Really, the only thing that blockchain does for you is to take away the middleman: it gives you a completely decentralized alternative– but there’s a cost. There’s a cryptocurrency cost to doing things on a blockchain. There’s a speed cost. There’s a development cost. And most importantly, there’s a usability cost. End-users have to control their private keys, but people aren’t good at having that level of responsibility. They’re prone to lose things. People haven’t developed best practices with respect to key management.

Let’s take an example: Imagine you want to place a bet on a sporting event online, through a blockchain service, so there is no middleman taking a cut or moderating the outcome. To do so on an Ethereum dapp, you’d have to first create an account on Coinbase. You have to verify your identity and link your bank account. Then you have to purchase Ether and send the Ether to an Ethereum wallet, use your key to unlock the wallet, and then send Ether to a sports-betting smart contract. With all those intermediary steps, you’ve lost 99.9% of humanity who can’t or won’t go through all that bullshit. 

And I go back and I ask myself: are the costs related to speed, financial transactions, usability, and security worth a decentralized alternative? You’re in control of your own stuff, but if you f*** up – if you lose your private key, if someone else gets your private key, if you send your tokens to the wrong address, etc. – you’re going to lose everything. That’s a hard tradeoff for people to make when there isn’t a large universe of applications for them to use.

And keep in mind: a lot of what you hear and read about IBM and the banks using blockchain– they’re either using more of a DLT or a straight up database that’s rebranded as a blockchain. Most of the public noise that you are hearing about blockchain advances is purely a branding exercise by their corporate sponsors, as opposed to real break-through innovation with classic blockchain technologies. 

Having tried to build a number of things on blockchains, I can tell you that the ROI just isn’t there on a pure blockchain. Your users will appreciate an easier-to-use application, with a simple email/password login, and a customer support process to help them when things go wrong. As a developer, you will appreciate a more straightforward development environment where you don’t have to worry about computational costs on a decentralized network, staking tokens on behalf of your users, crazy internal political strife on the network, resolving smart contract edge cases, etc. 

Another problem is that if you’re a corporation looking at blockchain– why would you want to adopt a technology that disintermediates you? You exist so you can extract rent in the form of subscriptions, data monetization, etc. So why would you switch to an open source, public technology? Especially one where, given access to the same users and the same data, anybody could build what you have? You’re not going to do that.

See Part II for more.

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