Not all is well with the financial world which has come to play a god-like role in our lives. Banks were simply intermediaries for our transactions but gradually became so much more. Many think that an establishment, whose running, rules and budgets common people had nothing to do with, was responsible for their falling incomes, unaffordable housing and increased borrowing.
Blockchain and cryptocurrency were created by very smart and public-spirited people who hated big banks. The first wave was traders and hobbyists who took strongly to Bitcoins and altcoins ardently wooed by exchanges. But, now, a new breed of users in India, politically resident at a distance from the heavies and radicals yet discerning enough, is plumping down on cryptocurrencies. They are not in it for a quick buck, nor even for getting rich; they are taking back their sovereignty, quietly and surely.
Delhi-based Anup Kutty, along with Randeep Singh and Lubna Shaheen, has actively supported the northeast’s many talented musicians for the past six years through the Ziro Festival of Music in Arunachal Pradesh, often called India’s Woodstock. When the festival concluded two weeks ago, to their surprise, the organisers found 1% of their total sales – they are unwilling to reveal absolute figures – was on Bitcoin (BTC).
“About a percent of our total sales were using cryptocurrency but we were really not even expecting that much, to be honest. What’s interesting is that a lot of people are calling us to find out why or how we are doing this,” Kutty says.
It’s a start. And they plan to continue to use cryptocurrency for online sales of tickets, an unusual techie goal for a cultish music festival held in the remotest of the hilly regions of India.
People such as Kutty are early proponents who believe their foray into funny money is experimental, “I am no expert in the cryptocurrency world but while BTC is the standard, I am very intrigued by Ethereum and blockchain because they clearly seem to be the future of how we use the internet.”
Intrigue counts, but as a musician himself (he is part of two bands, Menwhopause and Still Dirty), he favours Ethereum which allows bespoke contracts that can tilt the music distribution system almost entirely towards artistes, “The internet while giving access to billions of people to art and artists, has also killed orthodox revenue models and created basic ownership issues for the creators,” says Kutty. “Blockchain technology looks like it will change that radically.”
Adds Sumukh Shetty, co-founder at Ezether.com, an Ethereum marketplace: “Smart contracts will mean people will be paying for content through money, instead of paying for it through your attention.”
Underlying the excitement is the missionary, if not revolutionary, spirit by which they are led. Kutty says he doesn’t view cryptocurrency as an investment asset class. “The idea behind accepting cryptocurrency for Ziro Festival is not some elaborate get-rich-quick plan. It’s really about saying, ‘Hey, we believe in this!’ It’s a future where the way we perceive money and currency is going to completely change.”
Sunny Ray, co-founder of BTC exchange Unocoin sees Bitcoins as a natural hedge to the market given its “deflationary nature”. “If you look at Bitcoin prices over the past few years, there seems to be a correlation between negative global news and increased bitcoin prices. Many see it as a form of digital gold,” he says. Between January this year and now, the price of one Bitcoin has risen from about Rs 60,000 to more than Rs 3 lakh.
The star of cryptocurrencies has continuously risen because of their sound economic fundamentals – of supply and demand and no middleman. The success of a shared or distributed ledger depends on how many people are willing to use it, after all. The high hope for cryptocurrencies comes in the wake of governments, banks and financial institutions dysfunctioning.
“It’s pretty clear we are headed for a new world order. I don’t know if it’s the anarcho-punk ideology. That would be far-fetched! But I definitely think that self-sustainability and decentralisation is going to become a way of living. I mean, how much longer are we going to be sold pipe dreams of a better future and be in a situation of zero transparency or accountability. Blockchain seems to be something that will change all of that. And we plan to be part of that ecosystem,” says Kutty.
He may not be anarcho-punk but an altcoin miner tells me a lot of different types of folk are involved in these projects: visionaries and anarchists, but also business-minded people. “Users of crypto are consumers, retailers, merchants. It can allow you to start controlling your own life more and more, where you depend less and less on others, specifically, centralised institutions,” he says, insisting I only identify him as Jack from Goa.
Jack is part of an active meetup group of altcoiners in Goa of “only men — don’t ask me why — and from different professions.” The crew has a fashion photographer, an ex-banker turned crypto trader/reiki master, an augmented reality developer, an ex-journalist/cycling tour entrepreneur, a hypnotist/therapist. They belong to different countries: Canada, Italy, Ukraine, the Netherlands, and India. Calling themselves Jacubo and the Crypto Raiders, they communicate on Messenger, discussing developments of their small investments in projects. They meet once a week at Artjuna Cafe, a well-visited joint in less crowded North Goa. “It’s a fast-growing crypto community. The word should spread, the more the better,” Jack says.
Fuzzy but logic
But investing time and money in mining are not the only ways to participate in the blockchain economy: there is tokenization, says Jack. This is startups using blockchain tech as an accounting innovation to swap middlemen for ledgers shared across several networks of computers, to host crowdfunded sales of their own invented dosh, or the ICO — which some people are seeing as an early sign of excess, a little bubbly, and redolent of the dotcom crash.
Kutty does not see the currency as an entity with roots in notoriety. “It’s cash. If it can buy you things, it will be open to abuse. What you do with it is up to you really.” But he won’t go so far as to, say, calling it a means of distributing global wealth more fairly.
Jack doesn’t shy away from calling Blockchain technology a revolution. “It is in the same league as artificial intelligence or the Internet of Things but Blockchain has an extra revolutionary level as it undermines the institutions of power in our society.”
And if it is any indicator, centralised institutions are trying to work on the double to be part of the new order — orderless order, really. On Monday, US bank JP Morgan, despite its CEO Jamie Dimon’s scepticism over Bitcoin, announced the blockchain-based Interbank Information Network along with Royal Bank of Canada and Australia and New Zealand Banking Corp. It came after a year of development and spending $3 billion on tech, security, cyber capabilities and a potential treasury redesign. Earlier, a consortium of around 70 financial institutions, R3, wanted to create a system like Visa or Swift but it didn’t go so well and they went their separate ways to work on their own systems.
Jack, a father of two, can’t code but the output and opportunities are clear to him. “Do you fully understand how the internet works?” he asks. “Or Facebook? Whatsapp? Your payment with your debit card? How your vote at election time is counted? How processed food is ending up in your fridge and what route it has travelled?”
He answers himself: “Most things we do, experience, eat or drink, etc, we have no clue about. We just accept and participate. We absorb information all day, but only a small fraction of it is essential.”
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Lead image: Nikhil Raj