Bitcoin Taught Me a Lesson at Austin Airport

Bitcoin Taught Me a Lesson at Austin Airport

The Evolution and Significance of Blockchain Technology in the Digital Age

By Galen Moore

It’s only now, more than two months after Consensus 2023, that I’m able to write about the embarrassing things I experienced at the big tent crypto gathering. I escaped from both incidents without undue pain or loss – and there’s a silver lining. Both made me think hard about why I have stuck around as long as I have in the blockchain industry.

The principle of transacting with minimal information is an important one and (spoiler alert) it doesn’t happen because you used a blockchain.

Embarrassing experience #1: Accidentally interviewing a Fortune 500 CEO

My first embarrassment was on CoinDesk TV, where the handsome George Kaloudis and I had the pleasure of interviewing Franklin Templeton CEO Jenny Jones. This was unexpected: I had no idea $BEN was active in cryptocurrency.

Even more unexpected was what Jones said in the interview. She opened by saying bitcoin is a “distraction” from the “greatest disruption,” blockchain.

Of course, I disagree. Because bitcoin exists, I can transact globally with anyone over the internet, exchanging a minimal amount of information – just as laid out by the cypherpunks when they first questioned the commercial direction of the internet in 1993.

That’s not due to blockchain, the database technology. It’s due to bitcoin, the currency, providing economic incentives that support Bitcoin, the network, keeping my transactions secure and information-minimized.

Of course, I didn’t say any of this to Jones. I’ve been in this industry long enough to know when not to red-pill someone.

But a couple days later, traversing security at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, I found myself “living the questions,” as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke advised. I experienced a minimal-information transaction first-hand, in a way that had nothing to do with bitcoin – and everything to do with bad decisions I made while in Austin, Texas.

Embarrassing experience #2: A special search at the airport

On the last night of Consensus, Axelar hosted a party with Dragonfly Capital. Like all the best side events, it was cozy and the crowd was hand-picked. I met several really smart people. But it was the last night of Consensus, and I was tired. I made my excuses to my co-hosts, and left a little early to watch the Golden State Warriors game.

Sitting at a nearby bar, I started chatting with two women who had secured babysitters and were out for a night on the town. The rest of the night is a bit of a blur. I remember we went to another bar and played darts; I gave my state-issued ID to the bartender as security for the darts.

The night wound on from there through various bars, cars, and apartments in the city of Austin. So much for being tired.

I arrived at the airport at 6 A.M. I got into a very short security line and reached for my wallet – and with startling clarity, I remembered the darts. I had left my ID with that bartender, and I had no idea whether I was going to make my plane due to depart in an hour and a half.

How to go through airport security, with minimal information

At Axelar, we sometimes compare our project to an international air-cargo network. Each blockchain is a sovereign country: some connections require only a bridge and a checkpoint while more sophisticated commerce is transacted via airports, air-traffic control systems, and customs inspectors.

You don’t have to prove who you are to go through the customs equivalent (validators) on a decentralized cross-chain connector like Axelar. Could there be a way for me to get on a plane similarly, without proving my identity? It turned out, there was.

After about 20 minutes, two new uniformed Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel arrived. These two men seemed different from the usual TSA employee. They carried themselves like military officers.

They reviewed what I had in my wallet: a library card, a health insurance card, and a couple of credit cards. They ran my carry-ons through the X-Ray machine and subjected them to an enhanced “swab test,” opening each bag and taking thorough samples inside and out for spectrographic analysis.

Start to finish, it took about 10 minutes to determine I wasn’t any threat. (I won’t offer details, but they weren’t swabbing for Schedule-1 substances, or I’d still be in Texas.) The process was relatively inefficient and my bags were open to scrutiny. It was … a lot like transacting over a public blockchain – that is, one where honest authentication is enforced by economic incentives using a cryptocurrency like bitcoin.

Bitcoin is the ‘swab test’

Until Bitcoin, there was no way to send money over the internet without a bank in between, to permit the transaction. Now, with Ethereum, we can send any payload over a similarly decentralized global network. We can even build super apps that compute permissionlessly cross-chain between Ethereum, Cosmos, and related networks.

That’s not because of the “underlying technology” of blockchain. It’s because of the way assets like BTC, ETH, and AXL incentivize decentralized validation through mining and staking.

It’s cumbersome and, yeah, often it’s distracting. Using the decentralized web means I have to submit my transaction to a security swab test by an open network of validators. And the question remains: why opt for that when trusted institutions are available?

There are clear answers to that question today, beginning with repressive regimes and currency crises, and extending through any digital transaction where minimal information exchange is desired.

Has the hype surpassed those use cases, to the point where it becomes a distraction? Almost certainly, it has. But for those of us who believe the internet is young, and that this ability to transact with minimal information will be an important part, it seems worth working on for the long term.

Edited by Daniel Kuhn.

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