The Edge Episode 14: Blockchain for the People

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You hear about blockchain everywhere: social media, the news, the guy next door. Some say that in a few years, everyone will use it for everything, much like the internet. But right now we’re in the early days, and it’s pretty Wild West. (Think: early ’90s internet.) Laura and Leah talk to Medha Kothari, a Berkeley alum and founder of she256, a non-profit promoting diversity in blockchain, about what blockchain is and why it has the potential to be a fairer technology than the ones we’ve already built.

Show Notes:

This episode was written and hosted by Laura Smith and Leah Worthington and produced by Coby McDonald.

Special thanks to Pat Joseph, Margie Cullen, and Medha Kothari. Art by Michiko Toki and original music by Mogli Maureal.

Transcript:

LEAH WORTHINGTON: Hello, Laura.

LAURA SMITH: Hello, Leah.

LEAH: So I don’t know if you’ve ever walked through Sproul Plaza on a busy day.

LAURA: Yes, it is the place on campus where you’re most likely to be attacked by someone wanting you to join their sorority.

[laughs]

LEAH: Yeah, it’s basically UC Berkeley’s most heavily trafficked entrance, and if you’ve been there, you’re probably familiar with the leafleters. Which is the proper term for those who are trying to hand you a flyer as you walk past. Sproul Plaza is famous for the flyers and the flyer-ers. In fact, Laura, did you know that it was people handing out leaflets there that sparked the entire free speech movement?

LAURA: Wow!

LEAH: Yeah!

LAURA: That makes me feel like I should be less annoyed when they try to hand me flyers.

LEAH: You know, most of these flyers aren’t going to spark a revolution. They might offer discounted pizza slices or encourage you to rush a sorority or something. But for one woman, one student, Medha Kothari, one of those flyers actually changed her life.

MEDHA KOTHARI: I think I was a sophomore, maybe a late freshman at the time. But I got flyered by Blockchain at Berkeley had no idea what blockchain was, had maybe heard of Bitcoin. But this was before the hype of 2017, so I just thought it was like Venmo or something, like I don’t know, it was like internet money.

LEAH: I should say: Blockchain at Berkeley is kind of like THE blockchain hub of the East Bay. So basically a place for innovation and education about blockchain technology. And before you get stressed out, blockchain is, if you’re still confused about it, basically a technology that decentralizes the exchange of assets so that transactions of any kind can take place without an intermediary.

LAURA: So, if I want to sell my couch, I could sell it to someone directly, without having to go through eBay or Craigslist or something like that?

LEAH: Exactly. You can share anything of value—not just a couch—with anyone. And it’s all encrypted and coded and such to make it secure. OK so, back to our story: So Medha was like, what’s this new internet money thing? She got this flyer and didn’t really know what it was, but she was intrigued and she decided to go to the info session.

MEDHA: And I was just blown away, like, the students that were talking weren’t really talking about a tech club on campus; they were talking and selling this entire vision of the world that’s decentralized, transparent, open. And like talking about, obviously, like cryptocurrencies. And I just thought it was so fascinating.

LEAH: At the time, Medha wasn’t feeling particularly engaged or inspired by her classes. But something about this blockchain thing, and the people she met, drew her in.

MEDHA: And everyone I met there was just so quirky and weird and multi-dimensional, that I was like, “Okay, well, they seem like really smart people, maybe I should look into this.”

LEAH: She fell down the rabbit hole… into the cryptosphere.

LAURA: Not unlike what you and I have done the last few weeks, Leah.

LEAH: It’s true. We’ve kind of been taking a crash course in blockchain. My roommates have heard all about it. And it’s been really fascinating… and totally confusing.

LAURA: Yeah. We thought we knew what blockchain was, but we were wrong.

LEAH: Actually, did we think we knew what blockchain was? I kind of don’t think we did.

LAURA: Yeah, who are we kidding. We had no idea what it was.

[laughs]

LEAH: We knew nothing. And now?

LAURA: Maybe a tiny bit more.

LEAH: Now we know a little bit more! And I never thought I’d say this but…I’m actually pretty excited about blockchain.

[THEME MUSIC]

LAURA: This is The Edge, a podcast produced by California magazine and the Cal Alumni Association. I’m your host, Laura Smith.

LEAH: And I’m your other host, Leah Worthington.

LAURA: Today we’re talking about blockchain—why it matters, and how know-nothings like us can dip our toes in and not become irrelevant out-of-touch dinosaurs.

LEAH: No pressure.

LEAH: And one more thing before we get back to the show. We’d love to hear from you. So if you like us, tell your friends, subscribe, and as Laura likes to say, if you like us, leave a review, and if you don’t, keep your feelings to yourself. Just kidding. You can also leave us a review. 

[MUSIC OUT]

LEAH: So back to Medha. As we mentioned, she started attending meetings put on by the organization Blockchain at Berkeley, which I should add, is actually the first university-based ecosystem of its kind. They teach classes, consult with companies, and host one of the biggest blockchain conferences in the country that’s attended by thousands of people. So anyway, Medha quickly decided she wanted to be part of the group. She started studying blockchain with a fervor she’d never applied to her regular studies.

MEDHA: And I like read the Bitcoin white paper, the Ethereum white paper, all of that, and just got like, genuinely really interested. And I was definitely one of those Berkeley students who didn’t care that much about classes, and just got really deep into this space this way. So that kind of just became like my family, like where I would spend all my free time, and a lot of my friends came from that organization too.

LEAH: And she was hooked! Both on blockchain and on the new community she discovered. But there was something about this community that was gnawing at her a bit. Something that came to a head for her at a meetup she went to in Berkeley.

MEDHA: There were 60 people there. And it was a lot of fun. And then, you know, like, after an event, people are mingling and like drinking and eating pizza and talking to her doing that. But then we like, look around and we realized, like, we’re the only three women there were like, how is this possible? Like, this stuff is so cool. And like, we’re at Cal. Like, there’s a lot of people, a lot of women I think, would be interested in learning about this stuff. So like, where are the women? So we were like, ‘Okay, cool. Why don’t we host a small event like a workshop, like intro to blockchain fundamentals, with all the women in STEM type organizations on campus, like a small maybe 30-person classroom and see if there’s any interest.’

LEAH: But then they thought, maybe they should be even more ambitious than Blockchain at Berkeley. So Medha and the other women wondered: What if they hosted their own conference, one aimed at women and people of color—people who have been historically left out of the technology industry?

LAURA: So did they?

LEAH: Yeah, they did. They called it she256. And it really took off. In fact, it was so successful that they decided they should keep it going. She256 the conference became she256 the non-profit which also had the goal of promoting diversity in blockchain.

LAURA: Ok that sounds really great. But I think we need to back up here and talk a little more about what blockchain is.

LEAH: Yeah, you’re totally right. And thankfully for us, she256 created a beginners guide just for people like you and me.

LAURA: Blockchain for dummies. And there’s a link to it in our show notes if you, our listeners, would like to take a look yourself. It’s really helpful.

LEAH: Yeah. In fact, everything I’m about to tell you is courtesy of what I learned from them. So according to she256’s beginner’s guide, blockchain is basically an encrypted, decentralized register or ledger of transactions.

LAURA: You lost me.

LEAH: Yeah, I lost myself. Why don’t we just let Medha take a stab at it.

MEDHA: A blockchain in its essence is basically just a data structure. So, it’s like a public ledger. You can imagine, like, you know when you have a store, and you’re writing down every transaction that goes through your store, and who bought what? It’s basically that, but it’s digital and public.

LEAH: So we should be really clear here: blockchain isn’t just about money. It can also be used for things like voting or sharing encrypted information. Not all of this is happening yet, but theoretically. But money, in this case, cryptocurrency, is currently the widest use of blockchain technology and also a really good way to understand how it works. So let’s say you, Laura, want to send $100 bucks to your friend—me—electronically. How would you do it?

LAURA: I guess nowadays I’d use Venmo.

LEAH: Right. But Venmo is just a convenient, high-tech way of sending money the old way, meaning from your bank to someone else’s bank. And that’s how most money is sent around the world, via banks or another third party, like the Venmo app.

LAURA: So like a middleman?

LEAH: Right. And that’s the whole thing. With blockchain the middleman is gone, and instead, transactions are verified and logged by a network of computers, called nodes.

LAURA: OK so that’s the decentralized part—there’s no corporate or government overlord.

LEAH: Right. Instead of some overlord saying “I do declare that you have sent Leah $100,” a whole bunch of people—or, computers, really—all say, “We do declare that you have sent Leah $100. And we’re putting that transaction in our permanent, unalterable record.” So you know with national currencies and banking there are all sorts of equity problems. For example, you have access to the U.S. dollar but a lot of people don’t.

MEDHA: The problem with the current banking system right now is that you don’t really have any other options. You’re either using the US dollar, or you’re not. And you’re usually disadvantaged if you’re not able to access dollars, because it’s like the most stable, strongest currency.

LAURA: So it’s kind of returning the financial power to the people by essentially saying, we don’t need your government-controlled currency. We’re not going to play by your rules, we’re going to make our own. Here’s a coin, I shall call it doge.

LEAH: Haha yeah. And by “doge” you are of course referring to the cryptocurrency that began as kind of a joke but has now really taken off.

LAURA: And is being promoted by Elon Musk as … I don’t know… the currency of the future?

LEAH: Something like that. 

LAURA: OK but part of the reason why I use a bank and the U.S. dollar is because it seems safe. Do I really want a huge group of people knowing how I’m spending my money?

LEAH: Great question. So first of all, i’s encrypted, so no one knows it’s “you.” You’re just a number, Leah.

LAURA: Ouch, Leah. But how can we trust that all these nameless people will keep an accurate record of the register?

LEAH: OK, this part is really complicated. But all you really need to know is that … so changes to the ledger are visible to everyone, and transactions are only verified if all parties agree. And once they do, once all the computers in the network validate the transaction happened and that it’s legit, then it’s published to the permanent record and can never be edited again. (Which is why it’s called blockchain—it’s turned into a block and it’s added to a chain of transactions that are permanent and unalterable.) If you want a longer explanation of how this works, check out the article called “WTF is the Blockchain” in our show notes.

LAURA: This is still so abstract to me, I don’t understand it at all. It’s like, how do they know like … I don’t even understand what I don’t understand!

LEAH: I know…

[MUSIC BREAK]

LAURA: Let me just see if I’m getting this. So basically, there are security measures in place to make sure nobody tampers with the data. But what about the other issues with safety? I use banks because I feel confident that my money is safe there—that no one will take it, but also that if I put ten dollars in, it will still be ten dollars tomorrow. But with cryptocurrencies, I hear about these wild value fluctuations. Like, sometimes it makes people really rich. But mostly, it seems like a way you could lose a lot of money fast.

LEAH: Yeah that’s a really reasonable concern. And I certainly don’t want to bill myself as any sort of expert. But, you know, lest we make it sound like blockchain is some kind of techno-utopia, it’s not. Cryptocurrencies ARE incredibly unstable. And people have lost millions of dollars. For every dogecoin millionaire, there are thousands of people who lost it all. This is a big concern and something that people are actively talking about and working on. In fact, I just read about something called “stablecoins,” which are a digital currency that are apparently linked to an underlying asset, like some kind of national currency or gold or some other physical standard, to try to make the coin more stable. But yeah, the hope is that cryptocurrency can be stable, can be the currency of the future. At least according to some people.

So let’s set aside cryptocurrency for a moment and get back to the big picture: blockchain. Like I mentioned earlier, blockchain technology isn’t just for banking or cryptocurrencies. People are figuring out how to use it for anything that might need a public, anonymized ledger. Like … social media! Instead of having some company like Facebook or Whatsapp or Instagram governing our communications—

LAURA: Aren’t all those apps owned by Facebook? 

LEAH: Yeah they are, which is part of the problem. So when Facebook makes a decision about privacy or what gets featured on their site and how, it has huge implications, and they’re not always in your interest. And why do we want one company to have that much power anyway?

LAURA: A tech company like that might even unwittingly shape an election! And screw up democracy!

LEAH: [gasps] Exactly. So, people are creating new, decentralized social spaces, which can be seen as a reaction against a social media monopoly. So, for example, in 2016 two Berkeley grads named Ankit Bhatia and Robert Giometti created Sapien, a blockchain-based social network. The whole platform—advertising, content, etc.—is supposed to be controlled and regulated and supported by the users, instead of the big tech overlords. And also the users can reward each other for quality content and promote each other by sending each other cryptocurrency. Or something like that.

LAURA: That sounds way better than “likes.” What are those worth? Nothing!

LEAH: Well they reward your dopamine receptors, which is valuable to the tech companies who profit from your addiction … but anyways … here’s another way blockchain is being used. This one’s kind of surprising.

MEDHA: A lot of creatives and artists and musicians come into this space, who had maybe never interacted with crypto or like really tech before, but are now able to use it to develop their work and get fairly compensated, which is amazing.

LEAH: So artists and art dealers are increasingly using it as a secure way to buy and sell digital art. You may have heard of NFTs?

LAURA: As in the cat memes that are selling for millions of dollars?

LEAH: Yeah cat memes are really hot right now. I mean, I guess they’ve always been pretty hot. But what NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, allow people to do is create a sort of “digital certificate of authenticity” for their work. So, the NFT itself is basically just a unique string of numbers that says “I verify that this digital illustration or song or cat meme is the original and has value and can’t be replicated,” which is important because it’s made it possible to distinguish the original from knock-off copies. And the idea is that creators can have more control over their work—not only does it give them proof of ownership, but it also allows them to more easily sell their art, using blockchain and crypto technology. Instead of just being ripped off all the time.

LAURA: That’s pretty cool.

LEAH: Did that all make sense to you, by the way?

LAURA: It actually did, and it made more sense than it ever has before.

LEAH: Great! Oh my god, Laura, you flatter me.

LAURA: I know.

LEAH: It’s also being used for privacy purposes, like for securely sending medical files or transferring deeds for property ownership—or co-ownership. The possibilities are really endless in our increasingly connected digital world.

MEDHA: Everything in crypto right now is an experiment. Nothing has been battle-tested with over millions of people. Like, it’s a very new industry. But it’s kind of like what the internet was in the 80s and 90s. You know, like, nobody knew what the actual use-case was for it.

LEAH; And trying to explain why blockchain is useful now is probably like trying to explain why the internet was going to be useful back in the early 90s. 

LAURA: It would have been lost of me then and it probably still is lost on me.

LEAH: Exactly.

[MUSIC BREAK]

LAURA: OK but, it all still feels like it’s too complicated for your average person to get involved in. Like are ordinary people going to be able to understand this concept and use it?

LEAH: Well, first of all, you and I don’t need to understand the technology behind the internet to be able to use it right?

LAURA: Well, that’s for sure.

LEAH: We never did, we never will, but it doesn’t really matter. But still, people like Medha—she does want more people to get their hands dirty and really get into the tech of blockchain. Because there’s an opportunity for people to shape what it’s gonna look like in the future.

LAURA: Yeah that makes sense. I’m just thinking about those of us who might not be so tech-savvy.

LEAH: Well what Medha says is this really isn’t as daunting as it might seem. In fact, she told me about an event she256 did with middle schoolers

LAURA: Oh man. That sounds challenging.

LEAH: You might be surprised!

MEDHA: We invited like 40 middle schoolers from around the area. We gave them like a one-hour intro to blockchain that was like super basic just so that they like had a lay of the land. And then we gave them a one-hour intro to Figma, which is like a design tool, just because it was a design-a-thon. And then we gave them a prompt, which was, “If you were to design a wallet for a teenager, like a crypto wallet for a teenager, that was going to receive their first crypto, instead of their first credit card, how would you do it?” And again, these kids had never used crypto before, didn’t know what a wallet was, like anything. That was like their prompt. And it was insane, like how much they could grasp at such a young age. I feel like they were some of the most creative, like, they had some of the most creative ideas in crypto that I’ve ever seen. And they were literally like, nine or 10 years old.

LAURA: Wow! OK then.

LEAH: Yeah, I know. And Medha says that accessibility is a huge part of blockchain’s ethos. They really want kids to get involved. She says that there is a community surrounding blockchain, and people are really open to talking to each other and teaching each other and bringing each other in.

MEDHA: We really do believe that like, as much as exposing more women and underrepresented minorities in the space is important, we also need to find the ones that are already in here. Because if you look at venture capital in general, it’s so sad. Like there was a study done, where they found out that in 2020, 97.3 percent of all venture funding went to men, which means women only got 2.3 percent of all venture funding, which is in the billions of dollars. Which is insane. So we’re like we need to change that in crypto, which is why we started this experiment. And we raised a small fund and are now like, yeah, investing in female-run companies

LEAH: And Medha started she256 for exactly that reason—to invest more in women in crypto. They’re currently distributing checks of $25-75,000 to some 10-15 female-run companies. But they hope to do a lot more and are always on the lookout for people who share their values and want to build a more inclusive and equitable blockchain ecosystem.

MEDHA: Crypto is really like what you make of it. And so if you’re part of those communities, that’s what you’ll hear, but if you are part of other communities, you can really choose what communities and what ideals you want to go by.

[MUSIC BREAK]

LAURA: OK Leah, so where’s this all headed? Are we gonna all be living in the blockchain or something?

LEAH: Honestly you’re asking the wrong person. But Medha and a lot of other people are predicting that, like the internet, soon it will be ubiquitous. Kids will be like, “wait, so you didn’t have blockchain when you were going up??? How did you do anything??”

MEDHA: I’m not going to be one of those like crazy crypto enthusiasts who are like, “everyone needs to understand crypto, like everyone needs to use it, it’s going to benefit everyone’s life.” But I do think it’s one of those things that everyone should have a cursory overview of, so that when it takes the world by storm, which I think it will, you have some like baseline understanding of it, and whether you want to get involved or not. You know, like you shouldn’t not get involved in something because you don’t know anything about it. Instead, you should actively choose to not get involved after having kind of understood it, if that makes sense.

LAURA: There will be “Before Blockchain” and “After Blockchain.” And being born “Before Blockchain” will make you seem like a dinosaur.

LEAH: Exactly. But Medha doesn’t think it’s too late for us dinosaurs. She says the industry’s still young, and she wants all of us, ALL of us, to be part of shaping a better future.

MEDHA: I think my worst fear is that we’re going to repeat the same mistakes that like traditional finance and traditional tech industries have kind of done, which is like not care about DEI from the beginning. And then you see decades later, like this, like, really scary divide between who’s building these products, who’s using it, and where the wealth is distributed.

LEAH: In case you didn’t know, DEI stands for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

MEDHA: But I’m pretty, I guess, like, bullish on crypto just because it’s so, so new, it’s so nascent, that, like the industry has only been around for just over a decade. So I really do believe that if we make changes now, and if we care about DEI, from the beginning, we can make changes that hopefully persist for decades to come, which is why I work on she256. I think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done but I’m just happy that the space has changed a lot from the five years that I’ve been in it.

[MUSIC]

LAURA: This is The Edge, brought to you by California magazine and the Cal Alumni Association. I’m Laura Smith.

LEAH: And I’m Leah Worthington.

LAURA: This episode was produced by Coby McDonald, with support from Pat Joseph and Margie Cullen. Special thanks to Medha Kothari. Original music by Mogli Maureal.

LEAH: And, as promised, a special shout-out to everyone who threw us a vote for Discover Pods Awards Best Technology and Science Pod! Thank you: Julia, Juan, Marisa, Paras, Becca, Michael, Vince, Albert, Graham, John, and everyone else. You all rock.

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