While barriers are growing for the unbanked and underbanked in day-to-day life, they’re shrinking in the world of cryptocurrency. In this article, Coinsource CEO Sheffield Clark gives an overview of the digital economy.
We need to admit it: Blockchain and cryptocurrency have a learning curve. Even a cursory explanation of the technology and its underpinnings can set heads spinning, and more than one potential investor has fled when confronted with the field’s esoteric vocabulary. And yet despite the forbidding reputations of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, in practice, they can prove more accessible, more democratic, and more egalitarian than the hip new restaurant across the road.
All over the United States, cashless businesses, mostly restaurants, are opening their doors. You can usually recognize these businesses from their sleek designs — lots of white walls and unpainted wood — their Square or Stripe readers, and their lack of cash registers. A visit can feel like a trip to the future, but the sad reality is that these businesses leave millions stuck in the past. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) estimates that 8.4 million households, representing more than 20 million people, were unbanked in the United States last year. Unbanked Americans have to pay to cash checks, cannot transfer funds electronically via phones, have no savings account, and frequently take payday loans. Cashless restaurants add insult to a long list of injuries.
An idealized blockchain world?
While barriers are growing for the unbanked and underbanked in day-to-day life, they’re shrinking in the world of cryptocurrency. While making a digital payment remains the most common way to obtain cryptocurrency, it’s far from the only way; you can buy it with cash and hold it in a wallet even if your household doesn’t possess a computer. Just as importantly, investment in crypto is democratic in ways few other investments are. Real estate investment is potentially lucrative, but entering that market requires you to be an accredited investor with hundreds of thousands in your bank or on your paychecks. And even should you have a poor or nonexistent credit score, the crypto community will not turn you away.
I don’t intend to paint an idealized portrait of the blockchain world; it still has growing to do. There’s the problem of communicating the value of crypto and the necessity of blockchain; the language of the field remains difficult. Perhaps more importantly, there’s the issue of scams. Just as coin clipping — discreetly and illegally cutting away gold or silver from coins — threatened English currency in the seventeenth century, so dofraudulent coin offerings and other scams today imperil the crypto economy. While I don’t think today’s scammers should be hanged, drawn, and quartered like the coin clippers of yore, I welcome the first steps that have been made towards regulation of the market. New York state’s BitLicense, for example, can help prove the reliability and trustworthiness of blockchain firms; if cryptocurrency is to prove itself to the general public, the general public — including the unbanked — must be able to trust it.
As a colleague recently wrote, it took 50 years for credit cards to achieve their present near-ubiquity. When credit cards first appeared, they were little understood and faintly disreputable; now, of course, most people hold at least one. Blockchain and cryptocurrency are heading in the same direction as credit cards and, as befits our fast-paced era, they’re moving much more quickly than their plastic predecessors. Whatever the proprietors of hip restaurants might believe, we’re not yet in a cashless society, and the payment industry has made a few mistakes on the way there. Credit card identity theft remains a problem, even though most U.S. cards now come with EMV chip cards that provide increased security to consumers. But tech should also take a lesson from the slow implementation of chips in U.S. cards: European cardholders had the improved technology two decades before Americans gained this new way of safeguarding their wallets. The advanced cryptography at the root of cryptocurrency obviates many of the security issues that have plagued credit cards, but there are still lessons to learn. Blockchain pioneers must learn from their card-issuing forebears’ mistakes and strive for fast global delivery of improvements. So far, blockchain is as nimble as anyone could hope. Despite the initial bad press, no one considers bitcoin the black market currency anymore; it’s entered the public consciousness far faster than cards ever managed.
Blockchain’s foundational vision is one of inclusion and accessibility: it should work equally well for any person, in any place, and in any circumstance. Blockchain is a powerful financial and economic tool, but it’s important we do not forget its moral vision. It’s vital that we continue to adhere to the first principles of this transformative technology. The world of cryptocurrency should be safe, open, and welcome to all.
NOTE: This article originally appeared in the December issue of online magazine for enterprise developers, JAXenter.