The tokenization pioneer and founder and host of Let’s Talk Bitcoin takes Blockleaders on an extraordinary journey through the past, present and future of blockchain, armed only with an insatiable curiosity and a mountain dulcimer…
Adam B Levine can talk. It’s his superpower. He can talk quickly and precisely, with a voice built for radio. He is able to weave in and out of topics, but never loses a narrative thread. This, remember, is the man behind Let’s Talk Bitcoin. Just turn on the mic and off he goes. He has opinions, of course, but he tells me more than once that he is “outcome-based”. He’s not into schilling or baiting. He is, in his own words, a “flow chart guy”. Connecting the dots, seeing the bigger picture, placing events in their historical context – Adam has been around blockchain too long to suffer fools, or get bogged down in techy squabbles.
From where he speaks, he grabs items from the shelves to illustrate his points. “Bitcoin is currently a guitar, but it needs to be more like a dulcimer,” he tells me at one point, taking a dulcimer from his shelf to give me a demonstration. Strangely, the metaphor is apt. But of course, it is. As I said, Adam knows how to talk.
So what has Bitcoin got to do with guitars and dulcimers? I’ll let Adam explain.
“Today you can use Software to make music. It allows you to move – as I see it – from being an operator to being a user. As an operator, you need to train and learn how to operate. But as a user, you can do all the same things but without the depth of knowledge, just press a button. I use an “Ableton Touch” controller, which combined with software lets me create the new sounds and compositions, in the key of my choice, with no learning required. Everything you do sounds good.
I have a mountain dulcimer behind me here, it’s the same thing. It has a diatonic scale, so you can play nearly any combination of notes and it all sounds good, unlike a guitar. A (mountain) dulcimer is a user version compared to a guitar, which you need to study and learn to operate before you can sound good. It’s not that different with Bitcoin: the last five years has been the slow move from an operator model of limited usability to a user model ready for mass consumption, but we’re not quite there yet.”
Packaging for mass consumption is in Adam’s blood. His father founded an environmentally friendly food-service packaging business, and Adam earned his salesman chops (and probably his pork chops) in the family business. He has been packaging ever since, with the transfer of digital ownership a personal obsession. Posting the complex world of blockchain and cryptocurrencies to the ears of listeners, and helping them digest this brave new world in a space misunderstood and largely untouched by the mainstream media, just one of many notable achievements.
“I’ve always been a podcast guy. My training was as an audio engineer. I discovered that I liked creating my own content more than I liked working with other people on theirs. My focus originally was music. I was the lead singer of a band, which broke up after high school. I thought, well if I’m not going to make music myself, then I want to help others make music. But I always enjoyed exploring the varied viewpoints on controversial or new things, which led me to the Podcast space.
Around 2005, I established gamerandy.com and that taught me a lot about building communities- we had a community in the tens of thousands. I really like being a journalist in a place where real journalists fear to tread. Because the act of journalism is the act of going in, looking around, observing what’s happening and telling others about it, right? That was completely absent from the bitcoin space. I started broadcasting in 2011 and had already made three attempts at a Bitcoin podcast before I started Let’s Talk Bitcoin.
Through 2013, there was a popular podcast called The Bitcoin Show with Bruce Wagner that completely imploded in January of 2013. They did a daily video show, had tons of guests, and it was very impressive. But the guy was, allegedly, a creep. Beyond that, he was not a very sophisticated Bitcoin user.
At the time their recommended way to store Bitcoin was in a web wallet. I don’t know all the details, but the wallet was either hacked or the operators ran away with at least some of the money. The jury is out on whether he was part of the scam or another victim of it, but that was basically the end of that.
While it had been hard to find good, non-technical content, after the demise of The Bitcoin Show it was impossible. There was great technical information available on the BitcoinTalk forum and Reddit, but it was a bit too techie for most people. I thought I could bridge the gap between these technical channels and a more mainstream audience.
By spring 2013, there was obvious momentum in the space and I started the Daily Bitcoin Show, which we ran for a week. Andreas Antonopoulos was the last guest we had on that show. The timing couldn’t have been better. By the end of the week, I was totally exhausted, and we received a meaningful offer to invest in the company – which wasn’t a company, it was a podcast. I offered my co-hosts a 20% share of equity, which they declined. So they quit, and I started Let’s Talk Bitcoin with Andreas and Stephanie Murphy the following week. Fast forward six years and we’ve just broadcast episode 390.”
With Let’s Talk Bitcoin regularly pulling in tens of thousands of listeners, by early 2014, Adam made time to focus on building the LTB community, which now operates as a platform for other popular podcasts. “I felt very passionately that there needed to be a community of media to help other podcasts get past that hurdle of the first thousand listeners because lots of podcasts came and went throughout that period without reaching the audience they deserved. We already had a regular listenership, so thought we would run a competition to find new shows. We were floored by the response, receiving nearly 20 pilot episodes. We ended up picking about half the entries that came in, and they formed the core of our network.
So we had the network but we had no money. Since Mastercoin in early 2013, I’d been thinking and talking about the use of tokens to represent things other than money. Originally it was planned as a full blockchain altcoin, but as metalayers like Mastercoin, Counterparty, and Ethereum came into the conversation, it became obvious that we could avoid the cost and worry of maintaining our own blockchain by building on top of Bitcoin. By doing this, we had the best blockchain security available without the need to devote any of our token to paying those miners. Instead, we would distribute a token based on a new kind of proof of work distribution, where we determine what the “work” is and distribute the token based on that, which cost us nothing. If the platform never became valuable, it was just like participating in any other volunteer project. But with a token, if the platform eventually became valuable, those who participated early on, and who collected and stored our token would get something for their past efforts, even if they’d stopped using the platform long ago.
The software we built to enable that vision would become the Tokenly Content Management System, which still powers The LTB Network today. We launched LTB Coin in June 2014. It was the first project of its kind. Ultimately we retired the token after I sold the network in January 2017, swapping it with POET Tokens, which I feel passionate about. It was a great experiment, working our way from early adopters towards scaling for wider adoption. All the challenges we ran into trying to design and functionally administer the rewards program led to Tokenly, which started out as an open source project to build tools for us but has grown substantially from there.”
Mention tokens and most people will think of ICO/STOs and Utility Tokens. To Adam, it boils down to two principals. The first involves raising money and using the token as an excuse; in the second, the token represents a digital transfer of ownership
“The way we deal with ownership in the physical world and how we handle it digitally are completely different. Until blockchain, there was no mechanism for the digital transfer of ownership that was like physically owning an object. Bitcoin changed this for money. That same type of innovation, I came to realize, could be used for other forms of ownership. That is really exciting for me. If you fix this question of transfer of ownership, you solve a lot of problems. That was impossible before blockchain.
With tokens, mostly the question is about money. With ICOs nobody thought they had to pay the cost of compliance, but that meant they didn’t have the benefit of compliance when it came to liability. “I really don’t fault people for going the ICO route. As an entrepreneur, all of the incentives seemed to push you in that direction and investors in the space became so obsessed with the money they were making from speculation, that investment in real projects took more than a little bit of a back seat. The trouble is, the reasons people thought ICOs were “the thing to do” was fundamentally wrong in most of the places it was used.”
For Adam, it’s all about transferrable ownership and unstoppable competition. “Money, equity and other heavily regulated industries are popular but controversial use cases, with most managed by governments who regulate and tightly control points of access. Security Tokens are well defined but difficult from a regulatory viewpoint. Utility Tokens are very vaguely defined and operate in a grey area, often not performing what I consider real utility at all.
But ownership of ‘stuff’ is less controversial. Why not solve that problem and take it from there?”
As Adam has been in the space so long, he has seen the same debates play out over time, but progress is being made, just not at the speed one might like. And he is far from a Bitcoin or decentralization maximalist.
“People don’t care what type of money they have so long as it works when they need it. Parts of the community really fetishize the idea that there is a ‘right kind of money’ that’s empirically better than everything else. I don’t think that’s true. That’s why I’m thrilled that unstoppable competition means we’ll get multiple projects attempting nearly every real opportunity. We’ve already seen this with the multiple and varied approaches to the introduction of stablecoins, with some backed by dollars in secured vaults, some backed by over-collateralizing with cryptocurrency, and even our first official bank-backed-stablecoin coming soon from status quo behemoth JP Morgan. There are right now, at least three ways in which stablecoins are being operated and they’re doing it because they all see different risks which they think are the most important.
I’m entirely outcome oriented. I don’t care how we get there, I only care that we do. Those of us interested in outcomes really don’t have to pick sides, which is a little uncomfortable for those who do.
I feel the same about The Lightning Network. Making Bitcoin more useable can only be a good thing. Ease of use is probably the most important thing we’re still substantially lacking, and whether Lightning is the solution, or just step two of a five-step process, that’s great with me. But I’m skeptical about future claims or timelines to scale. In the past five years, I’ve talked to so many people who have set expectations on the timelines for particular technologies, and been universally wrong.
Maybe blockchains just can’t scale past a certain point, honestly, it doesn’t really matter. I think that if blockchains scale to a certain point beyond which we can’t proceed, then there will be another blockchain. If the “Music” blockchain gets too big and can’t scale for some reason, we’ll just shift towards a more-smaller-blockchains approach and focus on interoperability and standards between them. We might not know exactly how the problem is going to get solved, but someone somehow will get it right. As long as the end result is unstoppable competition, then that’s fine by me.”
Adam has no issue with the existence of multiple cryptocurrencies, saying it is not a zero-sum game. I ask him his opinion on why the community is so entrenched in its opinions, with followers of particular coins never missing an opportunity to needle competitors.
“That’s simple. It’s about money. People get tribal, it’s like putting on a team jersey. They think it helps. They are playing a game that they might think they’re winning, but from the outside, they all look like losers who are just trying to make a sale. Social media incentivises this combative approach because it’s a great way to get exposure and boost follower numbers among people who already agreed with you.”
When he turns to the future, Adam says he is still waiting for the first real blockchain breakthrough. “There are a lot of tools being built that are just for hardcore early adopters. The technological challenges will get solved, and the regulatory problems will be too, one way or another. Bitcoin has made huge progress in the last five years even for people who have never heard of it, just through its very existence. It used to take a week to do a wire transfer with your bank, but now it takes a day. That’s not because of any technical improvement, it was a reaction to Bitcoin. The technology – just by presenting reasonable competition which showed things didn’t have to be the way they’d always been -has already made an impact. The real shift will come when nation-states get involved. Venezuela and Iran are playing around with this because they have to work around banking restrictions. But soon smaller countries will make a move, then a larger country and then all bets will be off.”
Despite being the founder of several companies, and spending the past decade at the vanguard of innovation in the blockchain space, Adam claims to be far from a driven individual. “I’m lazy and ambitious”, he jokes. “You can look back through history and see that our modern world is made up of systems which made sense at the time, but which are completely ridiculous given the current of technology and capabilities. Bitcoin with its neutral platform, unstoppable competition, and revolutionary ownership-transfer mechanism changes, nearly, everything. After more than five years, I just recently started taking weekends off so I’m not going to claim that I work like a lazy person, but I’m outcome oriented, as I’ve said. But in a perfect world, I’d probably do nothing for a long while.”
It’s difficult to imagine Adam just kicking back and doing nothing. At the very least, he would have to find a creative outlet for the thoughts and ideas that come tumbling from his brain and arrange themselves into an enviably ordered pattern of speech. I will leave you with his thoughts on decentralisation as a case in point.
“Decentralisation is more than just a philosophical debate. It matters for robustness of systems, because it makes it so you can take participants out of the ecosystem who might have been critical to a centralised system and the system doesn’t fail, because there is enough redundancy in the system for that to be unimportant.
The question is, does redundancy matter? If it’s money, then it does. If it’s a network of businesses, it matters and you want it to be heavily decentralised. But what if it’s a single-company game like CryptoKitties? This is a centrally operated game run from centralised servers, developed by a centralised company, and if the CryptoKitties company goes away, then no more Kitties.
So it depends on how much control the creator wants. Decentralisation and tokenization are both ways to spread out control to the users of the system, to the benefit to the creator of less responsibility and less importance in the system, which can be either good or bad.
Everything gets co-opted. That’s part of the road we’re walking with any new truly game-changing technology: we start out on the fringe and get more normal, more mundane until one day we look and the world has changed around us.”