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The elephant in the room at San Francisco Blockchain Week

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SAN FRANCISCO—Meltem Demirors and Jill Carlson, who host the podcast “What Grinds My Gears,” are both known presences on the crypto speaker circuit. And for good reason: They speak well on the topic of digital finance and investment. 

They think crypto and traditional finance have more in common than some crypto advocates would like to admit.

At times, the main stage at San Francisco Blockchain Week felt like an extension of the exhibition hall, with sponsors leveraging “fireside chats” to pitch their products. The steady stream of infomercials was interrupted by Demirors’ and Carlson’s podcast on Friday, one of the few times during SFBW’s Epicenter in which someone took so much stage time to discuss problems instead of just the latest platforms.

The primary issue is custody. When someone else is holding your crypto, it’s fulfilling part of the primary function of a bank. As Demirors said, “All the most profitable businesses in our industry are banks.” And Carlson noted later, “Most people in crypto are totally comfortable putting their assets in what are basically banks.”

It seems to be at odds with the original ethos of Bitcoin, which formed as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers were dying in October 2008.

“I got into this space because I was excited that we could build this whole alternative to the existing financial ecosystem,” said Carlson. “In reality, what we’ve created resembles the old system, only with fewer risk metrics and models, with fewer controls around it.”

Moreover, she indicated that they’re not necessarily any more transparent. “Don’t tell me that just because something is happening on-chain makes it transparent to the average retail trader, consumer, etc,” she said. “The average person does not have the ability to go in and conduct the chainalysis that’s necessary to understand what’s going on in the system” any more than they could understand JP Morgan’s balance sheet.

And, just like a Wall Street institution, some crypto platforms, including exchanges, could be deemed too big to fail. It happened before as the Ethereum voted to nullify the DAO smart contract failure lest a hefty chunk of ETH be stolen. “What happens if Coinbase gets hacked and fully six percent of the Bitcoin supply is stolen?” she asked “Do we roll back the Bitcoin blockchain?” It wouldn’t be totally unlike a bailout.

In the end, Carlson took it back to basics: “To me, a lot of this conversation, though, is a more existential question of just, ‘Do people actually want to be their own banks and in what context do they?’”

Demirors polled the audience. A lot of people, here in the heart of Cryptoland, just don’t care. 

It begs the question: How many out there still do?

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