Tokens considered harmful

| 4 minutes read

In 2017 I boarded a special plane. My second flight to New York City with Lufthansa from Berlin Tegel Airport via Frankfurt to Newark Airport. It was just hours before that year's Consensus conference in Time Square's Marriott Marquis would take place and as the product manager of BigchainDB, I had no idea what I had gotten myself into.

I landed real "poor but sexy" by boarding a direct bus shuttle to Manhattan from Newark. And then what followed were a few days of total craziness.

Already at seven in the morning of the show's first day, our booth got drowned in visitors. "They're crazy!" was all my colleague had to contribute to the crowd's engagement.

And soon a personal problem I couldn't have anticipated was the fragility of my voice becoming softer as it started fading from the constant screaming-level I had to retain by communicating on the Marriott's trade floor.

UASF (long: "user activated soft fork")

I remember these days as specially weird. Particularly, finding myself in an elevator full of UASF-wearing Bitcoin maxis, or to be entangled in rather casual conversations with Bushwick's nouveau rich.

Also, there's this party night on a skyscraper's rooftop. And some dialogues:

I asked him what he does for a living, and he answered that he worked for the people throwing the party.

"Ah, really? And what do you do?"; I followed up.

"I work for EOS!" he claimed.

"EOS?"

"Yeah, EOS, the Ethereum killer."

Another memory is later, when she pointed to a guy and said: "That's him, that's the DAO hacker!"

Most of it, just blurry memories today.

But what truly happened during those days was the discovery of the cryptosphere new favorite toy: tokens. All the summer, they had been the rage. They were confirmed through Bitcoin's steady climb and cemented in to history those days Ethereum's price simply started exploding.

Tokens, they called them, and suddenly everything looked like a nail. It did to me too. And it was hard to get at first.

"What to make of them?" I thought. "Tokens? Coins? And for what?" Those days, my mind got stuck finding parallels to Bitcoin. Those days it started wandering. "So, if we want to have tokens for another project but Bitcoin: Wouldn't it mean that we'd either have to repurpose the Proof of Work algorithm or invent another utility delivering algorithm?"

Months later, I found myself trying to model a utility token. It just seemed logical: I was an engineer, and here was a tool that could help me to engineer more.

But it came different than I expected.

Given how galvanized we were, we pivoted the company. But contrary to my expectations, we didn't start designing our software to encompass tokens. In fact, noone else did either.

I started looking around, and all I saw were tokens. Tokens tokens tokens. Every investor wanted them; many tech people seemed cool with them too. So what could be wrong?

But nobody really got what we were supposed to do with them. Sure, there were occasionally brilliant moments that led to interesting designs. Case in point, TCRs (long: "token curated registries"). But even after months, everything had remained how I had initially observed it.

A token's first principle existence wasn't meant to exponentiate engineering. Instead, I and others found myself observing waves of VCs pushing for tokenization with seemingly no reason but to collect funds. Suddenly, what I thought of as an engineer's tool became a framework for flipping wealth from poor to rich overnight.

"Just launch a token; use our SAFT. 10 easy steps to ICO."

I tried going along with it. After all, what could be so bad? But the dust stirred up those days didn't settle, and tokens didn't end up making sense. I mean, they did: But only in a very narrow engineering sense. Super tough engineering, designing utility machines. A concept business-types weren't interested in or capable of seeing at the time. Maybe not capable of seeing today.

And so, when I saw that we put the token before the product: I quit.


In 2021, most tokens are still speculative nonsense. Most companies launch a token and then try to build a product - many fail to build a product. Many fail to incorporate their token in a meaningful way. Don't be those companies.

Think rationally and resist forced tokenization. Take a critical stance.

Think logically, remove your ego and most importantly: don't let your capital (desires) influence your engineering decisions. Code is speech and you are capable of more than just increasing your personal wealth.

Also: Your token doesn't have utility just because you say so.

You can be braver. Just build what needs building and ignore the bs.

Do what's good and reasonable - for everyone. And not only for those that hold the token.

Because tokens in software design considered harmful.