Impressions from the Consensus conference, Austin 2022

By Johannes Ernst


This past weekend I went to the Consensus conference in Austin. I hadn’t been to another, so I can’t easily compare this year with previous years. But here are my impressions, in random order:

  • The show was huge. Supposedly 20,000 in-person attendees. Just walking from one presentation to another at the other end of the conference took a considerable amount of time. And there were other locations distributed all over downtown Austin.

  • Lots and lots of trade show booths with lots of traffic.

  • In spite of “crypto winter”, companies still spent on the trade show booths. (But then, maybe they committed to the expense before the recent price declines)

  • Pretty much all sessions were “talking heads on stage”. They were doing a good job at putting many women on. But only “broadcast from the experts to the (dumb) audience”? This feels out of touch in 2022, and particularly because web3/crypto is all supposed to be giving everyday users agency, and a voice. Why not practice what you promote, Consensus? Not even an official hash tag or back channel.

  • Frances Haugen is impressive.

  • No theme emerged. I figured that there would be one, or a couple, of “hot topics” that everybody talked about and would be excited about. Instead, I didn’t really see anything that I hadn’t heard about for some years.

  • Some of the demos at some of the booths, and some of the related conversations were surprisingly bad. Without naming names, for example, what would you expect if somebody’s booth promises you some kind of “web3 authentication”? What I won’t expect is that the demo consists of clicking on a button labeled “Log in with Google”, and when I voiced surprise, handwaved about something with split keys, without being able to explain, or show, it at all.

  • I really hate it if I ask “what does the product do?”", and the answer is “60,000 people use it”. This kind of response is of course not specific to crypto, but either the sales guy doesn’t actually know what the product does – which happens surprisingly often – or simply doesn’t care at all the somebody asked a question. Why are you going to trade shows again?

  • The refrain “it’s early days for crypto” is getting a bit old. Yes, other industries have been around for longer, but one should be able to see a few compelling, deployed solutions for real-world problems that are touching the real world outside of crypto. Many of those that I heard people pitch were often some major distance away from being realistic. For example, if somebody pitches tokenizing real estate, I would expect them to talk about the value proposition for, say, realtors, how they are reaching them and converting them, or how there is a new title insurance company based on blockchain that is growing very rapidly because it can provide better title insurance at much lower cost. Things like that. But no such conversation could be heard – well, at least not by me – and that indicates to me that the people pitching this haven’t really really encountered the market yet.

  • An anonymous crypto whale/investor – I think – who I chatted with over breakfast so much confirmed this: he basically complained that so many pitches he’s getting are on subjects that the entrepreneurs basically know nothing about. So real domain knowledge is missing for too many projects. (Which would explain many things, including why so many promising projects have run out of steam when it is time to actually deliver on the lofty vision),

  • The crypto “market” still seems to mostly consist of a bunch of relatively young people who have found a cool new technology, and are all in, but haven’t either felt the need to, nor have been successful at applying it to the real world. I guess billions of dollars of money flowing in crypto coins allowed them to ignore this so far. I wonder whether this attitude can last in this “crypto winter”.

  • But this is also a great opportunity. While 90% of what has been pitched in web3/crypto is probably crap and/or fraudulent (your number may be lower, or higher), it is not 100% and some things are truly intriguing. My personal favorites are DAOs, which have turned into this incredible laboratory for governance innovations. Given that we still vote – e.g. in the US – in largely the same way as hundreds of years ago, innovation in democratic governance has been glacial. All of a sudden we have groups that apply liquid democracy, and quadratic voting, and weigh votes by contributions, and lots of other ideas. It’s like somebody turned on the water in the desert, and instead of governance being all the same sand as always, there are now flowers of a 1000 different kinds that you have never seen before, blooming all over. (Of course many of those will not survive, as we don’t know how to do governance differently, but the innovation is inspiring.)

In personal view, the potential of crypto technologies is largely all about governance. The monetary uses should be considered a side effect of new forms of governance, not the other way around. Of course, almost nobody – technologist or not – has many thoughts on novel, better forms governance, because we have so been trained into believing that “western style democracy” cannot be improved on. Clearly, that is not true, and there are tons of spaces that need better governance than we have – my favorite pet peeve is the rules about the trees on my street – so all innovations in governance are welcome. If we could govern those trees better, perhaps we could also have a street fund to pay for their maintenance – which would be a great example for a local wallet with a “multisig”. Certainly it convinces me much more than some of the examples that I heard about at Consensus.

I think the early days are ending. The crypto winter will have a bunch of projects die, but the foundation has been laid for some new projects that could take over the world overnight, by leading with governance of an undergoverned, high-value space. Now what was your’s truly working on again? :-)