ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Ethereum: the competitor to Bitcoin which could transform entire industries

With Ethereum being taken up by everyone from Microsoft to singer Imogen Heap, could this new cryptocurrency enjoy top-down success?

When the digital currency Bitcoin was first released in 2009, it divided opinion. Would we really place our trust in a piece of open-source software rather than a bank? Could society reorder itself so that a decentralised, international currency with no one in charge of it could succeed?

Seven years, multiple bubble warnings and one near-disastrous technical hitch later, the answers are still unclear. Bitcoin is now accepted by many online vendors (which has earned it a reputation for being a currency used by criminals) but also by a handful of pubs, Cumbria University’s tuition fees department and the US senator Rand Paul.

The currency is now valued at over $6bn, and though many “altcoin” cryptocurrencies have sprung up to challenge it, none has succeeded. One has come much closer than any other, though: Ethereum, which was launched in the summer of 2015.

Ether, the system’s currency unit, reached a value of $1bn (though it has since dropped slightly from this figure). But its uses are far more complex than Bitcoin’s, and potentially world-changing.

First, some background: cryptocurrencies are based on the idea that a digital ledger of payments, or “blockchain”, can be used as a middleman in financial transactions instead of a bank. The ledger is overseen and maintained by its users, doesn’t claim fees, isn’t tied to a specific country or government, and cannot be censored or mismanaged. In 2013 Vitalik Buterin, a 19-year-old Russian programmer, posted the first proposal for Ethereum on GitHub, a website usually used as a repository for code. He was fascinated by cryptocurrencies and had founded the magazine Bitcoin in 2011 – but now, he argued that the “distributed consensus” offered by blockchains could go far beyond currency.

Ken Kappler, who worked at Ethereum in 2015 and is now head of business development at Ethcore, at tells me that the founders’ early research began in the world of “altcoins” and cryptocurrency but quickly moved on. “It gave way to how generically useful the technology could become. Currency is just one thing we no longer have to rely on central record-keeping for.”

On GitHub, Buterin proposed a “Next-Generation Smart Contract and Decentralised Application Platform”, which would use a blockchain to verify and monitor legal contracts, land registries and anything else that requires an objective, third-party record system. Gavin Wood, the system’s co-creator, has described Ethereum as “one computer for the entire planet”. This is because it does not operate from a single server and is not localised. You can’t turn it off, or change any of the transactions that have already taken place.

It’s a deeply abstract concept, and the ramifications of this type of system are not yet clear, even to its creators. When Wood addressed the first Ethereum developer conference in London last year, he said: “What is Ethereum? We just don’t know.”

Since its launch, Ethereum has become best known for its currency (Kappler tells me the most common misconception is that “it’s all about money”) but it is beginning to forge pathways into other industries. In some cases this has been enabled by industry itself: Microsoft now offers the Ethereum software on its cloud service for use by enterprises and developers. The singer Imogen Heap has released a song for purchase using Ether, and has said she hopes that the service will decentralise the music industry by using smart contracts and payments.

The best way to think of Ethereum, and blockchain technology in general, is as a kind of crypto-law, which can oversee processes we previously entrusted exclusively to human beings. It is “disruptive” in a sense that is rarely true when we describe new technologies, because it has the capacity to replace the industries we use to oversee finance, many aspects of law, and the vending and sale of products.

And yet, as with Bitcoin, Ethereum’s potential is tied to uptake among users. A 2015 Coindesk survey of roughly 4,000 Bitcoin users found that they were overridingly male, 25-34 years old, and living in the US or Europe. This may have changed since, but it demonstrates how new, challenging technologies can be slow to become mainstream.

Blockchain technology relies on customer trust. Both Bitcoin and Ethereum argue that we should trust them more than the human-run institutions we are used to, as human error, bias or corruption can play no part. Yet it may be some time before the average person is willing to take this as gospel truth.

As a result, integration into existing companies may be the quickest route forward for Ethereum. Its uptake by Microsoft is already having a positive impact elsewhere and, crucially, it has increased its overall value. Ironically, for a radically decentralised system that could overturn modern capitalism, Ethereum may find that its early integration into society ends up being top-down. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

This article first appeared in the 08 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war

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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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