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

Harry Styles performing in London on April 11. Photo: Hélène Pambrun
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How Harry Styles’ European tour was transformed into a LGBT-positive safe space

And all thanks to two fans, 50 volunteers and 28,000 pieces of paper.

After 21 dates, 20 cities, 19 suits, 14 countries and one kilt, Harry Styles’s European tour came to a close last night in Dublin. Some of his most dedicated fans attended a handful of dates in a row, organising their own queuing systems, and arranging tributes to the Manchester terror attacks. “Feel free to be whoever you want to be in this room,” Styles said at every gig, always bringing an LGBT flag on to the stage as he performed. As ever, his shows were a always collaboration between artist and audience to create a safe space for teenage girls and LGBT fans.

On this tour, two fans in particular went above and beyond to create a visually striking, affirmational statement. Ksenia, 17, and Luna, 20, came up with the Rainbow Project, a labour-intensive and involved plan to invite those attending the London dates of the tour to participate in a giant rainbow running around the circumference of the O2 Arena. The project involved distributing 14,000 pieces of differently coloured paper and instructions each night to different seat sections: fans were then invited to put the paper over their phone torches during the song “Sweet Creature” to create a rainbow light effect.

Ksenia and Luna tell me they have been fans of Harry's since his One Direction days: in 2014 and 2012 respectively. “We are really proud of how far he’s come,” Luna explains, “from being afraid of what people thought of him, to confidently pulling off wearing a dress!” The two say they were inspired by Harrys support of the LGBT community: “We just wanted to do something for him.”

Such fan projects aren’t new. As the writer Aamina Khan explains, One Direction fans – who are known for collectively organising to win polls, drive obscure songs to become chart hits, or raise money for charities the band have supported in the past – have been organising fan projects around the rainbow flag since 2014. As the presence of such flags became more and more visbile, Styles in particular started engaging with both the symbol and its message: draping flags around him speaking of love and equality to the crowd. Last year, fans brought hundreds of #BlackLivesMatter signs to Harry Styles concerts.

But Ksenia and Luna’s project seems by far the most complex and challenging so far. “It took us three months to prepare the project,” Luna explains. “We had a group of about 25 volunteers for each show who helped us to hand the colours out. Almost everyone in the arena got a colour, so we made 28,000 pieces in total for the two days.”

Aside from the hours and organisation needed to produce, print, cut out and distribute close to 30,000 small pieces of paper, they both feared that the strict security teams at venues like the O2 wouldn’t take too kindly to their plan. “Obviously you are scared that what you planned doesn't work out,” Luna explains. “But we were pretty optimistic.”

“The venue sadly did take 5,000 pieces away from us on the first night, as we needed permission to do the whole thing – which we didn’t know. The next day, the O2 and its venue manager Rachael reached out to us, and we were happy to have official permission. That night everything worked out perfectly and we’ve never seen something more stunning. It left us speechless.”

“Harry creates wonderful safe spaces each night he steps on stage,” they tell me. “We think we speak for everyone when we say that we’re thankful for that.”

Luna says that the inclusive feeling of Harry Styles concerts is a collaboration between both audience and artist:  “He brings a message, and we as fans chose what we can identify with or look up to. The combination of that creates the feeling at a concert.”

The Harry Styles tour has left Europe, but it’s far from over. As it moves on to Australia, Asia and America, more creative fan projects are undoubtedly on the way.

All photos by Hélène Pambrun.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.