Hello! The goal of this article is to give a recap of Devcon4, especially for folks that weren’t there and aren’t deeply connected to the Ethereum community. We’ll look at:
- What happens outside of Devcon (“Off Devcon”)
- How the Ethereum ecosystem sees their community as powerful and defensible
- Other communities that Ethereum is interacting with
- Specific content from Devcon
(Note: Usually this “trip report” would usually just be sent to internal folks at my work: MIT’s DCI. This is an attempt by me to continue to be as transparent as possible. Open-source all the things :)
“Off Devcon”: Prague Blockchain Week
The 1st thing to note about Devcon is that it’s not just about Devcon. Although Devcon hosts 3,000 people across 4 days, there were about 60 other events“Off Devcon”. Like Devcon itself, this has scaled about 2x from last year. (Devcon3 had around 1500 attendees and 30 surrounding events.)
Hackathons and Bottom-Up Workshops
In addition to a change in the number of events, there’s also been a change in the type of events. Last year, almost all of the events were parties or cocktail hangouts. This year though, there was a lot more BUIDLing and cross-project collaboration OffDevcon:
- Status Hackathon. A hackathon hosted by Status, in the style of ETHGlobalhackathons. (500 people)
- Fellowship of Ethereum Magicians. IETF for Ethereum. Lots of bottom-up discussions around EIP standards and interoperability. (200 people) Video here
- #DeFi Summit. #DeFi is a group of 10+ projects building decentralized finance applications on Ethereum: Maker, Dharma, Coinbase, dy/dx, etc. (200 people.) Video recordings here: 1, 2, 3, 4.
- Also things like the Swarm Summit, ETH 2.0 implementers, Enterprise Ethereum Alliance hackathon (which had only 6 submissions…?).
In addition to “getting work done” OffDevcon, there were parties every night. Most of these parties just involved a bunch of people hanging out and drinking free alcohol provided by a venture capital firm/well-resourced project. But there was also Ravecon0, a Berlin-style all night rave.
And then there was Blockchains, a controversial $300 million project to build a blockchain city in the Nevada desert (NYT piece). They had a big launch party that included a 400-pound tuna and a holographic girl on stage. The entire city of Prague was peppered with their advertisements. On one hand, their marketing strategy and ambitious vision turned off much of the Ethereum ecosystem:
you are officially uninvited from next devcon @BlockchainsLLC your lack of sensibility for this space and the problems we address is disgusting. —@5chdn
And on the other hand, they are putting lots of resources towards the Ethereum ecosystem and might actually achieve their ambitious dream.
I didn’t actually chat with any Blockchains folks, but my instinct is that they feel opposed to Ethereum culture. Still, I guess we should wish them the best. Various ETH community folks are starting to build bridges now:
Defensibility in the ETH Community Itself
Now onto Devcon itself. The 1st big takeaway is that people within the Ethereum ecosystem think that the community itself is powerful/defensible (before even thinking about the tech).
In addition to the expanding community, people were also just excited by seeing “good people” there. For one friend who was new to Ethereum, he said that Devcon felt like a college reunion: people hugging, lots of laughter, etc.
Part of this “community defensibility” comes from all of the grant funding that’s going towards infrastructure. e.g. Ethereum Foundation grantees spoke at Devcon, Ethereum Community Fund backed the next 3 Ethereum Magicians councils, and ConsenSys announced a $500,000 grant programbased on the next EIP-1337 subscription standard.
This all highlights an interesting and ongoing conversation: how much does the community matter in creating a crypto ecosystem? Could Ethereum’s “strong” community give it resilience if the technical aspects like scaling/adoption continue to challenge it?
Overlap with Other Communities
In addition to “within Ethereum” community, Devcon also overlaps with other crypto communities. Devcon had talks from:
- Zooko, Josh Cincinnati, and Ian Miers from Zcash
- Ben Chan, the CTO of BitGo
- Various academics like Elaine Shi, Emin Gun Sirer, Mo Dong, Patrick McCorry, Oasis, etc.
Eli Ben-Sasson’s session on zkSTARKs was possibly the most packed session at Devcon:
Folks from Dfinity, Interstellar, and Protocol Labs were hanging around too. However, it doesn’t really seem like Devcon (or Ethereum in general) overlaps much with the Bitcoin community. (This is a damn shame because I’d love to see these technical communities combine more.)
Early Open-Source Community
Devcon also brought in some folks from outside the crypto community, especially from the early open-source community. The event had folks like: Brewster Kahle from Internet Archive, Cory Doctorow from EFF, Stewart Brand from LongNow, and Primavera de Filippi from the Berkman Klein Center.
A lot of these organizations are “values-aligned” with some of the crypto community and are also getting a ton of their donations from crypto folks (e.g. Pineapple Fund and Handshake). I’ll be interested to see how these early internet pioneers co-evolve with the emerging crypto world.
As for the actual content, there were 6 tracks at Devcon this year: Scalability, Security, Privacy, Developer Experience, UX, and Society & Systems. Here’s a quick overview of each. (Disclaimer: I know the most about Society & Systemsand Scalability, and not as much about the others.)
For a great overview on scaling Ethereum, I’d recommend watching Vitalik’s 30min keynote on ETH 2.0 (which includes PoS, Sharding, eWASM, etc.).
- There were a bunch of state channels folks there (Counterfactual, Perun, Connext, Spankchain, PISA, Celer, Raiden, FunFair, etc.).
- Like state channels, there was a bunch of different parties discussing the Plasma spec + implementation (OmiseGO, EF, Loom Network, etc.)
- Pretty much everyone was excited about using zkSNARKs for scalability.
- Vlad Zamfir et al.’s “correct by construction” Casper paper was released.
- ConsenSys announced Pantheon, a new enterprise-focused Java client with more flexible software licensing and interchangeable consensus mechanisms.
I’d say the overall vibe was “feels like we’ve made lots of progress, but still uncertain what will happen in the next year”.
- A bunch of the security/auditing projects in the space are collaborating through the shared cross-project group, ETHSecurity (overview, resources).
- Projects like Golem, Enigma, and iEXEC are all moving towards using Intel SGX technology for “secure enclave execution”.
- Phil Daian gave a presentation about front-running that was one of the most talked about presentations at Devcon. (Also see LibSubmarine.)
- Imo, there was surprisingly little talk of formal verification. (Only 1 talk by the MakerDAO/dAppHub team.)
- There was all of the zkS[TN]ARKs stuff I mentioned earlier.
- Lots of the privacy work was focused on getting more people to understand zkSNARKs. e.g. Elena Nadolinski’s talk “Demistifying SNARKs” was universally loved and Jacob Eberhardt gave a workshop on ZoKrates(a toolbox to make zkSNARKs more accessible).
- On developer environments: There were workshops from Embark, Remix, and Truffle (which now has more than 1M downloads!).
- On the virtual machine: There was lots of discussion around the Ethereum Virtual Machine: both improvements to it (EVM 1.5/2.0) and a full migration to eWASM.
- There’s excitement around meta-transactions, a way for users to send transactions without spending ETH on gas (by “hacking” the Data field with info that allows a “meta-network” to pay for your gas).
- Finally, there were a variety of talks on integrating the Ethereum Name Service in your app (so you have readable names instead of 0xHexes) and the Ethereum Package Manager.
UX & Design
Last year at Devcon there were only technical talks, so this track was an indicator of a shift towards adoption.
- This track had a bunch of hands-on workshops, i.e. “UX audits”.
- Metamask announced their mobile app (to compete with Coinbase’s Toshi app).
- Universal Logins are pretty hot right now. (They combine ENS names with meta-transactions to allow for smoother UX.)
- There were also some talks (and general excitement) around the Gnosis Safe (a browser extension + mobile app wrapped around a multi-sig wallet).
Although this track was a great start, there’s still a long road to adoption:
Society & Systems
I helped co-curate this track, so I know a bit more about it.
- The high-level goal of this track was to get folks to think more about why they’re building and the impact of the technology after they build it.
- To understand the why, we had discussions on our values (our “how”) and our goals (our “what”).
- To understand Ethereum’s impact, there was set of talks on personal impact (e.g. in Venezuela or with sex workers) and on macro institutional impact (e.g. co-evolution with the nation-state and international law).
- As I noted before, people from the early open-source world gave a variety of talks.
- Some final highlights: we had breakouts on Diversity and Inclusion, Glen Weyl outlined Liberal Radicalism, and Lane Rettig provided a space to continue these kinds of discussions: https://forum.etherean.org
Random Other Thoughts
Finally, I just want to conclude with some thoughts that didn’t easily fit in other places.
- Aragon (a toolkit to to build DAOs) and Uniswap (a simple tokenless exchange protocol) went live on main net. Status now only uses their own app for internal messaging.
- Maker has ~1M ETH (about 1% of all ETH) collateralized in their CDP and are about to launch multi-collateral DAI (to use non-ETH as collateral). It’s going to be really crazy to see what happens as lower risk assets (e.g. the 1:1 fiat pegged stablecoins) get used as collateral.
- Many of the OffDevcon events used Kickback, a Ticketmaster-style dApp where you stake ETH to get your ticket. If you don’t show up, your ETH is distributed among the folks who did show up. Surprisingly simple. (And a small example of the dApp experimentation that’s happening.)
- In addition to all of this “public” stuff, there were lots and lots of side meetings across various stakeholders in the ecosystem: VCs, projects, ConsenSys, EF, etc.
Finally, I’d personally just like to thank all of the sponsors, organizers, speakers, attendees (and Prague itself!) for hosting us. Thank you!
There’s still a long way to go. Watch this hilarious video to see how difficult things still are today: