At the Ethereal Summit, a Belief in Changing the World

Blending future tech and zen spirit, the Brooklyn-born blockchain conference is back this week with a bigger agenda

The Ethereal Summit, which debuted last year, has grown to a two-day conference (Photo courtesy of ConsenSys)

When the first Ethereal Summit happened last May in Brooklyn, the event had all the buzz of a music festival, drawing 650 blockchain-tech believers to a sold-out conference in an industrial building in Gowanus. An almost utopian spirit filled the air as speakers talked about how blockchain (specifically the Ethereum variety) would change everything from money to manufacturing to medical records. Even so, much of the rest of Brooklyn was still wondering, What’s blockchain?

A year later, public awareness has ballooned as the rapidly expanding technology has inspired magazine covers (Blockchain Mania!), college courses, business startups, and fevered speculation in cryptocurrencies. Ether, the token based on the Ethereum platform, has rocketed in value from under $100 early last May to $750 today (with swings up to $1,204 in January and down to $400 last month). In short, blockchain is pure excitement these days, inspiring an intense mix of hype and hope.

ethereal summit

Joseph Lubin, founder of ConsenSys, appearing at an Ethereal event (Photo courtesy of ConsenSys)

This week, the booming industry will bring two major conferences to Brooklyn and Queens as part of Blockchain Week NYC. On Thursday, financial-industry leaders will gather for the Fluidity Summit at a symbolically significant venue, the twin-domed Weylin event space that used to house the Williamsburg Savings Bank.

The bankers and fin-tech engineers will wrestle with the implications of the highly centralized financial industry entering a world in which decentralized trading platforms are taking shape. The smackdown event looks to be a debate, headlined “Will Crypto Flourish or Fail?,” between Ethereum founder Joseph Lubin and cryto-curmudgeon Nouriel Roubini.

A sneak-preview video gives a taste of the essential divide. Lubin: “Decentralization means that you can’t be censored in your transactions or even in your speech, and that you have control of aspects of your identity and your tokens of value.” Roubini: “There is this utopian, anarchist dream that we don’t need governments, we don’t need institutions, we don’t need institutions that provide trust.”

At the Fluidity summit, blockchain evangelist Lubin will face off with skeptic Roubini (Video by Futurism, via Facebook)

While the Fluidity event will focus on business, the second annual Ethereal Summit on Friday and Saturday is more expansive, aiming to “bring together adventurous thinkers from all walks of life,” according to its website. Says Ethereal co-founder Jesse Grushack: “We strive to make this not another conference, but a collaborative experience where we can share ideas on the future, listen to music, and build a community of people not just focused on the tech but on the impact blockchain technology will have on the world.”

The conference reflects the mushrooming breadth and scale of its host, ConsenSys, which builds applications to run in the Ethereum ecosystem. Much has been made lately of the contrast between its sticker-covered steel entrance door on gritty Bogart Street in Bushwick and its globe-straddling presence, with more than 700 employees and 20 international offices. The “ConsenSys Mesh” now includes at least 47 projects, including a coding academy, a $50 million venture fund, and Civil, a platform for sustainable journalism.

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Last year’s Brooklyn event had a festive atmosphere (Photo by Steve Koepp)

In a story this week calling the neighborhood “Cryptolandia,” Bloomberg declared: “It might be bordering on hyperbole to compare Bushwick and Williamsburg in 2018 to Los Altos in 1976 or Haight-Ashbury in 1966, but as blockchain works toward fulfilling its considerable potential, the post-industrial city blocks where it’s happening have the aura of cultural ferment.”



Perhaps Cryptolandia needs more room, for the expanded summit moves this year just across the borough border to Maspeth, Queens, where it will unfold inside the Knockdown Center. The art-and-performance space is a former door factory, in this case probably chosen for its 50,000 sq. ft. of space rather than any metaphor about passing through the doors of perception. But it’s likely to be a trip, covering topics including “The End of the Starving Artist,” “Starting a Financial Revolution in Africa,” and a guided meditation by famed author Deepak Chopra in the “outdoor zen zone.”

Despite all the blockchain hoopla in the year since the summit’s launch, the organizers seem to appreciate that not everyone totally gets it yet. Keeping up the inclusive vibe, they note on their website: “It’s okay if you don’t understand blockchains yet. We promise you will have an ‘aha’ moment.”

Last year, the Ethereal Summit sprouted a San Francisco installment as well (Video by ConsenSys)

Steve Koepp is the editor of The Bridge. Previously, he was editorial director of Time Inc. Books, executive editor of Fortune and deputy managing editor of Time.