In a few minutes, electronic music will start pulsing, stuffed animals will be flung through the air, women will emerge spinning Technicolor hula hoops, and a mechanical bull will rev into action, bucking off one delighted rider after another. It's the closing party of ETHDenver, a weeklong cryptocurrency conference dedicated to the blockchain Ethereum. Lines have stretched around the block for days. Now, on this Sunday night in February, the giddy energy is peaking. But as the crowd pushes inside, a wiry man with elfin features is sprinting out of the venue, past astonished selfie takers and venture capitalists. Some call out, imploring him to stay; others even chase him down the street, on foot and on scooters. Vitalik Buterin, the most influential person in crypto, didn't come to Denver to party. He doesn't drink or particularly enjoy crowds. Not that there isn't plenty for the 28-year-old creator of Ethereum to celebrate.
Decentralized finance, or'DeFi', is an emerging digital financial infrastructure that theoretically eliminates the need for a central bank or government agency to approve financial transactions. Regarded by many as an umbrella term for a new wave of financial services innovation, DeFi is deeply connected with blockchain -- the decentralized, immutable, public ledger on which Bitcoin is based -- that enables all computers (or nodes) on a network to hold a copy of the history of transactions. The idea is that no single entity has control over, or can alter, that ledger of transactions. From blockchain and bitcoin to NFTs and the metaverse, how fintech innovation is changing the future of money. Most of the financial services that could be defined as DeFi can be found on the Ethereum network, the second largest cryptocurrency marketplace, which also acts as a platform that allows other blockchain apps to be built on it (Ethereum's cryptocurrency, Ether, is used to pay transaction costs).
A version of this article was published in TIME's newsletter Into the Metaverse. You can find past issues of the newsletter here. Last week, I was one of the more than 10,000 attendees of ETHDenver 2022, a cryptocurrency conference that sprawled over a week and across several city blocks of Denver, Colo. Compared with other crypto-centric events like Art Basel or Bitcoin Miami, ETHDenver has a larger technical bent, with hackers coming from around the world to build projects on the Ethereum blockchain. But the conference was also full of venture capitalists, speculators, politicians, EDM enthusiasts--and unfortunately, COVID-19.
Outside the sprawling Prague Congress Centre, not only is the weather turning, but the cryptocurrency world is crashing down, as it has been for much of this year. Expectations for blockchain systems, sky-high just a year ago, are falling nearly as fast as prices for the coins based on them. But inside, the mood is rather different. Here, Devcon--the annual "family reunion" organized by the Ethereum Foundation--is in full swing, and there's barely a hint of negativity to be found. On the contrary, there is lots of hugging, unicorn-themed clothing, and a sense of excitement about the future. This crowd doesn't give a damn about what's happening outside. Ethereum is already the most famous cryptocurrency after Bitcoin and the third largest in total value. Unlike the others, however, it aims to serve as a general-purpose computing platform that could, its adherents believe, make possible entirely new forms of social organization.
A version of this article was published in TIME's newsletter Into the Metaverse. You can find past issues of the newsletter here. The Ethereum ecosystem now moves trillions of dollars around the world, rivaling Visa in the size of its asset transfers. It's been the bedrock on which new types of finance (DeFi), digital goods (NFTs) and digital organizations (DAOs) are being built. Its size and speed have forced traditional behemoths, from governments, to tech companies to banks to scramble to keep up.