The Story Of Reinvention: Lessons In Heresy From An Erlang Veteran

One of æternity Blockchain’s developers, industry pioneer Ulf Wiger, talks about heretics and the role they play in the evolution of technology. 

Science or sorcery?

Although society has come a long way since we learned to distinguish between science and witchcraft, Erlang veteran and blockchain programmer Ulf Wiger points out that all the benefits and opportunities that blockchain or any new technology can deliver, requires not only that the technology itself progresses. 

While it is absolutely comforting to know that we no longer burn folks alive for deviating from what is considered “acceptable” and “normal,” residual remains of aversive attitudes towards new ideas persist. 

There is a shift in mindset that has to happen on a wide scale—and it all starts with one heretic.

The era of smart mobile devices: how did we get here?

Wiger has been all-too familiar with the chaos that technological evolution inevitably comes with. For over three decades, he has been responsible for enabling the use of technology in several aspects of society—ranging from disaster response to telecommunications, to the infrastructure of the Internet we all use today.

Today, he plays an active part in yet another evolution that has lately been the talk of both technologists and legislators worldwide: blockchain technology. He is currently working on the core development of a scalable blockchain platform called æternity. Along with several other notable industry pioneers, He is building a blockchain platform from the ground up, aiming to withstand the massive traffic of industry-scale use. 

At its current state, æternity can already process transactions faster than Bitcoin and Ethereum. And Wiger says their work on State Channels should bring this performance level up even higher, closer to real-world industry needs. 

“If we can scale more or less linearly—which state channels promise to be able to do, then we can go orders of magnitude faster,” he says. “And then suddenly, there will be a new class of opportunities that open up.”

To support his argument, Wiger took me down memory lane. Well, his memory lane, starting in the era of telephony. 

“Some years ago, I worked at Ericsson, and telephony was moving over to data. Initially, you had these old phones and these fairly narrow links that went to other telephony transfer switches. For those who are too young to remember old-style modems, these are the ones that you’ve seen in movies that made funny sounds. They were super slow. A ‘fast modem’ at the time could push maybe 56 kilobits per second of data,” he recounts.

“In the whole industry, there was a lot of talk about what the next generation phone systems or solutions would look like,” he explains. “But people had a really hard time imagining it because you were kind of mentally stuck in that model that people grew up knowing: you had a smaller phone that you were talking into and it only did voice. You could do messages, but only short ones.”

“This was a problem when we were rolling out 3G, for example. All people understood was that it was going to be more expensive. So they were asking what this is going to give them apart from a larger bill,” he laughs.

“Operators were trying to figure out what this mobile data network would give the user. What they tried to solve was that they could pack more phone calls into one mobile cell. That’s what 3G was for the industry, because they had saturated the GSM networks. They couldn’t add more subscribers, so they needed to solve that. That’s why the first generation 3G sucked for data because that was not the problem they were trying to solve,” he explains.

He narrates how it took a killer application from a separate yet closely related, parallel industry to actually realise what this would eventually do for the rest of the world. 

“It didn’t actually become clear what the 3G network would do for users until the iPhone.”

“And then suddenly everything opened up. It required this revolutionary product that was actually a computer that fit in your hand that you could also place phone calls from. But it was more a computer than it was a phone,” he declares. “As long as we follow the device as a phone, we couldn’t imagine all the amazing stuff that we would be able to do when the phone instead became a computer.”

Evolution of tech and the heretics we didn’t know we needed

Moving deeper into Wiger’s “mental ledger” of tech history, we gain a rare insight into the mindsets of the people during the past eras—which brought us to where we are today in terms of technology. The failure to accept an idea because it’s so far from the norm we know is not an affliction unique to today’s population. The past, as a matter of fact, was littered with conventions—and heretics that shook them for our benefit. 

“Beyond a decade after Erlang (first released in 1986), one of the guys who invented the programming language was asked to come up with something new that wasn’t Erlang. And then he started thinking about what the mobile phone really is,” he narrates. 

His story continues:

“He declared that it was pretty much just a stunted computer. 

That made people really angry because we were in the business of building mobile phones—and it was heresy to say that mobile phones weren’t much more than a very weak and limited computer. 

But he thought that it could be so much more. He then started using the handhelds, Sony Vaio and these various small laptops that were coming out. 

He started making essentially what could be seen as a very early prototype of what an iPhone would look like. And you had a bunch of data and multimedia, and you could do lots of really amazing stuff. 

And nobody got it. 

He then committed even more heresy by saying that in the future, maybe a phone would just be a component in a digital camera. 

It was pretty close to the truth. This was around the year 2000 or something, and he was way ahead of his time.”

Wiger notes how camera quality is now part of the criteria users look at when buying a mobile phone. The story is quite compelling—although not absolutely accurate, he is right that it is pretty close to the state of today’s tech devices. 

“Back then, people had a really hard time understanding what he was talking about and seeing the vision,” he adds.

“I think this is where we are with blockchains. We imagine that there will be use cases where it really is a great feature—not having to trust each other, being fairly anonymous and everything.”

Blockchain sucks at mainstream use…for now 

Blockchain technology was originally made for the purposes of value transfer. In its early days, Bitcoin was a payment mechanism that enabled pseudonymity and operated separately from the world of legal finance. As such, it became the payment method of choice for the Internet underworld—the black market in the dark web. 

Later on, iterations of its protocol eventually led to the evolution of smart contracts, as it has been found that blockchains can be used for far more than just sending digital currencies to other faceless entities across borders. 

Yet blockchain technology, despite all its promises, is having trouble reaching mass adoption due to scaling problems. It’s also plagued with a very particular issue: the user experience is mostly a nightmare. 

Wiger asserts that this is a temporary situation, as is the case with many disruptive technologies.

“There was this programming language researcher at Microsoft who talked about disruptive technologies. His idea was that disruptive technologies usually suck at what mainstream technology is really good at. He cited hydraulic excavators as an example. At a time you only had cable-actuated excavators and they were really good at digging really, really big holes. They were really huge and clunky, but boy could they haul a bunch of dirt. And then there were these hydraulic excavators that came along and they were really weak. They didn’t have nearly the capacity of the cable-activated excavators initially, but you could make a small one that you could sort of roll into your backyard where otherwise, you would have to use a shovel. And it actually became a small success and then the technology improved,” he narrates.

“After several years, they could actually compete with the old excavators. The niche where you had to use the old style, huge clunky excavators became smaller and smaller because the hydraulic excavators gradually took over because they were really good at one thing that the mainstream technology at the time couldn’t do.”

“Same thing with mobile phones. They were pretty much crap in the beginning. The first ones that actually worked where large enough that you could barely fit them in the trunk of your car. So they were mobile in the sense that you could drive somewhere and then you could make a phone call which was great in a sense,” he adds.

“You could marvel today at how people could actually arranged a meeting downtown before the mobile phone. Nowadays, you just agree on a time and then when you approach the time, you start texting and just find each other. You rely on your phone and GPS.”

“It’s a mental shift that occurred because technology made it possible. I think this is where we’re going to be, what we’re going to have to achieve somehow.” 

Wiger explains that technology builders play an important role in shaping mindsets throughout history, by demonstrating other ways to approach problems. Technological “heretics” have always been a prime catalyst in the evolution of modern society, and will remain so in the blockchain age. But it all starts with a shift in mindsets. 

“You have to give up some assumptions about your data. Essentially, we’re asking people the same thing with blockchains,” he explains. “A few people are going to get it, initially. A few people are getting it already and are willing to use blockchains even if there are no apparent advantages to doing so because it’s new and it’s interesting.”

Going back to his work in æternity, he believes that they are on the right track in solving the user experience issues that keep businesses from adopting blockchain technology. 

“I think state channels are going to be extremely important in this regard. But we also have slight problems coming up with the killer applications for it,” he says, adding that the endless number of possibilities also equates to uncertainty.

“This is where it’s so hard to imagine what the road ahead will look like. We may have to invent some applications that people can look at and want.” 

Over the past years, the blockchain industry has been seeing a lot of investments pouring into start-ups that aim to solve problems and unmet needs that traditional technologies and institutions fail to accommodate. The space has been known to be a hotbed for opportunity—whether for ill-intentioned opportunists or genuine change-makers. Either way, it’s an open field waiting for unicorns to stake their claim in the form of a killer app that would flip the tables.

This is one reason why there is an abundance of bounties and grants in the blockchain sphere. In fact, æternity launched supporting pillars to help drive tech talent into the platform: their investment arm—æternity Ventures, an accelerator program called Starfleet, and the non-profit æternity crypto foundation. All of these are dedicated to supporting tech builders on the platform, and the figures are quite attractive. Starfleet offers up to $100,000 for seed-stage start-ups, and the foundation offers up to 1,000,000 CHF (over $1 million) in grants for innovative, society-focused projects. 

“We can rely on our user base to do it,” Wiger says. “It’s either that, or we wait for some disaster that will make people really disillusioned with the current state of things—when they realise they can’t trust the prevailing systems anymore. Then they would demand trustless solutions. And the blockchain industry will be right there to welcome them.”

Underrated as they may be, æternity has been on the move, and fast. They’re now in the middle of launching yet another venture arm: a new consulting firm to help businesses migrate to the æternity blockchain platform. And they’ve got a big event called æternity Universe coming up in September in Prague, where they expect over 500 big minds to collide. 

At this rapid rate of progress, one wonders whether gathering technological heretics together in one place, the way æternity set up its developer teams, is a good idea after all.  

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