This blog originally appeared on Recode.
Did you crowdfund The DAO? It’s the one that uses the Ethereum blockchain.
If those two short sentences leave you scratching your head or feeling left out, it’s likely because the three names “The DAO,” “Ethereum” and “blockchain” have yet to hit your feeds. In fact, however, what’s behind these names increasingly looks like the future. According to a May New York Times article, The DAO was the “most successful crowdfunded venture ever, by a significant margin.” So something’s clearly afoot. But are these names really supposed to sound like malware? Or is your CPU just old?
Let’s do a quick decoding of each name.
Wikipedia says that a DAO is a “decentralized autonomous organization,” which means it’s kind of like a corporation based on the P2P principle. As for the organization that’s actually named “The DAO,” Wikipedia defines it as “a form of investor-directed venture capital fund.” Putting it all together in plain English, The DAO is akin to a crowd-sourced VC fund that, according to a June article in Wired, “isn’t run by rich white Silicon Valley dudes.” In a sense, it’s a people’s VC fund.
A July Forbes article called The DAO “revolutionary,” stating that “new technologies and business models will result from The DAO’s unique fundraising and capital allocation methods.” As a name, however, The DAO gives off an imposing, big-government vibe. Just think of the IRS, the CIA, the FBI and the GAO — no one wants names like that in their future.
The next name on our decoding list, Ethereum, was described in a 2015 Fast Company article as “a global computer that could . . . emulate many of the functions of companies like Uber, Airbnb, Dropbox, Amazon, and Kickstarter — but without the ‘inefficient’ bureaucracies and the other intermediaries who take a slice of the pie.” In this sense, Ethereum is a democratic and frictionless transaction platform that could end up as the conduit for much of our future lives.
The name Ethereum is registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and it’s the underlying digital currency technology of The DAO. But Ethereum sounds a little, well . . . ethereal. In fact, Ethereum’s “value token” — or currency — is actually called “ether.” But would you really want to put your trust in ether?
As for the final name on our list, “blockchain,” Wikipedia says it’s “a distributed database that maintains a continuously-growing list of data records hardened against tampering and revision.” Think of it as a kind of user-generated DNA helix that keeps growing — and every time new information is added to the helix, it’s locked until its users allow new information to be added.
Although the term blockchain might sound like a torture device, you might know it from another source: Bitcoin. Blockchain technology is the foundation and principal innovation of Bitcoin, the dark web’s infamous cryptocurrency. Blockchain is also the foundation of Ethereum, which some see as a successor to Bitcoin.
So this quick decoding not only reveals that The DAO is a venture capital fund that tracks its money via a blockchain technology — a database — named Ethereum. It also shows how the meanings of these three names are at best confounding and at worst unnerving, evoking big government, immateriality and darkness both individually and as a group.
This has not dissuaded banks, Nasdaq and even the Federal Reserve to quietly investigate how to put these technologies in your pocket. But the title of a May Bloomberg article about big banks and blockchain is telling: “Inside the Secret Meeting Where Wall Street Tested Digital Cash.” Why all the stealth? Because blockchain’s connection to the shadiness that is Bitcoin means public acceptance of anything even remotely related to blockchain will be a hard sell.
And this is exactly where names can make a difference.
We’ve been here before. Back when Arthur C. Clarke wrote that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” he didn’t clarify whether that magic could be of the dark variety. So when the February 8, 1993 cover of Time declared the arrival of “Cyberpunk,” it did so via a vaguely unsettling illustration and the taunt of “virtual sex, smart drugs and synthetic rock ‘n’ roll.” The future indeed looked like dark magic. Without palatable names like America Online, EarthLink and Prodigy — which offered the promise of freedom, connection and genius — we could have been forgiven for never going online. But these names gave us light magic. And we flew toward the light like moths to a flame.
Just like ISP names from the 1990s made the dark world of cyberpunk inviting, companies that are based on blockchain will need some good names to make them palatable to the public. Some existing company names do the opposite. Chain, for example. And Enigma. And BlockCypher. Would you really want to entrust your life to these names? Doubtful. Other blockchain company names are much more inviting. Organizations named Abra. And Provenance. And Ripple.
Granted, names are only one piece of the puzzle. But a name is the entry point to every brand. And every brand is an experience. So if new blockchain brands want us to flock toward rather than flee from them, they’ll at least need to sound like they were created not by programmers, engineers or dark magicians but, instead, by word magicians who know how to make names sound like gateways to heaven rather than the gates of hell.
The blockchain future is here. Let’s not name it for the dark magic in its past.