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ConsenSys Aims For Decentralization, But Does It Have A Clear Map?

What does 'decentralization' even mean any more?

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It’s hard to pin down what exactly Jeremy Millar, ConsenSys’ Chief of Staff, does all day.

Speaking to Crypto Briefing atop a shipping crate in Brooklyn, he rebuffs suggestions like ‘troubleshooter’ as being “too narrow.

Instead, the Chief of Staff outlines a complicated role that involves creating, and subsequently heading up, some of the initiatives instrumental to furthering the main objectives of ConsenSys. “I try and take on what I see as the most urgent and critical problems for the company,” Millar explained.

In the past, this meant leading protocol engineering and global solutions groups, but what are the problems facing today’s ConsenSys?

“The most urgent matter right now is evolving ConsenSys as the market matures into a more product-focused organization,” he said. “[One] that’s able to scale the ecosystem, to build the company that people expect us to be.” 

ConsenSys’ mission is bringing about the next phase of the internet – ‘Web 3.0’ – by leveraging blockchain technology. For Millar, that means building a new decentralized dynamic that removes intermediaries and distributes global resources in a socially just way.

“ConsenSys is the iconic company of blockchain,” Millar says, as if reciting from memory. “It’s the iconic company of decentralization; it is the company that will lead us to a decentralized future.”


What is ConsenSys?

ConsenSys is woven tightly into the Ethereum ecosystem; its CEO, Joseph Lubin, was one of Ethereum’s original founders. Its unique spoke system makes it part VC, part incubator and perhaps, part conglomerate.

In five years, with fifty-four projects and more than a thousand employees all over the world, ConsenSys has become the chief financier and patron for Ethereum-based startups and projects. Holding the purse-strings gives it an instrumental role in determining the overall development of the ecosystem.

Having begun his career during the early days of the internet in the mid-1990s, Millar saw revolutionary potential of technology firsthand. Companies like Netscape, he says, made fast and limitless data-transmission accessible to all.

More than twenty years later, he sees the same industry-changing potential in blockchain technology.

“ConsenSys is the poster-child for our space…the decentralized economy,” Millar said. But not everyone agrees. Until the end of last year, ConsenSys pushed for a controlling stake in any potential project looking at becoming a spoke.

That dissuaded external investors, who were less likely to invest in a project over which they had no influence. A lack of formal clarity on ownership and governance made it impossible for spokes to make any kind of material decision without getting approval from the high command.

“You can’t turn to the [spoke] CEO because they have no power,” one former employee said to CoinDesk “Joe created the company in such a way that no one is able to make decisions without him. No one had the budget.”

On some level, Millar accepts that ConsenSys is centralized, with a clearly defined hierarchy. But he also notes that the company has taken steps to codify relationships between the main hub and its constituent spokes. In a fast-paced sector, the ability to change and adapt quickly is “critical” if they want to stay ahead, he added.

But Millar continues to believe in the decisiveness of a centralized structure. “The company needs strong leadership in challenging times,” he emphasized. As time passes and the “movement” towards decentralization gathers momentum, ConsenSys, he argues, will be able to evolve.

There’s still no idea of how long it will take for ConsenSys to become the sort of decentralized organization which Millar and Lubin envision. It may take another twenty years, Millar says, but it will be worth it. “Even if we can only improve decentralization by 20%, the social, economic and societal benefits would be [so] huge as to be almost immeasurable.”


What’s the real end goal?

During the Ethereal Summit, ConsenSys announced that Lubin had, along with Vitalik Buterin and the Ethereum Foundation, invested $700,000 in Ether into MolochDAO – a decentralized incubator to support projects and enrich the overall ecosystem.

I ask Millar whether this is what decentralization looks like. “It’s certainly a part of it,” he said. But ConsenSys is, first of all, focused on ensuring that the ecosystem has the tools and functionality it needs to survive and thrive. The primary focus of that is “defining what the platform needs to be for users.”

Asked how that ties in with total decentralization, Millar responds uncertainly. “We’re here for the movement,” he says. As the space expands, he added, ConsenSys will be there to finance and fund the next level of development.

The movement will go with or without Ethereum, but developing tools that help realize that dream could put ConsenSys on the right side of history. “ConsenSys needs to do for Ethereum and the decentralized economy what Netscape did for internet access,” Millar said.

But it’s not clear what that will look like, especially considering the disparate and often contradictory visions of what ‘decentralization’ entails. Does it include initiatives like Facebook’s GlobalCoin, which could prove wildly popular but can hardly be considered a cryptocurrency?

Will it have a place for JPMorgan’s Quorum, which provides an exclusive settlement platform for the the centralized institutions in which people are losing trust?

None of these questions have solid answers, and words like “decentralization” are starting losing their meaning. I’m no longer sure I could give a clear definition of what decentralization would look like.  And perhaps, come to think about it, neither can ConsenSys.

DISCLOSURE

Authors at Crypto Briefing are invested in cryptocurrencies. The author of this post may be invested in digital assets mentioned here.

Paddy Baker
Paddy Baker
Senior Journalist Paddy Baker is based in London. His interests in global finance and cryptocurrency may seem at odds with his background as a lover of history - but he asserts that understanding the past is the key to understanding the future. Paddy lives a short bike-ride away from ten million other people, and has yet to be seen in public without his laptop.

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