MIT Hackathon Participants Work to Join the “Blockchain Renaissance”
10.17.2018

Hackathons can be rowdy affairs. Red Bull flows freely, music sometimes blares in the background, and participants from various walks of life talk animatedly about solutions to problems they’re all there to fix, running on limited sleep, within the next 24 to 48 hours.

There are still an unusual number of distractions at the MIT Hacking Arts festival’s hackathon.

What seems like every few minutes, organizers stand behind one of the several microphones in the two, main rooms that encompass the event on the sixth floor of the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “In five minutes, the hip-hop recording artist and composer Billy Dean Thomas will take the stage,” they might say, while the artist (also known as “The Queer B.I.G.”) soundchecks in the room next door. A child in a green, tulle dress walks among the hackers playing the violin. Another announcement is made introducing her upcoming performance.

A woman wearing a button-up shirt in a three-person hackathon group, whose plan so far is to somehow use blockchain to help artists, bemoans the numerous interruptions. But one interruption at the event is welcome.

It’s a panel titled “Art in the Age of Blockchain,” featuring Judy Mam, co-founder of Dada.nyc, a collaborative, decentralized platform and marketplace for digital artists and collectors; Dan Piech, founder of VAST, a seller of high-resolution photography that gets tracked on the bitcoin blockchain; John Watkinson, artist and co-creator of CryptoPunks, collectible digital characters with proof of ownership stored on the Ethereum blockchain; and Arjun Mendhi, the panel’s moderator and CEO of MTonomy, a decentralized publisher for “media artists and businesses.” Mendhi received his MBA from MIT Sloan, where he was also director of the MIT Bitcoin Club. He now lives across the street from the MIT Media Lab.

Panelists at the MIT Hacking Arts festival's "Art in the Age of Blockchain” talk

TheChain: Image

As the panel starts, Mam waves to someone in the front row, who turns out to be Jason Bailey, creator of Artnome, a blog that covers topics like AI art at Christie’s and, of course, the confluence of art and blockchain. The digital art space, it turns out, is a relatively small world, and when I catch up with Bailey later, he’s thankful that there’s finally been a relevant event in Cambridge. (Most digital art conferences take place in Europe or New York, he says.) Other audience members trickle in, filling in more half of the seats in a modestly sized room with four, large screens. I’ll later learn that this is the most popular panel to take place during the MIT Hacking Arts festival.

“Raise your hands if you’re an engineer,” Mendhi says. A smattering of people raise their hands.

“Raise your hands if you are new to blockchain,” he says. Most people in the room raise their hands, including an older man with rainbow socks sitting next to me. As the chair of production for the MIT Hacking Arts festival, he tells me he makes an appearance at most of the panels.

Then the discussion begins. Mendhi introduces the panelists before getting into the talk’s “core concepts,” blockchain, money, and ownership. Each panelist describes their customer base—“your typical fine art buyer” for Piech, “Ethereum enthusiasts and people who like art” for Mam, and “we don’t have customers” for Watkinson, since the product he created with partner Matt Hall is fully decentralized.

When the conversation moves on to digital scarcity, the event producer with the rainbow socks leaves.

Panelists go on to discuss the connection between blockchain records and physical objects and the value of having art you can’t “put on your wall”—a concern Mam hears frequently from those curious about Dada.nyc. The talk inevitably veers into CryptoKitties, for which, by the way, owners can now license music.

When Mendhi asks the group what both the biggest opportunity and the biggest challenge is when it comes to the merger of art and blockchain, the panelists agree. Both the opportunity and the challenge is adoption. Watkinson figures that “bad actors” who give blockchain a bad name—the drug dealers and bitcoin stealers—make it hard for the mainstream to trust in the technology.

Judy Mam gesturing in front of Dada.nyc art

TheChain: Image

But the blockchain art space is, to the best of panelists’ knowledge, pure. It’s full of whimsical kitties, pixelated punks, and hopefuls who want to let the average Jane own (a fraction of) high-end art. The aim is to challenge who gets to participate in the highly exclusive realm of art-for-purchase. It’s to eradicate the reality of the starving artist. It’s to prevent people getting duped by forgeries. Perhaps most importantly, it’s an area of blockchain where people are actively making, using, buying, and selling things—a rarity for a space marked more by ideological talk than practical action. (That being said, CryptoKitties is one of the most popular blockchain-based art applications, and it currently only has 324 daily users, according to DappRadar.) Mam describes this time in blockchain as “a cross between the Renaissance and the Wild West.”

The panelists and others like them represent the Renaissance. The lambo owners, says Mam, are the Wild West.

Back in the hackathon room, the “Renaissance” is taking place among two, small groups. One includes Sofia Garcia, a front-end developer at JP Morgan in New York, who wears a grey sweatshirt—a comfortable choice for the 24-hour hackathon—and has a ready smile. She and her two teammates, a man sporting a black baseball cap and the woman wearing button-up shirt (both preferred not to be identified), continuously spitball ideas for their project back and forth, inspired by the panel that just took place. Down the long, cafeteria-style table from them sits a laptop covered in crypto stickers, including the logos for Stellar and Ethereum. It belongs to one of the members of the second group, I’m told, working on a blockchain-based project.

Garcia’s group goes through a series of possible starts. They could do something with e-commerce on Instagram. “But once you work with Instagram, you’re centralizing,” says the woman in the button-up. So what about using blockchain and cryptocurrencies to facilitate micropayments for artists? “What makes this different from Patreon?” asks the man in the hat. Eventually, they get to the idea of making contracts that let the artists determine the terms of use for their art. “Like, say I don’t want a Republican senator to own this art,” the woman in the button-up suggests.

“If we can answer how to lower the barrier for artists to get into blockchain, then we’re onto something,” Garcia, the only technical member in the group, says.

Though only two groups’ projects rely on blockchain, an interest in the technology seems to permeate not just the Hacking Arts festival but also all of MIT. When I ask Kaavya Gupta, co-director of the festival, whether she’s noticed more interest in the technology at MIT in the past year, she answers, “One hundred percent.” Her roommate, Thalita Berpan, is co-president of the MIT Sloan Blockchain Club. Plus, there’s the Digital Currency Initiative on campus, a research group connected to the Media Lab that focuses on cryptocurrency and blockchain, and a new academic course on the subject. Right now, when I Google “blockchain,” the first result is an ad for the MIT Sloan School of Management’s six-week, online blockchain course. When a “mentor,” who’s walking around the hackathon to help groups with their projects, hands me his business card, it’s for a blockchain startup called TIM. The acronym stands for “Time Is Money,” and it aims to sort out production details for creatives on a blockchain.

“There’s a great amount of interest,” Gupta says.

At the end of the event, however, only one hackathon group submits a final entry involving blockchain. It’s called Soundiary, and it wants to let users create soundtracks to their everyday lives based on their movements, recorded and translated by a “sensor rich, wearable ring” with the aim of letting users have a new—but not time-consuming—creative outlet. Blockchain comes in later, when someone wants the pleasure of listening to another user’s soundtrack. With every listen, that user gets credited with a crypto token. “Call it the soundcoin,” the summary of the project suggests.

The thing is, blockchain isn’t the easiest for software developers to play around with. “I’m not sure blockchain is very hackathon-friendly,” says CryptoPunks co-creator Watkinson. It’s difficult to build and “costs money to do anything.” The Soundiary team got around this by not building any software at all.

“We built the concept, brand, and business strategy and are looking forward to the opportunity of building the technical prototype in the future,” its summary reads. “If there is someone who’d like to work on this, we’d be stoked to connect.” After all, the Renaissance didn’t happen in the course of a 24-hour hackathon.