Cryptocurrency entrepreneur Kyle Kemper stood next to a $300,000 McLaren sports car, wearing a sequined, psychedelic-colored robe over a sleeveless jumpsuit accessorized with a fanny pack and Reebok high-tops. At the 38-year-old’s feet sat a portable karaoke machine playing a hypnotic EDM track. We were in the middle of the Austin Convention Center’s vast exhibition hall on the third day of Consensus, which bills itself as the world’s largest annual crypto conference. More than 20,000 blockchain enthusiasts from all over the world had descended on downtown Austin to network and attend panel discussions before unwinding in the evenings at a series of decadent, invitation-only parties.
Many of the attendees likely needed a stiff drink. When Consensus kicked off on June 9, Bitcoin—the first and best-known cryptocurrency—was trading at a little more than $30,000 and had lost more than half its value in the previous six months. Over the four days of the festival, the notoriously volatile currency plummeted another 12 percent. Other popular cryptocurrencies, such as Ethereum, Solana, and Dogecoin, were also getting hammered in what analysts had ominously dubbed the “crypto winter.” Major crypto companies have announced layoffs in recent months. It’s likely that conference attendees had collectively lost hundreds of millions of dollars. But they seemed to be having too much fun to care, any buyer’s remorse apparently melting away in the 101-degree heat. For a few days, their crypto winter of discontent was made glorious summer by the Texas sun.
“This is the world I want to live in,” Kemper told me, a big grin on his face as he waved his arm at the hive of activity in the jam-packed exhibition hall. “Connecting with all these people, seeing how far the crypto space has come, is just amazing.” The McLaren was the centerpiece of a booth sponsored by Suku and InfiniteWorld, two companies that had partnered with the famed British automaker to create a line of non-fungible tokens—essentially certificates of ownership that authenticate digital files as one of a kind. NFTs are intended to confer transferable value onto digital goods, such as an artwork or GIF, so that those can be bought and sold much as real-world merchandise is. Like cryptocurrencies, NFTs rely upon the blockchain—a decentralized method of securely storing digital information. Blockchain technology was invented in 2008 by a computer developer, or group of developers, going by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto.
Kemper, an Ottawa-born father of four, said he was an early crypto adopter. Like many industry pioneers, he’s a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian who opposes central banks and the traditional financial industry, which he calls “Babylonian fascism.” To true believers such as Kemper, cryptocurrencies hold the utopian promise of an unbanked world where money is stored in digital wallets and can travel freely over borders, evading regulation and taxation. Kemper himself fled Canada during the pandemic to avoid getting a “forced gene therapy injection,” aka COVID-19 vaccination. He ended up in Florida, one of America’s crypto hot spots, where he cohosts a podcast called The Love and Freedom Show.
Cryptocurrency has also been an extraordinarily profitable investment vehicle for many—until recently, at least. The price of one Bitcoin has increased by more than 7,000 percent since its debut in 2008. If you were prescient or lucky enough to invest $100 in Bitcoin in 2011, you’re now a millionaire. If you invested $100,000, you’re a billionaire. But many of the guests and featured speakers at Consensus swore that getting rich was never the point of cryptocurrency. “A lot of people are in it for the money, which is fine—we all want the number to go up,” Kemper told me. “But it’s really about freedom.”
Shaggy-haired crypto pioneer Jered Kenna, who founded the early Bitcoin exchange TradeHill, told the audience at his Consensus panel that in the early days, “people were just interested in growing this emerging technology. Nobody ever talked about, ‘Well, if Bitcoin goes to five hundred dollars, we’ll all be rich.’ never. It was all about, ‘Oh man, what if people could send two hundred dollars to their family in Ecuador for three cents?’” Edward Snowden, speaking by video chat from Russia, told an audience of several thousand that he uses Bitcoin to anonymously pay for server space but doesn’t invest in it. “Generally, I don’t encourage people to put their money in cryptocurrencies as a technology,” he said, prompting uneasy murmurs among the crowd.
In the thirteen years since the launch of Bitcoin, the multibillion-dollar crypto industry has emerged to service the much-hyped new digital economy. Several hundred companies purchased booth space in the Consensus exhibition hall, and dozens more were sponsoring parties around town. Walking the floors of the Austin Convention Center were crypto miners, crypto developers, crypto consultants, crypto analysts, crypto lawyers, crypto marketing directors, and crypto journalists. Claudia Bardales, head of product design for Los Angeles–based app developer Hello Iconic, told me she was impressed by the diversity she saw at Consensus.
“Many more women are getting into blockchain technology,” said Bardales, who wore a nose stud and a Whoop fitness tracker. The forty-year-old Honduran-born programmer had befriended a group of fellow Latina crypto enthusiasts at the festival. Since its first iteration in 2015, Consensus—which is hosted by crypto news site CoinDesk—has made a deliberate effort to diversify its lineup of speakers and panelists. That diversity appears to have carried over into the attendees, who seemed almost equally divided between men and women, and included more people of color than I had expected. Alejandra Soler, a Miami-based home goods fabricator sporting bright red hair and a tiny rhinestone under each eye, came to the festival with her husband, who works for CoinDesk. It was her first time in Austin. “Miami is nice, but it’s got a very wild and reckless energy,” she told me. “Austin feels more comfortable, more warm.”
Two blocks from the convention center was the Consensus NFT gallery, where visitors strolled past LCD screens displaying brightly colored digital artwork. Scanning the QR code next to an NFT took your phone’s browser to a web page on NFT clearinghouse OpenSea, where you could bid on purchasing the work with cryptocurrency. I sat down on a bench to look at a surreal painting of two women flying over a futuristic cityscape. Australian artist Serwah Attafuah had titled it “Creation of My Metaverse (Between this World and the Next).” It had not received any bids.
“What do you think?” I asked the thirtysomething woman sitting next to me. “I’m new to this, but I enjoy learning about it,” she replied, admitting that she owns only a single NFT. The woman, who declined to give her name to her, said she lived in LA and had come to the conference with her husband, who left his finance job a few years ago to work in crypto. “There are so many great people here, so much knowledge, so many different sectors,” she told me. “It’s amazing.”
Not everyone at the festival was a true believer. Many were just there for the spectacle. Others were spectacles in their own right. I met Joey Bryan near the booth operated by Masotti and Masotti, an accounting firm specializing in blockchain-based companies. I had spotted him from several booths away, as he was wearing Día de Los Muertos–style makeup, rhinestone-studded sunglasses, skeleton-print gloves, and a white suit with mismatched Adidas sneakers. “I’m the boogie man!” I heard him exclaim, to no one in particular. “Showtime, go time!”
After I introduced myself, Bryan explained that he was an “artist and entertainer” who led an itinerant existence, traveling around the country with his wife and children. “I go to a lot of conventions and parties, and just have a good time.” He had been at Consensus all week, making friends and learning about crypto. Several people had suggested turning Bryan’s Boogie Man character into an NFT, an idea he found intriguing. “People here are really programmed by numbers, and programmed by a certain thought,” he mused, “but I think there’s room in this industry to have fun.” The highlight of Bryan’s week was attending a house party outside of Austin hosted by a financial services company called Alpaca, which recently raised $50 million in venture capital. The event featured a petting zoo with actual alpacas.
Bryan did have one complaint about Consensus. “I’ve noticed there are a lot of guys here who just talk to other dudes,” he told me. “If you go to a club, watch how the men will just gather in a group and leave the ladies to get a Red Bull or something. That’s not cool—some of these chicks are bosses too. They worked hard to be here.” Bryan said he had learned more about crypto over the previous few days from women than from men. “They really know how to talk to you and explain things to you.”
Occasionally, some stray remark would briefly puncture the crypto fantasy world in which most of the conference exhibitors, speakers, and attendees seemed to live. During our interview, Kemper alluded to the saga of Dogecoin, a cryptocurrency created as a joke that experienced a dramatic spike in value last year after Elon Musk tweeted about it. It has since lost nearly all of its value. “A lot of people got burned,” Kemper admitted. “But doge was never about making money. It was about the memes.” A few attendees mentioned the recent “Evolved Ape” scam, in which an NFT developer made off with 798 Ether (roughly $2.7 million) of investors’ money—the latest example of a crime so common as to have its own name, “rug pull .” But most at Consensus seemed to view these incidents—and the recently collapsing price of cryptocurrencies—as mere bumps in the road to crypto’s ultimate dominance. Crypto, to them, was still the future.
Or was it? During the live taping of CoinDesk’s daily video talk show, The Hash, a man in a green ball cap stood up to ask the four hosts a question. He looked to be in his seventies, several decades older than anyone else I had seen at Consensus. “If a billion people decided to have a financial transaction at this moment, a fiat currency could handle that, instantly,” the man said. “How many transactions can the crypto world handle at this stage of technology in a single moment?” Host William Foxley, a boyish-looking crypto reporter wearing a T-shirt and shorts, decided to field the question. “It really depends on how fast you want to settle, what chain you want to use, and what kind of parameters you want for that money to settle with . . .” Foxley kept speaking, but the questioner had made his point: blockchain remained far less useful than traditional financial systems for ordinary transactions.
After the show ended, I caught up with the septuagenarian, who declined to give his name but identified himself as a retired financial trader who lives in South Austin. He was attending the conference with a friend who had flown down from New York City on a private plane. “He’s a believer—he drank the Kool-Aid,” the trader told me. As for himself, he remained skeptical about the ability of cryptocurrency to supplant what conference attendees derisively call “fiat”—ie, government-backed—currencies, such as the dollar or the euro.
“People have been thinking about what money is since Aristotle,” the trader said, “but the one thing everyone agrees on is that it has to be fungible”—ie, capable of being exchanged for goods. “And I’m not sure that cryptocurrency is.” But what of the whole multibillion-dollar crypto industry, with its thousands of currencies, its NFTs and DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations), and range of other exotic, jargon-laden acronyms that were on display all around us? The trader looked around the exhibition hall for a minute before pronouncing his verdict: “I’m willing to bet that in five years, ninety percent of these companies will be out of business.”
Since Consensus wrapped, Bitcoin is down another 15 percent.