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DCAP Interview Series – John Orthwein, Advisor at DCAP, examines blockchain's role in finance

Dora Medek (Advertising)

“Being prepared, having local knowledge, having alternatives and self-reliance are essential in sailing and I think these things map well to the blockchain space.” In May, we are interviewing John Orthwein, a blockchain pioneer whose journey began during Bitcoin's emergence in finance forums and evolved through first-hand encounters with the original maintainers of Bitcoin’s codebase.

Can you share a bit about your journey into the world of blockchain technology and how you've seen it evolve over the years?

I had been working at a large investment manager when Bitcoin started being talked about. I was very interested in this as it was the nexus of things I did professionally. I followed up on this by attending Bitcoin meetups in Zürich where I was lucky enough to meet some of the original maintainers of the codebase. I think the key was to be open-minded about a new kind of financial system and engage at the first philosophical level. I was very excited to learn about Ethereum’s launch as this gave a new, more flexible tool: the ability to programme how transactions operate (smart contracts) rather than the simple A-to-B transfer of Bitcoin.  Today most new blockchain projects are based on some form of smart contract or a new smart contract-based blockchain altogether. The space has evolved into a multi-chain world, with further distinctions between Level 1 and Level 2 blockchains that inherit security from and synchronise with a specific Level 1 blockchain.

As someone who has held various roles from Head of Risk Engineering to Blockchain SME, what do you consider to be the most exciting developments or use cases for blockchain technology currently?

I’ve thought that the most exciting thing about blockchain technology is that it offers a digital alternative. One that anyone can freely, permissionlessly, and securely opt into. One where you have a choice to own the security and responsibility of your assets, or where you can entrust this to a third party like custodian or other service provider. Ultimately, all money is at its foundation an accounting system. Some accounting systems are better than others and blockchain adherents will often speak about the monetary policy of fiat currencies and blockchain-based currencies. Often you will hear about a non-expanding monetary base being the underlying reason for money not losing value in the way that expansionary fiat monies are vulnerable to via inflation. The attractiveness is simple: money that does not lose value over time, which is a fair thing for society’s savers.

Given your experiences, do you see blockchain technology impacts traditional financial systems and investment strategies?

Yes, undoubtedly. After spending over 12 years on the business side of the investment management industry, I’ve seen first-hand a system that has not fundamentally changed in decades. From fax machines, scanned signatures, phone call confirmations, emails, ad-hoc spreadsheets and much more. They are all poking at some unseen and obfuscated truth. A ledger that is stored in different places with varying levels of transparency. All the players are maintaining their own version, and they hope it reconciles when it comes time to compare. It’s a dizzying array of versions of the truth that takes an army of highly paid finance people to keep upright and functioning. The great feature of blockchain, in contrast, is a transparent, canonical, secure ledger where the only entities that change it are address owners. Speed, efficiency, transparency and correctness guarantees are great improvements to the current archaic system. Now, we only need to give the technology a chance.

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions people have about Web3 and blockchain technology, and how would you address them?

Decentralisation is a wild and powerful concept, and it takes time for the benefits to be understood. Most see it as the realm of technology nerds and lucky early adopters. Largely this is true because you currently need a lot of skill to securely hold blockchain assets – one small mistake and it is all gone. That’s a real problem, but many are working every day to make this experience better and more secure.

Being on a boat trip must give you a unique perspective on the vastness and unpredictability of the sea. How does this experience compare to navigating the turbulent waters of the Web3 and blockchain space?

Being prepared, having local knowledge, having alternatives and self-reliance are essential in sailing and I think these things map well to the blockchain space. You have to be prepared with a secure infrastructure. You need the knowledge to know what you are dealing with is safe. You should be able to switch to alternative wallets, computers, phones, etc. quickly and confidently. And finally, you should ideally be able to do this yourself, because as in sailing, help may be a long way off.

Are there any parallels you draw between sailing and steering through the challenges and opportunities in the decentralised digital realm?

For me, the biggest parallel is risk minimisation. Not investment risk, but operational risk. Careful planning and diligent execution are essential, whether finding safe anchorage ahead of a storm or transferring your digital assets. You may only have one shot.

As a closing question, we are interested in how you balance your professional life with your personal passions and time spent with your family, especially during moments like this boat trip. Are there any practices you find helpful in maintaining that balance?

Sailing has always been a passion of mine. Living on a boat, however, has its unique challenges. The boat is constantly asking you for things. There are many systems onboard to support daily life. Battery energy supports all modern conveniences like internet, lights, water pumps, water maker, navigation instruments, etc. If the levels are too low, we need to run the generator. Thus, you need to have sufficient diesel to generate energy or to help the solar panels. This interconnectedness shows you how dependent you are on all these systems, and they are all things we take for granted when living on land. Monitoring and repairing all these systems have become my constant ritual during life onboard. When everything is in balance and working, it also brings professional and family life into balance.