“Communication is orthogonal to computation!” exclaims Elastos co-founder Rong Chen, holding orthogonal’s second “o” long enough to cover three full strides during an afternoon stroll. Rong is joined by his wife, Wei Li, Cassie Zhang, Elastos Foundation Project Coordinator, and myself, Elastos Foundation Writer and Editor, walking leisurely through the city streets of Xining, the capital of Western China’s enormous Qinghai province. A landlocked region located 1,600 kilometers west of Elastos’ nearest office, Xining is rather out of the way, to say the least. The date is Tuesday, August 20, 2019, and the entire Elastos team has set aside six days to step away from project development to reflect, rejuvenate, and bond through a team building trip. The team selected the Qinghai region for its breathtaking landscape, deep cultural and ethnic roots, and peaceful atmosphere; naturally, consensus was achieved through a cooperative democratic process which involved three itineraries and unweighted voting. Earlier Tuesday morning, the Elastos team boarded a pair of planes – affectionately referred to as Elastos Carriers – departing from their twin bases in Beijing and Shanghai. As a matter of security protocol, Rong and his founding partner Feng Han arrived a day early on separate flights so as to prevent any unforeseen catastrophes from permanently locking project funds stored in the Elastos Foundation’s multi-sig wallet.
Finally away from the round-the-clock press of the crypto-space, Rong still carries a catalog of lingering remarks to dispense, all of which pertain to internet infrastructure and the technical missteps involved in its development. Over his lifetime, Rong has spent an enormous amount of time developing and analyzing the foundational building blocks of the web, and has witnessed and contributed to its evolution over the course of several decades. As Elastos’ foremost founder, original developer, and most prominent public figure, Rong is in many ways the face of the project, be it to his liking or not. Much in parallel to the value proposition of Elastos, Rong’s perspective is at once deeply insightful to the technical expert and nearly incomprehensible to anyone else due to his deep, technical vernacular and the internet’s intricate and layered framework which demands such parlance. Accordingly, much of Rong’s rhetoric and technical commentary flies far over the heads of laymen and intellectuals alike. Whether his knowledge is a product of perpetual obsession, innate genius, or some combination of the two is for anyone to decide, but Rong’s historical perspective on the domain of internet development is indisputably second to none. If nothing else, his journey proves that the many parallels drawn between computers, the internet, and the human brain do not naturally facilitate their coherent connection.
At base level, a computer analyzes a string of 1’s and 0’s represented by the orientation of magnetic poles of microscopic media located on a computer’s hard drive. Humans, on the other hand, are wired to interact with and collect information from Earth’s natural stimuli. For this reason, computers present a polarizing challenge to humans because bridging the gap between them requires extensive, unilateral engineering. Developing a computer then is a science of presentation, as a computer’s utility is dependent on its processes of displaying information to and on behalf of its user. Rong defines these invisible processes that synchronize communication between man and machine as abstractions, and they are perhaps the most powerful technological frameworks to ever affect human civilization. A monitor, for instance, is a critical, rudimentary abstraction of computing hardware; for without one, attempting to interact with a computer would be futile.
As Rong narrates on the walk through Xining, computing showed its earliest signs of promise in the 1940s and 50s, when Alan Turing developed abstractions to aid the Allied forces in deciphering Nazi communications during World War II. Turing’s model employed a Finite Automata – an essential framework of predefined responses to any sequence of inputs. When a paper string of 1’s and 0’s was inserted into the computer, the Finite Automata instructed the computer in how to respond. From different sequences of 1s and 0s, the Finite Automata guided the computer to various end states, where each end state produced a unique monitor display interpretable by humans. Such a basic abstraction offered great value in simplifying secure and private communication, as only those with a particular Finite Automata could interpret a designated message encoded in 1’s and 0’s.
August 21 is a damp, chilly morning in Xining, whose 45 degrees fahrenheit feels especially cold in contrast to the intense heat that has been beating down on Beijing and Shanghai all summer long. After a buffet-style breakfast of traditional Chinese vegetables, soups, and breaded goods, the Elastos team boards a pair of tour buses to depart for the historic Ta’er Temple located thirty kilometers southwest of Qinghai’s bustling capital. Upon arrival, Guards stop the tour bus at the opening to the grounds, where a series of small shuttles bring the Elastos team to the Temple’s entrance. More than six hundred years old, the temple grounds originated from a single tower that served as the historic birthplace of a grandmaster Tibetan monk. The Tibetan Buddhist creed upholds notoriously strict principles, and Tibetans demand like compliance from their visitors. As one of Buddhism’s most sacred complexes, visitors are advised to avoid stepping on the ground directly underneath doorways and entrances, a sign of great disrespect in the Buddhist tradition. Photography is also strictly prohibited inside the temple grounds, which prompts Elastos’ team of seventy-plus individuals and family members to pose just beyond the temple’s perimeter for a group photo. Elastos Human Resources Lead Cheng Shuo, who emerges as the trip’s general organizer, ensures everyone is inside the frame and extends a purple banner across those standing in the front row which reads “Go Further, Together!” a statement whose meaning becomes more clear as the trip unfolds.
After the cameras have been put away, a pair of tour guides lead the Elastos team inside the grounds, where the scent of burning herbs pervades a vast labyrinthe of temples, sacred monuments, and antique cultural artifacts. At the center of the complex, the Ta’er Temple remains the feature presentation, housing a 360 kilogram statue composed of pure gold. In fact, it seems that every temple on the grounds holds several golden statues of inestimable value, each adorned with an array of jewelry that elicits solemn awe in even the most hard-wired intellectual.
Rong remains close by, both translating for the tour guide and inserting his own commentary on the plight of Tibetan Buddhism. As he reports, the original Tibetan grandmaster famously seeded two branches of Buddhism, led by the Panchen Lama and Dalai Lama respectively. The Panchen Lama was responsible for internal matters such as guiding prospective monks, whereas the Dalai Lama managed political affairs, speaking publicly and serving as an ambassador for the Buddhist doctrine. It turns out that in addition to his deep background in internet infrastructure, Rong is a bit of a Chinese history buff. As the tour guide takes a short rest to allow a brief period of free roaming, Rong recounts his own path through China’s politically turbulent history.
Born in 1957, Rong was age nine when communist leader Mao Zedong initiated the Cultural Revolution, a period that, contrary to its name, brought about widespread violence, suffering, and destruction throughout China and even forced universities to close their doors. It was not until the Cultural Revolution culminated a decade later that universities reopened to admit a new class. By this time, Rong was 18 months into a successful career in pig farming, where he was especially popular amongst farmers for his knack for returning diseased hog populations to good health. As Rong recounts, “I would find the sickest pig and slice it open to look at the color of its organs.” Rather adept, Rong acquired a reference book of sorts that identified various diseases by the color of a sickly animal’s impaired organs, and would safely assume that the rest of the pack had fallen ill to the same disease. “I was actually quite successful,” says Rong, paying himself a rare compliment as we traverse the temple grounds.
In spite of his early veterinary promise, Rong elected to apply for college at Tsinghua University, China’s most prestigious academic institution where his father had received an education decades earlier. “My father suggested I apply elsewhere to play it safe,” Rong admits, “but I wanted to try.” To both his surprise and that of his father, Rong outperformed an applicant pool of unprecedented size to earn acceptance into Tsinghua’s first returning class, a feat achieved by less than 1% of the university’s 1977 applicants. From there, Rong took up a major in Computer Science, penning the first chapter of his lengthy and ongoing journey into the digital space. As the group congregates for part two of the tour, Rong shares an experience from his youth when he encountered the Panchen Lama himself.
When the tour resumes, the guides announce that part two will hone in on the lifestyles of the Tibetan monks and pilgrims that occupy the monasteries across the temple grounds. While many commit lifetimes to disciplined study, less than one in one thousand achieves grandmaster status, reports Rong, translating on the guide’s behalf. At this moment, Feng Han raises an index finger to assert himself and whimsically expresses his astonishment that Ta’er Temple’s grandmaster acceptance rate is even lower than that of Tsinghua University, the alma mater he shares with Rong. Much to the pleasure of his surrounding team members, Feng’s humor and lighthearted demeanor are on regular display throughout the trip. But in the tour’s second half, there is little humor ahead.
The Elastos team joins thousands of visitors in observing the complex’s pilgrims and monks, who engage in a repetitive act that looks like a burpee minus the pushup. Starting upright on a wooden platform, each pilgrim bends at the knees and leans forward until his or her hands meet a pair of cloths at either side of his or her waist, using them to glide forward until lying prone on the ground with arms fully extended. Each then protracts his or her hands and torso back toward his or her trunk, using both arms and pectorals to push off the ground and return to a standing position with arms raised to the sky. According to the guide, each pilgrim and monk repeats this process 100,000 times, which requires three months at bare minimum. In honor of the temple’s grandmaster, many pilgrims and monks have used this exercise in place of walking to travel thousands of kilometers – a process which takes years.
As the tour progresses, the Tibetan tradition comes more clearly into focus, as further demonstrations of unfathomable discipline and interminable concentration are displayed. In one temple, the tour guide presents an intricate and colorful floral decoration spanning upwards of 100 meters across the temple’s interior walls that is apparently composed of bison butter infused with dye. In order to mold and color the decoration, monks soak their hands in ice water to prevent their body temperatures from melting the butter. Even today, glass containment and full-blast air conditioning only preserve the decoration for two years, after which it must be recreated from scratch. Outside other temples, large cylindrical stones suspended on narrow poles rotate in sync. According to Rong’s translation, Tibetans keep these stone cylinders in perpetual rotation, and passing visitors are asked to give them a whirl as they walk the grounds. One realizes that the Buddhist creed seeks no objective through discipline other than the cultivation of discipline itself; the inward journey to the self – albeit through pain, hardship, and resilience – clears desire from one’s consciousness and cultivates inner peace in its place. It is a sort of principled existence that cleanses the soul at the expense of the pleasures and pursuits most of us consider integral to the experience of life.
After the tour’s conclusion, a brief lunch, and a trip through an on-site museum, the Elastos team is shuttled back to the tour buses, which set off for the hotel. While many use the ride to take rest, quiet time presents the perfect opportunity for Rong to further elaborate on the evolution of computing and its many layers of abstraction. As Rong reiterates, computing abstractions are merely symbolic calculations: operations performed to portray information in a format that humans can make sense of. Abstractions do not change information per se; they simply transform, repackage, and reorganize it. In the decades following Turing’s seminal work, his abstractions were continually advanced, as paper strips were abstracted into data and files located on a computer’s hard drive, and computation was vastly improved to enable computers to fetch data and access files on their own.
Fundamentally, computers offer humans two services: one, they supply vast computing resources to conduct work on our behalf; and two, they project an alternate world – a parallel virtual reality, so to speak – where the laws that govern time and space in the physical dimension do not apply. While the former is more easily conceived, the latter offers humanity the greatest and most profound value. In an alternate virtual world, ideas, goods, and services can be exchanged instantaneously, a condition which confers immeasurable economic and social benefits. Of course, creating a parallel digital landscape requires myriad feats of engineering – that is, many layers of abstraction. Most principly, in order for individuals to conduct exchange in the digital space, each must have a personal claim to digital real estate: an address that is uniquely theirs. In dividing a computer, individuals can acquire some semblance of digital identity from which they are afforded ownership rights.
Such personalization was first provisioned by the advent of the Operating System – OS for short. An OS is a piece of integral software that enhances the user experience by serving as a bridge between the computer’s hardware and application software, allowing the user to navigate between programs and use hardware resources more efficiently. The OS also represents the first instance of individuation in the digital realm, as it partitions a single computer into a number of different user accounts, each containing its own file storage, programs, desktop features, and other customizable characteristics. Though very real to users, the apparent segregation of accounts is in fact an illusion produced by the OS; all processes still take place on one computer, and an administrator may access all files and data at any time. Nonetheless, the OS is the most powerful piece of software on any device, as it comprises an entirely new abstraction layer which functions between the user and the computer’s lower-level abstractions – namely, storage and computation. The OS has been the primary focus of Rong’s adult life.
After the brief bus ride, Rong resumes narration back at the hotel, this time returning to his personal story. Following his undergraduate years at Tsinghua, Rong left China in 1985 to attend graduate school in the United States at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), which became ground zero for the development of the World Wide Web. By 1987, Rong was working at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at UIUC, where he contributed to the development of client-side abstractions for data fetched from supercomputers. Here, Rong reports that his colleagues implemented the first version of TCP/IP network protocols for IBM PCs, as well as server-side daemons running on Cray 2 and Cray X-MP supercomputers – a classic Rong-statement whose informative power is preceded by its esoteric technical lexicon. Most important, Rong and his colleagues laid the primary foundation for a scientific research network, and later birthed Mosaic, the world’s first open source browser and the World Wide Web’s foremost abstraction.
Initially, the internet existed as a series of networks – that is, several connected computers operating together, like those in Rong’s scientific research network. These networks were then connected to other networks in the “ARPANET,” which was later modified and relabeled as the internet. Even without interconnection, networks offered tremendous benefits – namely those involving inter-device communication. For this reason, universities and government entities were among the first to adopt computer network technology. Networks also had a profound effect in augmenting and remodeling a computer’s abstraction layers. First, as exchanging data became a primary operation in network computing, communication joined storage and computation in becoming one of a computer’s base level operations. Secondly, the browser – a tool through which individuals could interact with and issue commands to the network – became a new Network OS running on top of each computer’s native OS. In hindsight, Rong candidly credits Marc Andreesen, a now-famous software engineer, entrepreneur, and investor for first coining the phrase, “the browser is the OS,” in 1995. Suddenly, a computer’s abstraction layers looked very different.
As development was mainly focused on the augmentation of the Network OS, communication processes were not properly abstracted like the rest of a computer’s base operations; instead, they were conducted manually by applications. “In other words,” explains Rong in the dimly lit Xining hotel lobby where we sit, “it was as if application developers were given ten trucks by the network, and it was their job to get the product – you know, the data – from point A to point B.” One cannot estimate how many times Rong has explained the phenomenon of non-abstracted communication over the years, but one senses that the repetition has not dulled his repulsion with faulty infrastructure. “So,” Rong continues, his voice rising in both volume and pitch as he approaches his grand conclusion, “application developers can route data wherever they like, replicate it, and send it all over the place!” Without question, his conclusions cast light on a deeply concerning infrastructural dilemma, one whose consequences Rong has forewarned of since the internet was in its infancy; but it is also difficult to summon the energy to express enthusiasm in the evening’s late hours. Rong continues unaffected: “The OS is critical because it provides a runtime environment for apps, so it must incorporate abstracted communication in order to prevent them from stealing user data.” Rong’s stance is clear: the network should take full control over its own traffic – that is, data transmission processes – fully abstracting them so that application developers can only choose the beginning and end points of the data, and may not access or redirect it. This, Rong says, is the most important abstraction of all.
As Rong’s career progressed, he landed a job at Microsoft as a member of its eleven-person team assigned to developing an internet browser. When Rong learned that Microsoft intended to implement Common Language Runtime, a runtime environment for applications that neglected his imperative of abstracted communication, Rong and two others on the team raised concerns. “Microsoft refused to change their approach,” reports Rong, “but the three of us went very separate ways: one laid down and just went along with it, the other bought a sail boat and sailed around the world, and I quit a few months later.” Rising from desolate pig farms in a troubled communist nation to a major role at a budding global tech company, Rong had made his first in a long line of adamant, principled decisions to follow his path at all costs. In 2000, Rong founded Kortide, a company under which he set out to build a desktop OS in China, where it was easy to get funding because the Chinese government very much wanted to avoid being at the mercy of American tech companies whose established OSs were already spreading across much of the globe.
Day three begins in the early morning, with a 7:30am departure to Qinghai Lake, one of the region’s finest landmarks. Storied to have been part of an ocean approximately 100 million years ago, Qinghai’s water mass is now China’s largest inland, salt-water lake, stretching 69 kilometers north-to-south and 109 east-to-west, all at 3,000 meters above sea level. For the purposes of its trip, the Elastos team sets out to explore a 15 kilometer stretch of the lake’s southern bank by bike. The bike excursion lasts a couple of hours and is truly a treat, especially for anyone regularly stationed in an office space in a highly developed city: deep blue skies with puffy white clouds loom over a placid blue lake to the bike trail’s right-hand side, and a dark-cast patch of clouds cover mountainous terrain and green shrubbery off to the left. The bike path eventually converges with the Qinghai’s rocky shore, where the team members gather to take photos and enjoy the light breeze cascading across its waters.
After lunch, the team heads to a dock where a ferry service carries people to what appears to be an island in the middle of the lake, but is technically a sandbar of some kind. As the lake is surrounded by dirt and stones, this is a relatively enticing attraction. On the walk down to the ferry, Rong initiates 25 seconds of small talk before transitioning to a full-blown discussion about cloud computing, which unwinds over the course of several hours and serves as one of the most informative technical discussions of my young life.
“You have to understand,” begins Rong, “after the internet, cloud computing changed everything.” As per usual, Rong is immediately dialed in with the same heightened energy and mental acuity that he manages to bring to every conversation pertaining to computer technology. And, as per usual, his analysis is rigorous and on point. Walking down the dock’s gray-stoned pathway, Rong gets into gear: “cloud computing is essentially where many virtual machines distribute CPU power amongst one another over the internet.” The virtual machines Rong refers to are hardware devices whose computing resources – storage, communication, and computation – have been abstracted such that they can be redistributed non-locally. Cloud computing describes the set of infrastructure whereby virtual machines can pool and redistribute resources so as to more efficiently serve the needs of individuals within a group. In this way, users seamlessly donate unused computing resources to others while borrowing what extra their needs may demand, and a highly efficient, distributed system is realized.
Of course, in this model communication is conveniently abstracted to avail cloud access, but not to affect processes of manual data transmission. As we board the ferry and take our seats, Rong elaborates on the consequences: “with the cloud, you know, predictably comes the Cloud OS, which is required to pool and redistribute computing resources.” Here, it is very important to recall one of the primary functions of an OS – and of all abstractions, for that matter: to effectively fence off digital real estate that can be securely retained by unique individuals and organizations. Such segregation enables the implementation of an exponentially more efficient digital economy. “When we have all of our computing taking place non-locally – you know, on devices and servers across the world – protecting our data becomes a complete and total impossibility if the right infrastructure is not in place.” The right infrastructure of course, demands the right OS.
Today, internet tech giants like Google and Amazon operate massive cloud farms – Google Cloud and Amazon Web Service, respectively – where users can leverage their virtual machines to store and share files and draw on processing power. In this context, Google and Amazon not only supply cloud storage and cloud computing, but they provide the infrastructure – that is, the Cloud OS – whereby each user is entitled to his or her own digital space via an in-house account. “In effect,” says Rong as we exit the boat and set foot on the sand bar not far off the lake’s southern bank, “Google and Amazon provide Abstraction-as-a-Service, which the user pays for dearly.” He’s right: in his or her immediate experience, a user perceives that he or she is accessing a free Cloud OS, but in fact the user is a valuable asset that generates tremendous wealth for the OS provider in the form of data. Communication is not abstracted and Cloud OS providers have no intention of abstracting it, as their highly lucrative business models depend on mass data harvesting. Because there is only a market for the sale of mass data at present, users are powerless to sell their own even if they could protect it, and Abstraction-as-a-Service has continued to build momentum on these grounds. “Virtual machines operating on the cloud are not a problem,” says Rong. “They are extremely useful. What we need is an infrastructure that ensures that communication is abstracted.” Rong calls for an Internet OS – one that abstracts the functions of cloud computing, a standard Network OS, and communication so that users do not need to rely on a Cloud OS built on top of the internet by a centralized tech giant. That the internet should provide comprehensive abstraction in its core infrastructure is a profound and powerful statement, and one that expresses the foremost value proposition of Elastos.
At this point, Rong is reprimanded by his wife, who notes that the implications of an exploitative Cloud OS have now elapsed several hours of rejuvenative beach time, reminding him, “you have to enjoy things at some point.” This brings an abrupt end to the conversation, and the remainder of the time on the sandbar is spent enjoying the fresh air, clear skies, and Qinghai’s Lake’s reflective waters.
Day four begins with yet another early rising for a trip to Chaka Salt Lake, a now-popular tourist site in Qinghai. 44 million tons of salt saturate the lake, with heaps and piles extending to the horizon in all directions. The lake is famous for the superlative mineral profile of its blue-green salt, which was harvested and delivered to the royal family of the Qin Dynasty over 2,200 years ago. Unlike Qinghai Lake, whose light breeze made for a calm and relaxing day on the water, Chaka Salt Lake is frigid, especially during the morning’s early hours. After entering the site, the Elastos team boards a small group of train cars, each with inward-facing benches that seat four people. On this occasion, I am seated beside Jingyu Niu, Elastos’ System and Product Team Lead. One of the lesser known team members in the west, Jingyu is one of the most skilled technicians on the Elastos team, and is quite literally a genius.
Jingyu majored in Computer Science at Tongji University, one of China’s most esteemed technical schools. As a passionate coder, Jingyu completed all of the university’s computer science courses in his first year at school, and spent his remaining years working a lucrative part-time job as a coder while taking courses in discrete mathematics – courses which he recounts as being “fun, but not challenging enough.” Once out of school, Jingyu took his first full-time position at a Chinese Railway company where he designed their entire backend logistics system. Then in 2005, after attending a seminar from none other than Rong Chen, Jingyu instantly departed for Kortide, and would remain there until it evolved into Elastos. He explains simply in the train car, “I was impressed by his vision.”
Jingyu is an expert in what are called platform services: a set of cloud computing services that perform abstraction in Elastos’ internet OS. Jingyu calls this set of services the “Service Layer,” because it provisions the most basic abstractions for Elastos’ Modern Internet: Hive takes care of data and file storage, Carrier manages communication and the distribution of computational resources, and Elastos’ SPV Wallet and DID Sidechain provide further support for data ownership and digital asset exchange. Lastly, Jingyu names Trinity Browser – the home of Elastos’ Internet OS – which provides OS abstraction so that developers building on iOS or Android – prominent mobile OSs developed by Apple and Google, respectively – need not worry about interoperability between platforms; as an Internet OS, the Trinity Browser brings together the entire Platform Service Layer and provides a runtime environment that can be accessed from any device. Operating atop the Elastos blockchain, the Platform Service Layer effectively abstracts an entire cloud-based computing environment – communication included – while drawing on Trinity to further abstract pre-existing OSs in order to facilitate cross-platform interoperability.
It is a brilliant and comprehensive model which resolves all ills of the present internet’s exploitative infrastructure, but Jingyu is quick to remind that the most important progress is still ahead. Beyond the Platform Service Layer, there is a Framework Layer that draws on platform services to build critical tools that streamline dApp development. “This layer,” Jingyu states with a smile, “is being developed by the community.” Already, Jingyu is excited by the progress of both Peter Strauss’ HyperConnect and Brian Xin’s DMA, which are exemplary projects that have built off Elastos’ platform services to provide IoT and Digital Marketing tools to dApp developers. According to Jingyu, frameworks will be largely demand-driven, and he believes that the proposal system of Cyber Republic, Elastos’ community governance model, will spark major development in both the Framework and dApp Layers. Jingyu emphasizes, “the job of EF is to build the Service Layer. We believe in the strength of the community to build the Frameworks and dApps.” Jingyu speaks with confidence and upholds a firm belief in Elastos’ rapidly progressing development timeline: Trinity beta is targeting a late 2019 release, Cyber Republic Consensus is nearing its launch, and Hack-a-thons are being coordinated to draw in developers to build a robust ecosystem. As a man of many smiles and few words, Jingyu needs only four to express his passion for his work: “I just like thinking.”
As the train cars come to a stop, the Elastos team is greeted by Chaka Salt Lake’s main site, which offers a great deal to explore. Many team members wade out into the salty waters and take photos while others wander around the site, which features several massive statues carved out of the Lake’s signature, blue-green salt along with informative article postings expounding their significance. After covering the grounds and exhausting every photo-op imaginable, the Elastos team boards the train cars to return to the site’s entrance for an early lunch. The day has only just begun, but a long ride awaits. In order to cover the necessary ground to reach the trip’s final destination, the team will have to embark on an eight-hour bus ride and climb 2,000 meters in elevation to reach Qinghai’s desolate Qilian County.
For the first time all trip, transit coincides with heavy downpour, extending the travel time to close to ten hours. For Rong Chen, extended travel time poses no problem; he is ready as ever to talk internet. “Kortide was the beginning of a very challenging journey,” he begins, ruminating on his most recent two decades spent navigating the ever-evolving world of technology. “Originally, we wanted to build an OS to compete with Microsoft Windows and Linux, but we found out in a few years that it was a really overwhelming task.” Rong alludes to the mismatch in resources and manpower between Kortide’s start-up team and Microsoft’s established empire. Not only did Kortide lack the manpower to independently develop an entire OS – a gargantuan task – but they did not have the resources or network to build applications that could function within it. Microsoft’s launch and continued remodeling of the Microsoft Office Suite – which featured Word, Excel, and Powerpoint – provided such great value that users flocked to Windows for those programs alone. Kortide simply could not keep up.
Then in 2004, Rong and his colleagues at Kortide observed a critical emerging trend: the rise of the smartphone. The company immediately pivoted to focus on the development of a smartphone OS, a far more manageable task. Over the course of the following three years, Kortide added a number of strong hires and successfully built a smartphone OS that the team refers to as, “Elastos 2.0.” Unfortunately, at around the same time Apple and Google had risen to power in the tech industry, and released the original versions of iOS and Android, once again pushing Kortide into the backdrop. “Their teams and resources were immense. They roped in all of the best application developers, and Apple was even able to develop its own hardware,” Rong explains. This time, Kortide was on par technically, but was otherwise out of the loop. As Apple and Google went on to establish billion-dollar profit margins around their smartphone OSs, Kortide once again slipped into obscurity.
Deflated but not defeated, Rong refused to give up on his quest to deliver the world’s premier OS, and remained determined to build a better solution grounded in equanimity and self-ownership. After a shaky half-decade toiling to garner support, Rong struck gold in 2012, earning significant investment from tech industry powerhouse Foxconn, a Taiwan-based contract electronics manufacturer whose team believed in Rong’s vision of an internet OS. Rong admits, “we did not know exactly how it would all come together, so we just got started.” Yet by late 2016, Rong and his team still had not completed the Internet OS they had set out to build, as major development obstacles were beginning to take form. Fortunately, Rong had a meeting scheduled with Feng Han, a former colleague he had run into at a Tsinghua University alumni gathering several years back.
“I met Feng briefly in 2013 and he told me to sell my house and buy Bitcoin. I thought he was crazy,” Rong recounts with a fond chuckle. “And I still do.” Though Rong and Feng would continue to share notes intermittently, Rong was not yet taken by Feng’s vision of blockchain, just as Feng was not yet keen on Rong’s concept of an Internet OS. Nonetheless, Rong’s December 2016 outreach hit its mark: Rong and Feng found common ground, together realizing that each possessed the experience and expertise to resolve one another’s most pressing challenges and to develop a product neither could have imagined alone. Like lock-and-key, Rong’s expertise in internet infrastructure provided secure, properly abstracted internet services while Feng’s background in blockchain and digital assets contributed a decentralized network and immutable ledger to support individual data ownership. Over the course of the following six months, Feng paid several visits to Kortide’s Shanghai office to exchange perspectives with Rong, and the two developed a mutual understanding and strong relationship grounded several layers below their contrasting character styles.
“May 30th was a bad day,” Rong remembers aloud. That was the day Foxconn’s investment concluded, and Rong and the company went their separate ways. Rong’s meeting with Feng was scheduled for June 10, and would serve as a major opportunity for the project. “Those were my eleven days of depression,” Rong shares with a smile that reveals not a hint of despair. As the bus maneuvers through the twists and turns of the largely unpaved, rail-less, one-lane highway that carves through the mountainous terrain of Northern Qinghai, Rong appears either unaware or disinterested, his attention fully focused on his story. He continues, “You have to go through that sometimes.” In considering the many forms of hardship Rong has endured and the gentle smile he imparts in recounting them, one realizes that he has exhibited immense resilience and mental fortitude throughout his life, and all with the humble disposition of a man who lives without expectations and refuses to become bitter. Like the monks and pilgrims of the Ta’er Temple, Rong is a sort of fascinating enigma to most because knowing his principles offers only a narrow glimpse into the realities of living by them – that is, to fully embodying the essence of his vision, and to putting his principles before himself. Whether he is ever to become a household name or a billionaire or a glorified advocate of human rights, Rong is by and far what any human being ought to strive to be: himself.
It would seem Feng Han saw as much when he greeted Rong on June 10, 2017, requesting only a BTC wallet address, which Rong sheepishly admitted he did not have. Following the meeting, Rong set up his first Bitcoin wallet, and received a hefty delivery of 100 BTC from Feng shortly after. In suit, Feng drew on his network to bring in NEO founder Da Hongfei and Bitmain CEO Jihan Wu, each of whom contributed 50 BTC. Back on his feet once more, Rong returned to the drawing board, this time with an entirely new blockchain framework to incorporate and build upon. Together as partners, Rong and Feng became an internet odd couple, jointly committing to a shared long-term vision: to return economic freedom and integrity to the digital space. From June forward, Rong rounded up his best and brightest former employees to set the stage for a comprehensive project that neither he nor Feng could have realized alone: a decentralized Internet OS based on blockchain.
At last, the Elastos tour buses miraculously arrive at a well-lit hotel in the barren darkness of Qilian County’s barren mountain range at 10pm, marking the end of lengthy storytelling session. The team hurries through the rain and blistering winds, gobbles down a late dinner, and races to bed to prepare for yet another early morning.
Day five begins with the standard Chinese breakfast buffet and a quiet bus ride to the trip’s highly anticipated feature event: a hike up Qilian County’s legendary Zhuo’er Mountain. As the ancient story goes, there was once a beautiful goddess – what the Chinese refer to as a “celestial being” – who fell deeply in love with a man of the mortal realm. As an expression of her love, it is said that the goddess revoked her celestial status, taking the form of the Zhuo’er Mountain so as to remain with her mortal lover. Though a hard sell for any citizen stationed in the twenty-first century, the story does not miss the mark in speaking to the sheer beauty of the panoramic views available from the mountain’s uppermost plateau: mesmerizing green hills dotted with patches of bright yellow flowers roll across the horizon, meshing seamlessly with orange rock formations that rise up to the sky and cast shadows over serene open plains. Ascending into and above the clouds, the Elastos team follows a series of winding wooden staircases, arriving at the mountain’s uppermost plateau in a comfortable 45 minutes. It’s a brisk walk, but at 5,000 meters above sea level, oxygen comes at a premium.
On this day, Rong spends the majority of his time with his wife, pacing quietly around the mountaintop’s walking trails and enjoying the views. Not to be fully disengaged, he wears a shirt with the words, “I am not Satoshi Nakamoto,” which he reports was gifted to him by the Huobi exchange. Atop the mountain, one of the team’s most cheery and energetic members is Rebecca Zhu, Elastos’ Project Director. In addition to possessing Elastos’ most contagious laugh, Rebecca is the chinese team’s strongest English speaker, after of course Rong Chen. Amongst the Chinese blockchain community, the one surefire way to identify the elite English speakers is to observe the way they enunciate the terms “app,” and, “dApp.” Even strong English speakers are hesitant to pronounce the words phonetically, and so choose to spell them out in conversation to avoid confusing their listeners. Rong is the only team member with the linguistic command and audacity to pronounce the words outright.
Like the others heading the Elastos team, Rebecca holds an exceptional academic background, with an undergraduate degree in automation and a masters in computer science and artificial intelligence. Rebecca began her tenure with Kortide in 2002, where she was responsible for building the project’s OS kernel. Because her family was stationed in Beijing, Rebecca was forced to part ways with Kortide when the company relocated to Shanghai for its pivot to Smartphone OS in 2005. Then, some 13 years later, a February 2018 phone call from Rong Chen had Rebecca back on the team within ten days, this time at Elastos’ newly established Beijing office. Rebecca explains, “We had been in touch in the time in between through our WeChat group.” Connected to the core, team members from Kortide’s early days have continued to keep in contact since the project’s inception, and still do decades later. “We don’t talk about technology too much in there, but we share family photos and happiness and things,” says Rebecca. In fact, as she informs, the team has spent countless weekends together since Kortide’s earliest days, with hiking, swimming, and skiing being group favorites. Today, not much has changed, except that spouses and children come along for the ride, as the Elastos family continues to grow.
After several hours roaming the Zhuo’er Mountain’s uppermost plateau and exhausting another series of photo-ops, the Elastos team at last descends the winding wooden staircases and retires to the tour buses for lunch and much-needed rest. All are prepared for a return trip to Xining, but the tour bus operator has one more stop in store. Shortly after merging onto the highway to depart Qilian County, the tour buses pull off to the side of the road where a vast, open pasture stretches back to the mountainous horizon. A narrow section of land is roped off by a local business offering guided horseback riding, which serves as a charming attraction for some of the team. But the remainder of the grassy plains provide a better opportunity for Elastos to showcase some of its lesser known prospects: the cutest kids in crypto.
Much to the American’s pleasant surprise, the kids – who range from six to eleven in age – have an unquenchable obsession with American football. Having brought a football on the trip, they take it upon themselves to determine teams, and pit themselves against the adults. To their advantage, the kids begin every play in possession of the ball, and attempt to advance it toward a fence a long ways down the pasture. Unfortunately, much of their effort is futile, thanks to Elastos Ecosystem Development Lead Sjun Song, whose build and ferocity parallel that of a middle linebacker, and who spares no child in picking poorly thrown passes out of the air and flattening ball carriers in a fashion that might not even be legal in today’s NFL. After a particularly rough collision with Sjun, six-year-old Ruo Chen suffers a bloody nose which is quickly plugged with an on-hand tissue by his mother, Carrier team member Yu Chen, and returns to play as an enraged offensive lineman. After 45 minutes of relentless pursuit, well orchestrated play-calling, and some truly determined blocking from the Ruo, the kids eventually tire out Sjun and co. to earn their first score, marking the game’s end.
Retiring to the bus with a smile, Sjun seems to have had almost as much fun as the youngsters. The Development Team Lead graduated with a degree in computer science, and emailed Kortide directly in 2005 after finding great inspiration from one of Rong Chen’s articles. In short time, Sjun joined the team, where he was the main contributor to patents. In 2011, Sjun left Kortide to build HTC’s smartphone OS and co-founded an e-commerce consulting company shortly after, scoring a number of high-profile Chinese clients. One of Elastos’ many perpetual smilers, Sjun warmly recounts receiving a pivotal phone call from Rong Chen in March 2017: “My business was very successful, but it was not my dream. Rong is inspiring, and it’s because of his persistency – it’s the same kind as Jobs and Musk.” Sjun adds “he will win.” Sjun’s words are well founded; he sold his entire ownership share at his company and took a massive pay cut to return to Kortide and begin development of the Elastos ecosystem at a time when its funding was nearly depleted. To date, Sjun holds no regrets and is primarily focused on Elephant Wallet, which he has been developing at Elastos’ Shanghai office since September 2018.
Elephant Wallet offers a number of key features to users; most prominently, the application keeps private keys outside the wallet, effectively decentralizing digital asset management and eliminating the need to manage mnemonics. In addition, it is open source, leaving the door open for users to set up their own Elephant servers. Infrastructurally, the wallet leverages the powerful elements of the Elastos Service Layer, already drawing on Hive and the DID Sidechain to protect data ownership while Sjun and his team focus on integrating Carrier to allow for private communication within the Elephant Wallet app. Really the only one of its kind, Elephant Wallet offers digital asset management, decentralized operation, and individual data ownership, while its team continues to work toward reducing barriers to entry in the Elastos ecosystem and creating bridges to other ecosystems. In this effort, Sjun has added support for a number of digital assets from outside the Elastos ecosystem and plans to continue focusing on interoperability. Regarding his perpetual smile and joyful demeanor, he says, “I am in a place where I am closest to my dream: changing the world with code.”
The bus ride back to Xining marks the end of the team building trip’s lively attractions and activities, but the morale inside the tour buses says otherwise. A highly entertaining karaoke session breaks out, with the opening act being courageously performed by Alex Pan, one of Elastos’ strongest coders. After singing a pair of songs in Chinese and Japanese, Alex receives a round of rowdy applause that inspires others to step forward and express themselves in suit. As he later explains, “I feel the same nerves and fear that everyone else does, but I respond differently.” It’s a line of reasoning that, as often seems to be the case at Elastos, suggests a wisdom and inner-awareness that extends beyond the world of brackets of semicolons. There is an unmistakable contentment aboard the tour bus that comes not from certainty or security or any sort of comfort, but from an inner peace with one’s own journey; it is this synchrony of self-awareness, comradery, and collective purpose that evokes a deep sense of satisfaction in the members of the Elastos team.
After a day spent recovering in Xining, the team finally makes its way to the Xining airport for a pair of 10:00pm flights – a departure time that was also determined collectively through a democratic voting process. At the airport, Elastos team members and children alike gather around in a circle to play a popular Chinese card game. As throughout the trip – at meals, activities, and downtime alike – phones remain stored away in pockets and time is spent sharing, laughing, and playing. Though officially termed a team bonding experience, the week in Qinghai has felt like family time more than anything else.
“The office, now.”
“We are there?”
“So then we are not at the office, right?”
“So we are going to the office now, but we are not there yet?”
“That’s right, that’s right.”
Even in the backseat of a Beijing taxi, communicating with Elastos PR Lead Cheng Hao poses a substantial challenge. Cheng Hao is actually one of Elastos’ stronger English speakers and certainly belongs in Beijing’s uppermost decile as far as bilingual proficiency is concerned. It is mid-morning on Wednesday the 27th, and the Beijing native is on his way to Elastos’ office. Along with the erratic maneuvering of Beijing taxi drivers, the start-and-stop traffic on Beijing’s main roads is at times nauseating, but the trip’s extended duration provides a unique opportunity to converse with one of Elastos’ primary decision makers. Cheng Hao, who notoriously goes by his full name among friends and colleagues alike, earned his spot at Elastos through his active participation in Elastos’ main WeChat group, where he exhibited a deep knowledge of the project by frequently addressing inquiries from other community members. For PR Team Lead, Cheng Hao is rather reserved and on the quiet side, but his knowledge of the blockchain space, its many players, and China’s powerful role within it impresses. As he explains, two thousand kilometers up the country’s eastern seaboard, Shanghai and Beijing play home to many of cryptocurrency’s most powerful and world renowned organizations and individuals – the former for influencers and media producers, the latter for big players: cryptocurrency projects, funds, exchanges, and mining pools.
Though his role would suggest a home base in Shanghai, Cheng Hao and his team of five remain stationed in Beijing for the city’s strong network of crypto folk. From his academic background, previous work experience, and uncanny social magnetism, Cheng Hao has assembled a diverse network of highly effective individuals – one which has benefitted Elastos immensely. Over our lengthy taxi ride through standard Beijing traffic, Cheng Hao humbly delivers an impressive tally of the exchanges he has connected with Elastos: LBank, Coinegg, and Kucoin – the lattermost of which he appends, “with persistence.” So too has Cheng Hao contributed to Elastos’ Auxiliary Proof-of-Work hashrate, on-boarding BTC mining pools Via BTC, Ant Pool, F2 Pool, Huobi Pool, and OKEx Pool. Much of our communication involves back-and-forth restating and paraphrasing until he submits his signature confirmation: “that’s right;” but amidst the challenges of a mild language barrier, it becomes clear that from some combination of established connections, selective cold calling, and a careful balance of diligence and patience, Cheng Hao has played both PR and BD in Beijing. A believer in both the tech and vision at heart, he explains simply, “If they understand it, they will join us.”
“If they understand Elastos?”
Elastos’ Beijing office is a short walking distance from Tsinghua University in the Wudaokou neighborhood of Beijing’s Haidian District. Initially a small village beyond Beijing’s Northwestern borders, the Haidian District now occupies a significant portion of the city’s densely populated and booming commercial center, part of which contains Wudaokou. Running 3.2 kilometers east-to-west across Wudaokou, Cheng Fu road crosses through Wudaokou’s central subway station and serves as the neighborhood’s main roadway. Five hundred meters up Cheng Fu Road running west of the Wudaokou subway station, a number of restaurants and local vendors share a large plaza bustling with passersby. The plaza extends two hundred meters, at the back of which stands a six-story beige building that towers over the rest of the plaza’s commercial fixtures. Tucked away to the right of the beige giant in a tight culdesac, a single three-story structure that looks something of a cross between a traditional four-pillared bank and an ultra-modern tech office lies farthest from the plaza’s entrance. The building is owned and operated by an international incubator called, “Plug and Play.” Like their logo, Plug and Play’s interior is rather blocky and unusually black. It is unclear whether the building provides elevator service, but all of its occupants use a staircase off to the right just inside the entrance. Up two flights of thickset black stairs, Plug and Play’s top floor comprises a large rectangular space that has been sequestered into two office pods directly opposite one another by makeshift, translucent glass walls. Elastos owns both.
Between the two office pods stands a pair of square white tables, each furnished with four wooden stools bearing cushioned seats. The table nearest to the stairwell is occupied by four men, three of whom listen attentively to a well composed speaker in a white polo shirt who appears twenty years their senior. With broad posture and ballpoint pen in hand, the man in white dictates to the table with a demeanor that reflects experience and commands authority. Several sheets of standard 8.5 X 11 printer paper lay scattered across the table, each with a hand-drawn diagram consisting of a series of interconnected squares, circles, and alphanumeric characters. Each diagram contains the letter “H” enclosed by a heavily bolded circle.
The table’s impressive lead is Shunan Yu, Elastos’ Head of Blockchain. Shunan discovered his passion for programming during his high school years, and was set on studying computer science by the time he arrived at university. Much to his dismay, he was handed an early dose of adversity when his university’s administration denied him a computer science major, forcing him to select otherwise – at the time, basically a life sentence to a career elsewhere. Refusing to relinquish his vision, Shunan elevated his efforts throughout his college years, piling on public coursework from any and all available sources while completing a degree in petroleum engineering on the side. By the time of his graduation, Shunan presented himself to employers as a highly skilled computer programmer and earned his first job at a company that produced software for banks, leaving behind his major for good.
In 2015, Shunan had his first run-in with blockchain when his company began exploring blockchain-based software solutions for banking applications. As in his academic career, Shunan took full responsibility for his own education, rapidly cultivating expertise in blockchain. From his personal investigation, Shunan became disenchanted with his company’s research, which focused on the development of permissioned blockchains – those that require that network nodes originate from a defined group of organizations in order to participate in consensus. Although all nodes in a permissioned blockchain possess equal shares of power in consensus, the model’s inherent exclusivity prevents the formation of a truly open network and perpetuates systems of oligarchy. Grappling with the limits of his basic English, Shunan later slams an open palm into the table of the downstairs café where we talk, stating emphatically: “public blockchain is the real blockchain.”
Though simple, Shunan’s adamant testimony points to the harsh reality that many of blockchain’s most ardent supporters choose to comfortably ignore: blockchain – like any other revolutionary technology – is entirely agnostic, which is to say, the nature of its impact is a function of its design and application, not of any innate attributes. Both in private conversation and among his team of 19 at Elastos’ Beijing office, Shunan’s word is preceded by his demeanor, which impels a strong sense of urgency in the rapidly advancing digital asset space. Shunan anticipates a pair of fast approaching trends: a significant rise in the value of digital assets as they become accepted as formidable stores of value, and a surge in dApp development and adoption in the mainstream. As of now, public blockchains are in a race to complete development and attract dApp developers to build on their platforms; really, it is a competition to host the killer app. In this pursuit, Shunan and his team are focused on two primary objectives: establishing secure hybrid consensus on the Elastos Main Chain, and providing industry-leading versatility and performance for developers via Elastos’ Sidechain frameworks, which currently include the Token, DID, NEO, and Ethereum Sidechains.
Formally, Elastos’ Beijing office was established in 2017 to focus on the augmentation of blockchain-sidechain architecture and hybrid (AuxPow + DPoS) consensus, whereas the Shanghai office was to remain focused on the core technology and ecosystem development. Mostly, all has gone as planned, except for the critical development of Elastos’ third line of consensus: Cyber Republic Consensus (CRC). In large part, CRC has been the brainchild of Yipeng Su, who holds the most senior position at the Beijing Office as Chief System Architect, working closely with Rebecca Zhu. Quite clearly one of the smartest people anywhere in the space, Yipeng’s love for technology and programming is the sort that stems from obsession – the strongest indication being his record-long coding session which spanned 60 consecutive hours. After entering college in 1990 as a computer science major and graduating at the start of the internet boom in China, Yipeng began work as a project manager at a consulting company where he was responsible for the national system integration of China Telecom, China’s first internet provider. With a deep background in hardware, software, and internet infrastructure, Yipeng joined Rong at Kortide in 2002 to support the development of China’s sovereign OS. In 2004, when Kortide pivoted to Smartphone OS, he served as the team lead.
Yipeng departed Kortide in 2010 to contribute to Smartphone OS development at Xiaomi, a young company that would develop into a modern tech giant at the forefront of the Chinese Smartphone industry. With a deep background, technical expertise, and a wide range of experience working for China’s top tech companies, Yipeng then added entrepreneurial success to his track record, starting a successful business to develop applications for the Chinese government and achieving a great deal of personal satisfaction. At least, until an April 2017 phone call from Rong Chen concerning blockchain and an internet OS prompted him to change course. Yipeng returned to Elastos in July 2017 as the project’s System Architect. Having already encountered blockchain in 2012, Yipeng set aside time to fully master the subject – a task which took him all of a month. He explains his method: “just read Mastering Bitcoin and use the web.” The critically acclaimed deep dive published by long-time Bitcoin evangelist and globally renowned public speaker Andreas Antonopolous is certainly one of the most complete resources available on Bitcoin, but one suspects that a deep-seated intelligence and many layers of mental modeling set Yipeng’s understanding apart from the pack.
Examining his career trajectory – not to mention that of Elastos’ other standouts, Jingyu, Sjun, Rebecca, and Shunan – one cannot help but wonder what has brought Yipeng back to Rong’s team. One also wonders how Elastos can succeed against the very tech giants from whom it has twice been dealt frustrating setbacks. Sitting beside Rebecca at Plug and Play’s downstairs café, Yipeng responds with unmistakable confidence, delivering perhaps the most profound technical commentary in both Kortide’s and Elastos’ eventful history: “Elastos 1.0 and 2.0 did not win because centralization was a crucial advantage – the resources of the big companies enabled them to build stronger ecosystems around their products. 3.0 is different because the value vested in a blockchain is a function of the degree to which it creates a decentralized ecosystem through consensus.”
True to his vision, Yipeng has been hard at work architecting Elastos’ elegant hybrid consensus which employs merge-mining Bitcoin and democratically elected Delegated-Proof-of-Stake Supernodes. This time around, Elastos has the upper hand because it is decentralized, a near-impossible feat for a profit-seeking entity like Apple, Google, or Microsoft. But Yipeng cautions, “In order to win, we need the community to develop. Our job is to give them the best decentralized infrastructure and the tools to win.” In supporting the community, Yipeng has also dedicated himself to designing CRC, Elastos’ third line of consensus that provides the community with a method of allocating funds, making collective decisions, and conducting self-governance via the Elastos blockchain. Yipeng reminds, “Cyber Republic is not a DAO; DAOs have funding plans and business goals. Cyber Republic is a naturally existing community – it is fertile land where the ecosystem grows. The community will bring this project success, not the blockchain.”
Rebecca chimes in as well, expressing that the CRC does not need to be perfect from its outset: “we have established a strong starting point, which is most important. From here, the community can autonomously modify CRC itself.” True to their visions, principles, and goals, Yipeng, Rebecca, and the rest of the Elastos team are committed to realizing a fully decentralized ecosystem, so much so that they welcome their own dissolution. Yipeng envisions the Elastos Foundation will transition to a standards organization that delivers a set of standards to ease the development process and contribute to cohesive ecosystem growth. “RFC drove the first internet,” he says, “we need global standards so anyone can contribute to our prototype.” With a holistic and long-term vision, Elastos’ Beijing office plays a crucial role in augmenting blockchain to Elastos’ ever-promising Modern Internet.
On Friday the 29th, the Beijing team leads board a train on China’s famous high speed railway heading to Shanghai, where an evening cruise will commemorate the second anniversary of Elastos. Boarding the 9:00am train departing from Beijing’s South Station, Shunan, Rebecca, and Yipeng are joined by Ben Lee, who leads operations in Beijing and serves with Rong Chen and Feng Han on the Elastos Board. Ben studied information management and spent several years working as a human resources director in finance, real estate, and information technology. Eventually frustrated with his limited impact, Ben quit his job in 2017, packed up his belongings, and spent six months traveling the world. Through his travels, Ben discovered Bitcoin in June 2017, and was especially inspired by blockchain’s potential to reforge social and organizationational structures. In addition to trading BTC and LTC, Ben began investigating self-organizing infrastructures, which he considers more a natural evolution than a social revolution. After organizing his own blockchain community in October 2017, Ben met Rong at an event in November, and was – like so many before him – inspired by Rong’s vision. Rong at once recruited Ben to join Elastos as the team’s Operations Lead.
Traveling more than 200 miles per hour down China’s east coast, Ben sits beside his colleagues of 18 months, describing what inspired him about Elastos. In his words, it was the project’s “holacratic potential.” Ben sought to shape and implement a new operational mechanism, one which would be fluid and flexible so that all team members could contribute their greatest strengths to the project and feel empowered in doing so. Without a doubt, the many authentic smiles and principled testaments on display throughout the team building trip are emblematic of Ben’s success. Over the course of the week in Qinghai, it was basically impossible to distinguish projects leads from entry level coders from even PR writers; everyone shared and connected with one another, and there appeared to be no social hierarchies or cliques to speak of. Even within Elastos, no better example of fluid organization exists than the Elastos Board, where Ben serves alongside Elastos’ revered co-founders, who notoriously polarizing in their approaches – one intensely technical and the other light-hearted and ecosystem-focused. Fully aware and a step ahead, Ben has established a harmonious system that opens space for all approaches and perspectives to coexist: “we always share open debate and discussion and we all respect one another,” he says.
Ben reserves time every Wednesday for the project’s teams to come together to share their progress and perspectives and to engage in open and respectful debate. He elaborates, “we do not always agree with one another, but we trust in the integrity of everyone’s intentions and support each other on that basis.” Once again, Ben’s words are echoed by the conduct and comradery of the team throughout the team building trip. It is most profound to consider that Elastos’ augmentation of blockchain – which is designed to automate trust via digital infrastructure – sets out to distribute to the world a sort of warmth and communal symbiosis which Elastos’ team members share amongst themselves. Ben agrees: “we are creating an infrastructure to allow the trust we all share to flow outward into our community and beyond,” he says, extending his arms to illustrate the concept. “It is our way of sharing our relationships and happiness with others.”
Arriving in Shanghai in just under four-and-a-half hours, China’s high speed rail affords the Beijing team leads enough time to check in with their Shanghai colleagues before the cruise. The Elastos office is located in Shanghai’s Hongkou District, several blocks from the city’s famous Huangpu River. Much in contrast to Elastos’ Beijing location, the Shanghai office occupies a more conventional office building whose entry features a large, revolving door and whose multiple elevators offer access to twenty-something stories of premier office space. The Shanghai office also appears more upscale, as a massive piece of modern artwork hangs over several bouquets of professionally arranged flowers to greet entrants. Up eleven floors, a pair of sleek, glass doors labeled “New Chainbase,” slide apart to reveal a narrow walkway with several adjacent working areas. Elastos is headquartered in a single room at a long, rectangular table, but many of the floor’s spare tables, desks, and work areas are regularly unoccupied. In the Shanghai office, Rong Chen, Jingyu, Sjun, and others developing Elastos’ core infrastructure continue to focus on the tech. However, there is one new face in the crowd that stands out.
Most immediately, it is because he’s white, but Benjamin Piette has also just recently joined the team – well, re-joined to be specific. Ben too was an original member of Kortide, but Rong Chen has only recently paid him one of his signature inspirational calls to request his return. Needless to say, Rong’s success rate remains intact. Originally from France, Ben is a software engineer specializing in project coordination who brings a wealth of experience developing user-friendly applications for both iOS and Android. “So much needs to be refined,” says the Frenchman. “The Chinese team is brilliant with the tech; I am here to fill the gap with the end user.” Now the Trinity Project Lead, Ben is focused on making Trinity simple and comfortable for developers to use. As he explains, “we need to make things easier for external developers to access. Some pieces are already here, but they need to be usable.”
To bridge the gap between tech and developers, Ben is creating a developer website to streamline the on-boarding process. In his eyes, elastos.org engages individuals, Elastos.Academy motivates and entices developers, and the Elastos developer website supplies the technical know-how to get started. He outlines his vision: “we should not give developers too many choices; we need to define a clear path. We need simplicity.” Ben knows well what Apple, Microsoft, and Google have put into action: powerful tech is not enough; simplicity, aesthetics, and usability are major factors that are paramount to the success of Elastos. Ben is on top of it.
The Elastos team departs the Shanghai office at 5:00pm to enjoy a cool evening walk to the Huangpu River harbor. At the dock, an impressive three-story cruise ship awaits the team, whose second anniversary celebration will take place on the third floor. After ascending two floors of banquet events just getting underway, the team arrives to a full crowd of developers, partners, and media personnel. Three long, rectangular tables jam-packed with turquoise, felt seats extend lengthwise from the boat’s stern to hull, where a speaker stage is bedecked with banners promoting Elastos DMA, the event’s sponsor. Servers hand out bracelets to newly arriving attendees and a gorgeous hostess in an extravagant maroon dress stands stage-right to lead the proceedings. At first glance, the third floor festivities appear a carbon-copy of those taking place two floors below, but it soon becomes clear that it is an authentic Elastos affair: the servers are in fact members of DMA’s developer team and it turns out that the gorgeous hostess in the extravagant maroon dress is actually a contributor to three separate blockchain ventures.
DMA Founder Brian Xin begins the proceedings with a light greeting and immediately passes the mic to Rong Chen, whose warm welcome rapidly transforms into a galvanizing sermon on the vital importance of building up the Elastos ecosystem. Like everyone else at the event, Rong speaks in Chinese, so intermittent translation services have to be sourced from Manhattan Project Fund CEO Song Bao, who has just returned from an event in Shenzhen where he and Feng Han joined representatives from Tencent and the World Bank in launching a Trusted Computation Initiative based on Elastos. Lasting all of 90 seconds, Rong’s speech punctuates in an especially impassioned exclamation which earns raucous applause – one Song roughly translates to, “anything without intrinsic value is bullshit!”
Following Rong, Feng gives a speech about his recent trip to Shenzhen with Song, and elaborates further on the importance of ecosystem development. When Rong and Feng speak in Chinese, each has a sort of charismatic ethos that draws believers – the former for his outspokenness and principled character, and the latter for his free-spirited self-expression and witty humor. Though stylistically polar opposites, each man carries a sort of original candor; each has put his time, money, and energy behind his words with uncompromising consistency, and has led not by command, but by example. Each commendable in his own regard, Rong and Feng have alone and together earned the human race’s most valuable and elusive construct: the trust of others.
After Rong and Feng, Yipeng Su takes the stage to speak about CRC and the importance of community governance in ecosystem development, and Brian Xin closes the proceedings by delivering a speech about DMA, which is celebrating its 1-year anniversary alongside Cyber Republic. With the exception of Xin’s announcement of Uptick, a decentralized application for a second-hand ticket exchange launching on Elastos with the help of DMA, this year’s speeches have a different feel than those one year prior, when Elastos hosted its 1-year anniversary in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The 2018 event was a celebration, and an invigorating one at that, but this year’s occasion gives off the aura of a strategic planning session; very little is discussed in the realm of what has been accomplished, as all minds are intently focused on what is ahead. This year’s anniversary is about Elastos’ future, not its past.
With the culmination of Brian Xin’s speech, the audience congregates on the stage to take a commemorative group photo and cut the inaugural slice of anniversary cake. After a light scramble for prime real estate on the dinner buffet line, which features an international selection including chicken masala, steak and potatoes, and jellyfish salad, the ship’s doors are opened to allow attendees to enjoy the fresh air. Many take photos in front of Shanghai’s famous Oriental Pearl TV Tower, while others remain seated inside to enjoy their meals. Yipeng Su cuts open his middle finger on a sharp object jutting out from one of the ship’s deck doors and wraps it in a provisional bandage composed of napkins and paper towel to subdue the bleeding. Given that his role as System Architect involves little coding, no significant concerns arise, and he arranges to visit a hospital later in the evening for proper disinfection. Otherwise, the rest of the evening is a casual affair spent enjoying the newly erected city skyline along Huangpu’s eastern bank.
After ten magnificent days in China, the morning of August 30 is a somber reminder that a final departure is drawing near. However, one final engagement remains: a brainstorming session with Elastos’ most enigmatic figure, Sunny Feng Han. After meeting in our hotel lobby at 10:00am, Sunny proposes a walk to the nearby Citic Plaza, a two-tiered outdoor shopping mall three blocks from Elastos’ Shanghai office. Sunny is both extremely successful and extremely intelligent, but there is not a soul on the planet that could detect his track record in his public demeanor: Sunny wears a loose button-down shirt and slacks on almost every occasion, and carries a backpack whose straps he secures so tightly that his torso tilts forward when he walks, down-shifting his default line of sight to the ground two meters in front of him. Whether his posture is a necessary compensation for weighty cargo or a disposition acquired from his earlier years hauling around textbooks, Sunny has an uncanny way of concealing his intellectual prowess behind a host of quirks and idiosyncrasies.
After an eight-minute walk, we arrive at Zoo Coffee, a Korean café-and-stuffed-animal-merchandiser-in-one located on Citic Plaza’s ground level. Before our meetings, Sunny generally needs to find or adjust a gadget of some kind in order to proceed comfortably, and today’s missing piece is an Android charger which he has lost during transit. After quickly retrieving a new one from an electronics retailer nearby, Sunny returns to pick up his cappuccino and begin our conversation. Catching up is a pleasure, as Sunny departed Qinghai two days early to launch Elastos’ Trusted Computation Initiative in Shenzhen and has much good news to share. Much to my pleasant surprise, Sunny’s English has also improved dramatically in the previous months, which he attributes to time spent listening to English audiobooks by Austrian Economist Ludwig von Mises.
Growing up in the southwestern city of Sichuan, Sunny knew early on that his education was not on par with that of his peers in Beijing, and took to independent studies in order to keep pace with China’s finest. In high school, Sunny’s efforts to rise above his class led him to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s famous PSSC physics textbook, where he first discovered the work of illustrious physicists Albert Einstein and James Clerk Maxwell. Sunny reminisces about his first encounter with Maxwell’s Electromagnetic Theory and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity with a tender nostalgia one would not normally associate with a man of science: “I entered a very, very wonderful place, like Alice,” he says. When describing his journey through the worlds of physics and blockchain, Sunny speaks with an affection so authentic and unadulterated it feels apocryphal even to revise his faulty grammar.
Following his high school years, Sunny transitioned comfortably to Sichuan University, where he developed a well-rounded foundation in physics and brushed up against its most perplexing descendant, quantum mechanics. A discipline famous for the minds it has left wrung out and disheveled, quantum mechanics comprises a near-inconceivable set of principles that describe the elemental behavior of our reality at the subatomic level. Seemingly the stuff of magic, the quantum contradicts a human’s fundamental experience of life and is not easily accepted by anyone, much less understood. Try as he did, Sunny found himself baffled by the principles of the quantum plane and would continue to grapple with them throughout his academic career. Post-graduation, he made his first major move out of Sichuan – mostly to escape his controlling mother – and began his adult life as a physics teacher in Qinghai, where he spent three years teaching, exploring the area’s natural beauty, and occasionally pondering the quantum. Having much experience in the region, Sunny reveals here that he was the one who nominated Qinghai as a potential destination for the team building trip. Though hard to imagine, he avows it was even quieter and more peaceful when he first arrived.
Three years into his teaching career, Sunny found his mind increasingly occupied by quantum mechanics. He recalls, “it creates many paradoxes with our world; I could not match them. I feel puzzle and frustration about it.” Determined to resolve his inner discontent, Sunny enrolled in the quantum mechanics PhD program at Tsinghua University, headed by Nobel Prize Laureate C.N. Yang. Yet after three years of intense study, Sunny still had not made significant ground in finding inner peace, and withdrew from his studies to start Yuncol, an online English education program through which he achieved tremendous success over the course of two decades. Nonetheless, Sunny remained dissatisfied: “When I am CEO, everything will follow me. I do not like such feeling.” Disenchanted with life as an executive and still perplexed by the quantum realm, Sunny made a return to Tsinghua University in 2013, where his mentor welcomed him warmly and provided a space for private study.
That same year, Sunny discovered Bitcoin, at once resolving his puzzlement and inspiring him in his search for purpose. He explains, “When I met Bitcoin, I saw many rays of sunlight. At last I understand – oh, it’s so wonderful, it’s a beautiful thing. Bitcoin belongs to this holistic universe; it is a natural one.” Perhaps the only one for whom Bitcoin illuminated the great mysteries of the universe, Sunny followed his philosophical epiphany with bold action. Unlike Rong Chen, whose opinion he would fail to sway later that year, Sunny sold his house immediately and invested the proceeds in Bitcoin. Fully committing to his new path, Sunny also became a prominent Bitcoin evangelist in China, rising to great popularity in the Beijing and Shanghai blockchain communities within three months’ time. “I found the quantum ontology,” says Sunny, referring to a means by which to use quantum mechanics to describe and explain the micro and macro alike. To share his ontology, its application, and its relationship to Elastos, Sunny and I are co-authoring a book titled The Era of Quantum of Wealth, which is always the centerpiece of our discussions.
After three years of successful investment and speaking within the blockchain space, Sunny found his next dose of inspiration in Rong Chen’s 2016 confrontation. He recounts, “at first I could not understand his project; I was not interested. But then I see it is all connected: we have the same goal, same dream, same believing.” Sunny places great emphasis on the collective beliefs of humans, regularly referring to Yuval Noah Harari’s best-seller Sapiens to describe the power of the stories we tell and believe: “we have a very powerful energy, a power to achieve, but only together in consensus.” Such consensus, Sunny asserts, is the mechanism by which humans affect change in the present and construct the future. Really, myths and stories are humanity’s original and cardinal abstractions; they give us a sense of identity, a perception of time, and therefore, a basis for ownership. In effect, abstractions establish the foundation for economic exchange and realize the construct of wealth.
Since their earliest origins, humans – homo sapiens, to be specific – have used such abstractions to function collectively and achieve stable self-organization. Thus, a civilization and its economy are only as stable as are their abstractions, and the most vital element in any society is the glue which holds together these abstractions among its people: trust. In the context of economics, wealth is the abstraction, and credit is the trust required to facilitate exchange. However, as the advent of computers and the internet have set off a massive migration to cyberspace, the economy now manifests in digital form. On the internet, data is the abstraction, and computation is the trust required to facilitate exchange. What’s missing is the infrastructure: the underlying digital framework that supports abstraction and secures trust. Together, Sunny and Rong paint the full picture: Elastos’ blockchain-based Internet OS is the digital infrastructure that supports the abstraction of data ownership and provides the trusted computational environment to facilitate its exchange; it is the Modern Internet – that is, the modern infrastructure – for a modern Smart Economy.
To Sunny, the goals of The Era of Quantum Wealth and Elastos are one and the same: “to show many persons, to make them believe in our story. Then we can make a grand consensus as an Elastos family.” At Elastos, it’s always a family affair.