Reflections on what a founder's vision means for the future of crypto, organizations and Visa
By Cuy Sheffield, Head of Crypto, Visa
When we think about industry-defining pioneers, we think not only about the impact they made, but the prescience of their vision — their ability to see a future state where few others, if any, could.
Dee Hock, Visa’s founder, was one such pioneer. His vision was far-reaching. And 60 plus years later, it has come into sharper focus.
Since Dee passed away last year, I've been reflecting on his incredible legacy and the striking parallels between his ideas and the fundamental concepts that underpin crypto, blockchain, AI, and the many communities that have emerged around these developing technologies.
Dee took pride in "peeling the onion" as a way to distill commonly-accepted concepts and truths. He started by asking first principles questions like “what is money?” and “what are the different ways in which it can manifest?”
When he took the reins at BankAmericard, he saw the term “credit card” as a misnomer — one that clouded both the organization’s potential and purpose. If, at its most basic, money was simply a medium of exchange, a store of value, and a unit of account, all anchored in trust, then its form was endlessly mutable and flexible. Decades before the widespread adoption of the personal computer and the internet, he foresaw a future where the exchange of value would become "nothing more than guaranteed alphanumeric data" that could "move around the world at the speed of light and at miniscule cost.”1
At its most basic, crypto is many new forms of cryptographically guaranteed alphanumeric data. In order to analyze what crypto is and could become, you have to start with questions similar to the ones that Dee Hock posed around the definition of money, and how money might evolve as new technologies are applied. If money itself changes, what does that mean for commerce, human behavior, society, and the future?
Managing the delicate balance of cooperation and competition
When Dee closed himself and a handful of bemused bankers off in a little hotel in Sausalito in 1969, they tussled with a different question: “If anything in the world were possible, if there were no constraints whatever…what would be the nature of an ideal organization to create the world’s premier system for the exchange of value?”2 And they struggled, for about three days, to no avail.
After the third day, as Dee recounted himself, he looked to nature. “Nature creates these kinds of organizations just by the billions. Brains and human beings and rainforests and climatic systems, and none of them look like the corporate structures and the nation-states we're operating in,”3 Dee realized.
And so he turned again to first principles, bringing to the group questions that would ultimately dislodge them from where they were stuck: “What if we just ask ourselves, 'What are the principles on which such an organization should be based? Should power be centralized, or should it be distributed? And what do we mean by 'power' and 'authority'?’ Well nobody thought that this had a chance of working if the power were centralized. It'd have to be dispersed.”4
And that was the beginning. That was the thought exercise that would birth the founding principles behind an organizational structure that balanced cooperation and competition harmoniously — a chaordic organization.
What would ultimately become Visa was a self-organizing, member-owned, non-stock corporation that balanced cooperation around rules and operating requirements with intense competition between members around products. Dee believed that "inherent in Visa is the archetype of the organization of the 21st century."5
Crypto’s parallels to Visa
Nearly fifty years later, the crypto industry coined the term DAO (decentralized autonomous organization) as a new self-governing economic entity — a number of which have grown to develop and help operate public blockchains and decentralized protocols that offer financial services via smart contracts, and process trillions of dollars of transactions. Ethereum, for instance, is a kind of 2.0 version of the chaordic spirit — where cooperation and competition are balanced in a way that mirrors the natural order.
As early as 2015, Dee Hock commented on the potential of Bitcoin and public blockchains remarking that “We live in the 21st century but are still using command and control organizational structures from the 16th century. Bitcoin is one of the best examples of how a decentralized, peer-to-peer organization can solve problems that these dated organizations cannot [...] it presents incredible opportunities for new levels of efficiency and transparency in financial transactions.”6
Today, at Visa, we think of public blockchains as additional networks, not unlike real time payment (RTP) or ACH networks. We have assembled a global team focused on serving partners in the crypto ecosystem and building products that help crypto users seamlessly convert and spend their crypto at any of the 80 million merchant locations worldwide that accept Visa, all without the complexity of managing cryptographic keys.
The last word
After discovering Dee Hock's ideas, particularly as they relate to new governance models and new networks for the exchange of value, I became convinced that he must be aware of crypto and public blockchains and be excited about them — which of course he was, joining the board of a Bitcoin wallet company in 2015.
But he still thought often of Visa — what it was and would become. Around the company’s 60th anniversary, then-CEO, now Executive Chairman Al Kelly met with Dee to hear a few reflections. When asked about the future of Visa, Dee had a few thoughts. It seems only fitting that he get the last word here:
“If I were to be looking ahead with Visa, I would be saying that this is an incredible heritage. It is truly an odyssey, and always has been…I would say to myself if I were at Visa, ‘I'm part of that odyssey.’ I would realize that the Visa name has no limitations, geographically, culturally…anything. It can be anything you want it to be. When I look at its natural market, which is every exchange of value in the world, it's hard for me to believe that Visa is anywhere beyond 20, 25, 30% of its potential. What the form will be, I can't imagine.”7
7 Interview with Dee Hock, May 18, 2018, Olympia, WA
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