This story is part of The Year Ahead, CNET’s look at how the world will continue to evolve starting in 2022 and beyond.
Cryptocurrency made many of the strangest headlines of 2021. Boosters touted digital currencies as a world-changing technology with the potential to create new economies and empower unbanked populations everywhere. Critics pointed to crypto’s massive environmental footprint, as well as its popularity in online crime. The chasm between these views will be hard to bridge.
Much of the cryptocurrency industry functions as a hype-monster, powered by oddball memes of cute dogs and outer space emoji. The same industry boasts a staggering amount of funding from venture capitalists and private enthusiasts, along with real technical innovations that could radically alter the way we interact with money. And, as it often goes with innovation, what we get may not be what we expect. CNET asked experts to help us navigate crypto’s journey to new lands in 2022. Here’s what they told us.
1. Crypto moves further into the mainstream
Big companies are trying to figure out how cryptocurrency fits into their business. Everyone from hedge fund managers to Starbucks executives is making moves that could impact how we use digital money this year.
When we hear about cryptocurrency in the headlines, it’s often about Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s tweets, overnight millionaires, expensive digital art and hacks. Yet the larger, fundamental changes are often less flashy and attention-grabbing than whatever crypto-hype machine dominates Twitter at any given moment.
“I hope we’re going to see a lot more focus on utility,” said Denelle Dixon, CEO of Stellar Development Foundation. “Instead of focusing just on a few use cases that create a lot of hype, we’ll see more focus on the use cases that drive real value. And more discussion around financial inclusion.”
2. NFTs create new ownership opportunities, and remix old ones
NFT, or nonfungible token, is a buzzy term that many of us heard for the first time in 2021. A new way to determine ownership of digital property using a blockchain ledger, NFTs are increasingly popular in the art and collectibles scenes. One of the most notable NFT collections of 2021 was called the Bored Ape Yacht Club. Go figure.
But the potential of NFTs goes far beyond eccentric digital artworks. NFTs are also used for digital land purchases in virtual worlds and for next-generation music ownership, licensing and publishing. Some observers see a future in which NFTs offer access to special sales or limited-edition products. How about using a NFT as a concert ticket? Or when you log into your favorite video game online? Expect to see all of that in 2022.
“The possibilities of NFTs are endless, since they can be used to log ownership of any unique asset,” Alex Atallah, co-founder of OpenSea, said in an email. “We’re already seeing early use-cases of NFTs being used as event tickets, software licenses, fan club memberships, or otherwise tied to interactive experiences.”
Some of America’s biggest brands, including Nike, are already working on expanding the application of NFTs. But NFTs used in consumer products may only be the tip of the iceberg. How about using an NFT to prove you are you?
“We’ve seen some movement from the artist-driven NFTs to NFTs that are focused on access or authorization,” said Stellar’s Dixon. “There was a party in New York recently where folks got access to the party by purchasing an NFT. So I wonder if we’ll see some focus on leveraging NFTs for digital identity.”
The $85 billion video game industry may be one of the most fertile areas of potential for NFTs. Some of the larger studios are already experimenting with them. And with all the talk surrounding the metaverse, an immersive 3D digital environment that’s been proposed by Meta (Facebook) CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other movers and shakers in the tech industry, NFTs could serve as building blocks for a next-generation digital world.
“Gamers are already accustomed to caring about digital goods, so the potential for NFTs is enormous: a few million NFT users compared to almost 3 billion gamers,” said Atallah. “We’re seeing some exciting developments when it comes to the intersection of NFTs, gaming and the metaverse.”
3. Bigger hacks and bigger ransoms
Cryptocurrencies were used to facilitate millions of dollars of ransomware payments in 2021. That’s because digital currencies include features that make them attractive to criminals. They’re difficult to track, they’re borderless, and once the payment goes through, it’s nearly impossible to unwind.
“We should expect to see more criminals turning to cryptocurrency and services that promise to obfuscate illicit funds due to the misconception of total anonymity,” Gurvais Grigg, a senior tech officer at Chainalysis, said in an email. “Bitcoin is appealing to criminals for the same reasons it appeals to those using them for legitimate purposes: It’s cross-border, instantaneous and liquid.”
Grigg and others expect decentralized finance, a nascent but blossoming industry on the cryptocurrency frontier, to be a popular target for cybercriminals in 2022. Decentralized finance, or DeFi, involves finance that works independently of a central authority or institution. Instead of relying on a bank or credit card network, people can connect directly with DeFi products on a distributed network.
Though the industry is still in its early days, DeFi is a fast-evolving, highly technical space with tremendous potential. As such, it’s attracted a great deal of attention and investment, making it ripe for criminal activity.
“Criminals are likely to explore DeFi as both a target for hacking and as a means to attempt laundering funds through,” said Grigg. “Because of how new DeFi is, and the explosion in adoption in developed markets, these platforms are easy targets for experienced criminals who have conducted similar hacks before.”
4. You’ll hear more about stablecoins
Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have grabbed headlines because of their volatility. You can become a millionaire or lose it all at the hyper speed of the internet. But try buying a latte with bitcoin, and that volatility can make things confusing fast.
Enter stablecoins. This subcategory of cryptocurrency, which is tied to an underlying asset, mitigates much of that volatility. Stablecoins could play a vital role in turning cryptocurrency into something we can easily use to conduct the ordinary transactions of everyday life.
“People should start paying attention to trends in stablecoins both as a medium of payments and as a dollar digital currency. The use cases for cross-border payments, aid relief, instant settlement payments are starting to flourish in 2021 and we will see more of that in 2022,” Rachel Mayer, a vice president of product at Circle, said in an email.
Transferring assets more efficiently is one of the central values of a stablecoin. This value is powerful for companies that need to move digital assets and cash quickly and efficiently.
“On the payments side, more industries will start adopting stablecoins as a more efficient way to make payments,” Omid Malekan, author of The Story of the Blockchain and a professor at Columbia Business School, said in an email. “Stablecoin volumes will continue to grow, but the share of that volume that is only involved in crypto trading will go down.”
5. New crypto rules appear on the horizon
Washington lawmakers sense that cryptocurrency is a big and important thing. But they are struggling, perceptibly, to understand it. It may only be a matter of time before crypto gets its “series of tubes” moment from a hapless representative out of their element.
In December, executives from six cryptocurrency companies were called to testify before the House Financial Services Committee, where they discussed potential paths for future legislation. Lawmakers in the US have expressed interest in a range of topics — whether stablecoin issuers should be considered banks, when to tax cryptocurrency and how to craft functional rules in a highly technical and complex industry. This is tricky stuff. Creating the right standards will take time.
“I think there’s going to be a lot more conversations around crypto and blockchain,” said Dixon, one of the executives who testified before the House committee. Dixon previously testified on the issue of net neutrality before a House committee during her tenure at Mozilla in 2019 and harbors no illusions when it comes to regulating new technology. Some discourse will be positive and some will be negative, “but I just think that [by] having these conversations, we’re going to see policymakers and regulators be more focused, and hopefully, more traditional businesses will be more focused on that.”
There could be more milestones to reach before Americans see a comprehensive framework for crypto-focused legislation. But if industry leaders and elected officials can work together, regular cryptocurrency users and investors may benefit while environmental and security concerns are addressed.
“It’s important to understand that the cryptocurrency industry wants to be regulated, but wants to ensure that proposed regulatory frameworks are feasible,” said Grigg. “Governments globally are working with industry players to create legislation that protects consumers and fosters innovation.”
As the cryptocurrency industry grows up, it will continue to shift in ways we can’t yet imagine. But one thing is clear: Crypto will be a part of our future.