Crypto assets are like marmite, it’s a topic that will divide a room of technologists and just like the savoury sauce with the funky aroma you’ll either “love it or hate it”. But unlike say the eternal emacs/vim war, the divisions on this topic are entirely philosophical and about culture instead of technology. A lot of us older grizzled engineers came from an open source culture that, at least aspirationally, built software around ideas of abundance, post-scarcity, universal access, and equality. We may not have always succeeded in achieving such goals, but these ideas informed much of what we now take for granted as the open source substrate that powers well … everything.
However the times they are a changin’, and many of the old ideas have largely been displaced by the rising generation of software developers, and instead we now see an ascendant soft-neoliberal philosophy of software that believes in the infallibility of markets, deregulation and almost deifies the notion of scarcity. Information doesn’t want to be free anymore. And then came NFTs which are almost the purest embodiment of this conflict of ideas one could possibly imagine: a purely speculative asset built on the supposed notion of artificial information scarcity and whose entire existence depends on a collective shared faith in this notion. A belief that artificial information scarcity is not only inevitable but desirable, and that the act of buying the “vanity of buying” is just the latest fashion in conspicuous consumption because All is Vanity.
Much ink has been spilled describing the technical internals of NFTs, and about as equal as much ink has been spent on obscurantism and decentralized woo woo to explain why the internals don’t matter. There is very little common ground on such debates because to the faithful the value of NFTs is a presuppositional truth instilled in them by the revelation of making money off them. And simultaneously the non-believers can “right-click” or Torrent any NFT as a statement of the rejection of the ontological status of playing word games with the term “own”.
Still to a lot of us technologists, it looks like NFTs are the emperor running around with no clothes and crypto acolytes are selling broken hyperlinks to each other as either vanity projects or get rich quick schemes. But truly that is the message of the Andersen folktale, that power begets the capacity to inspire delusion in the masses. And that’s why this subject is such a divisive one, because the entire enterprise of NFTs is like a mental contagion that can only sustain itself by perpetual proselytizing and conversion. A lot of us feel this in our bones, because we know and lost friends that went “down the crypto rabbit hole” and turned into wildly different people, oftentimes for the worse because these ideas tend to have a comorbidity with risk-seeking and gambling problems.
There’s nothing new under the sun and the phenomenon of self-perpetuating faith-based economic schemes are well known to exist, there’s even a term: the Tinkerbell Effect. The phenomenon where things that are thought to exist only because people believe in them. The crypto acolytes really believe they can will into existence a whole new epistemé of value detached from the classical economics of the previous order. And that’s an idea that’s not without some historical precedence. The first book about virality of mania was written by the Scottish journalist Charles Mackay back in 1841 (See Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds), and to this day it remains the definitive reference on crypto mania because human nature remains largely invariant across the ages.
Yet beneath the naked will to bend reality around large expensive prime numbers, there is hardly a coherent story of what such a world would even be in their imagined future. Without loss of generality the essence of the NFT modality of thinking is that I can buy an authentic Ape from an authentic GorillaExchange on an authentic blockchain called BananaChain. Now if you happen to buy the same Ape from the MonkeyBazaar on MangoChain then the conflict in our definitions of value stems from which Tinkerbell halo you see more strongly, and a priori there’s no logical reason to choose either market or chain as they all simply exist as illusions in the minds of their respective believers. It’s not hard to see how this all devolves into a farce of absurd Mango vs Banana tribalism in competition for believers, because that’s the real coin of the land when selling coins backed only by memes. And that’s exactly the world we see being birthed by crypto markets: the Tinkerbell Griftopia.
Perhaps the crypto acolytes are fine with this absurdism, as I’ve written before there seems to be an intrinsic tolerance for intellectual incoherence at the heart of all crypto assets. There is a kind of value nihilism and todestrieb that seems to be at the heart of most crypto apologetics. And to be fair in the scope of all human experience, there are belief systems that are far more incoherent than crypto-tinkerbellism. Just look at Scientology and their beliefs about alien thetans and e-meters, it’s not that far removed from the zeitgeist that new quasi-religious movements wrap themselves in technology and science fiction as a collective means of community building. L Ron Hubbard was so close to almost perfecting the ultimate form of his ideology. If you want to get really rich, you start a religion … around money.
But at the same time, it must be understood that many of us in other intellectual traditions don’t look at the Tinkerbell Griftopia and see a promised land where we all sit on a golden throne of monkey JPEGs. We see crypto as a mob of misguided fools repeating the ecological disaster of Easter Island on a global scale for the sole purpose of selling man-child themed Neopets. And some of us in the old guard think that’s not a future we want to see realized.