Bitcoin is a looking glass into which we gaze and see a mirror image of ourselves.
As some estimates indicate there are currently north of 100 million cryptocurrency users worldwide, or roughly the population of Japan, limitations of time, availability of information and human working memory mean we are necessarily blind to the fullness of cryptocurrency as an ecosystem. There are use cases we cannot comprehend, inventions we have not yet seen, motivations we do not understand. When we criticize cryptocurrency, we must be mindful that the content of our critique may have more to do with what we cannot see than that which we can.
Preston Byrne, a CoinDesk columnist, is a partner in Anderson Kill’s Technology, Media and Distributed Systems Group. He advises software, internet and fintech companies. This is not legal advice.
We are long past the stage where generalizations about crypto are intellectually useful. This has not prevented some from trying to make them, often in 280 characters or less. Jackson Palmer’s recent tweetstorm on bitcoin is one such example. Palmer is the co-founder of Dogecoin, a project that requires no introduction. Palmer eventually retreated from cryptocurrency to work at Adobe after the joke project acquired a life of its own.
In his tweetstorm, Palmer refers to cryptocurrency as an “inherently right-wing, hyper-capitalistic technology built primarily to amplify the wealth of its proponents through a combination of tax avoidance, diminished regulatory oversight and artificially enforced scarcity[.]” He criticized the industry as being a hive of dishonest media and billionaire hustlers who exploit the vulnerable, move markets with tweets and cynically evade their legal obligations.
Is Palmer right? In some cases, sure, but this is still a cheap shot, one first made – unconvincingly, in my view – six years ago by Virginia Commonwealth University academic David Golumbia. Yes, crooks and fascists use bitcoin; they also breathe air and use TCP-IP. Yes, they were disproportionately prominent in the early cryptocurrency days; this is no longer the case.
Palmer’s critique hits all the right notes, using all the right language that would under normal circumstances could set off a letter writing campaign of the type that makes most PR departments panic (“Did you hear, our service is being used by – gasp – right-wingers!?”). This necessarily precipitates a deplatforming and groveling public apology, a pattern that, in the recent past, has resulted in the removal of politically radioactive individuals – Alex Jones comes to mind – from web platforms, payment processors and banks alike.
The difference is bitcoin and any cryptocurrency worthy of the name runs on game theory powered by proof-of-work, not politics. It feels nothing and answers to no one. Increasingly, we see other functions – social media, content distribution and monetization, and even entire businesses – adopting a bitcoin-style modality of decentralized operation. These services, too, will have no opinions and no masters.
Designing such systems well is no easy task. Apart from bitcoin itself there are no clear early winners. We can be sure that whatever winds up becoming decentralized PayPal or Twitter will not be cognizant of partisan language or hit pieces from think tanks or news magazines long past their prime.
Whatever conversations we choose to have in public about these systems, we will conduct them with the knowledge that however angry we get, however loudly we yell, whatever rhetoric we employ, these systems will ignore us, continue to run and continue to be used by people we loathe. One can only hope this makes us more civil with one another.