In a head-turning Twitter thread yesterday, Dogecoin co-creator Jackson Palmer reiterated he has no interest in participating in crypto, arguing the technology is “inherently right wing.” But in a juxtaposition for the ages, yesterday also saw legendary filmmaker and pro-Black advocate Spike Lee praise crypto as “the digital rebellion” against a financial system that has historically oppressed people of color and women. He did this in a commercial for crypto ATM company Coin Cloud.
It’s a debate that nobody’s going to definitively resolve anytime soon. But behind it is a bigger and more interesting question: Can technology even have a political bias?
David Z. Morris is CoinDesk’s chief insights columnist.
It’s a tricky one to get your head around, but at its heart is the distinction between form and content. The form of a painting, for instance, is a painted square that hangs on the wall, while its content can be just about anything. Rewind the debate five hundred years and you’d have heard Palmer and Lee arguing over whether the technology of hanging a painted canvas on the wall was inherently authoritarian – which might sound a bit silly, but is still a topic of debate among historians and art critics.
There’s an entire intellectual tradition focused on the analysis of the built-in bias of various technologies, particularly communication tools (and crypto is indeed a communication technology). Scholars trace the debate as far back as 370 BCE, when Plato argued in “The Phaedrus” that relying too much on writing would have negative social impacts, including weakening people’s memories. The debate really took off in the mid-20th century, when the revolution of broadcast and electronic media led scholar Marshall McLuhan to declare that “the medium is the message” – that the form of a communication technology shaped its social impact far more than its content.
McLuhan made his most subtle points in his analysis of the printing press. We’re usually taught to regard that invention as the gateway to a new era of mass literacy, the Protestant Reformation and even the rise of democracy. But McLuhan argued that the form of print promoted a particular linear, logical way of thinking that paved the way to managerial capitalism as much or more than it promoted democracy.
This highlights a category error by Palmer and certain other critics including scholar David Golumbia. In his thread, Palmer argues that crypto as a whole is “controlled by a powerful cartel of wealthy figures” with “shady business connections.” I also loathe the seemingly ceaseless manipulation of crypto systems by bad actors, but it’s a claim about the content of these systems while Palmer’s conclusion that “cryptocurrency is an inherently right-wing, hyper-capitalistic technology” is about their form.
As McLuhan argued, there is no straight line connecting the two. A system or technology can be manipulated for the benefit of the powerful without necessarily being “inherently hyper-capitalistic.” There’s a good argument that crypto empowers those who already have power because of its resistance to regulation and taxation, but similar arguments could be made for most innovations that extend human power. Existing elites usually find ways to turn innovation to their own ends, a bias arguably built into human civilization rather than any single technological innovation.
“I think [Palmer] is missing the forest for the trees,” says The Blockchain Socialist, a crypto advocate who hosts a podcast devoted to far-left applications of blockchain tech. “There are plenty of right-wing elements in the current makeup of the space, but if he still describes himself as ‘leaning socialist’ then surely he should be interested in the radical potential for making political change [such as] through DAOs [decentralized autonomous organizations] to facilitate democratic management of digital commons.”
Alex Gladstein of Human Rights Watch has focused on the potential of a deep element of crypto’s technological form: uncensorability. Many authoritarian governments worldwide exert control over their populations through financial restrictions. The same technology that enables the scams and manipulation Palmer hates also offers a way to work around those restrictions, whether for basic survival or the decentralized funding of resistance movements.
Spike Lee’s pro-crypto message, though condensed (or watered down) into an emotional pitch, is also ultimately focused on the form of financial technology rather than its content. In the two-minute Cloud Coin spot, Lee declares that “old money … is flat-out broke,” emphasizing the literal whiteness of the faces on U.S. currency and decrying the broader system “systematically oppressing” people of color and women.
Similar points have been explored in-depth by Isaiah Jackson, author of “Bitcoin and Black America.” Jackson’s argument focuses on the way the centralized technology stack of the legacy banking system led to systemic injustice, thanks to its inherent quality of concentrating power in the hands of bankers. Those bankers, overwhelmingly part of America’s white ruling class, have used their concentrated power to enable practices like redlining, which perpetuated de facto housing segregation well into the 1990s and in the process robbed the Black community of a huge source of generational wealth.
Jackson, in essence, argues that given that history, a technology that’s not inherently controlled by the powerful is an appealing alternative for marginalized people. Crucially, this argument holds even if Palmer’s claims about the influence and manipulations of powerful people are also true. Much as with the printing press, the transformative power of blockchain networks is too profound to be neatly positioned along any contemporary political spectrum, particularly this early in its evolution.
Crypto contains multitudes, for better and for worse. It is a new thing in the world, and its consequences will be deep and often even directly conflicting. Rejecting that complexity may be less of a bold political stance than a step back from the constant work of shepherding politics through an era of ceaseless innovation.