Complexity theater is when the presentation of ideas is complicated in order to make those ideas seem more valid. It is not limited to the crypto space, but has wreaked a very particular havoc here. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be this way.
In bull markets, people spout wisdom like Oracles of Delphi and lay claim to success as though blessed by divine sight. Down markets, meanwhile, favor the critics who deftly pick apart the intrigue and excess of the previous phase.
As important as price resets are, this critical review process has an equally important role in the long term health of any asset class. Through this process, we reset norms and expectations and (hopefully) provide some bulwark against repeating the same mistakes again in the future.
One standard of the ICO era that has recently been drawing ire is the white paper.
Token projects started writing white papers at the outset of their projects for one reason: Satoshi did it*.
*It is perhaps worth noting that Bitcoin didn’t actually use the white paper to raise money, but here we are.
Holding cynicism aside for a second, there are some good reasons that white papers stuck as a communications tool. What you can explain in a pitch deck is limited. Especially when it comes to exploring new technologies and new economics of human organization, there’s a lot to be said for supplemental collateral with a bit more room for exposition.
As white papers moved away from their technical roots, however, and into the center of the fundraising process, they became less about exploring new concepts with peers and more about convincing investors to buy. That shift brought a tendency towards complexity that was less elucidation, more obfuscation.
Complexity theater is when ideas are explained in an overly-complicated way in order to make those ideas seem more robust, intelligent, and worthy of attention.
Importantly, complexity theater can be intentional or accidental. While intentional complexity theater is more odious, accidental complexity theater can actually be more damaging. The ICO craze was awash in complexity theater of both the intentional and accidental variety, and demonstrates why it’s not just an annoyance but an actual problem for the crypto space.
First, complexity theater has higher stakes when it happens in the context of a mass expansion of retail participation in risk capital.
In professional markets, one could argue that complexity theater is simply a sales tactic that experienced investors should be able to see through. But crypto wasn’t a professional market. In fact, a meaningful part of the ICO boom was attributable to pent-up demand on the part of mainstreet investors participate in the early stage technology investing that they had been locked out of due to accredited investor rules.
What they found in crypto was an emergent technology field that is, by nature, intensely technologically complex. It is so genuinely complex, in fact, that professional investment firms are reconfiguring themselves by hiring developers and technical experts.
For some ICO projects, complexity theater became an intentional strategy to shock and awe investors into investing in things they didn’t fully understanding. To make the problem worse, even projects that weren’t trying to prioritize complicated explantations over substance inadvertently contributed to an overall market attitude where perception of complexity was rewarded over the ability to clearly and concisely articulate how new technology would work and for whom.
The great irony of complexity theater is that presenting complicated ideas simply is much more difficult than complicating simple ideas.
If the bilking of retail investors is the most obvious pain ICO complexity theater caused, there is another significant downside just coming to light now.
Complexity theater crowds out the space for actual complexity. The crypto space has become so fed up with overblown claims, hyperbole and technical posturing that it is increasingly soured on even genuinely interesting projects. This base-level cynicism makes it nearly impossible for thoughtful, diligent, technically robust projects to differentiate themselves.
Perhaps, then, the only choice for those projects is to stand out through what they do not and what they say.
In responding to media assertion that he thought wild crypto growth was over, Vitalik made the point that the next wave of excitement won’t come from simple awareness but from genuine value.
In other words, complexity theater is a communications problem that doesn’t have a communications answer. That’s a good thing. With skepticism as high as it is, the only answer is to execute. And so, if we’re lucky, the space heals.