The New Counter Coin Culture

stephen p. williams
Mar 20, 2019 · 15 min read

Like hip hop, ultimate Frisbee and LSD before it, blockchain is clearly a culture as much as a thing.

Excerpt from Blockchain: The Next Everything, Scribner

I arrived at The Assemblage, the co-working space as positive cult collective that’s expanding rapidly in New York City and beyond. It’s a friendly, trippy space on E. 25th featuring a free Ayurvedic breakfast bar. “The Assemblage is a community of individuals who believe the world is at the verge of a collective conscious evolution transitioning from a society defined by individualism and separation into one of interconnectedness,” is how the Assemblage describes itself. Who better to sponsor a panel discussion titled “AI, Blockchain and the New Matriarchy?”

I entered the first floor, a vast high-ceilinged loft with stylish millennial furniture and a long, wide bar, and ordered a peppermint tea. The bartender smiled serenely. I sat on a stool and took in the gaggles of 20- and 30-somethings sitting on long couches, some of them snuggling each other, waiting for the panel to start. The five panelists sat on raised cushions below star-shaped chandeliers, their LED-lit dagger points directed at the floor.

I leaned back against a living moss wall as the moderator, sex healer Anita Teresa Boeninger, opened the discussion by describing parallels between blockchain and matriarchal societies that tend to follow the non-hierarchical organizational structure called the heterarchy. She said these systems mirrored blockchain’s distributed system with no apex point of power. “In the matriarchy, resources are distributed in different ways than in the patriarchal system,” she said. “There is not the constant competition.”

She instructed everyone to put their phones down and pretend instead that one of their palms was a phone. Behind her, on the wall, were photographs of smoke.

“Stroke your hands as if they were phones, touch your palms, really experience how you relate physically to your phone,” she said.

I could feel the room loosening.

“Now, put your phones together on the floor so they can rub and talk to each other.”

I heard a little gasp, but most people did as told. A clever way to get people off their screens to pay attention during the talk.

“Now let’s get to our sexy panelists,” she said.

I sensed a wave of anxiety roll across the room as everyone realized they were deviceless. Meanwhile, their phones were having all the fun, down on the floor getting it on.

Boeninger introduced Jesse Grushak, who works at ConsenSys, an innovative company that develops business and social good products on the Ethereum blockchain. The company has grown from 80 to over 800 employees in just a few years, and has dozens of projects in the pipeline, ranging from a new journalism venture called Civil, to a local energy trading platform called Grid+. Also on the panel were Maya Vujinovic, CEO of OGroup, and an early figure in blockchain and other emerging technologies; Dr. Francesca Ferrando, a philosopher of the post-human, with a background in gender research; and Alex Gordon-Brander, a cryptocurrency trader who previously was chief business architect of ConsenSys.

Anita and the panelists were a good-looking, well-dressed bunch; the audience, on couches and cushions and deep chairs, was equally good-looking. Given that the room was also good-looking, this place had the aura of a wealthy Instagram fantasy.

Ferrando, an adjunct professor of philosophy at NYU, began by acknowledging “the non-human objects in the room — computers, phones, all these sacred lives. We manifested this space. We used technology. Technology is co-creating who we are. I want to share the vision of a world where there is no separation between us and technologies. Instead of saying, Us vs. Them. We say Us with Them. It is the end of patriarchy. The end of an era.”

Cool, of course. I felt inspired, yet also vaped, as in vapidity. I didn’t want to be cynical, feeling that I’d heard these thoughts 50 years ago, as a child in the 70s. I wanted to bask in the light of a future that was truly different.

Just like Boeninger, Ferrando was sprightly with an asymmetrical look. She was intense and interesting. Even though her accent prevented me from understanding half of what she said, the half I could make out was excellent. Her ode to non-human objects kept me fascinated as I looked around the space, the planters, the piles of phones, the couches enveloping piles of scruffy young seekers. Still, I wanted blockchain talk.

Vujinovic spoke of her experience working in Africa, seeing first-hand the transformative nature of personal technology.

“With this,” she held up her phone, “you have a bank. And that bank empowers women in emerging market patriarchies.”

That phone will also give these women access to whatever blockchains they desire, leveling power in a huge way, she said. Studies show that in places where women control their family’s money, the whole society benefits. Blockchain, with its peer-to-peer payments and access to markets, is designed to make this happen.

This room was packed at least half-full with women, a rare ratio at most blockchain events. But less surprising, given that it was nominally about The New Matriarchy. “My message to women,” said Vujinovic: “Lean out, create the space you want. Don’t wait to be invited.”

Just then a tall, long-haired guy wearing a wide-brimmed Borsalino, black kurta, and elaborate kicks embellished with iridescent gold ribbon walked through the room, wireless earbuds dangling and a laptop in his hand. A subtle patriarcher of the dandyish kind, the most insidious and indirect of all. The new matriarchy parted to let him pass.

Hardly anyone had mentioned AI or blockchain, until Gordon-Brander joined in from his lotus position on top of a cushion. He was on the early side of middle-aged, with foppish hair and a suit, no tie. Clearly pro-matriarchal in manner, a Wes Anderson clone.

“In Sumeria,” he intoned, “money decayed over time. Your shekel became worthless with the years. Tech now, with cryptocurrency and blockchain, gives us the chance to rewrite the rules of money. I find that exciting. But still, ninety percent of bitcoin is in the hands of men.”

The audience murmured in sad agreement.

“And that’s probably not how we want to enter the post-human world,” he said.

Cheers from the crowd. Who wouldn’t want to be post-human, facing a subway ride back to Brooklyn on a cold spring night?

Vujinovic, who had been an executive at GE, and now headed her own company, spoke up.

“Why is there all this hype around cryptocurrency? Because we all want more equity in the world. We still need to design the platform and the smart contracts with the intention of solving problems like poverty. We can’t keep it under male-dominated thinking that creates tired consequences.”

In other words, if we stuff all the new tech into the old world, everything will fail. The panel seemed to feel the paradigm shift should happen soon.

“In blockchain, time is compressed,” said Gordon-Brander.

The panel ended. Furious networking began. I stepped outside to snowflakes swirling, my enlightenment on hold. The air bit my face but the snow was mesmerizing, a cosmic beauty that seemed designed to entrap me as I walked home.

I knew what a snowflake was. I’d seen the riveting images taken by Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley, up in Vermont in the early 20th century. He worked with an improvised camera and microscope he rigged up on his family’s farm. Plenty of snow, but no electricity, no overt systems connecting him to the world at large. Even his family rejected his work. Yet those images are still the primary images we have of snow, shared for the last 100 years, visible to all of us at the push of a button.

Those images, no two crystals alike, made by hand on a farm in rural Vermont. The flakes fell on my dark jacket, disappearing in a moment, but somehow connecting me, through this distributed system of memory and reality, to that misunderstood man I would never have the chance to meet, Snowflake Bentley.

It takes almost an existential, or spiritual, leap to conceptualize how blockchain behaviors will affect human behavior, business, sustainability and other important systems. We see varieties of distributed and decentralized systems in nature, and I find these examples help me understand human and machine patterns.

For enlightenment, of course, I turn to YouTube. (And I recommend that you watch YouTube videos of distributed natural systems as you think about blockchain.)

Most inspiring, perhaps, are the videos of swirling fish (one, called Tuna Tornado, is well worth a watch) and the fantastic flight patterns of starling flocks, also known as murmurations. It’s believed the murmurations are composed of hundreds of nodes, each made up of seven birds. Each bird only needs to be aware of what the other six birds are doing. Yet every movement they make affects, and is affected by, all the other nodes. When a predatory bird appears near the murmuration, just a few nodes will break off to deter it from attacking. Similar systems are at play with schools of fish, that form moving, slippery structures to defend against sharks and other predators.

Ant colonies function without any central control, with members of the group signaling behavior changes and responses by secreting chemicals. Swarms of bees communicate in distributed ways, improving the lot of the group. These insect groups might have one leader, but the communication among the masses is indirect, leaderless, based on chemical cues or flight patterns. In less visible ways, cells organize into networks. Neurons collectively induce sensations, such as pain.

We humans are part of this grand system of nature and creation. I believe we are genetically inclined towards decentralized and distributed systems. We just need to open ourselves to the potential that they offer.

There are lots of blockchain fanatics (BF) coast to coast, but the New York City ecosystem attracts a particularly wide variety of preening geeks, from social justice warriors to dentists juggling cryptocurrency between implants. One evening, as I scrolled through my list of blockchain meetups, I began to wonder about my own status as a BF. I felt a little obsessed with the tech, which surprised me. I wasn’t the obsessive type. I decided to take a walk to clear my head.

As I headed from my home in Chelsea towards Madison Square Park, I wondered why neighborhoods in Manhattan were still demarcated. Why was Chelsea, gentrified as it is, so different in feel from The Flatiron, also gentrified? For all the talk about the sad homogenization of NYC, in The Flatiron I still passed piles of garbage bags, graffiti and eccentric people doing their thing on the sidewalks. Plus, everywhere smelled like weed. Does everyone in this city smoke? What if each neighborhood were a block on a giant blockchain?, I wondered. What if all the data — people — were registered to their respective blocks, and as you walked through the city, each neighborhood referred to the previous neighborhood? What if all this knowledge were stored in the brains of each of the people wandering the city, and those who weren’t nodes in this system were rejected as false actors, and kicked right out of town? In this city, right now, weed would be the coin of the chain.

Wow, I realized, stepping into the park. Blockchain has burrowed completely into my head. I’m lost. I’m a fanatic.

Another day, I read in The Times about an artist named Kevin Abosch, who claims to be creating blockchain tokens for all the streets in Manhattan. Collectors can buy the tokens for a few dollars each. Such a deal! Since the artist has released 10,000 of the street tokens, it turns out to be a pretty good deal for him, too.

Like hip hop, ultimate Frisbee and LSD before it, blockchain is clearly a culture as much as a thing.

I walked down New York’s Canal Street late one afternoon looking for the cryptocurrency bohemians. Horns blared and the sidewalk was packed with grandmothers pushing carts full of Chinatown groceries home through the crowd. I was surprised at how little had changed in the 30 years since I’d first wandered this street. More tourists, maybe, shopping for off-market luxury goods sold by the African traders, oblivious to the fact that they could get hauled off to the slammer if the fashion task force were to take exception to their Louis Vuitton bag. I found my way to the entrance of a 19th-century warehouse and climbed an old-school flight of steep wooden stairs, opened a door, and was greeted by a young intern/receptionist. The loft was about 80 feet long and 25 feet wide, with worn plank floors, and a few nonsensical glass “rooms.” The ceiling fixtures were copper-colored Tom Dixon lamps that were so popular in their day, though they looked like sad plastic now. It felt like a rich person’s loft circa 2005.

“I didn’t get a ticket in advance, so I’d like to pay here,” I told the receptionist, who stood sentinel with a large iPhone. She typed and typed and typed into the screen and finally said, “Fifty dollars.”

“Fifty? The website says thirty-five.”

“Now it’s fifty because of the crowd,” she said. “Demand.”

Congestion pricing, surge pricing, rip-off pricing, I thought. But I paid and took a seat. A screen near a makeshift bar up front displayed Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Two 30-something women sat next to me. They were art curators for an all-female non-profit gallery in Dumbo called A.I.R. They knew a bit about blockchain, but didn’t seem obsessed. They were there to learn, but, looking around at the pretty dull crowd, and the cheesy Van Gogh screen on the wall, they didn’t get their hopes up.

Finally, the leader of this high-priced “meetup” took the floor and introduced the first speaker. This was the guy with the Van Gogh. He had absolutely nothing to do with blockchain, but he did have this art biz called Meural, which manufactured and sold framed screens designed to hold digital art collections. You’d buy one and then subscribe to his service for $40 bucks a year, which would give you access to an imaginary space where “the iconic meets the unexpected.” You could download whichever paintings you wanted from their licensed collection of digital images. They claimed the collection represented $3 billion worth of art. But not really, since all the art was in pixels and you could not smell the paint. The speaker hoped someday to use cryptocurrency to reward artists each time their work was viewed or resold, but he didn’t seem to have any specific plans. Applause. Behind me a young guy said to his curly-headed nerdy neighbor: “Why are you here?”

“I just bought my first crypto two months ago. I’m very interested in art on the blockchain.”

Two months ago, I thought, laughing to myself at the absurdity of the speed at which this technology had rolled through culture. Jeez. I bought my first crytpo seven months ago. I was an old timer.

One of my curator neighbors suggested I look at Rhizome, an online publication with archives of digital art. She said that’s where digital art was happening.

Then things got really interesting. A lanky, clean-cut guy named Tommy Nicholas, founder of Alloy and also Rare Art Labs, spoke about using tokens, rather than coins, as a way of valuing art. His main point, and it’s an important one, was that tokens only work if you create a community that values them. When they are valued, they become a sort of currency for rare digital art. My head almost popped off when I heard that term. What the hell did it mean?

Tommy explained: The first copy of a digital image, when it’s registered on a blockchain, becomes an immutable work of art. There can only be one. All the screen grabs and other copies that are made and passed around will never have the provenance, guaranteed on the chain, of being the first. Thus, a rare digital image. Once this was an oxymoron. Now it isn’t.

Next up was Matt Hall, one of the creators of cryptopunks, collectible digital rare art of cheesy-looking pixelated punk rockers. They released 10,000 of these characters into the marketplace, with tokenized values, and watched them trade. People have made hundreds of thousands of dollars off these babies, all tracked and traded via blockchain. Now that’s rare digital art!

As the evening moved slowly along into a snooze, my new curator friends ordered take-out on their phones (using old-fashioned credit cards), and my mind kept going back to cryptopunks. They seemed so of the moment, and also so nostalgic (punk rockers?), so innovative as an art product and yet so dull.

Leaving, I felt full and happy once again with blockchain thoughts. The steep wooden stairway to the street gave me nostalgic thoughts of NYC in the late 70s, when these lofts went begging for tenants, and you never knew what you’d find at the top of the stairs: a magical flaxen-haired woman wearing twinkling lights and singing along to a synthesizer, perhaps. That happened to me once.

On the street, a Senegalese man wearing a Fila tracksuit wanted me to buy some see-through Balenciaga sneakers for 80 dollars. I wondered how blockchain would affect this counterfeit market that never seemed to leave Canal Street. I didn’t think it actually would. Since everyone who shopped the sidewalks of Canal Street knew that the luxury goods they were getting for such a good price were fake, why would any of them need to check provenance on the blockchain? Unless, I thought, the salespeople were able to make rare digital images of the counterfeit goods. That would legitimize them, as subjects of rare digital art, and give them true value.

Deepak says, “Blockchain is a human construct, becoming an everyday reality.”

Well, duh, I think, before deciding to be more generous with my thoughts. I read a Deepak Chopra book a long time ago, and I thought he was pretty wise. He’s standing at the front of a low stage, holding a microphone. He looks like he’d be fun at a party. His sneakers are dope, black with bright red socks.

All of the blockchain bros wear dope sneakers, especially the ones who are speaking on stages at this Ethereal Summit, at the outer edge of New York City, in Maspeth, Queens. It’s not so far from the headquarters of Consensys, the blockchain studio sponsoring the summit, which was founded by Joe Lubin, who co-founded the Ethereum chain, and now, apparently, is a friend of Deepak.

I’m in a wooden chair. Between me and Deepak are young people lounging on plush floor pillows, women mostly, wearing leggings and boots, few sneakers. Behind and around and on top of us, the roar of the thousands of people attending this conference who are on the other side of the thin walls, networking and listening to speakers. I see beautiful sweaters and glass phones with no cases, rabbit fur Borsalinos. A lot of coin wealth in this room. I’m in the conference’s Zen Zone and I feel coin envy. Why the hell didn’t I buy when…. I kick myself for not buying bitcoin five years ago, if I had I’d be a rich man now — and return my gaze to Deepak, with his dark Nehru jacket, the collar and pocket piping blood-red to match his socks.

He leads us in a meditation, and despite the disembodied roar behind me, I fall into it. Minutes later, the rain is beginning to fall outside and Deepak opens the meditation to questions and comments.

A young man sitting cross-legged, back rigid straight, offers a comment: “I have been studying yoga for about the same amount of time that I’ve been investing in crypto.” His voice is modulated, deep, perfectly attuned with the harmony of the universe. “I have begun to see parallels between the system of the chakras and blockchain and the foundation of the new distributed Internet.”

Deepak nods, a little smile on his face. I’m wondering, is Deepak pondering this revelation? Is Deepak thinking, that Chakra stuff is my bailiwick, I had that thought yesterday? Or is Deepak calculating how much his bitcoin will be worth when it goes to $30 grand?

“Do you see a connection, Deepak?” the young man says, hands in prayer mode and bowing with humility.

“It could be, it could be,” the master replies.

Outside, thunder claps. I gather my wits and check my map. I need to get to the Jefferson Avenue station. It’s right there, linked to all the other station nodes in the city by different colored connectors. I think, oh yes, of course, this is how it works — distributed system. Or is it?

A gaggle of youths blocks the sidewalk as I head to the station. Bomber jackets, nose rings, pink and green and yellow hair, the mashup of cultures you so often see in groups of NYC kids — our future. One young woman carries a bag that reads “Satoshi is Female.”

There’s so much more to this stuff than cash. So much room for these kids to create new worlds. Blockchain is a political issue. A social justice issue. An economic issue. A business issue. A sustainability issue. It’s a transformative issue. As all the blockchains start to communicate, and all the nodes are linked together, the new Internet is born, free of old constraints and ownership.

And I’m hoping we can ride it right into the new enlightenment.

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