The Latecomer’s Guide to Crypto: A Few Thoughts
by Neil Turkewitz
Kevin Roose, author and technology columnist for The New York Times, recently published a monumental series of related essays in the NY Times called “The Latecomer’s Guide to Crypto” in which he sets outs out to explain the underlying mechanics of crypto, blockchain, NFT’s etc and to introduce readers to the basic arguments of Web3/crypto supporters on the one hand, and its skeptics on the other. It is an incredibly ambitious undertaking, and I salute Kevin for his initiative and his bravery. Since its publication, there has been a lot of criticism of aspects of his work—particularly from the community that is most concerned about the negative financial, social, political and societal risks of crypto, a community of which I am a part. I thought I would set out a few of my own observations, but first I wanted to clarify that this is not about Kevin. In the current information ecosystem, criticism can quickly turn personal—particularly on social media where one needs to make his or her point in a very constrained manner. As such, we can easily lose sight of the substance being debated and end up in an exchange focused uniquely on whether someone is “shilling” for something, or somebody. And to be fair, there are sometimes shills—people paid to promote a product/service/idea who may not fully understand the thing they are promoting. This is particularly problematic when celebrities and or influencers promote things like crypto, and especially where there’s no disclosure of the relationship.
But let’s be clear—Kevin Roose is no shill. He is thoughtful and has done his homework. I happen to think his “explainer” is wrong, and dangerously so, and that in seeking to “objectively” set out the arguments for and against crypto, he has engaged in an exercise of false equivalence that, to say it gently, is unhelpful. But much of this stems from the fact that unlike explaining the technical functioning of technologies in which objectivity is possible, it is simply not possible to be objective in describing arguments about the potential benefits and risks. It is not a closed universe with limited permutations. One must decide which possibilities to explore, and which to ignore, and how much weight/credibility to assign to different arguments. Kevin frequently relies on formulations like “some argue XXX” which may be true, but which doesn’t provide the reader any context and may, as I believe it does, provide support for wholly unsubstantiated or false claims. In today’s world, it is not hard to imagine a group of people embracing any number of outrageous claims about some perceived reality. As such, knowing that “some people” argue a particular point is both unhelpful and potentially misleading.
With that in mind, let’s explore a few of the areas in which I found his reporting particularly problematic. This is by no means intended to be an exhaustive review of his piece, nor even necessarily an analysis of the aspects which are the most problematic. They are just things that jumped out at me upon my initial reading, and which reflect my desire to meaningfully engage with the ideas that Kevin has expressed and to ensure that the debate is not about Kevin’s character. I don’t know Kevin personally, but I read him and appreciate his thoughts. Sometimes we agree, and sometimes we don’t. That’s life.
“Understanding crypto now — especially if you’re naturally skeptical — is important for a few reasons.
The first is that crypto wealth and ideology is going to be a transformative force in our society in the coming years.
Crypto’s madcap, meme-crazed online culture can make it seem frivolous and shallow. It’s not. Cryptocurrencies, even the jokey ones, are part of a robust, well-funded ideological movement that has serious implications for our political and economic future.
It’s an organized technological movement, armed with powerful tools and hordes of wealthy true believers, whose goal is nothing less than a total economic and political revolution.”
While I appreciate Kevin’s attempt to “explain” crypto to the masses, his very introduction is problematic. Why would understanding crypto be of particular importance for the “naturally skeptical?” Wouldn’t it make more sense to posit that understanding crypto was of greater immediate importance to those likely to invest money that perhaps they couldn’t afford to lose? Isn’t it more likely that the “naturally skeptical” are probably more familiar with how crypto works than the “naturally embracing” given the amount of pro-crypto propaganda to which we are constantly bombarded? And even the use of the term “naturally” is itself intriguing and telling—suggesting that skepticism is likely to stem from a certain form of romantic and emotional uniformed resistance to change a la Larry David rather than from the application of reason and the too-rare employment of critical thinking.
To fully explain crypto to the masses, one might be forgiven for thinking that priority number one should be to carefully and fully describe the manifest financial risks, and to explain to the innocent how crypto is anchored in, and supports, a vision of society in which public institutions and functions are replaced by private parties. And how that vision naturally aligns with, and advances, a political agenda that undermines progressive ideas of society and government, regardless of one’s personal views of how it might be employed to advance a particular noble or progressive cause. Kevin wants us to know that not every person that invests in crypto does so out of pure selfishness, or to support regressive frameworks of governance. That is undoubtedly true, but it entirely misses the point.
Crypto as a Revolution
“Again, I don’t really care whether you emerge from these explainers as a true believer, a devoted skeptic or something in between. Participate or abstain as you wish!”
That sounds fair perhaps, but it entirely ignores the fact that choices made by individuals have consequences for all of society. This is not merely a personal investment choice whose effects are limited to the financial realm. Indeed, Kevin himself notes elsewhere that: “It’s an organized technological movement, armed with powerful tools and hordes of wealthy true believers, whose goal is nothing less than a total economic and political revolution.” So is he saying to “participate or abstain” in a revolution as you wish, as if the results of that revolution will be limited to the willing participants thereof?
The fact is that we are all deeply interconnected and co-dependent. The consequences of this “revolution”—a revolution backed by big money and deeply conservative institutions and persons, will have ramifications across our society. They challenge basic and long held assumptions about the role of government in a democracy, and the extent of our public obligations to promote the interests of the least powerful. Our moral obligations to maintain a public safety net. Our understanding of freedom and justice in non-libertarian terms. Standing on the sidelines of a revolution does not make one immune from the effects of the revolution. Kevin’s “do what you will” wholly ignores our fundamental interdependence and our joint reliance on the role of public institutions in our democracy.
A few weeks ago, I posted a thread on this exact point which some readers might want to check out:
Crypto and its Implications for the Marginalized
“My colleague, Tressie McMillan Cottom, has made the case that crypto — because it relies on permanent, irrefutable records of ownership of digital goods and currencies — is particularly attractive to people from marginalized groups, who may have had their property unjustly taken from them in the past.
“If I live in a community where the police absolutely use eminent domain to claim my private property and I cannot do anything about it,” she wrote, “that sense of everyday powerlessness would make the promise of blockchain sound pretty good.”
I completely understand the point made here by Cottom, but fear that it’s more a reflection on the inequities of our existing system than an observation about the potential of crypto to remedy existing social, cultural, economic and political injustice. A sign of completely understandable desperation rather than a forward-looking agenda. An understandable frustration at current economic conditions, & the tragic lack of global political will to address existing inequities. Alas, I don’t think gambling is a viable alternative—it’s grasping for life preservers in a hostile ocean.
There is no doubt but that the failure of democracies to adequately empower & to address manifest inequities flowing from systemic asymmetrical wealth & power is not unrelated to the rise of authoritarianism & the crypto movement. Absence of hope breeds hopelessness. We need to recommit to justice rather than wishing on stars.
Crypto and the Potential of Decentralization to Empower Creators
Kevin writes: “Some crypto proponents will say that the biggest perk of decentralization is that it allows artists and creators to control their own economic destinies more directly by giving them a way (in the form of NFTs and other crypto assets) to bypass platform gatekeepers like YouTube and Spotify, and sell unique digital works directly to their fans.”
While this is far from the most dangerous part of Kevin’s formulation of the “truth of crypto,” it is the one that strikes closest to home for me personally. Decentralization as a theoretical tool for empowering artists has been a feature of the advocacy landscape since the arrival of Napster in 1999. It has proven to be both illusory and wildly exploitative. The tools for decentralization—for bypassing gatekeepers, have existed for more than two decades. There is nothing new about crypto to aid in this putative empowerment. The problem that artists confront is that the asset which they create/own has virtually no value given decades of a dominant idea, peddled by many of the same advocates for web3/crypto, that “information wants to be free.” But capacity to individually create and distribute is not synonymous with empowerment when it fails to produce revenue that sustains creators. And don’t get me started on NFT’s. NFT’s solve none of these problems. Basically, they’re like telling artists—your music isn’t worth anything, but perhaps you can monetize this unique digital collectible. The NFT is a gimmick, not an asset.
Now it’s all fine and good for Kevin to say that “some proponents will say” that decentralization will empower artists. That’s a true statement. Some people will say that Trump was the greatest president in US history. That is also a true statement of the views of “some people.” But it is beyond irresponsible to fail to interrogate this claim, and the lessons of history in demonstrating its failures.
There’s little doubt but that the current environment is marked by asymmetries between artists and labels, and between the creative community and internet platforms. We can address both of these simultaneously by creating a normative framework that allows artists to meaningfully protect their interests against any downstream user. Unauthorized uses exploited and monetized by internet platforms have largely eliminated the potential of disintermediation to empower artists, and have instead largely resulted in their further enfeeblement and precarity. We can change that by establishing greater accountability in the internet ecosystem — ending a system in which platforms are rewarded for willful blindness.
If we can achieve that level of accountability, we eliminate the necessity of maintaining a standing army to protect artists’ rights. In that framework, we would expand the choices available to artists to determine the contours of their careers. Signing with a label would be an exercise in free will and self-determination, not an obligatory act in order to play the game. Digital technologies can empower artists that want to bypass traditional routes to market. But to operate as such, platforms must operate within the terms set by individual creators. If you want to empower artists, then give them an asset that has more value. The problems faced by individual creators are not unrelated to the fact that the individual property interest has little value in the marketplace. It is a largely unenforceable property interest. Our goal should be to give individuals the means to protect that interest, and not to merely recite lazy and demonstrably false claims about the inherent power of decentralization.