COIN TALK is produced in partnership with Medium and hosted by Aaron Lammer and Jay Caspian Kang. Press “Listen to the story” above to play the episode. (You can also subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, download the MP3, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Aaron Lammer: Welcome, Nick Paumgarten.
Nick Paumgarten: Hello, Aaron. How ya doing?
Aaron Lammer: Okay, I want to ask you a question. You have a feature in the New Yorker this week about crypto. I think this is the first crypto feature the New Yorker has done. I could be wrong.
Nick Paumgarten: No, there was a Bitcoin story some years ago.
Aaron Lammer: This is the first one from this era, from the alt coin era in the New Yorker.
Nick Paumgarten: Yeah, and it would seem both, it was overdue probably for the New Yorker to do something and it was overdue for this thing to happen. Like, it took a lot longer than it should have, basically.
Aaron Lammer: So, I would guess that normally after you do this much research into a topic you feel a bit like an expert or at least an extremely knowledgeable layman. Like, if you’re getting this much of your life into a single topic by the end of it you’re like I’m not a pro but I know a lot more than most people I’m talking to. I get the feeling after reading your crypto piece that you almost feel like you know less now than when you started.
Nick Paumgarten: The ignorance drips off the page, is that what you’re saying?
Aaron Lammer: Well, in some ways it’s a story about the unknowingness of crypto. You have people making a bet at the end that’s like essentially a bet that no one’s even clear what the terms are on. It’s one of these things that crypto kind of defies a lot of our laws of understanding.
Nick Paumgarten: Yeah. In the story there’s a thing about a guy I know talks about on a scale of 1 to 10, where are you in terms of understanding? Vitalik is a 9.2 and the guy who I was talking to was, I can’t remember, 2.5 or something. Around the office I’ve been sort of bluffing and saying I’m a 3, but I don’t know that I know a lot more. I mean, I know a lot more about how things work but I’m more agnostic than ever and I feel pretty clueless. It’s not just shtick when people say so now you get it? I’m like no, no I don’t really.
Aaron Lammer: So, I was gonna ask you what number you were. That was gonna be my first question, because I think I’m also a two marauding as a three.
Nick Paumgarten: I think I’m a two marauding as a three, exactly.
Aaron Lammer: Good, we’re about on the same level then.
Nick Paumgarten: But then I know I’m lying because I think you’ve actually done a lot more of this than I have and I’ve listened to you guys and I can tell you about that whole experience.
Aaron Lammer: You’re a Coin Talk listener. Oh, my God.
Nick Paumgarten: Well, here’s the thing. I mean, I took this on a long time ago and was so clueless that I didn’t even know when you guys started Coin Talk. I didn’t know about it. Someone mentioned it to me like of course you’ve been listening to Coin Talk and I kind of said “Yeah, of course.” Then the fact that you guys were doing this and I knew who you were and I knew you were probably doing a great job and it was going to be just really dispiriting to listen to so I decided I wasn’t going to listen to it for a while, that it was going to kind of get in the way of my thinking and make me feel bad. You don’t want to feel bad.
Then, I decided I had to listen to all of them or at least listen to as many as possible.
Aaron Lammer: Yeah, I like it.
Nick Paumgarten: So I was driving around this summer going here and there and I started just binging on them and what happened was they made me not feel bad. They made me feel good. I like the sort of cluelessness that you guys bring to it. The fact that you know a lot more than you say but I felt reassured that you guys who are smart and had been doing this for a while also routinely threw up your hands and also called bullshit a lot. You made me feel better, yeah. But now I had to stop listening because I was like I can’t keep doing this. They’re going to take everything that I’m going to say and they’re going to do it and then I won’t have anything to say.
Aaron Lammer: Well, it’s also hit a weird point in the last few months. I don’t feel like you’ve missed a lot because when we started doing the show crypto was a rapidly evolving narrative where we would almost have to throw out an episode every couple weeks because it was already dated, and then over the last three months nothing has happened. The price is relatively static of Bitcoin. There’s weird, like, different ages in the crypto narrative where time starts going really fast and then starts going really slow, I believe.
Nick Paumgarten: Yeah, and it was going very fast there in a way that was sort of dizzying and now it’s just this argument stuck in the mud about this or that, whether it’s Bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash or whether Ethereum. Just whatever the big debates are that happen on Twitter constantly, they’re just kind of stuck in this loop and it gets a little dull.
Aaron Lammer: So, you spend all this time doing it. I’m assuming you’ve had a few really, really hot showers since you’ve finished. Looking back over this time period that you really got very up close and personal with the crypto narrative, what was the biggest surprise for you from when you started that story to when you published it?
Nick Paumgarten: How impenetrable it was. I mean, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised but the New Yorker compact in some ways, or at least traditionally has been this moderately intelligent but mostly clueless generalist encounters fully formed complex subculture, unexplored area of expertise, and then explains and animates it for the benefit of the general reading public. I thought this thing is going to be harder for me than usual. I’m a technophobe. I’m old. I still carry around crumpled ones in my pocket. I still blanche when I have to pay for a cab with a credit card. I thought this would be a challenge, it’d be cool. I’d learn something new about the world but I’ll get my hands around it and I’ll be able to play with it. But I never really was able to get my arms around it completely or even get inside of it.
So, should that be a surprise? I mean, I don’t know. That became the thing I wrote too much about. I wrote like 20,000 words and like 10,000 of it was just like I can’t understand this, I can’t understand this or this is hard to understand.
Aaron Lammer: Okay, so I’m really interested in this because you used the phrase play with it and myself and my co-host, who is your former New Yorker colleague I should say, Jay Kang, who is actually on a reporting trip right now which is why he’s not on the line, but when we started this show we really strongly believed in the idea of actually buying crypto, trading coins, basically doing all the stuff that people do in crypto rather than people who are more on the journalistic, critical side. And I’m guessing you’re not allowed to do that kind of stuff as a New Yorker staffer? I don’t know exactly what the ethics policies are. But are you a no-coiner?
Nick Paumgarten: I’m a no-coiner. Partly, I’ve persuaded myself it’s journalistic ethics. It’s probably just fear of technology. It’s lameness masquerading as virtue, as usual.
Aaron Lammer: But was that difficult for you in writing this story when you’re saying, take out the technology and play with it, to play with Bitcoin or Ethereum, particularly Ethereum, actually, Ethereum is like a game and it requires the Ethereum quarter put in the arcade game before it turns on.
Nick Paumgarten: Oh I mean, yeah. Obviously when I say play I mean play with ideas. Or some of the cultural notions. But yeah, obviously I’ve watched people play. I’ve watched people work with it and I’ve seen it done. But it ain’t the same. And I decided that that was, I think I even remember you guys in one of your podcasts, one of the first ones I listened to, you were calling attention to it as a genre. Like where journalists buy some Bitcoin and then writes about it. So I sort of made a decision that that was sort of a tired thing to do.
Aaron Lammer: Yeah. I think that makes sense. And yet it leaves you with this very limited set of angles to enter the story. One of the reasons I assume this story has more words about Ethereum than Bitcoin, even though Bitcoin has a larger market cap and has existed longer is that there are people behind Ethereum that you can talk to who can talk about it’s origin myth and where it’s going and who has the most of it. Bitcoin is almost this impenetrable narrative now where we have an anonymous founder and, as far as I know, most of the Bitcoin core team doesn’t talk to journalists, at least regularly.
Nick Paumgarten: Yeah. I mean why Ethereum, I think Ethereum at the time was … I mean when I first heard about it it was sort of new-ish, you know? It was something that not everybody knew about. And then the big price run up and everything, suddenly it was every where. But at least for a general interest person, they might not have heard of it. So that was one thing. Yeah, another was that there was a way into it. There were people and there were people that I could find. And Vitalic was always interesting to me, you know? And Bitcoin had been around. That’s basically the justification for the focus on Ethereum. But you know, at a certain point you just choose this thing and that’s what you’re doing and you have to just do the thing that you show as need to do.
Aaron Lammer: What was it like meeting these major Ethereum figures? After hearing all of the rhetoric? I mostly plugged into Ethereum at the level of a shit poster on Reddit, either criticizing or pumping Ethereum. That’s pretty much where I’m plugged into all this stuff. But Ethereum has this kind of Gods on earth class of people who were both early believers, are fabulously wealthy and almost called like a full court shot that they hit to the point now where it’s like hard to not believe the Utopian rhetoric.
Nick Paumgarten: Right. And I’m not sure how I feel about that. I mean around them, I felt kind of just like a doofus. You know? But different people made me feel differently. Vitalik has this weird way of being very present. And I can see why people make such a big deal out of this presence because there’s something about them, it makes you feel fully engaged with him and his mind. You get this weird generosity spirit from him even though he kind of has a robotic manner. I think I wrote about that. So that was interesting, just to kind of, the weird glow that he gave off.
Aaron Lammer: I have friends who go to a yoga retreat in upstate New York and the guy who leads it is always saying, “I am not a guru. I am not a prophet, I don’t know why people keep saying that about me.” Which is exactly like what a guru says and it’s what Vitalik says. “I’m trying to move away from this, it’s a problem that I’m such a cult of personality.” But isn’t that exactly what we’d expect from a person who is building a cultive personality? Is to sort of deny it?
Nick Paumgarten: Of course, humility is tactic, yeah. I don’t know how much guile there is in his way of dealing. I can’t tell. I didn’t sus it out, you know?
Aaron Lammer: We had another reporter, Gideon Lewis Krause on the show, I don’t know if you heard that episode.
Nick Paumgarten: I did. That was another piece where I know Gideon and think his work is awesome and that piece came out and I had been talking to those guys and that just kind of gave me the willies and I had to not read it for a long time. And I finally read it and said, “This is great.” So similar to your show. And then I remember listening to him on your show and it was like too much.
Aaron Lammer: Well there’s one thing that’s really stuck with me from that conversation that I also thought about when I was reading your New Yorker piece which is we tend to like to divide the world into scams and noble things. And that everything is one or the other. Everything’s either a real good idea or it’s a very thinly disguised scam. And crypto presents this third kind of thing which is something that people deeply, deeply believe in but could still end up going down in disastrous flames as a scam.
You know, I think about Ethereum, the way people are talking about it at the consensus office in your story and then I think about people who are manipulating Ethereum markets in Korea and I’m like, they’re all part of the same story. It is the duality all at once.
Nick Paumgarten: Yeah it’s impossible, I mean you’d be a fool to try to say it’s one or the other completely. It’s all of them, right? I mean, the whole space is full of scams. And you could sus out 100 of those scams and it would be good story telling. I’m surprised Michael Lewis hasn’t done that. I kept waiting for him to kick ass on this story and sort of glad his attention was elsewhere.
Aaron Lammer: I feel like maybe he looked at it and was like, “Ah, too hard.” This one’s like, “I’m just gonna take an L on this one.” Because there is something about crypto that even, like your experience is not uncommon. Every writer I know who’s not from crypto who’s taken on a crypto feature has ended it like, “Never again.”
Nick Paumgarten: Yeah.
Aaron Lammer: There’s something inherently that I think frustrates how we generally go about journalism, which I think is you want the journalist to do something where you end up knowing more than you started. And often a crypto explainer leaves you more confused than you started. So while you’ve been working on this, are you the New Yorker office Bitcoin explainer now? Are you the person everyone else is coming to like, “I don’t get it, tell me how this works, Nick.”
Nick Paumgarten: No. I’m the hang dog guy who says [inaudible 00:15:56], you know? Everyone says, “Oh I can’t wait to have you explain this to me.” And I say, “I don’t think it’s going to work out that way.”
Aaron Lammer: Yeah.
Nick Paumgarten: And I still don’t know. I mean, maybe people give me thin smiles of congratulations you survived. I don’t think they understand it any better. I think the piece like this, it doesn’t work for people that really know their way around it. It’s too simple and boring and familiar. And then for people that don’t know anything it’s way too dense and crazy. Maybe there’s some middle category where people can say it was interesting to read about this in sort of plain English. You know? That’s sort of what I’m aiming for.
Aaron Lammer: Well I’m happy you did the story just because it captures the very specific moment in Ethereum’s history that we’re never going to come exactly back to, which is there’s an increasing pressure for this technology that’s taken massive and massive infusion of capital to deliver anything back on that. Like you have a moment in your story that’s fantastic where Joe Luben, who I believe is the largest individual holder of Ethereum, or is alleged to be the largest individual holder.
Nick Paumgarten: Hard to know, yeah.
Aaron Lammer: Hard to know. That’s a real fact checking conundrum also. How much Ethereum does Joe Luben have?
Nick Paumgarten: Good luck, yeah. We figured it all out, got to the bottom of it.
Aaron Lammer: Okay, good, good. So there’s this moment where it has to deliver on all of these things and that moment is sometime right after the end of the story up till some period of years, at which point we’re going to go wow. That Ethereum story was kind of bogus, you know? That they were telling. They fell. If you were going to do a follow up to this story, which I understand that you probably have no interest in doing, but if you were, how long would you wait to check back in with that bet?
Nick Paumgarten: Oh yeah, so what is the metabolism rate of this whole thing?
Aaron Lammer: Yeah, what’s the half life of Ethereum?
Nick Paumgarten: I mean, I think we give it a couple of years, right? At least. I mean, they don’t have much to show for it. They trot out Civil, for example.
Aaron Lammer: Which is about to fail right now. Or it already has failed, I think.
Nick Paumgarten: The open sale was not working well. I haven’t checked in in the last couple of days.
Aaron Lammer: I think they’re saying they’re going to refund everyone’s money and then they’re going to try some simplified token sale. But for all of the other absolute shit coins out there, the fact that Civil, which was at least a good faith project, can’t raise the money, it doesn’t seem like a good sign.
Nick Paumgarten: Yeah, Civil is one of the only ones where I find myself saying, “Bummer,” you know?
Aaron Lammer: Yeah, me too.
Nick Paumgarten: Because I liked the idea. And good Lord knows this industry could use a new way of doing things. So I was kind of rooting for it. So my usual cynicism for all this stuff was sort of suspended for Civil.
Aaron Lammer: Mine was too but I also wanted to warn them that journalists are going to look into this more seriously than if you suggest Banana Coin. And therefore it’s got to be a lot tighter and more sound than your dental tokenization scheme.
Nick Paumgarten: Right. Yeah, I mean who knows? I really don’t know. Maybe it’s all too early. Maybe in five years the stuff will just blossom and take over the world. Or maybe in five years it’ll be nothing. I really, I don’t know.
Aaron Lammer: The one reason that I thought, when I read your article, that you might be a Coin Talk listener was that when you listed bogus shit coin projects, there were two of my favorite bogus shit coin projects, Banana Coin and DentaCoin. I was like, either Nick has really similar tastes in these projects as I do or maybe he’s heard me talking about Banana Coin on the show. Which is still, I think, the greatest, outlandish coin scheme out there.
Nick Paumgarten: I mean I had been keeping a running list of shit coins for a while. And by the time I finally broke down and listened, I did know about those. But I think there was something about the way, whenever you say the word, the way your voice works and the word Banana Coin works, it really kind of brings it on home.
Aaron Lammer: Well now that I know that you’re a listener, I’m a little bummed out that Sumo Koin didn’t make it into the article. Because I’ve been pushing Sumo Loin hard for almost a year now.
Nick Paumgarten: I know. Yeah. I should have because it would have gone well with Koi Coin, maybe.
Aaron Lammer: Well, Sumo Koin would have been a hard one to talk about because it turned out that the five developers were actually all one person with a different nationality. So it’s almost like you’d need a separate talk of the town to really get into the Sumo Koin mythology.
Nick Paumgarten: Well I think we should have a weekly crypto column but I don’t know who would ever take that on.
Aaron Lammer: I feel like a joke today, possible real feature in several years. That’s the weird thing about crypto, any joke we could make right now, more or less could be true in a few years.
Nick Paumgarten: Well the thing about in my story, I have this silly, weird, sideways lead about seeing the ducks feed the koi fish in a coy pond, in a hotel koi pond. And I sort of imagined this thing called koi Coin. And then at 11:00 on the night we were closing, we basically closed the piece The fact checker writes me to say there actually is a Koi Coin. You know? So this thing that we just sort of imagined, again, as a joke, was actually a thing.
Aaron Lammer: Every coin that I’ve thought about doing as any kind of a joke, stunt, anything, there’s already been a coin that is sitting in that exact nexus already. There’s a Podcasting Coin, can’t make that joke. There is Pod Coin already. It is a weird micro tipping scheme for podcasts. Can I ask you a little bit more about the big Ethereum? Because you’re, I think, the only person I’ve ever met who has had one to one interactions with the people in this world. So Joe Lubin, who is allegedly the largest holder of Ethereum runs Consensys. Joe, as you said, it’s out in this Bushwick warehouse that feels a little bit like a movie set. And you ask him basically, “Are you doing all this stuff to pump value into your massive Ethereum investment? Basically starting a massive set of incubators and international Ethereum project de-app investments?” And he goes, “No, that’s absurd.” Why is that absurd?
Nick Paumgarten: You know, I don’t know if it’s absurd. I don’t really … Because I’m not a person who knows how to make money, I don’t know how to question the way other people make money really effectively. But his argument, which at the moment I found credible, was that this would be a ridiculous way to go about making money. I think he refers to it as, “Let me create an infrastructure to give value to my magic money holdings.”
Aaron Lammer: Right.
Nick Paumgarten: I said, yeah that does seem like kind of a roundabout way to make money when you’ve had, in Joe’s case, he’s had a hedge fund, he figured out how to trade currencies and make money off of that using software and whatnot. So at that moment when he said that I said, “Yeah, I get that.” But sure, people do sometimes think of Consensus as this massive pump operation.
Aaron Lammer: Well I don’t think of it as a pump in a negative way, I just look at it as like for these Ethereum guys, for their bet to earn out, not just financially but in terms of their own Utopian vision and view of their own product, it has to work. So if you had a billion dollars and the number one thing that you were hoping would happen in human history was this Ethereum super computer coming to, in some ways, function, putting a bunch of your money into incubating people trying to do projects for it, it just doesn’t seem that strange to me. And it’s also not like he can just dump all his Ethereum, as I understand it. It’s too much Ethereum. Ethereum would plummet even further in value if any of these mega, mega whales like him were to divest themselves of their Ethereum, not to mention it would go against this whole proof of stake ideology where it’s like the people who have the most skin in the game are gonna control Ethereum mining. Or they don’t call it mining, whatever they call it.
Nick Paumgarten: Right well obviously for Ethereum to work, for Ethereum to become Ethereum and for it to be the thing that they say it’s gonna be, people have to use it. And so they have to get people to use it. And to get people to use it they have to find ways to use it. And that’s why those people sit down for an interview with the New Yorker, I assume, is because they want regular people to think, “Oh here’s this thing that we might be able to use.” Whether regular people will be able to use it or can use it now is another question but that’s obviously what they need, they need people to adopt it. You know?
Aaron Lammer: I thought that when I started doing this show I’d be learning a lot about blockchain technical stuff. And what I feel like I’ve actually learned a lot more about is financial systems and political ideologies. Like I did not realize that this would be how I eventually learned about the gold standard or how international banking transfers works. And it almost seems like, particularly with regards to Ethereum, this sort of open sourced software as a religion idea almost feels like a new political idea as well as a startup.
Nick Paumgarten: Yeah, I mean to the extent that crypto or Ethereum or any of it is a critique of the system and is an attempt at a solution, that’s when it gets kind of fascinating. The actual tech is too esoteric for me but I kind of nerded out on this in the governance thing. I never thought … That’s a horrible word, government, but I started seeing the arguments that were going on about how to run one of these so-called communities and who would be in charge and how they would apportion power, decision making sway and it started to look like a lot of new ways of ordering human power and self interest. That’s kind of cool but it’s not that interesting, ultimately, to write about at length for general interest people.
Aaron Lammer: I think that’s the most interesting thing, also, secretly. We’ve gotten a bunch of libertarian techno-Utopianists. And we’ve got them all in one place and all they really need to do is basically agree on things. Like build the things and agree. And you’d think, oh these people should get along. They have similar political motivations, similar ideologies and almost instantly, whether it’s the story of Ethereum or Tezos or any of these, the real world invades the Utopian libertarian ideal in like a week and a half, you know? Immediately it becomes politics. Immediately it becomes who’s getting pushed out? Who’s becoming the leader? I feel like we’re almost doing model UN but for libertarian Utopianism.
Nick Paumgarten: It is. I mean it collapses right into a community board meeting or something. Or that scene in Lawrence of Arabia where after the fall, I think it’s the Fall of Damascus, all the tribes are sitting around in one big fallen hall and they’re all arguing and fighting. Instantly, as soon as they’ve got what they want, it degenerates into end fighting.
Aaron Lammer: The thing that Ethereum reminds me the most of are my experiences in the Park Slope Food Co-op board meetings where everyone is allowed to talk and it’s four hours long.
Nick Paumgarten: Yeah. I mean that’s the problem with open source and also the thing that’s basically being run on social media, like Twitter and Reddit. It’s just one long argument. It’s kind of tiresome but I guess it’s better than the alternative. I don’t know.
Aaron Lammer: I mean they are trying to figure out the same problems that everyone’s been trying to figure out for all of human history. And I sort of applaud people for bringing in new ideas and yet I also giggle at them for assuming that all of the old problems won’t come up. I mean that’s like something I think about the scams too. All the scams in crypto are like 1800 scams just applied to crypto. There aren’t a ton of brand new ideas out there.
Nick Paumgarten: Yeah I mean they’re just going to keep being human, whether they’re doing it this way or that way. And we can’t escape it. We’re tribal apes, whether we’re doing it on computers or in the capital or out on the Savannah, you know?
Aaron Lammer: You wrote, a couple of years ago, about another niche group that I have a pretty good amount of, actually more affection for, because my father was a member of it, the Dead Heads and the culture that has grown up around the Grateful Dead. And it actually struck me that these might be the two most similar stories in your New Yorker catalog and that their topics almost so sprawling that they don’t even really fit into a 20,000 word story. But how does writing about a subculture, like the Grateful Dead, compare to writing about say, Ethereum fanatics.
Nick Paumgarten: Well with the Grateful Dead, I knew the language, you know? I knew my way around it.
Aaron Lammer: Yeah you didn’t have to look up what a tape trader meant.
Nick Paumgarten: Right. I knew, I actually knew way more than I should. And so in some ways that was one of those personal essay, get your private fascination off your chest and convert it into word dollars experiment. But yeah, that was more a labor of love. A guy writing about, from within his own subculture, about something that estranged the outside world and trying to make it palatable to people in the outside world, especially those who are already predisposed to hate it. You know? Like people who hate the dead or hate Dead Heads, which there are a lot of them and most of them are reasonable in their assessments. But with this one it was me going, as a clueless person, into a foreign country with lots of strange place names and a language I didn’t understand.
But the arguments and the obsession and the belief that this is the one true path, they both have that in common. Yeah, I hadn’t thought of that.
Aaron Lammer: Well I remember from my own youth going to a lot of Dead shows. And when you see the complexity of the organization that was built up around the dead, there’s the parking lot, there’s people selling stuff in the parking lot, it’s so much more than a concert. It’s an economy and it’s also a culture and it has it’s good apples and it’s bad apples and it’s people who want to be in charge and people who really don’t want to be in charge, like Jerry Garcia but become the Vitaliks of it. And it strikes me that if you tried to make the Grateful Dead concert from scratch, it would never work. It had to spontaneously become that unique cultural phenomenon. And Ethereum has some similarity to that. Ethereum’s kind of just saying, “Hey, it’s a camp ground. We’re just going to create the tokens that people can trade and there’s going to be a rich culture that springs up around it.” The tricky part is, it seems like, to me, that they’ve created that camp ground and not many people are showing up for the show. It’s like the opposite problem.
I remember watching that Grateful Dead documentary it was always like, “We don’t actually have enough room for all the people who want this experience.” Ethereum’s got all the money in the world, but they don’t really seem to be attracting the crowds.
Nick Paumgarten: Yeah or maybe it’s that the crowd is there and the band’s not gonna show up.
Aaron Lammer: I like that. I like that explanation.
Nick Paumgarten: I mean they’re all there saying, “Yeah, we’re here.” And then nothing happens.
Aaron Lammer: Yeah and then like a guy gets on the stage and plays like half a song on the harmonica and walks off and then the PA cuts out and he walks out and people are like, “All right, that’s it for next year, we’ll see you in a couple of years. Next time there’s going to be a great band here.” You know?
Nick Paumgarten: And then the fans still say it’s great because that’s the way it was. And maybe that’s true in the Ethereum community. We could just stretch this analogy to it’s very thinnest.
Aaron Lammer: I mean I’m definitely going to try to use a Grateful Dead metaphor in the title of this episode. I’m not sure which song it’s gonna refer to, probably Ripple, but …
So now that you’ve got a little bit of distance here, are you going to keep following the crypto narrative or was this enough for you?
Nick Paumgarten: I don’t know, I feel it pulling me back in. I certainly, since I wrote that, my inbox is clogged with pitches from publicists. And those kind of scare me. I don’t want anything to do with that. But I’ll keep an eye on it. Yeah, I’ve done a few stories about things where when I finished with them I said, “Never again.” And this is one of those. But if it’s actually going to be here to stay, then I might have no choice, right?
Aaron Lammer: I mean, those publicists are not going to stop contacting you, I’ll tell you that. There’s no way to get off that list once you’re on it. You almost might as well become a crypto expert because once you’re on the mailing list, you’re gonna get treated that way anyway. You’re probably gonna get asked to appear at weird crypto conferences now too. The whole thing has a weird thought virus thing where you start off thinking it’s dumb and then you end up living half your life going to crypto conferences. Which does seem to be where most people who get really into this stuff go. There are people who basically live at conferences.
Nick Paumgarten: I’ve noticed that. I don’t know how that works. How does it work financially? Are they all just couch surfing or people …
Aaron Lammer: I think they were all early in Bitcoin. And I think if I were to describe what really is unique about this narrative, there’s tons of weird sub-niches in America who’ve had Utopian ideals and big plans. This is maybe the first one that got a massive, massive cash infusion. Not just for the people who are at the business level, but also just the individual hobbyist level. Everyone got rich. Everyone got to a point where they could quit their job on this, go full conference on this, and that makes them really unlike the regular people that they’re trying to get to come to the Ethereum Grateful Dead show.
Nick Paumgarten: Right, right. I mean it’s not like the dot com thing where people still had to be in offices with white boards and pretend to be building businesses and this is just like we can just talk, eat special food and drink fancy beer and talk and travel and talk some more. You know?
Aaron Lammer: Well additionally I feel like some of the problems that they’re describing, whether it’s exchanges or being able to make bets on Auger, are these problems that you have if you’re a person who is making big public bets a lot and that kind of thing. But they’re not necessarily mapped to what non-crypto people are doing with their time. Like it reminds me of those Silicon Valley disconnect from the rest of America, but it’s a different kind of a disconnect that’s much less geographical and it’s just sort of this moving feast of conference to conference.
Nick Paumgarten: Yeah, adding layer upon layer of stuff to stuff that already seems obscure and it’s stuff that we don’t think we need. I mean there’s definitely the solution in search of a problem thing going on, right?
Aaron Lammer: Yeah. When you were doing research for this story, did you go back and look at any of these pre-Bitcoin movements like the Hash Cash and whatever? Going back to some of the 90s software moments? What does the past tell us about this story, I guess would be the question.
Nick Paumgarten: Well my understanding there is that the technology, they hadn’t solved certain problems. But I like the idea of the original, the pioneers trying to get it right but not quite getting it right. They were all true believers but they never got there. And now they have gotten there and those people are either resentful or excited. I don’t know whether this is a progression or if this is just an apparition.
Aaron Lammer: I’ve got one more question and then I’ll let you go.
Nick Paumgarten: Yeah.
Aaron Lammer: So someone asked me the other day, isn’t this energy consumption thing a big problem? And I kind of gave my traditional wrap on the show where I’m like, “Actually, there’s more power on the earth than this and people just need to find the cheap power.” I don’t even know if I actually believe that. It’s more like you’re presenting the deep no-coiner perspective so let me give you the coiner perspective. I’m actually a crypto moderate in the middle. And I feel like journalism has a lot of trouble with that idea, that dialectic idea that’s so deeply ingrained into crypto. It’s like well it’s got to be Marxism or capitalism. You know? I can’t process anything between those two things. How do you deal with that in your writing but also were you having opinions while you were writing this piece, as you became familiar with the coiner world view? And I’m guessing you were also pretty familiar with the no-coiner view, if you just read the New York Times you can get a pretty good overview of the major no coining concerns out there.
Nick Paumgarten: Well you know the problem is that it’s hard to know what to believe, right? I mean, you read and you’re told that it’s burning this much energy and you’re also told, “Well that’s just excess energy.”
Aaron Lammer: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Nick Paumgarten: I don’t understand the power grid very well, do you?
Aaron Lammer: No.
Nick Paumgarten: And there’s probably a part of my job that would require that I completely understand the power grid before I even write a sentence about it. But I didn’t do that. And I feel like in the piece I don’t even mention the other point of view, the excess power point of view and I’ve been called out for that already and I regret that. Like so when you’re doing the dialectic thing, you’re either Marxist or capitalist, any time you don’t do both you open yourself up. And sometimes you’re making a choice not to do one, you’re saying this is the way I look at it, tough. If there’s another point of view I don’t care. Or sometimes you’re just moving the thing forward and not getting caught in the weeds when you’re writing about it. You can’t present everything all the time. Does that make sense?
Aaron Lammer: Yeah it does. Or at least not unless this article was gonna be like 300,000 words. I think if you actually tried to cover everything you would turn into, what was that guy that Joseph Mitchel was profiling, Professor Segal who was writing his 10,000 page history of the world that never got finished. That’s what would happen if you tried to cover every angle of crypto thought, I think.
Nick Paumgarten: And if you had to explain how everything worked. It gets bogged down. So you make these decisions to cut things, that’s what you do whenever you tell any story but in this story you had to do that especially. And so you’re leaving out so much but then some of the corners you cut come across as political decisions, I believe this version versus that version. And some of that is inadvertent and some of it is on purpose. Not gonna go through it and tell you which is which.
Aaron Lammer: So which do you really think is better? Bitcoin or Ethereum? No, I won’t ask you that.
Nick Paumgarten: What would I do if I were going to invest?
Aaron Lammer: Yeah, did any of the other ones excite you? I’ll ask you that, besides Bitcoin and Ethereum, did anything else catch your eye in alt coin land?
Nick Paumgarten: I had a whole thing, a lot of this where I saw Vitalik and where the piece begins and all that is at the Z-Cash Conference, Z-Con up in Montreal. And I spent a little time with Zooko Wilcox and some of the Z-Cash people and the whole privacy thing, you know, that kind of got me going. And I actually wrote a lot about that and ended up having to cut it because you have to cut something. I mean I have no idea whether it’s a good investment or if it’s gonna work. I mean, you know, but I just kind of like the idea of Z-Cash.
Aaron Lammer: Me too. I think if there’s a third thing that interests me, if the first thing was internet money and the second thing was programmable money, anonymous money feels like a third, significantly enough differentiated idea that you’ve at least got my attention.
Nick Paumgarten: I was at this privacy seminar and all these hackers were talking and I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand a word. I knew some of them were sort of famous but at that moment while I was standing there the news came over my phone that Joseph Kennedy was retiring, right? And it just seemed like this potentially dark moment in world history. And who knew where the world would go. And for a brief moment I kind of looked at those people, those hackers sitting there talking about privacy and how to do it and onion layers and all that stuff. I kind of looked at them like some kind of heroes. Like characters in the Matrix or something. So that kind of got me going.
Aaron Lammer: Well thank you so much, Nick. I am a huge fan of your writing. I do hope that you come back to crypto eventually. Me and you, we can do this interview again in the dystopian scorched Bitcoin waste land that is inevitably coming.
Nick Paumgarten: And we’ll be rich.
Aaron Lammer: And we’ll be rich just for our early contributions to crypto media.
Nick Paumgarten: Just to be a two will be enough.