The Politics and Culture of Cryptocurrencies

in #cryptocurrency4 years ago (edited)

At the risk of getting ahead of myself here, I'd like to do a little speculation about the future of cryptocurrencies because I do believe that in a few years time there will be a lot of changes coming down the pipe that will likely take a lot of people off guard.  But I'm not here to talk about how much Ethereum/Bitcoin/etc. will be worth in X years though -- what I'm looking to talk about here is how crypto will affect the things that everyone loves to hate: politics and culture.

Culture Trumps Economics

Salon recently published a very good article about the left's current obsession with identity politics and how it's becoming a hindrance to the enactment of progressive agendas throughout the West.  Regardless of your opinion on the current president, it's useful to remember that up until fairly recently, Trump used to be a moderate New York Democrat that mingled with the Hollywood elite on a regular basis.  What exactly happened between back then and now?

Shivani correctly points out that during the campaign all Trump really did was take the ethos of identity politics and applied it to working-class whites and other "distraught" conservatives -- essentially using the political tactics of the left against itself.  Hate tends to burn a little hotter when rival factions have more things in common, because the enemy becomes a representation/manifestation of things that people dislike about themselves and their own culture.  Trump hates the media and the media hates Trump, but since they both come from the same background (and both have become more successful as a result of their conflict), the arguments between them tend to mirror each other in a bizarre, codependent way.

Shivani's main point was that cultural warfare tends to distract us from talking about more substantial subjects that may actually lead to good policy and fair practices in the long run.  As evidenced by most of the discussions that happen online now, people are willing to talk about race, gender, and other identity-related issues fairly openly, but are quick to shy away from discussions about class mobility and income inequality because it touches on issues that make people uncomfortable on a much deeper level.  Culture has won over economics in terms of the public's current interest, but economics is where we need to go in order for politics to progress, in other words.

While the tech industry prides itself on its progressive politics, it's pretty much a known fact that technology is also responsible for displacing and eliminating many jobs among the working class.  And this was done more or less haphazardly without a real contingency plan on how people would transition into the new world without having to make significant sacrifices to their standards of living.  (There have been, however, lots of for-profit "boot camps" where people can pay lots of money just to find work.)  Talking about economics is dangerous for a lot of techies out there because it may point out the existence of exploitative practices that has contributed to their success.  Through the lens of social media, we have inherited the worldviews of the technologists, including many of their anxieties, self-conscious worries and hypocracies into our daily lives, which we will now have to deal with as a nation as a whole.

In some ways, the political drama currently surrounding the administration has a lot to do with the avoidance of social responsibility and civic duty -- I do genuinely believe that political voices have gotten louder and louder in recent years in order to compensate for the lack of substance in recent political ideas and movements overall.  Progressives now have the difficult task of coming to terms with the fact that they may have been part of the problem this entire time and must now take a reconciliatory (rather than triumphant) tone in order to progress the dialog further.  This time, hope must come from a source different from Obama's thrill of victory, which for many, will be a hard pill to swallow.

Crypto: Let's Talk About Money

So what does any of this have to do with crypto?  As mentioned in my previous article, the internet is designed in such a way that encourages us to talk about social/cultural ideas over economics.  As a former working musician myself, the excitement behind cultural ideas can actually be pretty great in certain ways, and I'll be the first to admit that I got caught up in it many times throughout my career. It's all fun and games until you run into the reality of people trying to pay you in "exposure" rather than actual money, though.  And this mentality is reinforced by the fact that much of the internet of today exists in a fantasy world where everything is free, since it runs on advertising revenue as its main source of income. (Even Google, yes.) 

Most people hate ads, yet we find ourselves living in a society where pretty much everything we know and understand runs on it any surprise why so many people are unhappy and angry at seemingly everything the world has to offer?

Cryptocurrencies, however, have the ability to significantly change the way we talk and think about the interactions we have on the internet on a day-to-day basis.  More specifically, it adds 1) the concept of "value" to individual actions as well as 2) the concept of scarcity into digital ecosystems.

Steemit users should already be aware of #1 since this platform is a grand experiment of this idea put into practice.  The concept is simple -- your upvotes and shares should be worth something beyond its pure emotional value.  Content creation is the obvious one, of course, but it also includes likes/dislikes, sharing, and upvotes as well. One can only hope that they will eventually work the kinks out so that the incentive to create high quality content eventually outlasts the motivations to make a quick buck.  (Or worse...fake news!)

The general idea for #2 is that in order for something to have value, it must be restricted in supply.  This has been a major problem for software industries from the very beginning, since digital assets can technically be duplicated endlessly without any loss in quality.  This gives us enormous abundance, sure, but at the same time, when the supply of something is infinite, what becomes of its value?  Zero.  If you were wondering why nihilism seems to be so popular these days, look nowhere else than the internet itself -- meaninglessness is practically built into its infrastructure and business models as its default state-of-being.

The only way to give value to something, then, is to restrict the supply in some way.  How can this be done?

I recently bought a Cryptopunk portrait from Larva Labs (in the picture above) as an experiment to see how the price of a digital asset might fluctuate over time.  Is Cryptopunks a masterpiece of the highest artistic merit?  Not really, and I'm pretty sure the developers would agree with me as well.  But I can say that this pixelized icon of this lady with a mole and frumpy hair belongs to me and no-one else.  You could take a screenshot and create an identical version of it somewhere, sure, but without the blockchain to verify its authenticity, it will never be "real".

You could make the engineer's argument that since there is no functional difference between my "artwork" and a screenshot rip-off of it, I've spent a bunch money on nothing and we're probably all collectively dumber as a result.  But wait, there IS a big difference here, which is that one of them is connected to the blockchain and the other one is not.  My copy has the potential to create connections and interactions with other online entities in virtually infinite ways, while the bootlegged copy is just a sad little jpeg (or png if you prefer) doomed to be forever alone, probably wiped from the face of the earth after someone's hard drive runs out of room.

I think that the potential for these sorts of projects are much bigger than most people realize, since it could potentially change our entire outlook on how we treat content and content producers on the internet in a short couple of years.  First step towards a better world of content, though: no more working for "exposure"!


If you're curious as to how some of these things might actually look in practice, you can see some of it already happening in the gaming industry as of the late.  Twitch already has its own internal currency called "bits" that people use to tip streamers that they like watching.  Some might think it's a weird mixture of capitalism and "just hanging out" but I do feel that the interactions are much much more wholesome and honest than the majority of social interactions that happen elsewhere on the web. A lot of kids seem to be into it, anyway, and that's a good sign as any that this practice is probably not going to go away.

Oh, and did you know that not communicating about money is also major contributing factor to breakups and unhappy relationships?  Better get practicing now, or end up paying the price later on.  (Figuratively, which is ironically worse than literally, in this case.)  If all of us can learn to talk about money without getting weird about it, I think that we'll all be better off in the end.  It's not about bragging about your income or how much you own, but acknowledging *the value* of things through action, rather than words.


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i have to disagree with your characterization of scarcity and value.

what do you make of public goods, such as security or the environment or (ideally) the internet? more people having access to these things most certainly does not make their value zero, as you said.

I think that both the military and environmentalists will agree that security and environment are limited resources and need to be conserved effectively for us to make the most use of it.

We certainly do pay a LOT for our military, and if we assume that the environment is an infinite resource we end up destroying the ecosystem in one way or another. (I think the latter is a good metaphor of what happened to the music industry in recent years.)

The idea that anything can be free I think can often be dangerous in itself because it encourages us to take things for granted and not give them their proper respect. Crypto has the ability to change this, though the transition won't be easy because we've just gotten used to things being a certain way for so long.

see, this is precisely why i think public goods and their value break your model!

yes, we pay a lot for our military, but military ≠ security-- in fact, one could argue our immense investment in the war on terror has made our country and many others around the world LESS secure.

this is a classic example of the security dilemma-- sure, i may just be buying guns and ammo to protect myself, but if you're my neighbor and you see me buying guns and ammo, but don't have any of your own, my attempts to increase my own security directly threaten your security.

in the case of the environment, my point was not that it's an infinite resource, but instead that it's a shared public good. i don't benefit from destroying the environment, and either do you. now, SOME people do, and that's why they continue to destroy the environment. this isn't an issue of you or i not valuing the environment enough, it's instead an issue of us not being able to stop the assholes who value something else more than they value the environment, so that their harm to it is offset by their gains.

i never said these things were free, just that there are other ways of valuing them than thru private ownership :3

Ah, I think I see your point a little better now. (Wasn't sure where you were coming from in the first response.)

The public-private thing is a tricky one that I don't think we'd be able to solve here, but I do think that there's some interesting projects that can come out of government and non-profit sectors using blockchain technology in the near future. (Musicoin is actually a non-profit who didn't bother with an ICO.)

Unfortunately I don't think we're going to see any progress in that area with this current administration. I'm actually a little worried that China or Russia might surpass the US in that regard.

Amazing you are

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Nice article. I was recently an attendee at Social Media Week Chicago & sat in on a presentation from Twitch. I had no idea such a thing existed (but my kid did) and the amount of money that some of the games out of good will from those watching is astounding.