Cover photo

Staring into the Abyss

Fighting off nihilism while working in crypto

The other day, Polynya rage-quit crypto with one last hurray: a blog post titled Crypto's broken moral compass.

While some quickly pointed out that this wasn't the first time they quit, it didn't lessen the impact it had on me.

I spent hours thinking about the broader point that crypto seems to have achieved little of what we set out to do while simultaneously providing the perfect place for people to showcase the lack of human decency.

The fascist memecoins on Solana are just one symptom of that, and celebrating them as a sign of "permissionlessness and censorship resistance" feels wrong.

Just because you can launch a Hitler coin doesn't mean you should. It's one thing to have an open, permissionless platform and another to make it a place real humans want to engage in.

Irl, we have institutions and social contracts that govern our behavior. Suppose I were to say specific phrases in public that reminisce about the Nazi era. I bet I'd have to pay a fine for that or at least be met with outrage from bystanders - because I live in Germany, and you know, we're pretty sensitive about our past.

In crypto, we like to say, "Code is law." Except that code is not a real law, and thanks to the billion-dollar exploits, we might want to check if we really want to make such buggy stuff responsible for governing us. Crypto's Three Body Problem authors also found issues with this regression to code.

After all, just because specific actions are possible on a protocol, doesn't mean they aren't technically undesirable behavior. The Mango Market hacker operating his highly profitable trading strategy is an excellent example of that. Sure, he did something the protocol enabled him to do - but it was also a crime. He ended up in jail, where he was put not by the condemnation through Crypto Twitter (some even glorified it) but by state force.

Relying solely on code to govern social norms seems as much of a bad idea as using money to govern social relationships. You know, like in that Israeli kindergarten where they tried to make parents pick up their kids on time by establishing fines for being late.

Unfortunately, the opposite happened. Instead of considering it a bad thing to be late, as you'd usually have as an empathic human being, now there was a price for it. So you just pay the price and come late.

“No guilt or shame...can be attached to the act of buying a commodity at will."

from A Fine is a Price

That seems rather bad news for an industry that happily financializes everything, including their friends.

Guilt and shame aren't prominent emotions in crypto. For that to be obvious, one has just to check out Laura Shin's latest interview with Kyle Davies, who, as any grandma would say, should really be ashamed of himself.

Yet, no such introspection has happened. Maybe it's not even a feeling he's capable of. The only positive in this is, at least, journalists are willing to expose such obnoxious, self-righteous d*cks.

But for every Laura Shin, 50 influencers are selling you shitcoins and bragging about their [rented] villas. It's no wonder that everyone outside of "the space" thinks we are, at best, a bunch of retards, and at worst, criminals.

If our target is the retards, there's some hope for mass adoption because, as the basic laws of human stupidity say

Everyone always and inevitably underestimates the number of stupid people in circulation

On that topic, you might wonder what Cipolla considered to be a stupid person.

A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or group of people when he or she does not benefit and may even suffer losses.

Sounds familiar? I'm sure if you've been in this space for years like me, you met your fair share of such people.

Obviously, as per statistics, this would happen in any other industry as well. The difference is that these other industries tend to operate in the framework of social norms.

Credible neutrality is cool, but it should not be used to legitimize all the actions taken on top of a protocol. And if we don't want to do that in a centralized way because it's anti-ethical to the supposed values of the space, the only way to do it is on the human layer.

Wasn't crypto supposed to be this empowering force? The David against the Goliath of the exploitative, attention-destroying gourge that is Web2?

It's pretty frustrating when things are governed by price instead. And who makes money is not correlated to whether they are doing something sensible or just putting a bunch of buzzwords on their website and launching a glorified multi-sig.

I completely understand people who've just given up and succumbed to nihilism. Every once in a while, I'm close to doing that.

I mean...

I'd not be surprised if he returned and made a lot of money again.

Why bother in a space where it seemingly doesn't do good to do good? You might as well make Nietzsche and Camus your new personality and revel in the meaninglessness of it all.

Having a moral compass might even be a deterrent to achieving life-changing wealth. At least, I still have to work to pay my bills - while I've observed and met many others who have achieved great gains with some questionable activities. (They call it alpha, not insider trading)

And ngl, it's frustrating when one of your previous bosses publishes a book. And you know exactly he couldn't even write a coherent sentence on telegram. On that note, I've met many supposed "C-level" people with zero clue. So much so that the other day, when asked about my career aspirations, my one aspiration was "not having to work full-time nor run a company" 🤣.

Without crypto, I'm empty

At ETH Denver, I was chatting with someone, and he mentioned something along the lines of the above as we discussed having a life.

This is another source of frustration for me. I generally despise networking and trying to hard-sell stuff. I'm better at vibing with people about things other than prices, ETFs, re-staking, or technical implementations.

Some have joked that crypto is relatively uncultured. That's generalizing, for sure. Still, it's pretty apparent when you go to an event hosted in a gallery and virtually no one wants to talk to you about paintings. Worse.

The response I got most was, "Oh, I didn't even notice."

I still vividly recall a painting on the back wall showing a lady lying on the sofa during a spring day, curtains half-closed. She was bored. It reminded me of After the Ball by Ramon Casas.

Not that I ended up talking about that to anyone. It just stayed in my head until now.

It's beyond seeing your immediate surroundings, though. Quite often, crypto conferences happen in different countries and places one wouldn't usually go to.

Yet, there seems to be little effort to showcase or interact with the local culture.

In tourism management, I once learned about this model of how tourists and locals do not get an authentic impression of each other. That's because their cultures never truly meet.

The tourists bring with them their holiday culture. However, they will experience largely the host country's work culture as they interact with people who work in hospitality and other places catering to tourists.

Something similar applies to crypto people going to exotic locations for their conferences.

They behave in conference mode, only (if at all) meeting locals who run their catering or drive them around in Ubers (work culture).

Maybe it even extends to our normal remote work lives, where we're alienated from the results of our labor because, in our physical vicinity, all we see is nothing - in terms of our impact. Or maybe that's just me.

I'm pretty sure we'd be better off if we didn't make crypto our entire personality and cultivate interest in the immediate world around us, regardless of whether we are somewhere just to the conference. Chances are people outside of the space will like us better.

And if we want to change the world, starting with where we're at is the most obvious choice. You know, bottom-up—kind of like crypto was supposed to be before it turned into a place where we want BlackRock to pump our bags.

If you believe the theory of oceanic games, maybe complete decentralization is a chimera - regardless of how well you distribute wealth and power in the beginning.

In that case, what's the point of any of this?

This I ask myself a lot.

Still, I am not one to rage-quit. Plus, the flexibility afforded to me by being in crypto probably ruined me for any other job. Among other things, it leaves me time to volunteer and go to museums on weekdays, activities I consider quite beneficial for my local area.

So, instead, for as long as I'm in this industry, I'll stare into the abyss while trying my best to encourage conversations around values, culture, and how we want to be perceived.

And for those still celebrating all those criminal acts as a sign of permissionlessness, here is some Thomas Mann for you.

“Tolerance becomes a crime when applied to evil.”

Thanks for reading. 💚

This isn't to say I haven't met a ton of amazing people in crypto.

My issue is just that they seem to be the minority—maybe there is a silent majority of decent people. Unfortunately, all that's surfacing, though, are the loud and obnoxious ones.

My words here are nothing but a random stream of consciousness. So please don't quote them in academic papers.

Collect this post to permanently own it.
Mosaic of thoughts logo
Subscribe to Mosaic of thoughts and never miss a post.
  • Loading comments...