The Intellectual Situation
Walk Away Like a Boss
Postcard from the cryptosphere
There is a lack of imagination when it comes to metaphor. “I’ll shill my balls off for a lambo.” “Every time I look at my charting I get a chub.” “there’s no way I’m buying a green dildo like that.” “XPR chart got me horny af.” “The moment people talk about $rose like that is the moment I’m dipping the bare ball sack even deeper!” “That buy wall at .7 is holdin us by our balls.” “longing ETH big dick style!”
Sometimes the market is a woman, or turns you into a woman: “whole crypto market acting like a girl on her period in these days smh.” “fuck price dropping. wtf are these women’s emotions i’m having, gotta get rid.” “If it goes to 4 dollars im gonna ape my wife and children in.” “BTC is playing with my emotions like that toxic ass girlfriend.” “$dreams scares me more than giving my credit card to my gf.”
The memes, too, lack ingenuity, offering recycled variations of Soyjak, Pepe, and the late Bogdanoff twins as puppet masters of the global markets (“He bought? Dump it.”). When the market pulls back, and crypto prices slump, a cascade of tweets link to the McDonald’s job application or a crying Wojak wearing a red cap stamped with the golden arches (“time to get a job boys”). Everyone is a bro, or a bruh, or a brah.
I can’t explain exactly how I ended up on crypto Twitter (or CT, as it’s known in the cryptosphere) and in the crypto-focused Telegram and Discord groups I started lurking in late last summer. There was a bull run going on, and whenever cryptocurrency values skyrocket the corporate press turns up like a kettle of raptors spewing headlines about improbable fortunes: “This mom quit her job to focus on crypto full time and build ‘generational wealth.’ Now she makes around $80,000 per month.” “This 33-year-old ‘dogecoin millionaire’ is now being paid in the meme-inspired cryptocurrency — and continues to buy the dips.” I was curious about NFTs, I guess. An NFT of Nyan Cat, an animated cat with a Pop-Tart for a body, sold for nearly $600,000. A few weeks later, a JPEG collage by a name few in the art world knew went for $69 million at Christie’s — a record sum for a work of digital art sold at auction. NFTs had been around since 2014, when Kevin McCoy and Anil Dash minted the first at Seven on Seven, the annual one-day conference hosted by the arts organization Rhizome. So why were they attracting interest now? Would they actually help artists, potentially automating royalty payments? Or did the sale at Christie’s sound the death knell? Then there was the morning I spent at the doctor’s office, watching the talking head on the New York local news imply that people didn’t need their stimulus checks, they were spending them on cryptocurrency. Were they? I started noodling around on Twitter. Eventually I found my way into a cluster of channels where people from all over the world shared ideas and practiced a form of divination involving candlestick charts and momentum oscillators. “Beautiful falling wedge bullish divergence/Oversold on HTF. elliot wave 2 LTF. healthy volume clusters.” I have now been lurking long enough to know what that means.
At first I felt a little dirty, a little shameful. Everyone is in these spaces for one reason: to make money. It’s a subject that remains uncouth to speak about in my wider professional and social milieu, where writers or artists with money can launch into extraordinary contortions to dampen the perception of their financial circumstances, lest their accomplishments be seen to mean less. Soon, though, my shame started to interest me. I stayed a little longer, thumbing through channels on the subway or in bed late at night. It’s a kind of rubbernecking only the internet allows, providing near-full access to a subculture to which you don’t belong.
In time I grew familiar with the way the crypto stans express themselves, the phrases and acronyms they use: gm (good morning), wagmi (we’re all gonna make it), ngmi (not gonna make it), and its corollary hfsp (have fun staying poor). I learned to distinguish the swing traders and scalpers from the hodlers (hold on for dear life) and degens (degenerates, or speculation addicts) by the way they talk and post. I perceived the subcultures within their subculture — the Bitcoin maxis (Bitcoin is the one and only crypto) versus the Ethereum maxis (Bitcoin is for boomers) versus the Eth-killer maxis (Ethereum is ngmi) — and how they signal their allegiances through their avatars (Bitcoin maxis often have lasers shooting from their eyes) and, for a smaller subset, their self-care habits (some Bitcoin maxis only eat meat; others won’t use seed oils, wear sunscreen, ice their injuries, or touch receipts). Across the forums, I could not discern any unified politics other than a shared certainty that the government and wealthy elites are keeping the little guy down. People sometimes lapse into an internet speak marked by weird spelling and the syntax of a parent doting over a small child (“$spell is gud coin?” “iz oke your coin wil punp to”). Everyone uses the handshake emoji.
Reporting on financial markets tends toward extremes. There is the hopelessly mystifying description of market movements, in which byzantine concepts are compressed into small units of abstract language, and then there are the individual stories. In reports on the crypto markets, these stories generally feature people during a bull run getting rich through dumb luck or getting rich and then losing it all. Lurking in these groups provides a third angle. Here are people with complex lives and distinct needs and desires, battling their emotions — their greed and, just as important, their fear — through bull and through bear. These are not, for the most part, wealthy people intent on obtaining more wealth. They are people trying to teach themselves how to get ahead in ways they believe were previously foreclosed to them. They call one another “fam,” cheering on those who make a winning trade and commiserating with those who get “rekt,” as if they aren’t all opponents on the trading battleground.
The more time I spent in the cryptosphere, the more I came to see it as a place where all our economic ills are refracted.
In late 2014 I attended an event at the Swiss Institute, when it was still located in cobblestone SoHo, cohosted by Triple Canopy, an arts organization I used to work for. At the front of the crowded room, seated behind a table, were two men. One of them was a 20-year-old Vitalik Buterin, teenager-thin with crystalline blue eyes that only occasionally flashed at the audience. The other, a colleague and a good friend, started the event by reading aloud a vision of the future that belonged to Buterin:
You wake up and see that $17.27 was automatically deducted from your primary wallet, as you had authorized to happen every day, to pay the rent for your apartment; if you canceled the authorization, then, after a warning period, ownership in the land-registry contract would automatically transfer back to the landlord, and the door lock would no longer recognize signatures signed by your smartphone’s private key as valid for letting you in. Of course, your landlord is bound by the same restrictions. If he shuts off his account that pays the local government $6.60 land-value tax per day, then he loses ownership and the contract automatically switches over so you are renting from the government instead. The government itself is simply a large decentralized organization, and you can see in real time the $6.60 moving on the blockchain and eventually getting into an account to pay for a medical-research program trying to extend the human lifespan from 170 years to 230.
The future world Buterin proposed was indebted to some person or entity not present at the talk that evening: an anonymous developer or group of developers known to the public as Satoshi Nakamoto. Nakamoto’s contribution was narrower, more focused: a form of money with a fixed supply and a predictable growth rate that could be transferred from one peer to another without the bank as intermediary.
Each transaction would be recorded in a ledger, and the ledger would be shared across a network of computer nodes and be verifiable by anyone who cared to look. This particular ledger, or blockchain, was born into the world on January 3, 2009, as Bitcoin. The same day, the Times of London published a headline: “Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks.” Nakamoto coded the headline into the time stamp parameter of Bitcoin’s “genesis” block, when the first fifty bitcoin were mined.
Nakamoto’s invention first attracted the interest of an insular community of cryptographers among whom the currency’s white paper initially circulated, but the number of Bitcoin enthusiasts eventually grew. Amid financial collapse, people all over the world were frustrated with governments that were offering billions in support to the banks who’d burned it all down while those who’d played no role lost their incomes and their homes. As the crisis proliferated, central banks launched an arcane bond-buying program called quantitative easing that pumped money into asset prices and again left the neediest behind. Supporting Bitcoin was, for some, a form of protest. Sometimes this protest converged with another. “This is amazing, everyone help out,” wrote @WiseOldOwl in 2011 on a Bitcoin forum sub-thread titled Occupy Wall Street Live Feed. “I will be putting together a care package if anyone wants to put in on that.” “I’ve Been at Occupy Phoenix for a while, mentioning bitcoin to everyone,” @opticbit posted in spring 2012. Occupy’s NYC General Assembly accepted donations in bitcoin, listing a wallet address on its website.
In theory, a decentralized internet was an appealing prospect.Tweet
Buterin was one of the people who took note of Bitcoin early on. As a teenager he cofounded Bitcoin Magazine, whose first issue, published in May 2012, featured a man in a Guy Fawkes mask holding a small sign on the cover: The corrupt fear us. The honest support us. The heroic join us. That night in SoHo, he told the audience that he’d wanted to adapt Bitcoin to support other kinds of decentralized economic platforms and financial tools, but realized it was never designed to be the “foundational base layer” for decentralized computing. Instead of trying to construct tools on top of Bitcoin, he created a different blockchain, this one with a programming language built in: Ethereum. Its digital token, called ether, would function as the Ethereum ecosystem’s currency and as the “gas” — a small payment offered in exchange for computing power — that makes it run. The idea was to be able to execute contracts without trusted third parties, the way Bitcoin eliminated third parties for payments. These contracts could be used to replicate simple services like cloud sharing or crowdsourced fundraising, or to form the basic units of more complex forms of governance. Someone mentioned the term DAO, or decentralized autonomous organization — a community owned and managed by its members without a centralized authority. Membership to a DAO is usually established by token ownership, which grants the holder the right to issue proposals for community vote and to vote on those proposed by others. Proposals agreed on by the majority are enforced by smart contracts, bits of code that automatically execute when certain criteria are met.
There were things that Buterin wanted that I wanted too: a world without poverty, where income and work were extricable for everyone, not only the rich; a world free of the exorbitant fees and corrupt, usurious practices of banks; a world in which distant corporate entities no longer siphoned profits from our every activity, transforming us all into breathing yield-generators, or used our data to shape the world in ways we had no say over. In theory, a decentralized internet was an appealing prospect. But there was a lot about Buterin’s vision that was difficult to love. How tragic, I thought, to reduce life to a procession of microtransactions or contracts. How naive to believe that some agreed-upon set of values could be formalized into code, or that the problems of politics could be made irrelevant by computation. I suppose I felt comforted by his youth. After all, it’s the prerogative of the young to be idealistic, even if his ideal — libertarianism, anarcho-capitalism — was not mine.
My friend speaking with Buterin that night was someone whose ideas I took seriously, even if I didn’t always share his outlook. Feeling disillusioned with the fallout of Occupy, its ineffectiveness at remaking the world, he recognized in Ethereum a horizon of possibility that I didn’t see, a potential means to organize people toward a common goal in a radically egalitarian way. He wasn’t the only one. The previous summer, the community sale for Ethereum — effectively a GoFundMe but with Bitcoin as the currency of exchange — raised nearly $20 million. Meanwhile, in a small corner of the art world, Bitcoin and the blockchain were capturing the interest of artists whose work contended with privacy, surveillance, and other legacies of the cyberpunk ethos; with value, how it is established and understood; or with global markets, money, and capitalism. In July 2015, six months after I saw Buterin speak, the Ethereum network launched, inspiring conversations around online consensus-building, decentralized distributions of power, and alternative forms of governance.
I was aware of some of these conversations as they unfolded. A friend in Berlin took part in a group that considered setting up a community-funded social insurance platform as a DAO (though they never implemented it). Artists like Simon Denny, Aria Dean, Agnieszka Kurant, and Matt Kenyon began engaging with blockchain technologies and alternative currencies as both subject and material. There was Bail Bloc, an app from the New Inquiry that tapped into a computer’s available processing power to mine the cryptocurrency Monero and distribute its equivalent in dollars to bail funds in the National Bail Fund Network. There was Paul Chan’s crypto teach-in at the Whitney Museum. I read the occasional article on how mining proof-of-work currencies creates annual carbon dioxide emissions on a scale that rivals those of entire countries. But for the most part my interests lay elsewhere. One of these curiosities was with money in its more traditional form. After the economy crashed in 2008, I realized how little I understood about how our monetary and banking systems work and how daunted I was by the obfuscating language used to describe their mechanics. It felt deliberate, and this irked me. Over a period of time I taught myself the basics. I read, I listened, I organized a short-lived reading group on the fundamentals of macroeconomics. I wanted to better understand the role of monetary policy and market movements in policymaking, but I wasn’t too invested in blockchain’s potential utopias or dystopias. While crypto came up in conversation from time to time, I otherwise didn’t think about it that much.
When I did start thinking about crypto, in late summer 2021, I came to the discourse with a set of preconceptions about what I would find. The lofty vision of a transparent and fair financial system had mostly given way to the public worship of the appetites; talk about crypto’s “radical potential,” whatever the politics, had been replaced by a caricature of Silicon Valley hype men and gym rats who liked to pose in front of Italian luxury sports cars and post close-ups of their Rolexes. The conversations artists were having about the blockchain operated at a far remove from the world of traders and investors who were speculating on asset prices, riding the market cycles, and reaping the gargantuan returns. (A good day in crypto can equal a year’s worth of returns on the stock market.) Most of what I’d gleaned about this part of the cryptosphere I’d absorbed ambiently from the internet or the news.
I quickly came to understand that cryptocurrency is a term no longer precise enough to describe the array of projects under its umbrella. It’s more than Bitcoin and ether and the occasional meme coin: it’s thousands of projects with corresponding tokens, most of them unrelated to the ambition of replacing the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency. In simplified terms, each project is built on a blockchain, what the cryptosphere calls a “settlement layer” or “layer 1.” Ethereum is a layer 1; so are Terra, Avalanche, Solana, and Cosmos, among others. Each layer 1 has its own native currency or token, which is used to pay for conducting transactions in its ecosystem. There are two main ways to access these tokens: on centralized exchanges, like the ones day traders use for foreign exchange or stocks, or on the blockchain itself, using a decentralized exchange. Say you want to buy $XAVA, the token for Avalaunch, a “launchpad” or fundraising platform for crypto-based games and other projects on the Avalanche blockchain, either because you think the price of $XAVA will go up or because holding the coin grants you early access to project tokens launched on their platform. You can buy it with a credit card or a bank transfer on a centralized exchange like Kucoin, or, if you already have the requisite token, you can buy it “on-chain.” Every token has its own “community” of loyal holders who congregate in project-specific Discord or Telegram channels to talk about the road map, to ask questions, or, as often happens, to complain about the price (“Why is price going down? Any news?”). Admins serve as the bridge between the project team and the community and share updates. For some projects, community support can resemble something like religious faith, insofar as the devotion on display seems incommensurate with the project’s outputs. Imagine an Amazon-run Telegram channel where thousands of Amazon stockholders gather to make friends, cheer on the launch of a new service, or squawk at company reps when they aren’t responsive enough. You can’t. It would never happen. But it happens here, in crypto.
Many were here, trying to make money in crypto, because they felt they had no other choice.Tweet
I looked around these online spaces and found that every token, every project, was at the mercy of the hype cycle, or what people in the cryptosphere genteelly call “narratives.” Use value was merely incidental. The hype for the final third of 2021 hinged largely on NFTs (mostly profile pictures, or PFPs); on projects with even a remote connection to the words metaverse and gaming (helped by the announcement of the company formerly known as Facebook); on the layer 1s that are not Ethereum (i.e., the “Eth-killers”) and the tokens in their ecosystems; and on a series of community-owned decentralized finance applications trying to establish on-chain equivalents for things like the Federal Reserve and the Treasury, known chiefly by their collective shorthand, DeFi 2.0. (The hype for DeFi 1.0 transpired in summer 2020.) Apart from trading, the main strategy people rely on to make money is to identify the newest hype, get in early, and then pivot to the next ahead of the herd. If you study the charts, you can pretty much watch the money move en masse from one speculative focus to the next.
It’s influencers (who else?) who make the hype go round. A few of them are people with genuine skill and knowledge, or “OGs” who traded through at least one of the previous bull runs and over time built followings through displays of wisdom about how to grow a portfolio and trade the charts. Some even produce free educational content and preach the gospel of risk management (e.g., use stop-losses, never risk more than 1 percent of your portfolio). But no small number appear to be marketers paid to push a given token on their followers. They buy the token at low prices — or are given an allocation as payment — then promote the token once the price is inflated. When their followers buy the token, it gives them the opportunity to exit their position at these higher prices (every seller needs a buyer). They use Twitter but also YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, and some have private Telegram and Discord channels. If you’re new, it’s not always easy to ferret out the people who are mostly good-intentioned from those who have no shame. But the charlatans tend to give themselves away by posting a lot of engagement-farming “hopium” (“#bitcoin rewards those who are patient.” “I hope all 950,000+ of my Twitter followers become #crypto millionaires in 2022!” “you wake up and see @verasitytech has pumped to $1 per VRA. What’s your first response?”).
There are outright scams, too, among all the legitimate projects. It’s the norm for developers to remain anonymous, and anyone can easily spin up a token and corresponding liquidity pool to make it available on a decentralized exchange. The creators of the play-to-earn game Squid Game borrowed from the hit Netflix series its name and design scheme — and also its winner-takes-all denouement. Buyers of the $SQUID token found it was nearly impossible to sell, and after the price shot up 110,000 percent in the span of about a week, the creators “rugged” the project, removing its liquidity and making off with around $3.36 million. Tweet anything containing the words MetaMask or Trust Wallet, the names of two widely used crypto wallets, and phishing bots unfailingly turn up posing as support staff. After luring the unsuspecting into their DMs and convincing them to give up their seed phrase (a kind of password), scammers immediately use it to drain the wallet of funds. Hacks are also an ongoing threat: in December 2021, millions were stolen in attacks on AscendEX and Bitmart, although both exchanges promised to return missing funds to their users.
All this I expected to find, if not specifically, at least generally. What I did not expect to find in this corner of the cryptosphere was an overwhelming number of seemingly ordinary people of all ages — some still teenagers, others parents to small children or caregivers to older family members — desperate to make money to get by. These were not the people I imagined seated behind a multiscreen trading setup or moving assets around an investment portfolio. Many were here, trying to make money in crypto, because they felt they had no other choice. People struggling financially; who despise their jobs; who feel the system is rigged and there is no way out. People whose country has been at war for years and want to leave, or who have left and want to help family members who stayed behind. From crypto they draw optimism for the future, the possibility that their lives could change or that they could change the lives of others:
I have been out of a job for over half a year and have a lot of bills due and rent to pay, but I found work at a very good new job. I feel lucky. I took the savings I had and bought some clothes suitable for the working context that didn’t cost too much. The whole first month I will be away with the company and I only have 110 dollars, so I have brought things with me like food to save money [sweating smiley emoji]. But I’m super happy with this new opportunity! I wanted to share this story with the people of this group because we are now becoming a big family and I want to encourage all those who are in trouble!
It’s the 9-5 lifestyle bro. No1 cares about u. Just a replaceable person no matter what ur job is.
I have only $100 to put in. My wife stays home with our baby and I work full time and do delivery apps on weekends to make extra.
Don’t assume that if things are going well for you they are going well for everyone. I’m a girl in uni and take care of my whole family. I’m not here to whine I have accepted how life is and I am patient . I’m going to try so hard to grow my $83. This group on its own motivates me a lot .
I had constant stress about my investments but today all of it went away. Saw 3 people die, 2 of them were my close friends and [I] made it out safely after i got shot at 4 times. I was busy trying to make money, never would have thought things could go this wrong. Appreciate life and spend time with family and friends.
I’m 17. If I stay here in my country after uni and work I can earn maybe $100 a week max.
Can’t wait to tell my manager to eat shit and walk away like a boss.
I came to Kabul (Capital) a few days ago and what i saw here made me devastated, kids starving and their parents begging for a single piece of bread. I tried to help as much as possible, bought rice bags, oils, flour, clothes, blankets to many families, but i cannot do this alone. I wanted to create a gofundme link but its not possible here since i am in afg. I urge you guys to pray for everyone here and if possible, help them financially. You don’t have to be a muslim to feel the pain of afghans, you just need to be a human.
Got a dollar raise at work today lol, they felt like it was so nice of them but it’s really not shit .
lol you’ll be broke forever if you won’t work a meaningless job for fiat but even then you will still be pretty fucked most of the time.
If I’m starting with $10, is that enough?
These expressions of frustration and, at times, despair, are from people living in the US, the UK, India, Turkey, and Afghanistan. The countless other messages I’ve seen like these span an even wider geography. They surface amid the dick talk, the casual misogyny, the advice on managing steroid-induced anxiety — men (and occasionally women) letting their guard down in moments of vulnerability.
In the wake of a pandemic that forced people out of their jobs and upended work life, obliging a lot of people to stay home, it makes a certain kind of sense that people are looking to supplement already precarious incomes with crypto. All you need is a smartphone. This is especially true in places where local currencies are weak. In the Philippines especially, but also in Venezuela and Brazil, people played a Pokémon Go–style game called Axie Infinity because it was more lucrative than other forms of employment. There’s an initial cost — you need a starter team of three digital pets called Axies — but unlike other investments, like stocks, earnings are tied to game play and not contingent on an asset’s value going up over time. You play the game, you earn digital assets, and you cash out these assets for local currency. The value in local currency fluctuates, of course. “Here in the Ph,” someone wrote on a Discord forum in early August, “lockdowns are so frequent so people are striving and trying to take chances in ‘play to earn’ stuff. Even the best financial advisors here promote [in-game tokens] $AXS, $SLP and $SKILL here now and people are crazy about it coz they’re really earning.”1
In places where unemployment levels are already recovering from pandemic highs, disgruntlement about wages, working conditions, and work-life balance may be intensifying. More than 4.5 million Americans resigned from their jobs in November 2021, up from 4.2 million in October, a phenomenon known as the Great Resignation. Some version of this is also taking place in Australia, Germany, the UK, and elsewhere. It’s likely more of a reshuffling than a resignation proper, as workers leave their jobs for better ones or to work for themselves. Still, in the US, labor participation rates remain below prepandemic levels and haven’t budged; at least 4 million people have not yet returned to the labor force. It’s not hard to imagine why: for such a wealthy country, the US treats many of its workers cruelly, with low wages, long hours, and rampant instability as workers find themselves subject to unpredictable schedules and inconsistent incomes. Even those with better jobs, materially speaking, may find themselves unfulfilled as they “spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed,” as David Graeber wrote in an article that was the basis of his book Bullshit Jobs. “The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound.”
Resentment for these unfortunate working conditions has found expression on the subreddit r/antiwork, where nearly two million subscribers post grievances about their employers, share stories of being overworked, and offer one another moral support. (Graeber’s writing serves as one of the group’s intellectual foundations.) Speaking on behalf of the sub, the historian Benjamin Hunnicut told the Financial Times, “We maybe consider that there might be an alternative to living our lives in thrall to the wealthiest among us, serving their profit.” In China, a parallel movement has emerged. Tang ping, or “lie-flat,” describes a trend among the young who are protesting the nine-nine-six work life — i.e., 9 AM to 9 PM six days a week — by opting out. The growing antiwork sentiment seems potent enough to have spooked Goldman Sachs, which warned in a recent report of the movement’s “long-run risk” to labor force participation. The point is not that people are leaving their abject and exploitative jobs for crypto but that many wish they could, if only they had enough money. That’s why they’re here.
The hypermasculine tenor of most day trading groups, where technical analysis is the primary profit-making strategy, suggests that most crypto traders are male. But in forums focused on DeFi or NFT collecting, where analyzing fundamentals and being early to projects are the primary focus, avatars suggest the presence of women, or at least of people who aren’t averse to having femme anime characters stand in for them online; most are anons, so there’s no way to know. The spirit of the DeFi groups is a little different from the day traders’ toxic jock vibe, less macho — maybe because these spaces have rules about conduct and mods who enforce them (racist, sexist, or homophobic remarks tend not to be tolerated) or because DeFi is the environment where crypto’s dream of a more equitable financial system lives on. It’s here that every financial product you might access through a traditional bank is being replicated. The fact that users can remain anonymous, supporters say, removes the barriers that leave so many people unbanked or unable to access credit.2
Whether the equality rhetoric is genuine or a co-opted facsimile for branding purposes can be tricky to parse. The developer Daniele Sestagalli, the degenerate bad boy to Buterin’s studious ascetic, has been at the helm of a group of collateralized lending and interest-bearing products on the Avalanche and Fantom blockchains that he calls Frog Nation. His objective, he says, is to #OccupyDeFi, keeping it strictly decentralized and out of the hands of wealthy venture capitalists. “Gm to all the unprivileged, the outsiders, the not worthy, the not wealthy enough, the 12h everyday workers, the night shifters. I work for you,” he wrote in a typical tweet from early January. But recently, when the treasury manager of his flagship project Wonderland.money was doxxed and revealed to be an alleged serial scammer, Sestagalli’s once-loyal supporters took to Discord and CT to express their outrage, divided over whether Sestagalli too was a swindler or merely a little bit dim.
Still I remained surprised to learn that, according to NORC, a research institute at the University of Chicago, 41 percent of cryptocurrency traders in the US are women. I would have guessed the percentage to be lower. I also assumed that most investors would be younger than me, in their early to mid-20s, but the average investor is 38 — an age that, being not far off from my own, I can’t help but reflect on. It’s the age at which I began to find it increasingly difficult to suppress anxiety around my own financial vulnerabilities. From this vantage, the appeal of being able to fill in financial gaps or respond to a financial emergency by transforming $100 into $1,000 in the span of hours or days, not years, is more legible to me. If you’re desperate, the time horizon for other kinds of change — at the policy level, say — can seem too far off.
The lofty vision of a transparent and fair financial system had mostly given way to the public worship of the appetites.Tweet
Because the forums I visited have participants from all over the world, I was already disabused of the idea that the cryptosphere was populated almost entirely by white Elon Musk types, as some of the rhetoric around crypto suggests. But even in the US, the numbers appear to paint a different portrait. NORC’s study also found that 44 percent of crypto investors are people of color (compared with 35 percent of stockholders), and 55 percent do not have a college degree. In the US, people of color on average earn less than white people, are more likely to have crushing debt, and are less likely to own their homes. Only a small fraction of the $116 trillion wealth in America belongs to them. This aligns with the sentiments I’ve seen expressed on the forums: that people are there because they feel the odds of getting a leg up are stacked against them.
When I dug a little deeper, I found some reporting on these stats with a human angle. Last December the Washington Post ran a story about Penelope and America Lopez, twins who saved their immigrant parents from financial ruin because of investments they made in crypto. The article quotes Cleve Mesidor, the founder of the National Policy Network of Women of Color in Blockchain (and a former Obama appointee who worked inside the Commerce Department), explaining crypto’s allure: “When you have been locked out of the system, when you haven’t had pathways to create generational wealth, you see this as an opportunity.” For Time magazine, the reporter Janell Ross went to the Black Blockchain Summit at Howard University in September 2021 and described the approximately fifteen hundred “Black crypto traders, educators, marketers and market makers” in attendance as a “world that seemingly mushroomed during the pandemic, rallying around the idea that this is the boon that Black America needs.” There are risks, these authors observe, but whether they outweigh the potential rewards remains an open debate.
The risks are worth considering. Is replacing an exploitative and exclusionary system with an inherently vulnerable, unpredictable one a remedy to this system, or merely a reflection of just how debased it’s become? There are no stats on how many people lose money in crypto, but there are a preponderance of hazards that may not be obvious to less experienced investors. There are the risks related to security and the lack of consumer protections, to volatility often linked to price manipulation by so-called whales: exchanges, accredited investors, market makers, and individuals who hold tokens in such large quantities that they can move the price on their own. (Unlike in traditional finance, there is no regulating entity watching the market for manipulation strategies like wash trading, pumping and dumping, cornering, and ramping.) There are the risks related to liquidation cascades, in which large institutional selling (or buying) induces a deluge of forced selling (or buying), the end result of which is no small number of individuals with emptied accounts; during these episodes, exchange platforms tend to suffer outages, making it impossible to log on and take action to protect your money.3
There are the risks related to holding future “dead coins,” coins or tokens that start off having value but are later abandoned by their creators, not necessarily maliciously. And then there is the risk that, like the dot-com boom in March 2000, the speculative bubble will burst and you’ll be one of the people left holding the bag.
In the broader context, equal opportunity to participate looks like an equal opportunity to get wiped out.
I keep returning to the idea that our present moment is a kind of reverse mirror image of the one in which Bitcoin was launched. We are once more living in the aftermath of an economic crisis — this one induced by Covid-19 — and the Fed is in the spotlight. But conditions are markedly different: growth is relatively high (not low), unemployment is relatively low (not high), and wages are rising at the fastest rate in twenty years. These are signs that the economy has muscle. But its vigor is being overshadowed by the specter of inflation. In the past twelve months, the price of buying a home in the United States has soared by nearly 20 percent — an increase that, according to one economist’s estimate, will force working-class households approaching homeownership before the pandemic to resume saving for another five to ten years. The price of meat, poultry, fish, and eggs has gone up by around 12.5 percent; the price of fruits and vegetables by around 5 percent; and the price of electricity by 6.3 percent. It’s hard not to feel a sense of defeat. All the news of rising wages notwithstanding, the average earner is actually worse off than they were a year ago.
When there’s inflation, it’s the Fed’s mandate to rein it in. The cryptosphere has been following the Fed’s activities with the kind of dedication and verve I would expect for football, not central banking. In the days preceding a meeting of the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee, or an appearance of Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell before the press, the acronym FOMC circulates through Discord and CT with the frequency of a filler word, like bro. I notice how attuned people outside the US are to dollar imperialism, something that’s easy to be unaware of when you live here. As Powell began to signal that the Fed would end its quantitative easing program and hike interest rates, the US equities market reacted by selling off riskier assets; the more speculative sectors of the market, like tech stocks, took a tumble. Many in the cryptosphere appeared surprised when the crypto market began to sell off too. In November 2021, crypto’s total market cap reached as high as $3 trillion; by the end of January that number had nearly halved. A typical comment: “But BTC is supposed to be against FIAT and inflation. Shouldn’t people be pumped?”
There is a contradiction that those who truly believe that crypto exists outside our financial system will have to contend with: this latest bull run appears to have been fueled by government stimulus and by easy monetary policy, and the removal of these policies, at least at the time of writing, seems to have brought it to an end. There is another, related contradiction: banking giants BNY Mellon, Goldman Sachs, and JPMorgan Chase have all begun offering clients access to crypto products. Bank of America has started a crypto research division. A recent survey of 100 hedge fund officers across the world found that by 2026 executives expect their portfolios to hold an average of 7.2 percent of their assets in cryptocurrency; in the US the average is even higher, at 10.6 percent. Meanwhile venture capitalists have been pouring money into the sector: an astonishing $32.8 billion in 2021. The moneyed art world — the commercial galleries, the auction houses — are already profiting from NFTs. And this year’s Super Bowl was dubbed the Crypto Bowl on account of all the crypto-related ads viewers were subjected to.
If crypto is a complex Ponzi scheme, it’s one that mainstream institutions are clamoring to get in on. The FOMO is too overwhelming. The same institutions, the same wealthy elite, the same nefarious forces that early cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum were supposedly protesting, could now subsume their antagonists, rendering them impotent; as with the cooptation of any subculture, it can no longer be called a protest against the “system” if it is the system. There’s nothing inherent in the technology that makes it resistant to being assimilated by the ruling financial order. There’s also nothing inherent in the technology that guarantees that the multimillionaires and billionaires minted by crypto will be more benevolent elites than the ones we have now. (The World’s Billionaires List published annually by Forbes counted twelve crypto billionaires among its ranks in March 2021, a number that will surely be higher in 2022 in the wake of the bull run. One member of the so-called three-comma club not featured is Vitalik Buterin, whose ether net worth is estimated somewhere in the range of $1 billion.)4
In December, the crypto influencer @blknoiz06 tweeted a sentence I haven’t been able to shake. “They nuked wages so bad that now ppl have to gamble their way up the food chain through markets.” It’s a devastating description for being true and unvarnished, though I’m anxious that the worst is still to come. If the Fed starts to raise interest rates, making it more expensive to borrow money, it will discourage investment by employers and decelerate the economy, which could even slump into a recession. Either way, the unemployment rate is destined to go up, which means that working people will have less leverage to bargain for higher wages, which means they will have less purchasing power, and eventually, prices will stabilize to reflect this. It’s a strategy that forces workers to pick up the tab. But so far higher wages do not appear to be amplifying inflation, despite such claims from corporations like Chipotle and Starbucks. A study published by the Economic Policy Institute in January reveals that in sectors where inflation is high, it’s generally not because wages are high. Meanwhile, CEOs are bragging to their shareholders about marked-up prices and unparalleled profits, and using inflation as a cover. From 3M’s most recent earnings call: “The team has done a marvelous job in driving price. Price has gone up from 0.1 percent to 1.4 percent to 2.6 percent.” All the while the casino beckons. But we already know how that ends. We already know that the house always wins.
As the game grew in popularity, the cost of the start-up investment grew alongside it, leading to the emergence of guilds that sponsor players and take a cut of their earnings. ↩
The egalitarian dream exists less so on Ethereum, where the cost of gas for a single transaction can run in the hundreds of dollars if network usage is high ($60 is the average), transforming Eth into a chain that only the wealthy can afford to use. The Ethereum Foundation is working on an upgrade that would potentially make the network faster and more efficient — and thus cheaper — while outside companies like Polygon and zkSync are trying to solve Eth’s scalability issues through secondary technologies. ↩
One of these took place on a Friday night in early December 2021, when Bitcoin’s price went from around $57,500 to as low as $41,700 the next morning, before rebounding and settling around $47,000; over the span of approximately twenty-four hours, $1 billion worth of leveraged long positions in crypto were liquidated. ↩
As we were preparing to send this issue to the printer, Russia launched its horrific attack on Ukraine. The implications for crypto during wartime, in the midst of sanctions and martial law measures that impact banks, are only starting to make themselves felt . Will this war hasten the adoption of cross-border transaction networks outside the global banking system? It’s too early to say. What’s clear is that crypto has taken a role on the geopolitical stage. ↩