Tags: cryptocurrencies



Tuesday, October 11th, 2022


There’s a repeated catchphrase used throughout Christopher Nolan’s film Tenet: ignorance is our ammunition.

There are certainly situations where knowledge is regrettable. The somewhat-silly thought experiment of Roko’s basilisk is one example. Once you have knowledge of it, you can’t un-know it, and so you become complicit.

Or, to use another example, I think it was Jason who told me that if you want to make someone’s life miserable, just teach them about typography. Then they’ll see all the terrible kerning out there in the world and they won’t be able to un-see it.

I sometimes wish I could un-learn all I’ve learned about cryptobollocks (I realise that the term “cryptocurrency” is the more widely-used phrase, but it’s so inaccurate I’d rather use a clearer term).

I sometimes wish I could go back to having the same understanding of cryptobollocks as most people: some weird new-fangled technology thing that has something to do with “the blockchain.”

But I delved too deep. I wanted to figure out why seemingly-smart people were getting breathlessly excited about something that sounds fairly ludicrous. Yet the more I learned, the more ludicrous it became. Bitcoin and its ilk are even worse than the occassional headlines and horror stories would have you believe.

As Jules says:

The reason I have such a visceral reaction to crypto projects isn’t just that they’re irresponsibly designed and usually don’t achieve what they promise. It’s also that the thing they promise sounds like a fucking nightmare.

Or, as Simon responded to someone wondering why there was so much crypto hate:

We hate it because we understand it.

I have yet to encounter a crypto project that isn’t a Ponzi scheme. I don’t mean like a Ponzi scheme. I mean they’re literally Ponzi schemes: zero-sum racing to the bottom built entirely on the greater fool theory. The only difference between traditional Ponzi schemes and those built on crypto is that crypto isn’t regulated. Yet.

I recently read The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, a novel with the collapse of a Ponzi scheme at its heart. In the aftermath of the scheme’s collapse, there are inevitable questions like “How could you not know?” The narrator answers that question:

It’s possible to both know and not know something.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot.

Clearleft recently took on a project that involves cryptobollocks. Just to be clear, the client is not a fly-by-night crypto startup. This is an established financial institution. It’s not like Mike’s shocking decision to join Kraken of all places.

But in some ways, the fact that this is a respected company almost makes it worse. It legitimises cryptobollocks. It makes it more likely for “regular” folk to get involved (and scammed).

Every Thursday we have an end-of-week meeting and get a summary of how various projects are going. Every time there’s an update about the cryptobollocks project, my heart sinks. By all accounts, the project is going well. That means smart and talented people are using the power of design to make the world a little bit worse.

What will the metrics of success be for this project? Will success be measured by an increase in the amount of Bitcoin trading? I find it hard to see how that can possibly be called successful.

And I haven’t even mentioned the environmental impact of proof-of-work.

Right now, Clearleft is in the process of trying to become a B corp. It’s a long process that involves a lot of box-ticking to demonstrate a genuine care for the environment. There’s no checkbox about cryptobollocks. And yet the fact that we might enable even a few transactions on a proof-of-work blockchain makes a complete mockery of all of our sustainability initiatives.

This is why I wish I could un-know what I know. I wish I could just hear the project updates and say, “Crypto? Don’t know much about it.” But I can’t.

For seventeen years, I’ve felt nothing but pride in the work that Clearleft has done. I’d happily talk about any one of the case studies we’ve worked on. Even on projects that didn’t pan out as expected, or that had all sorts of tricky complications, the work has always been second-to-none. To quote the Agile prime directive:

Everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

Now, for the first time, I can’t get past that phrase “what they knew at the time.” On the one hand, I’m sure that when they started this project, none of my colleagues knew quite how damaging cryptobollocks is. On the other hand, the longer the project goes on, the harder it is to maintain that position.

It’s possible to both know and not know something.

This is a no-win situation. If the project goes badly, that’s not good for Clearleft or the client. But if the project goes well, that’s not good for the world.

There’s probably not much I can do about this particular project at this point. But I can at least try to make sure that Clearleft doesn’t take on work like this again.

Wednesday, June 1st, 2022

Letter in Support of Responsible Fintech Policy

A well-written evisceration of cryptobollocks signed by Bruce Scheier, Tim Bray, Molly White, Cory Doctorow, and more.

If you’re a concerned US computer scientist, technologist or developer, you’ve got till June 10th to add your signature before this is submitted to congress.

Thursday, May 12th, 2022

Cautionary Tales from Cryptoland

This quote from the brilliant Molly White is about web3/blockchain/cryptobollocks but it applies to evaluating technology in general (like, say, JavaScript frameworks):

I firmly believe that companies first need to identify and research the problem they are trying to solve, and then select the right technology to do it. Those technologies may not be the latest buzzword, and they may not cause venture capitalists to come crawling out of the woodwork, but choosing technologies with that approach tends to be a lot more successful in the long run — at least, assuming the primary goal is to actually solve a problem rather than attract VC money.

Sunday, January 16th, 2022

It’s not still the early days

If you’re interested in so-called web3, you should definitely follow Molly White.

How long can it possibly be “early days”? How long do we need to wait before someone comes up with an actual application of blockchain technologies that isn’t a transparent attempt to retroactively justify a technology that is inefficient in every sense of the word? How much pollution must we justify pumping into our atmosphere while we wait to get out of the “early days” of proof-of-work blockchains? How many people must be scammed for all they’re worth while technologists talk about just beginning to think about building safeguards into their platforms? How long must the laymen, who are so eagerly hustled into blockchain-based projects that promise to make them millionaires, be scolded as though it is their fault when they are scammed as if they should be capable of auditing smart contracts themselves?

The more you think about it, the more “it’s early days!” begins to sound like the desperate protestations of people with too much money sunk into a pyramid scheme, hoping they can bag a few more suckers and get out with their cash before the whole thing comes crashing down.

Thursday, December 23rd, 2021

Brian Eno on NFTs and Automaticism

Much of the energy behind crypto arises from the very strong need that some people feel to operate outside of a state, and therefore outside of any sort of democratic communal overview. The idea that Ayn Rand, that Nietzsche-for-Teenagers toxin, should have had her whacky ideas enshrined in a philosophy about money is what is terrifying to me.

Tuesday, December 7th, 2021

The Case Against Crypto | Pervasive Media Studio

The underlying technology of cryptocurrency is based on a world without trust. Its most ardent proponents want to demolish institutions and abolish regulation, reducing the world to a numbers game which they believe they can win. If the wildest fantasies of cryptocurrency enthusiasts were to come true, if all the environmental and technical objections were to fall away, the result would be financial capitalism with all the brakes taken off.

The promotion of cryptocurrencies is at best irresponsible, an advertisement for an unregulated casino. At worst it is an environmental disaster, a predatory pyramid scheme, and a commitment to an ideology of greed and distrust. I believe the only ethical response is to reject it in all its forms.