(photo by Erin McGirk)
I was grievously misinformed by a kindergarten chum. The chickenpox party I attended at a Hampstead garden apartment in 1986 was not intended to stave off a painful reappearance of varicella zoster in adulthood -- no, I’m an adult and caught fucking shingles, and was left with a scraggly divot of missing flesh on my forehead and puffed-up eyelid.
Apparently, they infected us to keep a potential outbreak of pox from interrupting the Fitzjohn’s Academy school year. Meanwhile, little sprinkles of Chernobyl fell on us in the schoolyard and the nasty pie they served us was squirming with mad cow disease prions and peas.
“Mister,” a young waitress in a Provo tandoori restaurant asked me, “please may I ask what happened to your face?”
Shingles sounds amusing on paper, it isn’t fatal, it largely afflicts boomer boss men and their balding gen x lackeys, etc. but I took it badly; I’m in my forties, and for the first time in my life I was feeling pretty good about my appearance, thanks to a young bride, a half-paid off Italian sports car and a couple of Turkish bespoke coats, I was maturing into a kind of Daniel-Day-Lewis-esque rakishness in my early middle age and then all of a sudden had a ghastly Gorbachev like gouge tunneling into me and couldn’t wear my contacts.
For what it’s worth my wife was begging me to go to the doctor. Since I wasn’t in the UK and didn’t have access to the “National Elf” I refused to go until it got really bad. I kept insisting it was allergies and that all they’d do was give me a Benadryl in the ER. Anyway, she was right and I was wrong. If your face swells up, it’s worth spending $75 on a Teledoc (mine was aghast at how long I’d left it).
I felt as monstrous as I did at age thirteen with acne and aviator sunglasses and three ounces of dental apparatus wired between my teeth. After spending a couple of weeks in pain, I didn’t feel so cyberpunk, you know? I felt geriatric.
It took a couple of weeks of narrative digestion to weave this new mark into my system. I considered assuming an edgy anti-vax stance (who gets shingles at 41? Must have been the double dose of mRNA stew I was pricked with in Freedom, California), and considered adopting a snooty cosmetic fiction: oh, this? Just a little souvenir of miene Mensur (academic fencing) at the Studentenverbindungen at the American Embassy School in New Delhi. Neither were on-brand, as the kids say.
The problem with creative nonfiction as a medium for thinking about the uneven distribution of the future in the present is that you need a little distance from the subject for contemplation and creation and if you’re living a cyberpunk life, sometimes you can’t help but notice the sand being sucked from between your toes and the wave towering behind you…which is all to say that I subscribe to dozens of sub(s)stack and promised myself I’d never succumb to the dreadful groveling apology post you must make when you miss a few miss issues: so shucks, I’m sorry everyone, between my frenetic travel, work, and hitting a rough patch with my health, I felt like crawling into myself and deleted a couple of social media accounts and kept my thoughts to myself for a few months.
As I steeped in my antiviral meds for a few weeks and was wracked with guilt for not writing this stack, and moved between Istanbul, New York City, Provo, Los Angeles, Vegas, Santa Cruz, and finally to Mexico City something odd happened.
In Istanbul, I was so impressed by a friend’s Ethereum identity (ENS) that I decided to buy one myself: Ourcyberpunknow.Eth. It’s a bit like a web address, except it’s for the Ethereum blockchain and refers to a wallet. Look it up on Etherscan if you’re curious about what’s inside. Ethereum is a global network of nodes, by spending valuable “gas” you can pay for transactions on a vast peer-to-peer computer network. Bitcoin lets you transfer value between any two addresses in the world without interference, Ethereum lets you do the same but it’s Turing Complete, meaning you can run an infinite variety of software applications on top of it.
All the promise and peril of cryptocurrency comes from this ability, other than destabilizing wobbly currencies and providing a stream of funds for rogue regimes. But worrying about all that is very 2017 (which was the Initial Coin Offering boom, the last paradigm in crypto; right now we’re somewhere in the DeFi/DAO/NFT wave).
Six months later, after a three-month pause in working on my Substack, I received what’s called an “airdrop,” a distribution of cryptocurrency tokens, just for owning the address. The tokens gave me a voting share in the organization behind the ENS, which a number of large crypto companies and investors had decided were crucial parts of the Ethereum infrastructure. There was a scramble to buy the tokens, particularly after Coinbase, the largest one, entered the fray. The price of a token spiked up. Suddenly a side project I’d created as a way to keep in touch with friends and accumulate notes for a book about the future present, became the most lucrative creative project I’d worked on.
I sold half for Ethereum, and plan to use the proceeds to grubstake my half of a project I’m working on with a fellow artist: tentatively called AloneTogetherDAO, it will be a decentralized autonomous organization devoted to collecting NFT self-portraits created by its token holders. Each week we vote on new artwork and members to include. As soon as we disagree, the organization is dissolved and the collection ends. What happens next, we’re trying to decide. If you’re interested in the project, please feel free to leave a comment below.
This morning my wife and I went to Mexico City’s National Anthropological Museum. The ruins of the Aztec empire protrude through this city, and the museum is like a portal, an opening connecting the skyscrapers and volcanic stone cathedrals to the world below.
The museum is a massive capital-m Modern concrete slab that was probably meant to look like a dig site—and may have been the inspiration for a newer one we visited in Turkey featuring the ruins of ancient Troy—there’s a vast inner courtyard and salas surrounding it arranged chronologically, charting all the lost and indigenous cultures who have claimed Mexico as their home.
Some of it really does look like alien spacecraft or radio-dialed control panels. Maybe because they didn’t have as much metal so the shapes of tools are unfamiliar?
There were faithful reproductions of temples to the Sun Gods, including the top of the pyramid and the braziers and slaughter stone where the sacrifices took place. Traveling Turkey’s ancient sites a few months ago, everything was familiar; I could connect it to old history assignments of drawing out Corinthian and Doric columns, but the Aztec and Mayan ruins were jarringly new to me, the only history I had to grasp onto looking at it were a few Cherokee myths and a National Geographic I remembered about discovering a well filled with burnished corpses and emeralds. Sheared of historical context I could only take in the aesthetic, which was bewildering and brutal. It was laid bare to me, I couldn’t help but imagine it as the remains of an aesthetic apparatus supporting centuries of human sacrifice with the consent of the governed. Made me wonder what the modern equivalent is today; the weird snarls on car bonnets, the grids, and guidelines shuffling us through cities, or the dark patterns nudging us online?
Which brings us to the Metaverse. I never liked Neal Stephenson’s (1992) Snow Crash (which coined “Metaverse” the way William Gibson coined “Cyberspace”). He described a virtual world based on our own, an uncanny double haunted by cyberpunk hotties and their corporate nemeses. Facebook has attached themselves to this concept, renaming their governing body “Meta”. They bought a promising virtual reality company called Oculus a few years ago, and have debuted a few sinister virtual office spaces. Legless entities float around conference tables.
To create a space that’s useful for more than pleasure-seeking and gambling, the Metaverse will have to incorporate what’s become known as web3. I’ll explain: There have been three incarnations of the internet. The first paradigm was realizing that a vast network could exchange information: email was the most exciting application, all of a sudden you could have spreadsheets materialize across thousands of miles. Inventories could be shared, supply lines improved, and multinational corporations evolved from lumbering dinosaurs into sleek predators. The next wave (web 2.0) brought eCommerce and social media. Data became a two-way exchange, analytics and consumer information created torrents of information and as processing speeds and storage capacity grew, it gave FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google) the ability to digest it and tweak their customers’ behavior. The most recent evolution involves the creation of an economic layer, not just cryptocurrency and decentralized finance, but changing the substance of the digital material we’re inhabiting online, giving us the ability to create unique digital property (NFTs) and transact without a third party peeping in and sieving off the cream.
If you’ve been reading my work the last few months you’ll have heard me pondering non-fungible tokens (NFTs). These are essentially files containing a unique identifier that’s written permanently into a blockchain. The unique identifier allows someone to prove ownership of a digital file, which means you can sell limited editions of artwork or music or videos, and will eventually allow important records to be non-fungible, which means we’ll eventually be able to do things like automating title searches and anything else that requires a notary or stamp or a visit to a courthouse and will probably replace most white-collar jobs. I’m being glib here but that’s basically the plan.
So far Meta have failed to gain much traction in Web3. Facebook’s proposed currency Diem (previously Libra) provoked outrage, and they’ve been slower than their peers at algorithmically popping bubbles of cultural toxicity.
The Metaverse would give them a chance to rebuild their user communities with entirely new infrastructure, one created according to their exact specifications instead of slopped together chaotically like the first incarnation. Everything in the Metaverse would be provided by Meta, not just data, not just infrastructure, but reality itself, every instant of consciousness experienced by their readers would have Meta’s fingerprints on it. A chance for total horizontal and vertical integration, as a 19th Century industrialist might put it.
Zuckerberg himself is said to fancy himself as a kind of Roman emperor and quietly funds research into Roman history. Maybe that’s the dream for Meta, the creation of a dream world Pax Zuckerbergus, with roads and neo-villas, and baths and neon-lined Roman busts scrolling off into eternity. Of course, the other interpretation for the “Meta” maneuver is that it’s the last gasp of an increasingly irrelevant and desperate corporation, a cool rebrand to staunch the hemorrhage of users and distract from the way Instagram spikes teen suicides and governments are taking notice of its ability to propagate behavior.
Crypto is hurtling toward the tech world. Many of the future survivors, the little mammals seething and breeding around the legs of web 2 dinosaurs, are what’s known as decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs). They’re best imagined for the moment as a collective project held together with a deliberate community and their own economic system, usually consisting of pooled cryptocurrency resources and some kind of token. Many of the brains behind them came out of the co-op world, not to mention weirder nooks and crannies like gamer guilds.
As I get older I worry less about creaking institutions like doing terrible harm to me online than I do the upstarts. Facebook is as fouled with bureaucracy as any government these days. Arrogant metaverse startups scrambling to turn billions of dollars worth of tokens into something tangible before the next market rebalancing frighten me far more. “Let’s rebalance the economy for 10mm people.” Click. Kaboom!
Venerable cyberpunk Bruce Sterling imagined a social network in his short story Maneki Neko, controlled by what we would recognize as a DAO today. Their incentive system consisted of favors: A spritz of bay rum triggers an allergy attack that triggers a chance meeting with the love of one’s life. The spooky part was wondering about the grand plan behind all of the tiny little actions was… Who was really in control of it all? During the 1990s when Sterling wrote the story, an artificial general intelligence (i.e. human-like) seemed to be hiding behind the scenes of most science fiction. Today, an artificial general intelligence seems further away than it did in the 1990s, replaced with weird feedback loops between algorithms and big data and the humans producing all of that data. We’re absorbing these machines and vice versa.
DAOs could be a bulwark against this and the total control of the Metaverse by data-hogging corporations. They’re relatively private, they’re adaptable and powerful. Recently a coalition of goofy crypto-rich collectors nearly raised enough to buy a copy of the U.S. Constitution. Other DAOs have bought the rights to the forbidden Wu-Tang Clan album bought by Martin Shrekli and boosted the price of countless wretched NFT artworks. Some are designed for a single purpose and then dissolve. Others like MakerDAO, a decentralized organization that produces stablecoins in exchange for staked assets, persist for years. A DAO’s tooling can be perfectly straightforward, but as these organizations of humans linger longer in time, holding them together becomes a much more delicate thing than just tokenized voting. There’s plenty going on behind the scenes. Culture comes into play. Deliberately created with incentives and by hiring charming people to engage and interact and wheedle other human beings into spending their time and effort in a community until it accumulates enough momentum to go on its own.
One of the paradoxical elements of the second wave of Internet evolution was how open the software side of it was. Google and countless other titans were created from open-source software, mass voluntary contributions from thousands of individual contributors. It was in those communities that many of the lessons behind today’s DAOs were learned.
Not all code is created equal. Tens of thousands of voluntary contributions had to be reviewed. Successful projects evolved ruthless administrations to root through, vet, accept and reject changes. Wikipedia is a good example. In the old days, almost anything could slip through and be published, but gradually a vigorous internal culture evolved, and legions of administrators and editors began protecting what the public could access.
Much of the violent online discourse that took so many of us by surprise in the last decade has its roots in these online conflicts. The imposition of culture onto communities that don’t want it. I can remember being suddenly “disenvowled” on BoingBoing in the late 1990s for criticizing one of the authors. Suddenly comments were policed, you couldn’t lash out or criticize without getting banned or publicly shamed. This tendency has accelerated. Tiny communities evolved complex governing structures. Gamergate, a class and gender clash between gaming journalists and an adolescent community of mostly male gamers and programmers may have been the beginning of a relentless focus on how much cultural norms within the programming world differed from the rest of polite society’s, and how hostile these communities, which were generating trillions of dollars, could be to outsiders.
Among the most important cultural victories of the 21st century may end up being the propagation of contributor codes of conduct and behavior codes within online communities and the replacement of traditionally liberal ideals like free speech.
On the surface, incentive structures within DAOs offer a cure for all of this, they’re fairer than voluntary contributions within an organization where the rules are ill-defined. You get paid for the work you do, and can precisely identify your status in a community. Shadowbans and in-group/out-group Machiavellianism should die out when exposed to the cleansing light of the immutable blockchain. Or will they? There’s a debate going on in the squishier corners of the cryptocurrency world about whether this economization of everything is truly good (there’s an excellent debate going on between CU Boulder’s Nathan Schneider — who I take many of the ideas about governance and DAOs in this essay from — and Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin about this).
One of the benefits of Facebook and Twitter according to Schneider is that they were forced to conceal their mercenary side and maintain a space where communities could naturally evolve. Marketplaces encourage ruthless self-interest and anywhere there’s a profit to be made in digital commons soon devolves into naked commercial slop.
Aside from the shingles, one of the reasons I’ve been a little more reticent about writing has been an odd conflict with the U.S. government. So much for fearing the upstarts more than the aging colossus.
In Turkey, while I was being fitted for a bespoke suit, I ran across a strange man who helped translate what I wanted to the tailor. He also insisted on talking to me about his work as a lawyer, and his ability to facilitate trades of whatever cryptocurrency I wanted between Iran and the U.S. This is extremely illegal, so I did the best I could to fob him off, but he insisted on taking down my information and even called me to double-check that the number I gave him was accurate.
A good Turkish friend of mine noticed that his name was the equivalent of “John Smith” and probably fake, and suggested he may have been a secret policeman keeping an eye on me. I thought nothing of it until I left the country and was going through customs at LAX. They read my retinas at the border and the computer made an ominous noise and the agent came out from behind her desk and shunted me politely into a quiet little room and I was given a very polite but thorough interview about my family’s military service, my land travel between Moldova and Ukraine, and other oddly specific ventures. They let me go about an hour later. I asked why. They explained that the biometrics on my passport couldn’t recognize me and it was weird that I had suddenly decided to move to Turkey for three months (even though I’d traveled to Istanbul many times in the past). They just wanted to check that I was who I said I was and that I hadn’t been murdered and replaced by a doppelganger. Of course, that doesn’t explain why they were so curious about how much currency I was carrying. For the record, I was doing nothing illegal and never have.
It’s upsetting to know you’re on a creepy government list somewhere, though I suppose I understand why: Cryptocurrency is an existential threat to governments. You can already see it happening: Bitcoin purchases have helped erode Nigeria’s currency, they’ve allowed rogue regimes like Venezuela’s, North Korea, and Iran’s to maintain a connection to the rest of the global economy. More than anything else crypto raises the question of whether we really need government supervision in economies—most of us haven’t really benefited from the forty-odd years of post-Bretton Woods monetary policy, after all. For someone my age in the United States, the costs of housing and medical care and education are orders of magnitude more expensive than it was for our parents, and opportunities are dwindling.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that neo-anarchist David Graeber’s Debt: the First 5,000 years has become so popular in crypto circles. There’s nothing natural about economics, he says. Governments create markets, he says, they aren’t natural. Seigniorage is forced upon us.
I’ve only read an excerpt of his latest work. (Graeber died a few years ago but the first volume of a posthumous history of the world was just published) He pushes back against the idea that agriculture necessarily leads to organized government and religion. For thousands of years, farming was a seasonal activity, when the tides ebbed exposing fertile soil, tribes would sprinkle seeds and return later to sow them. Maybe if properly managed, this new economic layer of the internet could create a world without scarcity, an Edenic world like the one we left behind, where we can gather our harvest from staked currencies and survive and thrive and edge out the governments that currently dominate our lives or at least replace them with gentle toothless entities devoted to maintaining the roads.
Alas, it probably won’t come to pass. Something like shingles will erupt and gouge it all open and we won’t listen to our wives and have to call a doctor.