LET’S DO LUDDISM
★ ★ ★ ★
THE NO-LAND OF CRYPTOCURRENCY
Image by Pierre Borthiry
By Cory Massaro
There’s something delightfully/dismally cyberpunk about tech companies. When I read about things like Google’s Irish–Bermudan dual citizenship (and similar moves by Apple and others), I imagine us careening toward a future where companies are city-states. I think of corporate sovereignty as described in William Gibson’s Neuromancer or the “corpocracy” of Cloud Atlas. Shady leather-clad figures wear dark-tinted Google Glasses and navigate sordid urban hellscapes with the aid of bionic augmentations. They smuggle software under the authorities’ noses. They download new ad recommendation algorithms into hard drives concealed in their sneakers and run right past the robot cops’ chrome mustaches. And they can’t be frisked because they have Data Diplomatic Immunity.
The quest to evade taxes has pushed large corporate entities to become, in a sense, extraterritorial—places of their own, beholden to no (or very few) laws. And cryptocurrency has taken this process further. As a store of value, it’s not vulnerable to the vicissitudes of governmental collapse (like fiat currencies) or the inconveniences of physical storage (like precious metals). It allows people (and corporate entities) to transcend geopolitical borders and gross physicality.
While I’m not generally a fan of anything to do with the blockchain, I do believe that cryptocurrency has recently found its first virtuous use case: economic sanction evasion. Cryptocurrency has become the escape hatch of choice for Russian citizens attempting to salvage their financial lives in the face of a ruble obliterated by U.S. sanctions (although it should be noted that wartime speculatory fears have fomented a boom in crypto transactions on both sides of the Russia/Ukraine conflict).
Even if one buys the premise that these sanctions will somehow weaken the Russian military or indirectly pressure the government, the crypto escape hatch is harmless. Most sources agree that adoption of cryptocurrency on the governmental scale would be easy to track, meaning individual transactions tied to sanctioned governments could be identified and blocked. Private citizens can save themselves by buying cryptocurrency while the government has to deal with the economic squeeze. Presumably, that’s the sanction working as intended, and, if we stop here, cryptocurrency looks heroic.
However, top U.S. politicians seem intent on immiserating the Russian public anyway. Hilary Clinton recently joined a neoliberal chorus insisting that major cryptocurrency exchanges ban Russian users—a move that seems liable to push those exchanges to incorporate somewhere else, somewhere with looser laws, just as Google and Apple and others have done to avoid taxation. Given that the U.S. government has just recently stolen seven billion dollars from private citizens in Afghanistan, one wonders if it might not find an excuse to loot Russian citizens’ Bitcoin, too.
It’s not just war that sucks people into cryptocurrency: everyday fears and desperation do that, as well. The bar to entry is low enough, and the means of bilking people plentiful enough, to have turned cryptocurrency into a get-rich-quick scheme. In many countries, real wages are on the decline; labor rights are being ignored or outright repealed; wealth disparity is increasing; and traditional paths to financial security, like purchasing property, grow ever more out of reach. But anyone with an Internet connection and a few dollars can gamble on Bitcoin.
In turn, anyone with a platform can single-handedly execute pump-and-dump schemes. If that person happens to be Elon Musk extolling Dogecoin on Twitter, they can even part people from their money multiple times over. They can do this, somehow, without losing credibility among their fans. More worryingly, they can do so with full indemnity from legal repercussions. Cryptocurrencies are new, ephemeral, and protean. National laws kind of know how to deal with traditional pyramid schemes, but a crypto scam is far harder to pin down. Like powerful eleventh-level wizards, crypto influencers can alter the value of currencies with a single incantation/tweet. The U.S. government only figured out as late as 2018 how to handle sales tax for online services transacted across state lines, which is mere second-level wizardry. The no-land of cryptocurrency is completely unregulated, and national governments are pitifully unequipped to punish the charlatans and hucksters that walk its streets.
It goes further. The Web3 family of futurist dreams—Metaverses, including the Meta formerly known as Facebook—treat blockchain-derived technologies as a primitive building block. Under this model, within a given virtual space, all transactions, proprietary relationships, and other data (including data that describes/generates the virtual space itself) will be stored on a blockchain. In a sense, then, economic activity will be indistinguishable from ontology—a monetary engine will prop up the motherland like bedrock.
So as much as I want to imagine us careening toward a bleak-but-vivacious William Gibson-style dystopia, I think the crypto-cyberpunk future we’re facing is much sadder. Listless babbling Bitcoin enthusiasts will obsess over trading volume. They will wear hoodies, only hoodies, even their pants will be hoodies; and their cant will be a pastiche of memes. They will hop between Bitcoin Village and the Ethereum Midtown, riding the waves of arbitrage. As they move in space, from one currency’s turf to another, their hardware wallets will automatically convert their currencies, conjuring money. Under the soil they tread will lie a blockchain. They will pay 20 Satoshis for rent (using a DAO-enabled contract, of course); next month, they might spend that on a day’s lunch. They will work as delivery drivers, their drop-offs verified by neighbors’ cameras and recorded on the blockchain. This will all be happening in virtual reality while the participants sit on the toilet or lie in bed. In meat reality, tax law will be so complex that the lawyers will have secretly given up and become astrologers. About a hundred pairs of human eyes will see the real world; about a hundred humans will live in unconscionably hedonistic and climate change-tainted luxury as they farm wealth from a VR-goggled serfdom.
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The Luddite Bestiary
As the people remained indoors, and lived increasingly in virtual worlds, the earth itself went unexplored. A great raft of fishing nets and plastic waste swelled in the Pacific. Plastic-consuming bacteria colonized this eighth continent. Plants followed, then animals, and plastics infused the bodies of all. Something like armadillos lived there, with clear bands of soft polymers along their backs. Squat trees sprouted trunks like stacks of Pepsi bottles. And when the people finally came exploring, and wearing PVC trousers, and drinking water from single-use containers, the fauna approached. The armadillos licked their water bottles and were friendly.
Cory Massaro is a native of Ohio, U.S.A., now at home in Quito, Ecuador. He spends his time learning languages, writing, playing music, coding, and propagandizing. He actively opposes materialism, consumption-as-cultural mandate, and all forms of hegemony. He is in favor of small, robust communities and gently destroying hierarchies wherever he goes. His fiction and poetry draw on the grievances he has stored in his heart since working in technology; his dearest hope is to predict accurately how egalitarian, worker-centered societies will revive the oral tradition to weather the climate wars.