When the global investment bank Bear Stearns went broke in March of 2008, I was a college senior on spring break in Florida. My two friends and I had one simple rule—free housing, no matter what—which is how Kelly and I wound up eating a burnt scramble one morning while our friend Ryan and his grandfather obsessed over CNBC in the living room. Bear Stearns was the topic, every segment. The firm was in deep trouble. Ryan and his grandfather argued, the elder championing the indestructibility of the country, the younger soon-to-be banker predicting a nationwide ripple effect. Kelly and I ate at the kitchen counter, debating whether the food and the beds would be better or worse at the next stop.
What happened next happened fast. I graduated without a job, eventually secured a temp position in a financial aid office, then spent several months in a basement processing the endless machinations required for several thousand international students to pay tuition at Carnegie Mellon University. In reality, I spent my days reading the internet, wounding myself with an alternating cocktail of dire financial reportage about Lehman Brothers, then David Foster Wallace remembrances. An embarrassing thing I wrote in a journal: “Being a writer is dangerous. Being a worker is, too.” One fall morning, my coworkers opened envelopes containing their retirement statements, then I watched as several cried into the receivers of corded desk phones. October 15 was my first day at a PR firm that was convinced it could help clients navigate the unfolding subprime mortgage crisis; the firm closed its Pittsburgh office several months later, and the tears lasted longer this time. Days after Obama’s inauguration, I joined a team of unemployed adults tasked with opening the Pittsburgh census office, and we became a small part of the decennial national project. I moved to Portland, Oregon, for graduate school, and every day while biking home, I stopped at Occupy Portland, hoping that some speaker might string together the various personal and social failures of my early twenties into some clarifying theory. My fellow spring-breaker Kelly would text me from Zuccotti Park; her updates on Occupy Wall Street were both more substantive and cooler than mine.
Crypto writing must often explicate the philosophies and mechanisms underlying our current system while
also explicating those of a dubious future one.
Got hip, got radicalized—call it what you want, but like many young people in the era of the subprime mortgage crisis, I got it. I was transformed from someone only hazily aware of what CNBC announced in the background of a cramped Florida condo into someone driven to understand the perverse complexity of my nation’s financial system. This era launched one of the most intense and ongoing readerly journeys of my life, a project that probably represents my most genuine act of patriotism, i.e., it proves that I have, at times, cared deeply enough about national concerns to construct a self-made disaster syllabus seeking to answer the question: What the hell just happened to me, my generation, and my country?
I learned things in the early stages of this journey—not necessarily about finance, but about which genres of financial discourse would best help me answer my guiding question. I quickly discovered that 99 percent of academic writing was written for people who were not me. I whipsawed hard from academics to Occupy, and though I often left the Portland encampment feeling some generic version of “good,” I rarely left feeling informed. Kids had smartphones; documentarians had cameras and mics; it felt as though technological devices were leeching out the relevant moments and displacing them in a petri dish where, later, we would all reflect and find the answers, much too late. My overall experience of Occupy Portland synched quite closely with the one Jon Raymond described in his Tin House essay “The Broadway Gang”:
The lifestyle choices were far from my personal liking—the leather kilts, the devil sticks, the invasive clouds of sage. And then the fucking Guy Fawkes masks. Whose idea was that, anyway? You need a symbol to show your disgust with global corporate capitalism, and you go with a disposable plastic Halloween mask fabricated in China by a Hollywood studio’s PR department? A shitty consumer product as the icon of anti-consumerism?
I eventually landed on straightforward nonfiction as the best readerly route. Seemingly every week in the post-crisis years, I opened a new journalistic work whose book jacket claimed that in my hands lay a blueprint outlining the true genesis of the financial crisis.
I did form a rough thesis about the financial crisis from reading these nonfiction books . . . but not the one the writers intended. Whereas I wanted in-depth assessments of synthetic credit debt obligations of asset-backed securities, I encountered writers more interested in retaining the reader’s attention than engaging seriously with the financial mechanics that had propelled me through six jobs in two-and-a-half years. These reported books promised to unveil the secret world of so-called financial wizards, yet the writers habitually settled on calling Wall Street’s operations “complex” before shoving the narrative onward.
I am not exaggerating about the ubiquity of the word complex. Take Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia. (I am hereby eliding all mention of these books’ ridiculously long subtitles; just think of each as I Alone Know the Origins of the Financial Crisis.) Taibbi repeatedly writes things like “This sounds complicated.” He treats his own unwillingness to get technical as a cause worthy of joking about: “Stuff that’s fiendishly complicated and that if ingested too quickly can feature a truly toxic boredom factor.”
An overreliance on complex wasn’t the real problem, though. The problem was figurative language. It was everywhere in Taibbi’s book. It had learned to clone itself (“a kind of labyrinthine financial sewage system,” “unseen labyrinths of the Grifter Archipelago,” “immensely complex, labyrinthine political system”). Figurative language was a central characteristic of every financial book I read, most notably Gillian Tett’s Fool’s Gold. I first heard of Tett in a footnote within The Big Short, where Michael Lewis, loath to get too technical about the housing crisis, promised that “the story of how and why they did this has been painstakingly told by Financial Times journalist Gillian Tett.” Yet what I found in Fool’s Gold was the pinnacle of figurative financial language. To hear Tett tell it, credit derivatives and CDOs were like a spiderweb of deals. And also buckets under a waterfall. They were like calculating the percentage of rotten apples in a bushel. Cut some pizza slices and voilà: you just CDO’d.
Russian dolls, a small retail store—the analogies for the financial system were endless in Fool’s Gold, and the more books I read, the more analogies I found. This widespread use of figurative financial language ensured that the public had no idea how the financial sector actually operated. The writers didn’t seem to fully know either. In many books, even the central players didn’t know how to explain themselves. The years of 2008–2009 were, to date, the most significant of my life, the kinds of years where I can still remember every single day—what I was worrying about, which coworker was crying in which office, many of the details backed by embarrassing journal entries—and in trying to learn about those daily upheavals, I kept reading that the inciting incidents were complicated. Actually, these books seemed to say to me, your daily experience as an economic participant in the United States is best explained by something else entirely.
We’re in the Money
One thing I knew even without wading through the post-crisis literature was that banks—and financial companies that acted like banks—had come a long way from the staid, heavily regulated lenders of yore. Yet there was no refuge in the easy conclusion that banking had gone mad. Soon I was confronted with a new phenomenon to make our financial heads spin: the rise of a money-system operating beyond the reach of the banks and regulators. In a chapter of the collection Regulating Blockchain entitled “Old Utopias, New Tax Havens: The Politics of Bitcoin in Historical Perspective,” political theorist Stefan Eich makes the connection between then and now: “It was only in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis that conflicting demands for either the depoliticization or the democratization of money resurfaced. This was the concrete context for the emergence of cryptocurrencies that promised to remove money from both the state and banks.” Eich outlines how, from the 1970s to 2008, there was little to no sustained public discussion seeking to demystify and debate money. The housing crisis changed this—suddenly, without an accessible recent discourse. Referring to the process as the “re-politicization of money,” Eich notes that “the newly visible agency of central banks uncomfortably raised the possibility of political choices in a system that was supposedly without alternatives.” As a result—and with discomfiting immediacy—“the crisis revealed the widely held belief of money as neutral as an illusion.”
Is “better at confronting complex financial topics” a meaningful descriptor for a literary genre? What about a financial system?
It makes sense, then, that our language was lacking if we think of the financial meltdown as the country shaking itself from a trance. It’s hard to wake from a nap and revise an entire financial system before your eyes adjust.
As our vision and language continue to recalibrate, it’s clear that certain corners of our once sleepy populace have become bug-eyed about the financial alternatives that cryptocurrencies seem to offer. It feels as if there’s now a book-length work of crypto nonfiction published every few weeks, and as a genre, these works share traits with their forerunner, the housing crisis book. Both genres love the word complexity. Ditto figurative language—Swiss Army knife analogies appear in multiple crypto books, and “mining” is the central metaphor, this despite bookkeeping being far more accurate. (Why mining? Because for an idea to spread, it must use words that appeal to a preteen boy.)
But these new crypto books are often humming at a level of technical ingenuity that overshadows any accomplishment by their predecessors, which is saying something because the challenges these crypto books must overcome are not few. The protagonists and conflicts are not centralized on Wall Street; like the technology, they are disparate and decentralized. The writers must construct narratives around technologies that are still evolving, ones that often lack clear-cut collapses and origins.
The books must also perform some high-grade linguistic cartography, differentiating blockchain from Bitcoin and assets from currencies. These books are game for this particular challenge, often embracing it to absurd degrees. In Blockchain: The Next Everything, Stephen P. Williams privileges clarity to the point where a single line will occupy an entire page. (“Blockchain is software. It’s as simple as that.”) In The Age of Cryptocurrency, journalists Paul Vigna and Michael J. Casey do not simply calculate whether cryptocurrencies meet the prerequisites to be a currency; they outline the camps invested in treating it as such. There are libertarians and anarcho-capitalists, “who want government to get its greedy mitts out of the money supply.” Other supporters think of cryptocurrencies as more of a payments protocol than a currency, “including a cross section of techies and businessmen who see a chance to disrupt the bank-centric payments system.” These individuals “are less concerned about its appeal as an intrinsically valuable thing and more with the underlying computer network’s capacity to rearrange the rules of trust around which society manages exchanges of value.” If money boils down to settling and recording debts, this latter camp believes that computers can perform this function more cheaply and efficiently than banks and governments, and Vigna and Casey treat their claim seriously. To demonstrate what a slog our contemporary transactions are, they track the journey of a credit card purchase across two massive paragraphs, bolding terms like “front-end processor,” “acquiring bank,” then “Clearing House Payments Co.” By the end, it’s hard to say you’re uninterested in hearing more about Bitcoin, whose “ongoing community expansion represents nothing less than a currency’s endeavoring to become money.”
This is not simple stuff. Financial crisis writing did not need to explain why a dollar wanted to become a dollar. Crypto writing must often explicate the philosophies and mechanisms underlying our current system while also explicating those of a dubious future one. Helpfully, whenever the crypto writer feels their sentences are becoming mired in overly technical language, they have a secret weapon: crypto’s proselytizers, who have been trying to convince, oh, every single person in their life about the untold power of some blockchain-related project. In his Bitcoin-specific Digital Gold, Nathaniel Popper shares a Google engineer’s bullet points with his family, imploring them to consider how “no government can shut it down . . . the miners . . . have incentives to keep mining . . . [and] everything is defined by its source code.”
The crypto writer often has an additional and effective, if controversial, source: themselves. Many of these writers have firsthand experience with the technologies they report on, like Camila Russo, who opens Infinite Machine in Argentina in 2013, where she was not just reporting on double-digit inflation, “[she] was also living it.” Russo was converting her journalism paychecks from pesos into dollars as soon as she was paid, “until one day the president woke up and said, Nope! You can’t do that anymore.” Russo scopes out the situation, and “sure enough, the option to exchange pesos from my local currency account into dollars to deposit in my foreign currency account was nowhere to be found.” Argentines soon inform Russo that Bitcoin is the easiest way for her to circumnavigate the country’s populist policies: “They understood right away how significant it was to be able to buy a currency that’s not controlled by anyone and, therefore, can’t be stopped or seized.”
This scene—a financial journalist hearing about financial technology from laymen—is impossible in a book about subprime mortgages. Michael Lewis does not have a section in which he writes, “So there I was, trying to trade a subprime mortgage with a bogus AAA-rating.” Whereas the reportage of the financial crisis took the form of retroactive genesis-extraction and ramification logging, these crypto books often capture a real-time experience of the technology’s spread.
And yes, it’s notable that Russo is cagey about whether she actually used Bitcoin in the above scene (we go rather swiftly from “Where could I turn?” to “I decided to write about it” without ever really addressing the whole paycheck issue). I am someone who has concerns about journalists using and holding the assets they cover; I am also someone who slogged through countless 2008 crisis books, and it’s clear that the familiarity these writers have with cryptocurrencies results in books that are far better at describing and engaging with complex financial topics than their antecedents. It’s not much of a debate, honestly, which is why I have gravitated toward a thornier question: Is “better at confronting complex financial topics” a meaningful descriptor for a literary genre? What about a financial system?
Moth to the Flame
Laura Shin opens The Cryptopians where my own readerly journey began: the financial crisis. “In the end,” Shin writes, “it took only seven weeks to trigger the slow-motion toppling of global finance and, though no one saw it then, begin upending the centuries-old method for establishing societal trust.”
In the decade and a half since the financial crisis, which response or movement or idea has accumulated more cultural space without retreat than crypto?
This was the opening I had been pining for in a crypto book. With a simple statement—“On September 15, 2008, the 158-year-old investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for the largest bankruptcy in history”—I felt that Shin was about to present cryptocurrency in the way I had come to understand it: as the logical outgrowth of the big bank-driven financial crisis. Cryptocurrency—just like my own political self!—was born out of the crisis. We shared an origin story.
It’s probably obvious by now that I became briefly enchanted by all of this stuff. In my defense: in the decade and a half since the financial crisis, which response or movement or idea has accumulated more cultural space without retreat than crypto? What entity has dug deeper roots? Bernie couldn’t make it to a general election. What, then? Which economic idea has gobbled up more ideological real estate post-Occupy? That ancient, idea-less fact allergy now called Trumpism? The only Bidenism one encounters is a meek defense: “well, Biden is . . . um . . .” Obama seems like a very good dad.
Cryptocurrency has filled the post-Occupy space. Because of course code filled the space. Of course the idea of digital currency metastasized during the pandemic, when physical was supplanted by digital interaction more so than any other time in human history. I’d love to single out something more tactile. As a union member who marched with pride on a rainy picket line, I’d love to point to the organizing efforts and teachers’ strikes and mutual aid organizations that have sprung up, but cryptocurrency has, as of this writing, over a two trillion-dollar market cap. It is a sector now large enough to lure even vaguely interested Luddite moths like myself, which is why I’m hesitant to criticize crypto’s adherents too severely. I know the medication routine well. Feeling morose from your thousandth Covid-case chart? Here’s a crypto chart traveling the same trajectory, but you’re profiting. Is your state education system slashing staff and combining universities all while your mother’s state retirement system is experiencing some, shall we say, light corruption? Crypto is at least as trustworthy as all those silly institutions you put your faith in. Are your friends losing money and gaining anxiety thanks to the opacity of the unemployment system or the academic promotion process (or both)? Tell them about crypto, which operates transparently; it’s simple, and there’s a merry horde on Twitter that’s happy to explain, no need for the figurative language of the financial crisis: Do you like your white paper with Twitter thread or meme?
The Real Thing
The thing about The Cryptopians, though, is that it is longer than those opening lines about the financial crisis. And in the same way that the absence of rigorous financial explication in financial crisis books revealed something to me about the nature of American finance, the absence of any further discussion of the crisis in the remainder of The Cryptopians’s four-hundred-some pages revealed something to me about Wall Street’s would-be conqueror. This is because the 2008 crisis doesn’t seem to strike literally any of The Cryptopians’s characters as all that big of a deal. Shin is a ruthlessly detailed reporter, unearthing countless hyper-personal texts and chat logs, but nowhere, not once, does any source express much interest in or lingering rage about the financial crisis. None of the inventors of these technologies appear to have lost homes, pensions, or careers. Few seem to derive their ideology or motivation from it.
If I were to travel back in time and hand myself any crypto book at Occupy Portland, The Cryptopians would’ve had the largest effect on me.
And suffice to say that their interest in technology is not driven by a desire to rectify global inequality. Take Gavin Wood, whose PhD project entailed writing “software that would turn music into ‘vaguely pretty’ pictures,” which he then “sold to a few London nightclubs.” Another individual sought to improve the human condition via “remotely controlled videoconferencing robots that roll on a Segway.” Then there’s poor Griff, who, “during the financial crisis . . . had experienced his own disaster: the sale of the Seattle SuperSonics basketball team and its transformation into the Oklahoma City Thunder.” For Griff, the Sonics had been a team which, “if they ever lost, he would be in mourning the next day,” and in his grief he embarked on a colonialist “short-lived stint trying to become ‘the Bitcoin guy for Ecuador.’”
These anecdotes about tech men are unsurprising, but I need to keep going, as punishment. One man asks, “Who would mind being hated for $20 million?” Another: “Before making any decision, and no matter what decision you will make, we are, combined—you and us—in a position to make a significant, if not historic, market manipulation.” The original Ethereum team was comprised of the money man who “craved a return on his investment,” plus Amir, the “Bitcoin-rich man-about-town from Israel,” who, according to one colleague, contributes “astoundingly little to the project.” The skipper on this digital boat is played by Charles, self-proclaimed CEO, and who Shin often flanks with parenthetical digressions: “(There is no restraining order by her against him. After one interview, Charles did not respond to further queries.)”
Shin’s book does not simply rope off women into parentheticals, as so many financial books do. Her signature achievement is her nuanced reporting on Ming Chan, the former executive director of the Ethereum Foundation. There are numerous gendered characterizations of Chan that make a reader empathize with her (a colleague describes Chan as “a mother hen”), yet there are others where Chan does seem to be a tone-deaf tech baroness (“She brought her sister in as legal counsel, raising questions about conflicts”). Chan’s portrayal vacillates between “this person is treated unfairly” and “this person seems awful”; she is destined to become a central character in some streaming-service drama about Ethereum, and this show will not do the character justice because it will probably be written by white guys as opposed to Shin, who, as a Korean-American woman, is an ideal writer to disentangle the crypto sector’s treatment of women and Asian women, specifically. There are parts of The Cryptopians where it seems as though the only prerequisites for working in crypto are: (1) being named Gavin, (2) having a thing for hiring and/or dating Asian women, and (3) being an Asian woman who knows a person named Gavin. Shin does not let these uncomfortable tendencies pass without comment. She writes of a new hire that “some observers, many of whom liked Aya, could not help but point out that she did have a qualification that one wouldn’t necessarily find on a resume: she was an Asian woman.”
Women of all ethnicities hated working at ConsenSys for Joseph Lubin, who is framed quite reprehensibly in Shin’s reporting. Lubin “protected an executive whom multiple female employees had found abusive,” and at an ensuing women’s council on a company retreat, “female employees were crying about sexual harassment they had experienced.” According to its website, ConsenSys is a “software engineering leader of the blockchain space,” although Shin’s sources portray it as a “smoke-and-mirrors company” led by an executive who “masked his old-school, power-hungry, dominate-and-crush ways with a ‘love and light story of decentralization and mutual empowerment.’” Lubin is just Don Draper selling Coca-Cola to hippies, and upon reading the above line about his empty peddling of mutual empowerment, I thought: my pandemic-induced anxieties have quieted my usual tech skepticism to the point that I have been studying the intricacies of this new tech flavor without fully realizing that it has the same Wall Street taste.
The Crypto-Keeper’s Apprentice
Shin’s insider reporting in The Cryptopians helped wake me, with finality, from my crypto illusions. Other works had been waving smelling salts, like David Gerard’s enjoyably combative Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain. When answering “who wants smart contracts anyway,” Gerard rifles off a cheeky list: “computer programmers who don’t have an aptitude for social or legal conventions,” “businesses who want to automate away dealing with customers, but still take their money,” and, the kicker, “innovative entrepreneurs who have come into conflict with the traditional legal system previously, and would like something deterministic enough that they can take your money and escape through the cracks.”
How productive is it to have one foot on the picket line and one in the enemy’s section of the library?
Aaron Lammer’s podcast Exit Scam provided me a test case for one such innovative entrepreneur: Gerald Cotten, who did (or didn’t?) die and whose cryptocurrency exchange, QuadrigaCX, did (and . . . definitely did) mysteriously lose track of $190 million after his death. Gradually, I came to agree with practically every single thing David Golumbia wrote or said, most notably in The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism. My overall Golumbian takeaway: despite loudly championing the so-called democratic principles of cryptocurrency, its apostles sure do lose it when there’s any sort of democratically elected oversight of this supposedly democratic technology, to the point that you really do have to wonder whether they misunderstand democratic principles or they simply don’t want any government involvement whatsoever in cryptocurrency, the latter option, of course, not being a terribly democratic one. As Eich observes, “The attempt to remove money from political control is itself a supremely political act that raises profound questions of legitimacy.”
But whereas these writers disabused me from crypto in intellectual ways, Shin’s book did so in a more visceral fashion. If I were to travel back in time and hand myself any crypto book at Occupy Portland, The Cryptopians would’ve had the largest effect on me. I would have read about these men of the near future, noted their similarity to what was currently being protested on Wall Street—the misogyny and greed, the complete unfamiliarity with the pain felt by the lower and middle classes—and I might have fought for some speaking time at the gathering near the Plaza Blocks. I may well have wrapped a kilt around a devil stick, lit it, and convinced a group of protesters to traverse the globe and sabotage the spot, “set amid the bucolic Swiss hills in Baar,” where Ethereum would establish its headquarters, a “modern, three-story, taupe-colored bulwark they nicknamed the Spaceship.”
No doubt, the crypto apostles would tell me I’m soft-brained, I don’t get it, Web3 will usher in content made by users and distributed to users on user-controlled platforms, you’re NGMI, or “not gonna make it,” to which I reply: of course I’m not going to make it! I’m an adjunct novelist! I entered the workforce in 2008! My deep and abiding sense that I and my generation are NGMI is why I wound up interested in crypto in the first place, and yet the drivers of my own interest in cryptocurrency—the corruption and regulatory oversights that wrought the housing crisis—are often as absent in crypto’s daily discourse as it is in The Cryptopians.
The absence of a maturated political ideology was particularly apparent during the crypto sector’s lobbying efforts this past summer against the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Much of the furor was aimed at a provision known as the “Information Reporting for Brokers and Digital Assets,” which would require wallet developers and miners to abide by more rigorous tax reporting. Online mobilization efforts against the provision were swift. Day after day, I saw the crypto community congratulating itself for figuring out how to call senators and sign petitions, many of them kicking around the idea of becoming single-issue crypto voters, and as I watched various accounts retweet a crypto-positive speech by Ted Cruz, I thought: wow, these folks do not have their representative’s number in their phone from the “Repeal Obamacare” wars, or the Dakota Access Pipeline fight, or any other issue from the past decade. It truly does seem like their political awakening is being driven by a fervent interest in tax avoidance and blocking regulatory oversight as it relates to an emerging technology, which: lame.
I know certain crypto supporters—some of whom I can confirm did attend Occupy events—who would dispute the above depiction. But to dive into that is a surefire way to never arrive at this essay’s end. I have eighty-three tweets bookmarked that I intended to respectfully interrogate, and I’m overwhelmed by the prospect of appropriately framing and engaging with a single one of them. There’s simply too much crypto discourse from too many angles. Are energy concerns over- or under-hyped? What’s up with El Salvador? Is China’s crypto crackdown less significant than the last crackdown or way less significant? I found many corners of Crypto Twitter to be quite approachable on these topics, but when the topic in question is not merely an idea but an asset, one that has and may well continue to enrich average citizens, every speaker starts to feel as though they’re holding either a bag of cash or a match. In The Cryptopians, Shin quotes her own writing in Forbes, where she reported that
Bitcoin Twitter has been a toxic stew of name-calling, trolling, bullying, blocking and threats, with some altercations spanning months with replies numbering in the hundreds. No tweet or Bitcoin Talk comment made by anyone is too old to dredge up and hold against them, no quote from Satoshi Nakamoto too out of context (or fictional) to be used to bolster one’s argument.
These sorts of descriptions could apply to any online community, but the difference is that most communities are not advocating for more of the human experience—finance and art, the energy we expend both literally and metaphorically—to exist online. The figures in The Cryptopians offer the n-millionth piece of evidence that perhaps a life lived relentlessly online has detrimental effects on a person. Shin quotes Ming Chan: “I’m not supposed to post in [this] internal channel when I haven’t slept for thirty, forty, or fifty hours. You’ll know when I’m sleep deprived because there will be ‘removed’ posts (when I can’t stop myself from posting).” Multiple people on multiple projects are encouraged to step back from the internet and reassess their behaviors.
Then there’s dear Christoph Jentzsch, a cofounder of slock.it and the individual I identify with most from The Cryptopians. Jentzsch begins to realize that his cryptocurrency project “would hang over his whole life and might one day become something he hated.” He thinks of his life in terms of the Goethe poem, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” from which Disney’s Fantasia derives its Mickey vs. Brooms plot. Jentzsch views the poem as being “about starting something small that gets bigger and bigger until you no longer have control over it.” To exemplify Jentzsch’s thinking, Shin quotes from one of Goethe’s closing lines: “Spirits I have conjured, no longer pay me heed.”
The Goethe translation Shin selects is rather transactional, as though he’s calling in with a support ticket: the software is “no longer pay[ing] me heed.” I’m partial to translations of Goethe that ascribe more blame to the apprentice, readings where the spirits “whom I’ve careless raised, / are spellbound to my power not.” “Wrong I was in calling” these spirits, another translation starts, “For I find them galling, / Cannot rule them now.”
It is very tempting to end here, to note that by choosing a smoother translation, Shin is unintentionally (or perhaps intentionally) portraying how tech’s acolytes so often fail to take blame for the ramifications their inventions impose on us. But I am not thinking only of Jentzsch when I read these lines about a careless person summoning galling spirits.
I am thinking of myself, eager to conjure more open financial discourse in the wake of the housing crisis. Thanks to cryptocurrency (and social media), digital brooms with blue wings now deliver me more language than I could ever parse. I made a wish back in those formative, uncertain days of 2008 and 2009—more language, more specific language—and not only was this stupid wish granted, I was given months of downtime to stuff myself full. My habit of reading widely and ravenously now strikes me as less a credit than a crutch with each passing year that introduces some new technology surrounded by complex language designed to enrich a small conversant few and bar the majority from the conversation. I am someone who is eager to narrate the moments across my adult life in which I have advocated for labor—your principles get a good stress test when striking means you’ll lose health care for your eight-and-a-half-months-pregnant wife—yet increasingly, these winning tales strike me as tainted by my nerdy desire to fully understand the complexities of the forces that press down upon labor. I ask sincerely: How productive is it to have one foot on the picket line and one in the enemy’s section of the library? There’s a more damning analogy I’m loath to share—often, it feels like I hypocritically want one hand on a picket sign and another reaching for a safety net made of whatever new technology is currently filling the space, a way of ensuring I “make it” financially when my political aims inevitably fail. (My safety nets are more like poorly stuffed throw pillows; at present, I hold 2.42714 of ETH and 0.04486611 of BTC.)
If this pivot to “labor vs. crypto” feels late and jarring, a reminder: it’s where I started this. It’s certainly where I should have started my readerly journey into crypto—not with “how effective is the writing around it” but “how effectively does it salve the pain experienced by my coworkers in the fall of 2008.” At the financial aid office, my coworkers’ retirements were upturned by the housing crisis, and a central question on my crypto reading journey should have been: Wouldn’t a financial system that sought to eliminate so-called administrative waste via crypto-aided transactions not simply eliminate my coworkers’ retirements but eliminate their actual jobs as well? Multiple articles and projects have suggested that the blockchain could improve and cheapen census operations, yet 635,000 citizens worked on the 2010 census. What job program fills that decennial hole? My officemates were poets and nuns, activists and school board members, many of them economically adrift but quite politically focused, and I should have gone into some of these crypto books asking: Doesn’t a streamlined “Blockchain Census 2030” project only worsen their economic opportunities?
If I did know some magical sorcerer who could cast me back in time, it would not be to the outset of any readerly journey. I would slip back to 2008, then my bedroom, and into that sentimental spiral notebook, home to “Being a writer is dangerous. Being a worker is, too.” I wouldn’t need some fancy wand or sorcery or blockchain bullshit. A pen would do. I’d cross out the two sentences then reconstitute the line: “Obsessing over writers more than workers is dangerous.”