The Reflexivity of ‘Number Go Up’ Technology

A crash course in mimetic theory as it relates to Ethereum's latest price surge.

AccessTimeIconMay 4, 2021 at 6:01 p.m. UTC
Updated Dec 10, 2022 at 8:07 p.m. UTC

Ether (ETH) is on a tear (more than $3,200 at the time of writing) and it’s not hard to see why. Last month, ConsenSys economist (and CoinDesk columnist) Lex Sokolin said recent price action in ETH is the result of years of building. There are more Ethereum-based products than ever, more users and more ways for people to deploy their capital, earn yield and have fun.

“The price action that people are excited about – that's the result of custodians and financial infrastructure firms and wallets put into place over the past several years,” he said on CoinDesk TV.

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Sokolin is pointing to a cycle of legitimacy where the driving ideas and promises of Ethereum, the so-called “world computer,” are actually being encoded. These tools help justify the price of ETH in a similar way traditional investors value a company stock by examining its balance sheet.

But there’s another factor at play in Sokolin’s reading: the excitement he mentioned in the first half of that quote. People are generally “excited” by the price of ether, not just the network itself. Price drives interest, which reflexively drives higher prices.

See also: Michael Casey – Dogecoin and the New Meaning of Money

Cryptocurrencies are opening up the space to reimagine what money is and can be. It’s part of what many now refer to as the “meme economy,” where human psychology and fads are as important as economic fundamentals. (BitPanda, for example, is hiring a meme “ lord/lady”)

While meme-driven finance may seem new – like a peculiar offspring of decades of loose monetary policy, increasing internet usage and being cooped inside during a global pandemic – many see this economic activity as rooted in some of the most primitive human behavior.

In seeking to explain the “ponzinomics” of token systems, several market analysts – like Tony Sheng and Deribit’s Matti – have taken up the theories of mimetics and reflexivity rooted in the work of 20th century philosopher Rene Girard.

Memetic analysis seems anything but scientific, but for Girard it’s the secret to understanding most human behaviors and cultural formation. Matti gives a crash course definition of Girard’s main idea: “A human [is] a lifelong child that desires the toy someone else has just picked up.” In other words, people often don’t know what they want until they see what someone else has.

Girard’s most famous student, Peter Thiel, was thinking of mimetic theory when investing in Facebook. Social networks are playgrounds where human desires, envies and competitions are on full display.

Applying mimetic theory to crypto, Deribit’s Matti argues that a cryptocurrency’s price is a meme. It may be a way to judge actual network activity but it’s also a signal of what other people find desirable.

“Price makes memes concrete,” coder and writer Rachel-Rose O’Leary said in a direct message. “In crypto we have our own words for this: FUD and FOMO. In a cyclical, almost seasonal pattern, FUD gives way to FOMO – fear gives way to mimetic desire.”

Crypto, more than most economic activity, is future oriented. While the code may be deployed today, the real story is the promise of disruption tomorrow, or what O’Leary calls an “overall preference for narrative.”

See also: Emily Parker – Why We Should Take Dogecoin Seriously

People buy into the idea that Ethereum is the world computer or that bitcoin is a global reserve currency. Not today, but tomorrow. And ultimately, as Matti says, it is the aggregate of active observers that "decides what reflexive assets will become."

Price gives people a reason to believe, a story to invest in and an object to desire – as long as it’s going up. But reflexivity works in the opposite direction, too.


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