Leah Callon-Butler, a CoinDesk columnist, is the director of Emfarsis, a consulting firm focused on the role of technology in advancing economic development in Asia.
Have you ever asked a fellow Bitcoiner about the time he or she tumbled down the rabbit hole? If so, you’ll know the trademark twinkle-in-the-eye when the person recounts the precise moment of departure from everyday reality.
It is a special ceremony we repeat over and over, reliving the rite of passage that earned us membership to this secret society. Originally coined by Lewis E. Carroll, author of "Alice in Wonderland," the idiom implies that blockchainers have entered an alternate universe where they see, hear and experience things that outsiders do not.
The concept of money might be the greatest illusory trick of all time. Over history, all sorts of things from paper notes to gold bars, seashells to giant rocks and, indeed, lines of code, have superseded relative obscurity to be worshipped as money. A mythical system of value is only “real” because we believe it is.
Other examples of this phenomena include organized religion and the government. Even language. Just look at the collection of shapes on your screen right now. You and I have agreed to interpret these as meaning-laden symbols more or less the same way. But for anyone who is unfamiliar with the English language, my secret message remains mute, hidden behind code.
As humans, our personal experiences are inherently individual and non-transferable. To help us make sense of everyday reality, and to relate to others, we buy into shared belief systems – mass delusions, if you will – that have the power to unite people under a common understanding of the world.
In "Bitcoin Is Magic," Fortune journalist David Z. Morris presents a compelling argument for these social abstractions being real-world examples of magic. When viewed objectively and scientifically through a non-supernatural lens, magic is a technique for altering collective human consciousness through the repetitive use of symbols, rites and rituals. From monetary systems and language, to conspiracy theories and magical internet money, Morris demonstrates how these shared belief systems are “real” for those who participate in them.
He points to the Bitcoin code as a symbolic ritual chanted simultaneously by computers all over the world. Through devotion to the practice, an otherwise amorphous string of characters is turned into a global communal movement with far-reaching economic and political implications.
Memes and magic
To meditate on this a little further, may I suggest that Bitcoin really does sound like something out of the occult when reduced to its celestial symbols: a sacred script (the Bitcoin white paper) written by a pseudonymous idol (Satoshi Nakamoto) who has never proven to materialize beyond an early series of divine messages to the first disciples.
The movement has since grown throughout the social sphere, galvanizing digital worlds that boil and bubble with esoteric debate. The core philosophies of crypto culture proliferate through internet memes, that enable complex ideas (and inside jokes) to spread quickly from person to person. Take this year’s Money Printer Go Brrr, a criticism of monetary policy gone wild that went viral throughout Crypto Twitter. Meanwhile, Bitcoin’s missionaries preach their vision for a world that isn’t controlled by banks or governments, seeking to convert drifters to the new thinking.
Morris wrote "Bitcoin Is Magic" in 2019, but it reads like the spawn of 2020, given the totally surreal nature of the world right now. With the threat of a highly contagious virus sweeping the planet, most people have been holed up in their homes for months. And isolation does weird things to the mind. People suffering chronic loneliness or left in solitary confinement have been known to develop mental health issues and psychological disturbances, including losing their sense of time and experiencing hallucinations.
The world as we knew may be gone, not likely to return. But a detour from our standard-issue version of reality might just be the catalyst needed to open doors to amazing new dimensions. Morris’ musings reminded me of another great writer, Aldous Huxley, author of the 1932 dystopian novel "Brave New World" and who spent much of his life and career questioning his relationship with reality and experimenting with the notion of consciousness – perhaps most infamously via his self-administered research into the effects of mescaline, a synthetic form of the hallucinogenic drug derived from the desert cactus, peyote.
In a 1958 television interview with Mike Wallace, Huxley said the antidote to a mindless existence is education and decentralization. That way, people may learn to analyze and question the doctrine that is fed to them, and fight feelings of impotence within the system by breaking up clusters of authority and control. He urged us to reject group morality, insist on individual values and protect our freedom through self-governing democracy.
Wouldn’t you say this sounds like an avid Bitcoiner evangelizing for freedom, privacy and agency of the individual?
As for the education component, we all know that Bitcoin requires some schooling. As much as the rabbit hole metaphor would like to suggest that getting into blockchain is as easy as being sucked into an open vortex against your will, there is actually a lot of effort involved. And much for noobs to learn (and lose). Thus users must consistently educate themselves if they wish to thrive in the world of crypto.
I think Morris articulates it best:
Had he been alive to read it, I think Huxley would have enjoyed "Bitcoin Is Magic" as much as I did.
But you can believe whatever you want.