Chelsea Palmer is an open source educator and free agent in the cryptocurrency ecosystem who tweets (too much) at @IMmsGNU.
The following is an exclusive contribution to CoinDesk’s 2018 Year in Review.
I think most can agree that it’s been a hell of a long year, in crypto and in general. The greatest way to reflect back on the year may be to review our expectations as we entered it; to this end, I’d highly recommend a revisitation of the “95 Crypto Theses” post by Ryan Selkis.
Selkis was wise enough to veer away from micro-predictions and focused instead on broad and conceptual observations that ring true no matter where our current prices stand. Most crucially, his theses were shaped by the core values of most crypto-decentralists: pursuit of liberation, escape from censorship and bewilderment at the success of centrally issued XRP.
As Zach Harvey has already excellently outlined in this series, these values come from the cypherpunk roots of cryptocurrency, which are crucial to keep in focus. Unfortunately, my biggest takeaway from 2018 was this: recentralist tricks were in full swing as the year kicked off, and even as opportunists fled the crashing market, we’re still surrounded by those who seek to undermine the core principles of our presumed revolution.
You Don’t Have To Care About Prices… Until You Do
My 2018 began with desperate angst at the massive throngs of scammers still HODLing on from December’s highs. As a public-facing educator at a small community commons, I was relieved when the prices dropped in February: we could breathe and take a break from telling all these noobs not to burn themselves on the stove.
For most of the year, I ignored prices – as the market dipped again in June, I was busy bringing the absurdist conference of my dreams to life, and we danced through the streets of Vancouver without a thought or word about money.
However, even my punk ass got served by the brutal spiral at the end of this year, losing both my job in the industry and a massive chunk of my savings’ worth in fiat. I’ve finally stopped fighting and embraced the bear market that I first foolishly wished for, then desperately ran from.
I’m not alone in this: Crypto Twitter got quieter, and those who are still around are resigned to keep building, and learning for what might be another long winter. This is a perfect opportunity to reflect on the contemporary lessons around us if we hope to sustain the original dream of decentralizing social power.
Outgrowing Simple “Immutability”
Halfway through the year, Vlad Zamfir began to solidly document a conversation he’s instigated for quite some time: how we can define and understand blockchain governance. A vibrant community discourse arose from this, with some notable contributions coming from CleanApp, Dean Eigenmann and Matthew Prewitt and Steven McKie.
The reason I find this topic important enough to spend a huge chunk of my review summarizing it is this: “blockchain governance capture,” as Vlad Zamfir phrases it, is not merely theoretical, but already manifesting in ecosystem politics.
Zamfir is a self-professed immutability cynic, but even those of us who prize it as a core strength of this technology have to accept that blockchains cannot live on immutability alone. In fact, the most jarring example of attempted corporate capture arose just as 2018 drew to an end.
‘We Captured Your Code; Sorry Not Sorry’
Ethereum Classic (ETC), the small but dedicated community which rejected the 2016 hard fork of Ethereum following the DAO hack, is known to value the concept of immutability above almost everything else.
ETC was hit with a blatant attempt at corporate capture of protocol code last month when ETCLabs, under the control of Digital Finance Group, sweet-talked its way into owner access on the main ETC GitHub repo, then swiftly deleted all other owners to achieve sole control of the main ETC codebase.
I’ll give them shocked credit for the fact that they completely owned up to this coup d’état – heck, they essentially boasted about it. Emphasizing that nothing they did technically violated GitHub’s terms and conditions, they boldly declared that they knew better than the community at large and thus had no need to ask for their approval.
The community rallied to successfully subverted this takeover but it’s a cold lesson to close out the year. I focus on this as a case study because I fear it’s the logical conclusion to the year’s power struggles, and a sign of more struggles to come.
Are Just We Looking for New Masters?
Social revolutions often fall prey to opportunists who convince others that intermediaries are not just a necessary evil, but valuable leaders. When you look closely, these folks are making money on the back of open source protocols, straining ecosystem infrastructure and even taking credit for community-driven intellectual property.
As much as I despise the ICO model, and believe it to be responsible for the swell of get-rich-quick optimism and doom-and-gloom capitulation that defined the markets of 2018, it presented one really beautiful promise: you could raise funds free of the dirty trappings and oppressive fine print of legacy business practices.
We must scrutinize the objective value-add of private companies and power players within our industry. We have to ask who benefits from every new major financial “win,” and how each of these impacts the open commons and decentralization.
It would be easy to build a new world that looks much like the old one, but I think we have enough collective chutzpah, and diverse enough opinions, within the cryptocurrency ecosystem to push through the temptation to just elevate new leaders to rule over us in old ways.
If 2018 has shown us anything, it’s that we have tireless agitators among our ranks who will trade off the roles of leaders and whistleblowers, builders and pen testers, in an endless cycle of growth. True innovation will require vigilance, persistence, and often turbulence.
Though it’s exhausting work, it’s way more rewarding than a shiny new set of upgraded shackles.
Have an opinionated take on 2018? CoinDesk is seeking submissions for our 2018 in Review. Email news [at] coindesk.com to learn how to get involved.
“Blockchain Angst” image courtesy of Chelsea Palmer