Why Bitcoin’s ‘Culture War’ Matters

Michael J Casey
Jun 3, 2019 at 04:00 UTC

Michael J. Casey is the chairman of CoinDesk’s advisory board and a senior advisor for blockchain research at MIT’s Digital Currency Initiative.

Let’s talk about bitcoin, toxicity and inclusiveness.

(Boy, my Twitter feed is going to have fun over the next few days.)

To start with, let me take a position: I stand with those people, especially women, who’ve lately been calling out maltreatment from members of the bitcoin community and citing rude and abusive behavior as proof of that community’s lack of inclusiveness. These are people who believe in cryptocurrency technology’s potential but feel discouraged to believe that they belong to the community’s dominant white-male subculture. If this technology is to fulfill its global potential, the community associated with it must confront this problem.

But the real point of this column is not to just defend these critics. It’s to debunk one of the more common positions adopted by those who take issue with their complaints, particularly on Twitter. In doing so, I hope to emphasize just how important the concepts of “community” and “culture” are to the healthy development of crypto technology and the ecosystem growing around it.

Hammer culture?

The line that’s most often thrown back at those calling out incivility is that bitcoin is nothing more than a technology, a tool, and that it’s meaningless to attach to it value judgments relating to human behavior. Bitcoin is amoral, apolitical and a-cultural, the argument goes, and like any technology it is used by good and bad people alike.

These pundits, warning of a political correctness-based threat to free speech, will then advise the injured party to take issue directly with the bad actors but refrain from agitating for community-wide change.

A perfect example of the genre came from outspoken lawyer Preston Byrne.

Clever, yes. But it’s extremely unhelpful, because the examples given do not share equivalent terms of reference.

Byrne’s “hammer” refers solely to the steel implement that tradesmen use. By contrast, people complaining about “bitcoin” are clearly using the word in a much wider context than in merely a reference to the code, to the ones and zeros that comprise the bitcoin protocol. They are inherently talking about the wider ecosystem and community gathered around the idea of bitcoin.

So, let’s equalize the terms, shall we? We can turn each of these nouns into a modifier of the word “community.”

While it might sound silly to talk about a “hammer community,” there may well be groups of hammer-obsessed souls who debate questions of design and ease of use at meetups and in chat rooms. If so, I’m going to guess that that community would probably also be predominantly male.

But the real issue is that such a hammer community is going to be far less important to the future design and evolution of hammer technology than bitcoin’s community is to its. I’m no expert, but I don’t see a great deal of change in hammer technology having occurred over the centuries and I’m not sure people expect much in the future. As such, we don’t see much jockeying among users to ensure that proposals for hammer upgrades are implemented and standardized to their preferred design.

By contrast, the open-source technology behind bitcoin is in a constant state of evolution. It is, by definition, under development, which is why we talk about the engineers who work on it as “developers,” not “custodians.” As such, there is a constant battle of interests over who gets to modify the code. Exhibit A: the block-size debate.

Counter-arguing that those who don’t like the process can just fork the code, as the large-blockers did, and set up their own new community, doesn’t cut it for me. Bitcoin is the brand that matters. Any newcomer will struggle to achieve the same network effects. Secession just isn’t viable for anyone who likes its current design but doesn’t like how its future is being defined.

Also, is there a “hammer ecosystem?” Maybe. But beyond producers of nails, and perhaps steel and rubber or wood suppliers, you can hardly call it a complex ecosystem.

Bitcoin, by contrast, which purports to reinvent the global system of money, has attracted an inherently vast array of different technology providers, all of whom have competing interests in how it is designed, managed and marketed to the world. I’m not just talking about businesses applications built on top of it, but also the developers of related encryption, payment channel, smart contract and other vitally important technologies, all of which are themselves in a constant state of flux.

(I’m guessing that the exhibition halls at hammer conventions don’t have quite the same spread of offerings as cryptocurrency events such as Consensus.)

Saying that bitcoin is nothing but a tool, is like saying that music is nothing but a system for ordering different audible tones.

Money = community

When Paul Vigna and I wrote The Age of Cryptocurrency, we spent a lot of time chronicling the emergence of the community that had formed around bitcoin, which we saw as fundamental to its success. It struck us that the notion of a bitcoin community was so prominent — the “c” word was always being bandied about — because bitcoin embodied a profound and sweeping social idea. It offered nothing less than a reinvention of money, a revolution in the entire system for coordinating human value exchange.

Money only works to the extent that there is widespread belief in it, that people buy into its core myth. Money, Felix Martin says, is a social technology, by which he means that its functionality and usability depend far less on the physical qualities of the token that represents it than on the collective agreement among large communities of people that their token captures, represents and communicates transferable value. This is true whether we’re talking about gold, dollar bills, entries in a bank account, or cryptocurrency.

By extension, then, for any form of money to succeed, it must sustain a vibrant, growing community.

Communities = culture

The thing about communities is that they inevitably develop cultures. In self-defining their boundaries of belonging, they develop shared ways of seeing and language — akin to a kind of social protocol – that regulate (in a very unofficial, and quite subconscious way) their members’ behavior.

As they evolve, cultures can become more or less open, more or less inclusive, more or less abrasive in their treatment of outsiders. And inevitably, these cultural features will either encourage or impede the growth of the community.

All this should hardly be a revelation. Anthropology, the study of culture, is a globally widespread and influential field (one that is now appropriately turning its attention to cryptocurrency communities.)

Studies of U.S. culture, from Alexis de Tocqueville down, have rightly pointed to the inclusiveness of the founding fathers’ ideas as a key driver of its economic expansion. In fact, American culture is arguably its most important ingredient for success, a social manifestation of Joseph Nye’s notion of the United States’ “soft power.”

So, yes, bitcoin culture really, really matters. If the compelling ideas behind permissionless, peer-to-peer exchange and censorship-resistant money that attract people of all stripes to it are to retain those people’s interest and grow in influence, the bitcoin community needs to evolve a more inclusive culture.

The only way to do that is to spur the kind of open debates that have always driven the progress of human culture — those which shifted norms and mores to the point that it became unacceptable to own slaves, to spit in public, or to jump a queue.

So, listen up, bitcoin. It’s time to confront your toxicity.

Hazard drums image via Shutterstock

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