Welcome to Galaxy Brain -- a newsletter from Charlie Warzel about technology and culture and big ideas. You can read what this is all about here. If you like what you see, consider forwarding it to a friend or two. We're still figuring things out in our new home so let me know what you think: email@example.com
I'm toying with a Galaxy Brain series I want to call "Money Isn't Real." This is my first (earnest) attempt to look at the weirdness happening right now that is also making people gobs of money. I wrote about this a bit at my old home and it is...in some ways a primer. Warning: This post is long. But let me make the case for reading it all.
As a technology writer, I try to balance healthy skepticism of new tools and products and platforms with the understanding that technology will evolve whether I like it or not. I don’t want to buy into the hype, but I think it’s also worth keeping an open (or at least curious) mind about movements that are growing in power and popularity.
Nowhere has this been harder for me than in the world of crypto. In recent years the crypto conversation has moved from a fringe topic dominated by a small segment of shit-stirring diehards, criminals, curious developers, and literal cryptographers to a mainstream obsession for many household names in tech, media, politics, art, and finance. Now, the true believers are adamant that the internet itself is going to transition and reorient itself around cryptographic tokens and blockchain technology (this change is referred to as Web3). This internet would be decentralized and far more immersive. The idea has captured the interest of countless technologists, like Mark Zuckerberg, who are looking to make a land grab in the event of a new era of the internet (this is partly where the metaverse comes into play). It’s all quite complicated, and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, here are a few explainers.
Given the energy and money (the biggest thing crypto has done so far is make a lot of people stupidly wealthy … and now they’re using that money) behind crypto projects and ambitions, I’m naturally interested in following this topic. But the conversation, I find, is ridiculously polarized. Ryan Broderick wrote about the crypto culture war this week, but it’s something I’ve been trying to parse for years now. I feel like I’m always speaking to either a zealous true crypto believer who will cede no ground, or somebody who basically thinks crypto is so morally bankrupt that even discussing it is odious.
So today I’m having a conversation with a true believer who I think can bring some nuance to the discussion. I’ve known Aaron Lammer for a while now—he is a journalist and musician, and just recently started working in the crypto world as the DeFi specialist for Radkl. He’s deep in the weeds on crypto, but he’s also good at calling bullshit on it—his podcast, Exit Scam, is an eight-part series dedicated to investigating the suspicious collapse of a Canadian crypto exchange.
The goal of this interview isn’t to render some final judgment on crypto (I plan to do a similar chat with a big-time skeptic, too). Nor is it to convince anyone to jump into a specific camp. In fact, Aaron makes the case that this ecosystem is too broad and chaotic to be a monolith. But I wanted to see if we could have a conversation that gets at what Aaron finds exciting about this world. I tried to ask him about what the crypto skeptics get right but also where he thinks they’re wrong. This conversation really helped give me—a person who is both skeptical of crypto and thinks it is probably here to stay—some additional perspective. Like I said, this is a really long Q&A. But I think if you take some time with it, it might help you see these debates in a fresh light. It did for me.
Charlie Warzel: Aaron! Thanks for doing this.
Aaron Lammer: The last several times I’ve talked to reporters about crypto, I’ve found myself getting weirdly incredibly defensive. So I’m going to try not to do that at all!
Warzel: Let’s start there. What is it that triggers that defensiveness in you?
Lammer: I feel like you can be really interested in crypto and still be a critic of crypto. But most of crypto’s critics are not really interested in and particularly informed about crypto. Very rarely have I talked to people who’ve really, genuinely engaged with the stuff that interests me in this world. It’s a little bit like somebody saying to you, “I dunno, these websites are all scams,” and I’m like, “Which websites? Which websites have you been on?” Most of what I hear from people is, “I don’t know, man. Crypto is a bunch of bros.” But that’s describing the people that you perceive to be into this stuff and not the thing itself. It’s difficult to defend things on those terms. You can talk about the Grateful Dead and you can talk about Deadheads, and they’re related but they’re not quite the same thing.
Warzel: I think that with crypto, people have a real aversion to a specific type of culture—especially one set by a lot of players in the tech world who’ve already created companies and products and cultures that a lot of people dislike.
Lammer: Separating the technology from the culture of crypto is hard. Because some of this is cultural technology. NFTs are as much culture as technology. But I think what people are missing is that crypto is more like the whole internet than it is like one social network. It encompasses many people who are in opposition to each other. So to be against crypto as a whole is, in a way, a confusing stance. Crypto is a whole ecosystem. Spend enough time there and you’ll encounter people who, for example, are very skeptical of bitcoin. And I don’t think, when I talk to people generally, that they’re aware of how much that culture of crypto has evolved or how complex its cultural politics are.
I think a lot of people see crypto as a kind of “number goes up” thing and don’t realize how many different perspectives there are within it. It’s not all some monolith that has the same meanings and ambitions and ideas.
Warzel: We’ve talked a lot since, like, 2015 about all kinds of tech stuff. You’ve always struck me as a curious person. You said you’re a true believer in crypto. How were you hooked?
Lammer: I think I was hooked early on by things like internet bulletin boards and early music-file sharing and later BitTorrent and the general ethos of open movements on the internet. That always excited me. People building things without permission has always been the most interesting part of the internet to me.
That ethos disappeared from the internet for a while, and we were subsumed by the closed-garden Facebook model of the internet. The point for me where crypto clicked and I became a true believer was getting interested in Ethereum and smart contracts and the whole permission-less part of the system where people can almost build anything they can imagine without needing to fit into somebody’s conception of what the internet and technology should be like. The fact that the people building it are owner-operators with the people using protocols. It reminds me of the old days. Take BitTorrent—I think a lot of people looked at it and just saw piracy and weren’t able to also see that it’s a pretty transformative technology that works on a different methodology than the rest of the stuff on the internet. BitTorrent wasn’t just read/write, it was read/write/participate and became a node of the file-sharing network itself. Crypto has really been exciting to me precisely because it’s different from the rest of the internet.
Warzel: What you’re describing is, in some ways, a language issue between you and skeptics. Smart contracts, protocols, things like that—it turns people off, or it bores people, or people think it means nothing or that it’s just some kind of financial tool that will make assholes richer. I think there’s plenty of people who just stop at the idea of coins as speculative assets and dislike it immensely, and that’s it. So, give me an example of something in the crypto world that feels tangible and revolutionary to you. Because I think true believers do a bad job of making this tangible for people.
Lammer: Again, I’ll go back to my early days on the internet. We used to go on the website for the first Batman movie when we were like 12 or whatever. We’d load the website and look at it, and it wasn’t anything special at all. But it was one of the first websites we fell in love with. In a way, I feel like I’m a guy who has been to the first Batman website and I’m trying to tell you about the whole internet in 2021, but my only example is this basic-ass HTML Batman website. Obviously my attempt to explain it is going to sound ridiculous. It’s hard to see why any of what I’m talking about might feel transformative. But it’s transformative if you can look at that basic HTML website and imagine everything that the internet would become from that.
What I can say is I’ve peered into some of these very primitive, early protocols in this space, and I can see the internet inside them. Except it’s not the internet; it’s something totally different and new. So I don’t begrudge anyone who doesn’t see what I see. And I’m not even sure the things that I see and hope for are going to come true! Because the internet I perceived in those early Batman websites isn’t the internet that I’m using today. But I could see and feel the excitement and power of it. And that’s what I perceive in a lot of Web3 right now. And I could give specifics, but they seem petty in the grand scheme of things. To me, logging in with your wallet and not your real-world identity is a profound shift in how we use and understand what the internet can be. But if you haven’t done it, it might just seem like swapping out column-A for column-B user-experience design and, well, who cares?
Warzel: The world you describe sounds like it is evolving so fast. There’s cool stuff and dumb stuff and bad stuff, and it feels like cultures and subcultures are building up faster than a lot of people can understand them. I really understand the sense among people like yourself that there’s so much possibility here. I think about Axie Infinity and the way that this blockchain-based game is creating its own economy and how that economy might splinter off into a separate economy and people will start using parts of the game for things that the creators never imagined. Parts of it feel unreal and like it could all collapse in an instant, but there is an expanded notion of what’s possible that is potentially intoxicating.
But it’s also extremely tough to not be able to get good, concrete examples. It really raises my skeptic defenses.
Lammer: This is something I’ve wanted to write an essay about, but I’ll just blow it here in a poorly worded ramble. I think when people talk about the metaverse, there’s an inclination to imagine Ready Player One or scenarios where everyone has a VR headset strapped on. But, to me, the first incarnation of the metaverse is what people who are involved in crypto are doing right now. And that is building out all these games and protocols and financial products and trying to figure out what people do with them and what people should build on top of them. When I think of what a metaverse would be like, I don’t imagine it being like a 3D virtual office. I imagine it being a giant multiplayer game being played by people all over the world with totally different languages, objectives, inspirations, and dreams and economies—all coexisting in this one interlinked network, which isn’t just one blockchain; it’s a bunch of blockchains all connected to each other.
Warzel: I think one thing that gives people a bad taste in their mouths is that so much of what’s happening right now in crypto—so much of what people are building is just these financialization tools. The idea that the blockchain comes out of bitcoin, which is immediately treated as this speculative financial asset, kind of sets the tone for big parts of crypto culture, no? In the early internet you could be more of a pie-in-the-sky techno-utopian with lofty ideals because the code wasn’t also a raw financial tool. Because bitcoin is so rooted in a financial element, I feel like it makes it so easy for people to dismiss it.
Lammer: I’m going to push back on that. I don’t think it’s true that the early internet was not financialized. The early infrastructure cost billions of dollars, and people poured billions of dollars into it. It was all funded by public-market investors, venture capitalists, and also the government. It didn’t just come to be in a vacuum. People funded it. In crypto, there’s a new model that people are funding and building. But there’s a fundamental difference, and that is that funding mechanisms are transparent and exposed and anyone can participate. And there is a potentially different relationship between users and investors. The relationship in crypto between somebody who is an investor in a project is different than, say, the relationship that a Facebook stockholder has with the company. We have direct governance over what happens to those projects and protocols.
Warzel: What I meant with my earlier question is not that the internet wasn’t funded but that this feels more brazenly financialized, and that turns people off.
Lammer: We have this idea with the internet that early websites were all public resources. Not true! Facebook role-played as a public resource but has revealed itself as very much not a public resource. I think it’s worth noting that what is happening now with Facebook would not happen with a token-governed protocol, because no one person could gain the power Mark Zuckerberg has with Facebook.
Warzel: I think skeptics see crypto as another chapter in a very similar book and imagine it has a similar arc to what we’ve seen with Web 2.0.
Lammer: I do think there are ways where crypto comes out of a reckoning of the 2.0 internet. I think I’m stealing this line from somebody, but you remember the Google slogan “Don’t be evil,” right? Well, that was sort of a recommendation; it wasn’t, like, law. But what if it were? The way a smart contract would look at that would be like, “We’re going to write our values into the software as a contract, and if we’re creating a system of governance, the system of governance can’t go back on the ‘being evil’ part—it’s written into code.” Now, I acknowledge there are things that are dangerous and scary about that idea. But I think we can acknowledge that the alternative—the tech world we’re living in right now—is also scary and dangerous. I don’t think the normative world without crypto is some sort of a paragon of how to do things.
A thing I reject about a common perception of crypto is that it’s frivolous and disconnected from the actual concerns of humanity right now. I would predict that, in the next few years, some things will come out that, if it doesn’t make people come around to crypto, they’ll at least say, “Oh, that’s a profound technology that I like or dislike,” instead of just some bullshit.
Warzel: Can you describe some of those ideas?
Lammer: I think the idea that you can’t change the rules midway with crypto is interesting. That agreements could be actually bound by code. It’s a big shift from how we use the law and politics to answer those questions. Take the federal budget deficit and debt ceiling. The gist there is that we’ve agreed to spend this money, but Congress can’t approve the money that we’ve agreed to spend or have already spent. That kind of political issue sounds almost like two pieces of code that don’t agree with each other. The debt-ceiling stuff isn’t an idea that makes a lot of sense to a computer. A lot of crypto is trying to remove those human frailties from the system or to prevent people from going back on their word. Now, I’m sure AI ethicists could give us a lot of realistic concerns about this. But I think it’s an interesting and new idea to start building agreements into software contracts.
Warzel: Any other examples of that?
Lammer: I think about how Facebook said that Instagram would totally be separate from the Facebook app. But later they changed their mind and added their logo onto the platform and integrated them some. But what if that first agreement was written into the contract of the sale? What if the app—the code—could literally never change to have that kind of Facebook integration?
Warzel: What I hear you excited about is that there’s so much possibility. There are different avenues: Maybe it’ll fail. Maybe it’s dangerous tech in the end. But above all else is the sense of the possibility.
Lammer: The last time I was really excited in the way I am now is when the iPhone came out. It was when I was realizing what people could build with location-aware personal software—turn-by-turn directions, etc. Now we’ve seen the positive and negative sides of that tech. But the iPhone was an exciting sort of canvas for technologists and developers to explore. People could build companies that were just an app—remember when that was a crazy idea? That a company could just be an app? I feel a lot of that energy in crypto.
Crypto has the additional layer that a lot of it is open-sourced, so people can take it and modify it, or fork it and build stuff on top of somebody else’s tool. It reminds me of when people took the iPhone and made apps utilizing the iPhone’s accelerometer. I mean, when I really describe what I’m excited about with crypto, it’s not like it’ll change constitutional law or something. I just see it as a playground for making experimental shit. Even a lot of the financial products are weird and experimental. I don’t feel that energy in other places outside of crypto right now.
Warzel: I think for anyone who will read this interview with an open mind, it’s worth giving them a place to go and look at what you’re describing and to check it out in some way. Because an issue here is that it’s very hard for outsiders to latch on to what you’re talking about.
Lammer: This is the point of the conversation where I have to concede a bit of defeat. Because if there’s something that I’m critical of, it’s that the user experience of dipping your toe into this stuff is really, really hard. I don’t have an easy “Pull this up on your web browser and do it” to give you, because there are so many barriers to entry.
Warzel: That’s not great.
Lammer: If I was going to walk through that flow, I’d say: Download the MetaMask extension on your web browser of choice. This is an Ethereum wallet. Try taking that Ethereum wallet and logging into Uniswap, which is an exchange. You could log into OpenSea, which is an NFT market. Just that interaction is interesting. But you probably won’t get much of that experience because, in order to do something, you’re going to need Ethereum. And in order to get Ethereum, you’re going to need to go onto Coinbase and sync your bank account and pay money and transfer it. It’s a real pain in the ass. I wouldn’t downplay how hard it is just to get to square one. I started off telling you that most of the time when I talk to somebody about crypto, they haven’t done a lot of this stuff, and what I [just] described is why.
And I can’t really fault them there. It’s not really set up so somebody can casually check this out. In fact, you need a decent amount of money to check it out, and doing anything on Ethereum is pretty expensive right now. There are other chains to check out, but those have even more fractured user experiences, where I’d have to give you even more instructions. So I’ll say here that I want people to come and check it out, but it’s a big hurdle. Right now, just like going on dial-up bulletin boards when I was a teenager, it’s kind of not quite ready for mainstream, necessarily, unless you’re sufficiently motivated. If you are motivated, it’ll probably be a really initially annoying experience that, if you give it time, might change your life.
Warzel: The bulletin-board thing is fascinating because those annoying, hard-to-access message boards were not ready for prime time, but it’s also what everyone remembers as, like, the halcyon days of the internet. When it was so pure. You had to want to be there and because everyone was excited about it. Also, when it did become “mainstreamed,” that’s when the original dream and promise started to die. But I think the situation you’re describing is really hard. You’re describing an ambition, but it’s more than a promise because you see people building something. It’s just hard to convey, and for skeptics it’s hard to square the enthusiasm with a lack of demonstrable proof.
Lammer: The metaphor of layers is helpful here. We have this perception of the internet—that it’s like you type an address into a bar and [the browser] reads HTML and presents an interactive website to you. But for people who used early incarnations of the internet, you had to do more of that work yourself. You had to call up that address and interact more directly with a protocol. Eventually, people made this process easier and easier, and people had less of an idea of what went on under the hood. What’s fun about crypto is you can see it building from the base layer. It’s a powerful experience interacting directly with a lot of this technology, but at the same time, I am not about to go show this to my mom because I don’t think it’ll make sense now.
Warzel: I think if there’s one thing going for crypto right now, it’s that it is attracting a lot of talented tech developers. I’d say that’s the main reason I feel the need to keep a skeptical eye on this world.
Lammer: Some of what’s happening in crypto feels like when we lived through Peak Start-up in the Bay Area, except this is global, not just dudes out of Stanford or in Silicon Valley. There are people all over the world building software—in some cases, we don’t even know their real identities. They are just Twitter accounts with weird avatars. I think crypto is attracting people who have the biggest chance to build something new, and in that way, I feel like being skeptical of the whole movement is premature. It’s still in the “attracting energy and people” phase.
Warzel: One thing I struggle with in the talk of decentralization is that even with these decentralized products, there are going to be platforms in the decentralized era, whether it’s OpenSea or whatever. In the way you mentioned layers before—somebody is going to make accessing and experimenting with all this technology easier, and there’s going to be some centralization to that. How do you balance the idea that there’s going to be big winners and consolidation, because that’s what happens when things mature?
Lammer: That’s already happening. All the enthusiast-versus-skeptic arguments that play out outside of crypto are also playing out inside crypto. There are heated arguments inside communities saying, “This blockchain is not decentralized enough,” or, “It’s made too many sacrifices in the name of user experience or drawing people in, and it doesn’t represent a decentralized vision.” And then you have other people pushing back and saying, “We don’t give a shit about your decentralization ethos; people actually want to be able to do stuff and don’t want to pay an arm and a leg to do it.” Most of those debates are playing out and the people having them are actually voting on where this goes with their time and energy and funds. If you don’t like one blockchain, you can pack your bags and go to another one. There’s interoperability amongst these things. If you have a vision for what the internet of the future should look like, you can have skin in the game and put your money where your mouth is, along with your time and energy.
The debate of what form of decentralization is best and whether to make sacrifices for that, along the lines of attracting more people, is a raging debate within crypto. People might assume that crypto is just full of die-hard libertarian non-compromisers, but I think, having spent time in it, that it really reflects a diversity of opinions on those topics. It attracts a diversity of opinions around the world. The Korean Ethereum audience doesn’t think about decentralization the same way the American Ethereum audience thinks about it, and yet we’re all on the same blockchain doing things that have an impact on what the other side does and sees. I think of it as a giant game, and what’s exciting is that when you come to one of those forks in the road, you have a little more agency. You feel like an active participant.
Warzel: I am not sure it’s apparent from the outside that those debates are raging. Again, some of this is likely my ignorance showing, but crypto does feel like a monolith when you’re on the outside of it. And there are so many bad messengers for this movement that have loud megaphones.
What are you skeptical about in this world? When you look at the broader crypto landscape, what do you feel is doing a disservice to the promise of crypto? I’m trying to find points of agreement between you and a skeptical audience.
Lammer: I’ve had conversations about crypto with hundreds of people. Inevitably, somebody will bring up one of these dog coins or a flash-in-the-pan project. And some of those have Ponzi-like elements to them. And those projects, sadly, are good at hooking new people. And I am not on a crusade against that, but it only exposes to me that when we’re talking about crypto, we may not be talking about the same thing. I’m not talking about the same thing as a diehard—“Pry the bitcoin out of my cold, dead hands.” And they’re not talking about the things I’m interested in, with decentralized finance and Web3. And I’m not talking about the same thing as the guy who is looking for the latest dog coin to pick up. I don’t even know if those three constituencies can be said to be part of the same community. Shiba Inu coin? That’s not really for me. I don’t hate the people who are into it, but I don’t see us really as doing the same thing.
If I were to expound on it, I’d say that Dogecoin came after bitcoin and was modeled after it, and Shiba Inu is built off of Ethereum, and in a way it’s also proof of concept of using these structures to build something decentralized that people can pour billions into. Do I think you should pour money into it? No. But this is the permission-less system in action. Does it lead to scammy behavior? Yep, but I like the permission-less nature of the system, so I can’t stop somebody from promoting dog coins. If you see something and say, “This one thing looks like a Ponzi scheme,” I’m not telling you that you’re wrong. I’m telling you there’s a lot more under that.