When Elvis Met Satoshi

Reflections on tribalism and discord in early crypto

“I can guarantee you one thing: [rock and roll fans] will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.”

Lester Bangs, August 1977, Village Voice

In 1977, noted rock writer Lester Bangs mourned Elvis’ death, but saved his goodbyes for rock and roll fans.

Until that point, no matter the divergences in the rock music scene—folk Bob Dylan, to Joni Mitchell, to electric Bob Dylan, to Led Zeppelin—all rock fans could agree that Elvis was the touchstone from which it all sprang. Despite their angry disagreements about the future, Elvis’s shadow still united. His death finally extinguished this unity, initiating an irrevocable break between the warring camps debating the future of rock and roll.

Nearly 50 years later, this tale has resonance for the cryptocurrency industry. Then as now, a figure sui generis—Satoshi—catalyzed years of effort to create a new frontier and then was no more. As it was for rock, Bitcoin would be a siren song heard the world over that would catalyze a movement, with a Cambrian explosion of ideas, movements, leaders, and, inevitably, acrimonious debates.

Rather than arguments about KISS or Iggy Pop, the crypto-initiated have our own battles: the Bitcoin block size, the DAO hard fork, centralized exchanges and mining, paths to scalability, Centralized Finance vs Decentralized Finance, Bitcoin as a store of value vs a payment system, or what cryptocurrency truly rules them all. These debates are raucous whether fought on Crypto Twitter, Telegram, Bitcoin Talk, or in any courtroom that entertains Craig Wright’s latest claim.

Many in the crypto industry see this vitriol as a bug that drags down the entire space.

Like a music fan naively asking “why can’t we all just love all forms of rock and roll,” those in crypto asking “why can’t we all just get along” miss the impossibility of that outcome. The vitriol is an inevitable result of different early adopter communities composed of clashing viewpoints. And the tribalism has some value in encouraging debate about what the crypto future will look like.

Each crypto person I meet has their own origin story. For my friend Josh, it was breaking down the monopoly that the state has over money. For my other friend Josh, it was recapturing the dream and hope of the early web. For John, it was creating unseizable money. For me, it was the power of programmable money.

Some of us want crypto to be an uncensorable currency for those in despotic regimes, but not an entire financial protocol. Some of us want money to be entirely private. Others want to prevent the most nefarious activity using cryptocurrencies. Some of us see crypto as a replacement for fiat currencies. Others view it simply as TCP/IP for payments. The rancor that has set in is inevitable given how divergent our visions are of what crypto means.

The reality of the crypto space inevitably leads people to adopt deep seated, emotional ties to their vision for crypto. They have to be, otherwise how would we have spent our free time working in crypto when it was a fringe activity with not an ICO in sight.

With so many competing cryptocurrencies, ideas, and visions, the space appears zero sum, with the success of a competitor seemingly presaged on the failure of another. And sometimes it actually is: if crypto eats the financial industry and becomes a mass market phenomenon, inevitably, some founding values will not survive—much like the journey of the internet.

Like the rock bands who themselves tried to overthrow the status quo, the issues that animate us are non-negotiable. Some strong ties bind us, like Satoshi and our frustration with the current financial system. But our differences loom large. To paraphrase Bangs in 1977, “We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even [Satoshi’s].”

Inevitably, one or more paths in crypto will show traction. Some will claim victory. Others will have to change their views if they want to have a seat at the table in the world that follows.

Until then, it is up to Satoshi’s heirs to debate the world we want to create.

Published 12/23/2019

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