Lana Swartz is an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, the author of “New Money: How Payment Became Social Media” and a 2020-21 Berggruen Institute fellow.
Every few months for the last few years, I get a flurry of texts and emails from friends, relatives and colleagues, asking me if they should buy cryptocurrency.
I study money as a media technology, and I have been writing about Bitcoin for almost as long as it has existed. But I am not a financial advisor, and I especially avoid giving advice about cryptocurrency. So when someone asks the Bitcoin Question (it’s usually about Bitcoin specifically), I respond by asking why the person wants to buy it — what they’re hoping to achieve.
Often, they’re just looking for my approval to engage in a little speculation. They had heard about one of Bitcoin’s many rallies and want to know if it would really be so crazy to get in on the action. I tell them there are a lot of scams out there, and no one ever got rich buying anything at the top of the market. So maybe wait out this bubble and prepare to profit off the next one. Maybe spend some time learning about the landscape: what to buy, how much, when, how to secure it and when to sell it.
Most people who ask me the Bitcoin Question admit that they weren’t imagining any particular use for the currency. They don’t predict, for example, that the banking system is going to collapse, leaving only Bitcoin. Nor do they really think that the value of the U.S. dollar will crash so radically and permanently that Bitcoin becomes a more stable asset. But still, they ask, butstill?
Buying cryptocurrency in the unrelenting crisis of the COVID pandemic makes about as much sense as buying too much toilet paper. In other words, it makes perfect sense.
All money is a technology of future-making. We only accept a particular money as payment because we think it will be accepted tomorrow by someone else. Every transaction is a prediction, and therefore an affirmation, of a particular future.
Even if most Americans don’t trust our government or financial system, we take for granted their ability to secure and maintain money as one of the basic infrastructures of everyday life. Undoubtedly, Americans worry about retiring, about wages keeping pace with cost of living, about real estate going underwater again. But these money anxieties work on a long or at least medium-term horizon. They don’t operate in the realm of daily transactions.
An Argentine friend once told me what it was like to live through the economic crisis there at the turn of the millennium. A teenager at the time, she remembered only really understanding what it meant for the peso to be in freefall when she watched her mother desperately race through the grocery store, buying up food that would be less perishable than money, trying to stay a few steps ahead of a clerk who was moving through the store putting newly inflated price labels on everything.
If all money is a bet on the future, it is also a summoning of a future. When people design new money forms, it is usually with the goal of telling a new story about the future. Think of how euro notes have imaginary architecture — fictional bridges and arches intended to conjure a shared “European” past in order to project a shared European future.
In the 1980s, an important progenitor of cryptocurrency called the Extropians emerged. As media historian Finn Brunton describes, Extropians shared a loose set of beliefs about how technology will eventually enable humans to achieve perfection and live forever, while all the old things that held back that perfection — the government, old religion, imperfect capitalism — would wither away. Many Extropians put faith in cryonics — freezing human bodies at extremely low temperatures — hoping they would be awoken or their consciousness uploaded in that perfect future.
Many Extropians also had a libertarian bent: They believed in the ability of money to create a cybernetic system that could power this new world. But if you truly believe, as the Extropians did, that you will outlive the world’s governments and even its financial institutions, how do you make a monetary vehicle that will too? How do you set a store of value that will persist and even grow as you await revivification in your cryonic chamber?
The answer, essentially, is cryptocurrency. You set your money and its value outside the things you think are crumbling. You secure it with the things you see as eternal: cryptography and markets.
There are, of course, a lot of unanswered questions about how any of this moves from theory to reality. But the details, like solving disease, death and the problem of having a human body, will all be worked out while the Extropians are in their deep freeze.
There is magic in deferral. If we can just increase the time horizon, some things disintegrate but others fall into place. Despite imagining a future initially filled with chaos and collapse for ordinary people, Extropians consider themselves deeply optimistic.
Today’s cryptocurrency communities are similarly summoning a future. Some of those futures look a lot like the one the Extropians imagined; indeed, some of today’s Bitcoin old guard were themselves part of the Extropian groups decades ago.
My Bitcoin-curious acquaintances aren’t actively trying to bring about the demise of the old and birth of the new. They are trying to do their best to live in the “parentheses,” as anthropologist Jane Guyer puts it, between cataclysms. They’re not preppers, but they are assembling their go bags, using Wirecutter as their guide.
Sitting somewhere between are the folks of cryptocurrency Twitter. It is a cacophony of memes. During a time of isolation and doom scrolling, it’s funny and vital.
This vitality, these memes, are future-making. Memes perform powerful magic that turns absurdity and cynicism into the kind of true belief that can bend reality. Trump is a meme who was elected president. QAnon is a meme made into a religion. Tesla is a meme that is on the S&P 500. The GameStop rally was a meme that (sort of) beat Wall Street traders at their own game. Indeed, Elon Musk, the hero of the populist GameStop story, famously hates hedge funds because they call his bluffs — they literally bet against the futures that his billions are wrapped up in. When an incredibly absurd, cynical thing triumphs, the meme lords stare at the normies: How could you ever have doubted us?
But the logic of crypto memes is also one of deferral. They instruct people who hold Bitcoin to continue doing so. No matter how high the price climbs, do not sell. Keep holding out — or “hodling,” in meme parlance — waiting for a higher price, a more distant future. Hodling, of course, prevents a sell-off that would burst the bubble. This is the mechanism of cryptocurrency, and it’s the mechanism of the GameStop rally. Instead of hodling, the WallStreetBets subreddit talks about “diamond hands”: holding tight enough to forge something costly and beautiful out of mere carbon.
It’s a kind of scam: Everyone tells everyone else to keep the faith as they themselves sell off while the price is high. Eventually, it’s revealed that not everyone is actually hodling, and the price comes down. In the unwinding, those who kept the faith and didn’t sell are left with nothing but a devalued asset. They open their clenched fist to find nothing but dirt. Until next time. Like Trump and QAnon, hodling is conjuring a scam future. But it is, at least until the unwinding, a future.
When everything is crumbling, cryptocurrency feels like it stands beyond that everything and yet is the center of everything. Some, particularly in the Ethereum community, are actually trying to build technological infrastructures that promise new kinds of futures — better ones. Sometimes, these too are scam futures: Belief in them is not evenly shared by all participants. But even if you’re just hodling and memeing, crypto lets you manage the future. It allows you to be simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic, constructive and cynical.
How could you ever have doubted us?”
I can’t keep up with crypto Twitter the way I used to. Sometimes I try to do a deep dive on the latest big story, but by the time I get to 20 open tabs, the attention (and sometimes speculative) bubble has fizzled. The crowd has slinked onto the next story and the next bubble, some richer than they were before, some poorer, some wielding new memes like Boy Scout merit badges.
A reporter once asked if I thought that Bitcoin provided social support, a community and an identity as much as an investment opportunity or even an ideology. I had to say yes, and for once, I felt crypto FOMO.
The people who text me about crypto investments often want to know how much Bitcoin I have. They wonder if I wish I could go back in time to when I first heard about Bitcoin and buy more. (For the record, when I first heard about Bitcoin, you could get Bitcoins for free from “faucets.”) Like anyone else, of course I’d like to be richer than I am now. But when I think about the last decade, I’m not wistful about not having procured enough Bitcoins.
Instead, I think about all the conversations I had about Bitcoin in 2011, when I first began research on it. Some people were imagining it as a digital gold, a money form outside the domain of banks and governments. Others were thinking about the uses of the infrastructure, about financial privacy and inclusion.
At the time, many Bitcoin people said things like, “I hope, in ten years, Bitcoin is boring.” They hoped that it would do good in the world — disrupting what we now call surveillance capitalism and making “Big Brother obsolete” — and that that good would be so invisible and so ubiquitous as to be banal.
A boring future wouldn’t have driven the market price of Bitcoin “to the moon,” as hodlers put it. You don’t hodl boring money — you pay for things with it. If you’re shopping for groceries, it’s just as hard to use a sky-rocketing currency as it is to use a plummeting one.
Market volatility makes the news. It makes some people rich. Combined with failure of traditional institutions, it drives other people to consider wild and risky investments. But the hard and important work of rethinking the plumbing of the economy is not nearly as attention-grabbing.
If I had known then what I know now — that ten years later, Bitcoin would not be boring but it would be valuable — I like to think that I still wouldn’t have gone all the way in on it. Even knowing about the countless socio-political calamities that have sent its value ever upwards, I want to believe that I still wouldn’t have joined the big hodl, the one that bets on total collapse. I still want to bet on different futures past, more boring ones.