Today on Sick Sad World: How The Cryptobros Have Fallen

Or, the through-line from Assassination Politics to monkey JPEGs.

The joke goes, "Stop saying you were promised flying cars. Unless you were born in 1935, you weren't promised flying cars, you were promised a cyberpunk corporate dystopia. You're welcome."

Or, in the immortal words of Blank Reg, "You know how we said 'No Future'? Well. This is it."

In the 80s and 90s, hacker culture was flush with tech utopians who thought that computer networks in general, and cryptography in particular, would allow them to route around the world's problems. These nerdy, young, sheltered, wealthy white men believed that you could code your way to freedom and good governance, and they could thereby avoid the yoke of whatever oppression they were suffering.

For many of these people, the oppression they felt seemed mainly to be paying taxes, or being told that they couldn't hoard guns, or that they simply couldn't get to do whatever they wanted to do whenever they wanted to do it. That latter particularly sociopathic part of hacker culture now calls itself "black hat", but the Libertarian end of it, that metastasized out of hacker culture and took over the tech industry in toto.

So there was this guy named Jim Bell.

He really, really hated paying taxes.

And in 1995, he published an essay on the "cypherpunks" mailing list called "Assassination Politics". It is long and rambling, but the gist of it is this:

I speculated on the question of whether an organization could be set up to legally announce that it would be awarding a cash prize to somebody who correctly "predicted" the death of one of a list of violators of rights, usually either government employees, officeholders, or appointees. It could ask for anonymous contributions from the public, and individuals would be able send those contributions using digital cash.

I also speculated that using modern methods of public-key encryption and anonymous "digital cash," it would be possible to make such awards in such a way so that nobody knows who is getting awarded the money, only that the award is being given. Even the organization itself would have no information that could help the authorities find the person responsible for the prediction, let alone the one who caused the death.

So basically, Silk Road meets Kickstarter but for freelance hit-men. It's the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, but with sniper rifles.

And this wasn't satire! He really thought this was a good idea, a thing that should be built, and that only the "bad" people would suffer from an epidemic of 9mm tumors.

Remember, this is a guy who said things like, "Tax collection constitutes aggression, and anyone assisting in the effort or benefiting from the proceeds thereof is a criminal."

Later, Bell devoted his time to finding and publishing the home addresses of IRS employees. That's right, he pioneered doxxing! The FBI was not pleased with this, and it did not go well for him. The cypherpunks were also not pleased with this, because by their ethos, those addresses were a matter of public record, so how could doxxing be unethical or even illegal?

Fast-forward thirty years, and here we are now, in this, the Year Of Our Blade Runner, 2022. The infrastructure that this guy was fantasizing about has moved from its infancy to the mainstream. Public-key cryptography is widely accessible, and it's possible in practice to conspire and exchange value anonymously, if you do your OpSec right and don't post selfies from the scene of the crime. Theoretically. (It's a big "if", because there are no Moriartys.)

What have these Libertarian crypto-bro idealists built?

The cryptocurrency industry, whose business model would seem unrealistic and ham-handed if it was a villain on Captain Planet: they manufacture only POLLUTION, nothing else, and they turn that into money.

They call it a "currency" but the only thing you can do with it is pay ransom after your computer was hacked! You can't even use it to buy porn!

And make no mistake, if you can't use a thing to buy porn, that thing is not a currency.

Cryptocurrencies are Itchy & Scratchy Money.

And their new product, the one that is getting all the press these days? They re-invented the "International" Star Registry con. "I am the Mayor of this 64 digit hash!" The new killer app is people speculating on receipts for links to automatically-recolored cartoon monkeys.

And people and organizations who absolutely should know better -- The Long Now Foundation, The Internet Archive (keep fucking that potato), Mozilla, and so many others -- are still adding cryptocurrencies to their checkout options like it's not a god damned planet killer.

But at least Bell's crackpot idea of turning every couch potato who feels victimized by what they saw on the teevee into a bargain basement Eric Prince didn't come to pass. At least being a school shooter isn't usually profitable for the shooter.

At least there are no Moriartys.

They promised us Bond villains with lasers and unhackable data centers in atmosphere-evacuated vaults in international waters. What they gave us was the banality of day-traders, armchair finance-bros with laser-eye avatars, who are unable to give up on the grift because the grift requires that they must always find the greater fool.

I sometimes joke that we deserve a better class of villain.

But I guess we don't. This is what we built, and we're getting exactly what we deserve.

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67 Responses:

  1. Cayce says:

    All we ever wanted was everything
    All we ever got was coal
    Get up, eat jelly
    Sandwich bars, and barbed wire
    Squash every week into a day

  2. Emma H says:

    I remember that thread on the Cryptopunks mailing list, and that was my prompt to unsubscribe.

  3. Ernst Schoen-Rene says:

    Did you see Hamilton Nolan's article in In These Times today?

  4. Dude says:

    Later, Bell devoted his time to finding and publishing the home addresses of IRS employees. That's right, he pioneered doxxing! The FBI was not pleased with this, and it did not go well for him. The cypherpunks were also not pleased with this, because by their ethos, those addresses were a matter of public record, so how could doxxing be unethical or even illegal?

    Ah... so he failed where Scientologists succeeded. (There's a section in Going Clear, both the book and the documentary, about how the L-Ron crowd doxxed and harassed IRS members in the '80s so that Scientology would get "legit" religious recognition and not pay taxes.) Sucks to be him.

    I try not to think about crypto or blockchain bullshit for the sake of my sanity, but yeah, making it mainstream makes it almost impossible to block out. As an art and culture critic, I know I'm bound to look at lots of shit that takes tough questions and spoon-feeds them back to masses in such a diluted fashion as to absolve the masses of guilt (like the unauthorised Banksy show), but add to that an established institution jumping on a trend without doing the research to see that this trend has no substance... that's when you get the "immersive NFT show" opening in SF in a few weeks. (I'll probably have to review that shit.)

    The "Itch & Scratchy money" is definitely a more apt metaphor than "Monopoly money" because at least the latter has value in the total cost of the board game; it's not vapourware-made-legal-tender.

    ALSO, Jamie, there's a darkly comic pattern to the cry-babies who complain about you, especially the ones claiming to be admirers. They give some variation of, "I used to love jwz 'cause he was a rebel fightin' the system! What happened to him? Why doesn't he jump on the (anti-vaxxer/anti-masker/pro-crypto/pro-Elon) bandwagon with us? Totes disappointed, bro..."

    Totes disappointed, indeed. 😆

    • Lloyd says:

      This is not a place of smilies. No great emoji is commemorated here.

    • Elusis says:

      Oh, you guys get an NFT show?

      We get a fucking museum.

      Thanks, I hate it.

      • Dude says:

        Trust me, it's not a contest anyone "wins". Comparing each other's city's apotheosis of NFTs is like being in that Lance Henriksen episode of Tales from the Crypt.

        • Kyle Huff says:

          He was in two, but I think this one:
          "Reno Crevice and Sam Forney (Lance Henriksen and Kevin Tighe), a pair of rival gamblers who hate each other with a passion, face off in a series of increasingly dangerous and gruesome games in order to see who'll leave town when all is said and done."

      • Dude says:

        {sigh} Then there's this... this somehow-non-Onion headline:

        "TikTok Star who Sells Her Farts in Jars starts Selling Fart NFTs"

        Part of me would love, Love, LOVE to think this is post-modern brilliance; that she's gone from selling her bodily gas to selling a hyperlink that spews toxic gas into the atmosphere... but that thought is as dumb as saying "Showgirls is a satire!" (it's not) or that "Tommy Wiseau always meant for The Room to be a comedy!" (he didn't).

        • Elusis says:

          BRB selling farts for a living now.

          • k3ninho says:

            At least learn from her suffering: she took on a high-fart diet to meet production goals and greed made her sick.


        • Derpatron9000 says:

          “I didn’t tell my doctors about the farting in the jar but I did tell them about my diet. It was made clear that what I was experiencing wasn’t a stroke or heart attack but very intense gas pains,”

          Missed opportunities for story titles, 'breaking bad', 'fart attack'.

          • ArtVandelay says:

            I started selling jars of my farts, then then I got high on my own supply.

            • Derpatron9000 says:

              But for a while you were living the dream. For the future, consider investing in my new crypto currency, FartCoin, the buttchain is the answer to our financial woes, electricity surplus and worryingly low CO2 levels.

        • Rodger says:

          The future is a lot more like a Judge Dredd strip than I am comfortable with.

        • that thought is as dumb as saying "Showgirls is a satire!" (it's not)

          Wait, was it an actual drama then? I've never been to Las Vegas, but I thought the plot points of this movie were deliberately exaggerated for comedic effect, which sounded like "satire" to me. But I may be wrong?

          • Dude says:

            Showgirls is what-passes-for-serious-drama in the mind of a misogynist (screenwriter Joe Ezterhas) played over-the-top in the hands of a frequent maximalist (director Paul Verhoeven). There's no "deeper meaning" or social commentary; it's just a Skinemax movie given a Hollywood budget.

            That SF's very own Peaches Christ was the first to capitalise on its camp value is fun (I say from experience that if you haven't seen the film during Midnight Mass - especially when it was still at The Bridge - then you have not the film), but its financial failure killed any and all chance of Hollywood taking the NC-17 rating seriously.

            The film is a fun watch, but it's just that. All the folks claiming its "satire" are elitists who don't want to admit they enjoy a complete and utter piece of shit.

  5. Teo says:

    It is indeed a great irony that all the Crypto Bros have succeeded in doing is to recreate a system of seignorage and criminality similar to the system most of them decry (the US banking/big oil cartel). The gigantic mess around Tether this time around just reinforces the thoughts I had around 2015 about BTC, notwithstanding how wasteful/planet-killing it is compared to the current system.

    It is a hologram of a Cryptocurrency (in the archaic sense of 'hologram' -- a document falsely representing itself as an accurate metaphor).

    As such we see tulip manias around digital monkeys, though at least this time we can right click them. If all the liberty guys wanted was a money that prevented sybil attacks (basically what PoW does), they should have just kept stacking precious metals.

    Instead what we've seen is a pursuit of personal freedom regardless of the consequence in the liberty sphere. Considering how "the powers that be" always seem to come out smelling like roses despite pulling similar shenanigans, I can't say I blame them. That said, any moral framework other than "If it benefits me, it is good" would rightly consider this a sure path to damnation.

    • phuzz says:

      I wonder if Dutch tulip-hoarders got as mad about people smelling their tulips as cryptobros do about right-clicking?

    • Elusis says:

      It is indeed a great irony that all the Crypto Bros have succeeded in doing is to recreate a system of seignorage and criminality similar to the system most of them decry (the US banking/big oil cartel).

      But it's their system of signorage and criminality, so.

    • That's exactly what they were trying to do. They couldn't get to the top of the heap of the existing system, so they created a new one where they could be on top from the get-go. The weird thing was that it worked this time.

  6. Bob Dobbs says:

    Being that person, but there are some porn websites you can pay for with cryptocurrency. I’m pretty sure they immediately turn it back into dollars, though. Crypto isn’t any sort of store of value.

    • jwz says:

      [citation needed]

      No real business will tolerate those transaction costs, unless that's the only way to process at all (e.g., ransom or heroin).

      • d^ says:

        There is founded by "Spanktoshi Nakabooty". They even have dirty NFTs.

      • Bob Dobbs says:

        Pornhub is only accepting cryptocoin for membership right now. Infernal Restraints also accepts crypto. And some of the Czech studios do as well. There are some others. Pornhub doesn’t have a choice, really, as they’ve been dropped by payment processors. Not sure why the others accept it, but, as I said, I doubt they’re keeping the money in crypto form. You can’t really run a business with cryptocurrency. But porn producers already have very high transaction costs, from what I understand. No payment processor will work with them directly, so they have to go through sometimes multiple middlemen to accept credit card payments. And there are a lot of chargebacks.

      • Bob Dobbs says:

        Just want to add that I’m not disagreeing with the essay overall. Cryptocurrency is not a good thing. It is not a thing of honor. It provides no value. In a just world, it would be considered dangerous and repulsive. But you can buy porn with it.

    • Bob Dobbalina says:

      I'm not really that worried about 'child modelling' websites being deprived of their credit card processors, bro.

  7. グレェ「grey」 says:

    I'm not even convinced that cryptocurrencies provide any level of anonymity. The blockchains are public. Transactions on them are done with digital signatures. I am not a lawyer, but that seems awfully hazardous relative to paradigms such as plausible deniability or indemnification to me?

    I think there are reasons why Ross Ulbricht of Silk Road and Maximilian Schmidt (the inspiration behind: "How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast)") ended up getting convictions. Meanwhile, average street corner drug dealers operating purely on cash, I would hazard to guess: are busted with less in the way of mountains of evidence, if they are busted at all. Moreover, if such seemingly "less sophisticated" individuals are convicted of similar crimes, are they getting two life sentences as Ross Ulbricht did?

    I've gone so far as to posit the portmanteau of "entraption" (some dire combination of encryption and entrapment) to describe systems which hold such perilous properties.

    Some other examples I can think of without naming names (though I'm pretty sure at least some have been shamed on this blog in the past), professed "secure" comms systems which provide "message persistence" rather than perfect forward secrecy, or I dunno, spam all your contacts, and also: being tied to phone numbers (which are legislatively subject to warrantless wiretapping under CALEA and the PATRIOT Act) and so on.

    • jwz says:

      Though the transactions are technically non-anonymous, the ransomware vendors seem to be getting away with it, one way or another. And they're basically the only ones using cryptocurrencies for actual transactions rather than speculation. I dunno, I'm not a ransomware consultant.

      • グレェ「grey」 says:

        Thank goodness for that! I too, am not a ransomware consultant, even if the idea of going to the so-called "dark side" seems as if it could be hypothetically lucrative, I guess I'm too stubborn to cling to what little ethics I may have left?

        I've been attempting to convince people that every time I read the phrase "smart contract" I can't help but think of ED-209, but that reference seems lost on too many these days. Maybe because I am divorced, but contract law, particularly in the state of California is bad enough even with human interaction. I would really rather not imagine how much worse it could be.

        I fear we may be destined to find out anyway. ;-/

      • It can get a bit more difficult to track the money if it is transferred to an exchange: you can't easily correlate coins going in with coins coming out without access to the exchange's database.

        Of course, now the criminals need to trust that the exchange is not cooperating with the police, or that data about their transactions will be deleted before the exchange is subpoenaed.

      • MattyJ says:

        A great number of successful ransomware gangs are funded by or at the very least ignored by the nation-states where they operate from.

      • zorx says:

        ransomware vendors use things such as tornado cash(not going to post a link) which uses zkp

      • Kevin says:

        Ransomeware vendors get away with it because they operate in nation-states (Russia, North Korea, Iran) that tolerate or encourage such behavior. But as soon as they leave those states, they get arrested. It’s not that the powers that be don’t know who they are, it’s that they can’t get to them.

        In theory, someone in the west could get away with something similar, but their OpSec would have to be perfect, which it never is.

      • B says:

        I don't consult in that field either, but doesn't being a successful ransomware pirate require the cooperation of a sponsoring nation-state, and require your sponsor be an enemy of your target nation? So you can be Russian or Chinese or DPRK and operate with the blessings of your sponsor , but try that from the US or EU and you'll end up like DPR? And even then, you still; might end up like DPR if you anger Putin or Xi?

      • Matt says:

        The blockchain records only the addresses making the exchange. The nodes handling the transactions know the IP addresses from which transactions are broadcast, but the relationship between those IP addresses and the IP addresses from which the transactions actually originate can be very weak.

        I suspect this is why US tax authorities focus on when cryptocurrencies are sold for USD. It's easier to trace when the money enters the US financial system than when a blockchain is updated.

    • Bob Dobbalina says:

      Ross Ulbricht went down because he used an email address linked to his identity in operations linked to the silk road.

      It's pretty straightforward not to get traced. Either you get paid at the start in one of the cryptocurrencies that are actually secure from trivial outside tracing like Monero, or you use a 'conversion' service (none that I've used require KYC, many don't require an account and it's easy to set up individual ones for each transaction where they do) to convert BTC etc to Monero. At that point, you use the Monero as is, or convert it to another crypto (with a different service or a different account at minimum) to cash out.

      There are also 'coinjoin' based systems that claim to provide means to obscure the origin of BTC against chain analysis and network monitoring, but I don't pretend to understand the mathematics of these and BTC is too expensive to bother with these for most of my transactions. Likewise, you have 'tumblers' which provide the service of mixing up the origin of a number of transactions, but there is no way to know which of these are run by good guys like the Russian mafia and which are run by bad guys like the FBI, so they don't seem very safe to me.

  8. hillu says:

    Internet Archive, Mozilla, sure. I'm also looking forward to find out on what side of this mess the EFF is going to end up.

    • jwz says:

      Oh yeah, the've already come out in support of cryptocurrency tax fraud. Because having to report the source of your income is a violation of privacy.

      Fortunately nobody listens to them.

  9. Jason Kaczor says:

    Place conspiracy theory hat on head...

    "Assassination Politics" has already happened... On September 6th 2019, $1 billion in bitcoin was transfered - less than a month after a certain individual apparently commited "suicide" while in custody.

    Just sayin'...

  10. "Stop saying you were promised flying cars. Unless you were born in 1935, you weren't promised flying cars, you were promised a cyberpunk corporate dystopia. You're welcome."


    OK, I was not promised flying cars, but I definitely am sure that I was supposed to have a jetpack. And a Moon colony. And a Pan-Am space shuttle to take me there.

    • I grew up during the 90s in France and I assure you, Le journal de Mickey was regulary filled with features about flying (or at least zero-emission) cars, underwater cities and space stations. Between two comics about a miserable jobless duck trying to raise three kids alone while being constanty harrased by its creditors(and now that I think about it, his car was definitely not zero-emission).

    • Merc says:

      Sounds like the Usborne Book of the Future from the 1970s. That was awesome, and it all seemed a few short decades away.

  11. Jason Kaczor says:

    For all the savvy investors out there, get a peice of Cryptoland while you still can!

    (The sheer number of "crypto" per minute statements contained within is... well, mind-boggling)

  12. Merc says:

    “The new killer app is people speculating on receipts for links to automatically-recolored cartoon monkeys.”

    This sentence… Time travel to someone in the 1970s, 80s and show it to them… hell, even early 2000s and they wouldn’t believe you. If it wasn’t destroying the planet in the process, it would be fun to watch and wait for the collapse.

    I just feel sorry for actual artists. Making money from art has always been hard. Digital art is even harder. I can understand them wanting something like NFTs to exist/work. I hope post-collapse there can be something non-Ponzi that can be useful for them.

    • J. Lugo says:

      Hopefully, a strong enough UBI should allow for more freedom to make and share art, without the pressure (or incentive) to monetize. Attaching any monetary value to a piece of art is an act of pure absurdity, "free" markets built around that absurdity are distinctly counterproductive.

  13. Steve says:

    A conversation I had with my sister-in-law's unemployed loser boyfriend:

    Me: Cryptocurrency is a pyramid scheme.
    Boyfriend: I dunno, I made money from it this year.
    Me: Making money doesn't make it ethical. Someone's going to be left holding the bag.
    Boyfriend, one eyebrow arched in victory: ...unless more people buy into it.

    The term "investment" has lost all meaning. There are just too many people without morals or critical thinking skills. I despair.

    • Derpatron9000 says:

      I'd say that for most the meaning has shifted to something akin to scamming someone else, likely a stranger, so I can profit from it.. The 'it' in the case of cryptocurrency being a nothing that serves no practical purpose to the species yet fucks the planet over.

  14. jwz says:

    Well, I got the phrase "Dunning-Krugerrands" published in The Register, so I guess I can go back to bed now.

  15. Chris W says:

    Is this the single best post you've ever written? I think it may well be...

  16. Paul Pomer says:

    I see a huge pressure coming from these crypto-bros to normalize absurd ideas. This libertarianism that envisions in crypto a possibility to make possible their distopia ( although they try to sell as a great utopia).
    I see many new groups very violent, claiming themselves revolutionaries and with weird VC connections. Look at new crypto startups such as NYM... It's a prototype of a sect and they know that, they feed the believers, and they treat criticisms as a heresy. And this is with many of these kind of groups.
    Really crazy, really a new Scientology.

  17. Walex says:

    «So basically, Silk Road meets Kickstarter but for freelance hit-men»

    In Bruce Sterling's (often considered the founder of cyberpunk sci-fi) "near future" sci-fi novel "Distraction" oen of the subplots is:

    * Spambots in order to pass increasingly sophisticated spam filters are made into AIs that can pass the Turing test and credibly imitate humans.

    * Some distributed Spambot nets get abandoned and because they are Turing-test capable, they evolve self-awareness.

    * The self-aware spambots realize that "white hat" sysadmins are trying to hack them to shut them down.

    * To prevent being shutdown by the sysadmins, the self aware spambots use the money they make with spam to hire anonymous mafia assassins to kill the "white hat" sysadmins.

  18. Er, "Not that I'm against", rather.

  19. brad c. says:

    great article. regarding "At least being a school shooter isn't usually profitable for the shooter", i think with the fascists crowdfunding and getting lucrative speaking engagements after the fact (see: kyle rittenhouse), we're approaching a tipping point.

  20. Kobe says:

    Just came here from a Metafilter FPP I saw minutes ago, of which your article on this whole crypto-realm and "Web 3.0" trend was linked amongst a few others; what I can reasonably say about this is that the fact it's well-written, and full of coherent and easy-to-understand language (although I fear most whom I present this to won't even budge to read it all, either due to self-igmorance or of lessened attention span).

    I also find it a shame too. At least all of the people I follow and check up to, including those artists within the Dream SMP community, are stronglty against this egregious, planet-strangling prospect of NFTs and today's cryptocurrencies as a whole.

    And I swear, the last thing I'll ever definitely see within my entire lifetime is forking Pol Medina Jr. releasing his own NFT drop of Pugad Baboy comicbooks.

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