Lost in Crypto Pt.1: “Yes. And…”

Lost in Crypto: Part 1 “Yes. And…”

This is the first in a series of posts I’m writing to digest and reflect on what I learnt in the Blockchain and Cryptocurrency space where I spent a large chunk of my time professionally last year.

 

It’s been a while

Late in 2021 I quit a role I had growing client business and delivering marketing insight and strategy at an “AI Startup”; like many of the business that hoovered up the free-floating capital that lay strewn about us during the era of of ZIRP, the core value proposition for investors was little more than the leadership of a charismatic psychopath, a good story and a few hundred outsourced human coders somewhere in the Global South – a story for another time.

After getting a mortgage approved and seeing a few too many things I was not comfortable with – not necessarily in that order – I left to “explore other options” which initially meant drinking a lot of natural wine in Northern Spain and riding my bike. After my decompression, I was inspired by one of my informal brain trust to spend some time exploring different areas and roles, bankrolled by freelance brand strategy work; what one friend of mine recently referred to as my “High-value pint-pulling”. And that is how I ended up in Crypto…

Early last year I began a number of both paid and unpaid engagements, in healthtech and fintech (as well as a few other sectors that didn’t have a sexy portmanteau to convince investors that what they were doing was exponential rather than incremental.) I joined IOV Labs as an external consultant late in January, initially as just one of these many gigs, to support marketing strategy and annual planning ahead of the start of their new financial year. I left, in somewhat bizarre circumstances in October (again, a story for another time) having spent 8 months as their acting VP-Marketing, following the abrupt departure of their CMO last March.

Along the way I learnt a huge amount about marketing and leadership, putting into practice many things that I had only advised on in the past – putting my budget where my slides were. As I come to the end of this short series of pieces, I’ll spend some more time reflecting on what I learnt as a marketer and as a leader sitting for the first time – and hopefully not the last – on an executive leadership team, but I want to take this first piece to reflect on the world of Crypto and Blockchains as an “insider-outsider” – someone who went deep into this world, but because they had a skill-set from beyond it that might be useful. I have a natural tendency towards cynicism that has served me well in life, and from the outside, this sector looks like there is a lot to be sceptical about. But I leave – at least for now – as both a sceptic and an evangelist. Which is why every time someone offers me an SGHT (‘Sub-Guardian Hot Take’) on the world of Web3, my first reply is “Yes. And…”

 

Real Deep Tech

So, Blockchains; based on the principle of a decentralised ledger, are unwieldy things that take a ton of computing power and therefore electricity to run (SGHT – “Bitcoin uses more power than Argentina, what’s wrong with a big spreadsheet”) and provide no real world utility – solutions in search of problems. While the former is a problem faced by any energy intensive sector, the latter is somewhat true and I’ll touch upon this later.

The ‘and’ here is that this is foundational technology that is still in its infancy. Like the earliest days of the internet, the smart folks in this space – and I will say that is far from being everyone – are developing numerous foundational protocols; ways of interacting with, regulating, and accessing blockchains that are still to be fully standardised and codified. Think of it another way, in the 15 years since Bitcoin was born, thousands of Web3 builders have all been experimenting with different ways of creating distributed, permissionless, immutable computing.

Cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology has yet to have its TCP/IP moment, whilst numerous cypherpunks, saviours and charlatans are building and experimenting on a range of fragmented application layers. Kudos to the makers of multi-chain wallets who have created cross-chain access points to this Precambrian era. And because this isn’t THE internet revolution but a profound evolution incubated within a mature internet, these early stages are happening in full public view. I can’t imagine anyone dicking around on ARPANET could have imagined a world where we watch the world’s (second?) richest man back up a world-famous autistic teen who has been insulted by a celebrity sex-trafficking rapist in real time via a (near) globally accessible (sorry China) public messaging forum. No one can predict where these latest technologies will take us (though as someone who has worked and consulted in this space from a behavioral rather than technical angle, I have some ideas – hit me up!) but to write them off now, without knowing what will come of them, seems foolish. No-one thought they needed internet on their phones until they did. Try and ‘Be More Bowie’.

The other thing that is exhilarating about Crypto is that the smart people, not the Do Kwons, SBFs or CZs, but the ones doing the foundational technical work – the core developers, computer scientists and mathematicians, are smart. Really fucking smart. Behind the hucksters and quacks are a cadre of brilliant talents sharing ideas that in 20 years time will become a fundamental and invisible part of our lives. 

Fuck knows what part though.

Crypto is crossing the chasm. And no-one knows what will survive the leap.

 

There’s more to life than the Shitcoin Lottery

When I have spoken to people about Web3 in the broadest terms, it’s usually the same three things that I can stamp off on my bingo card. Token Speculation. NFTs. The Metaverse. Usually in that order. I’ll start at the end of the list.

If I were a betting individual, I’d wager that whatever version of the Metaverse (or more properly Metaverses) crosses over won’t be decentralised. There are decentralised metaverses, but that isn’t what Meta is building, nor is it how Roblox – arguably the most mature metaverse out there – is. There is no need for AR/VR worlds to be decentralised, but it would be nice if they were. Occam’s razor though says that the ones that get traction likely will be data-harvesting Zucktopian 3D Web2 worlds where we continue to be monetised unless there is a big shift in either regulation or how few fucks in reality most of us give about privacy. Also, Zwift, Peloton, MMORPGs. Metaverses. And by the way, do you remember Second Life? It’s still a thing.

NFTs. “Art” NFTs are bullshit. Expensive JPEGs. They are an ahistorical anomaly spawned by a decade of free money and brought to the boil by stay at home orders and stimmie cheques. But they do prove the scalability of that particular type of unique smart contract that can support some very interesting use cases. Think gig tickets that give the band a 30% cut of every resale made by scalpers, or your own health record that you could compile and grant access to whichever doctor you needed to see anywhere in the world. Those are unique tokens that you want to control access to. Y’know, Tokens that are Not Fungible. But Art NFTs? Expensive JPEGs.

Token Speculation. This is probably the one that has had the most sustained coverage and where it’s worth spending a little time. At their most basic level, these are just unlicensed securities (Oh, hai there Howey!), usually sold with the promise of some kind of vague use case in the future. By buying them you get to fund this ‘project’ which in return will bring value to the token by creating utility for it. That project could be a new blockchain of some sort (EOS), a blockchain-based application or service (Tatatu) or a more conventional app (Telegram Open Network). Some have actual utility in established networks – usually as gas to pay for those who support the infrastructure of the network – nodes, miners, etc. but a lot of it has just been speculation. Most of the time the project doesn’t really matter, it’s the speculation that counts; all three of those above, the three biggest ICOs of the 2018 craze came to nothing.

Post 2018, new token’s were primarily focused on Financial protocols, whether DeFi or CeFi, and were essentially an enclosed bubble of imaginary value. Tokens that could be swapped exchanged or staked for profit and speculation. Essentially, it’s an investment bank, broken into bits, without any regulation, where over-confident young men bet money on things that don’t exist. So in fact, just an investment bank with more memes.

Again, the explosion here was a result of the same long and short-term causes as the Expensive JPEG Bubble (EJB) but is more interesting as it did develop protocols and technologies that could be out to real world use cases. However, over the course of 2022, the amount of money washing around in this very expensive financial circle jerk was $96bn, which is still the same as the GDP of Cuba or Slovakia, but is down more than two-thirds from the high water mark of December 2021. Shout-out to Terra, Celsius, Voyager, and of course FTX.

The evangelists will explain that these examples all prove why we need more decentralisation, not less, and most of these amount to frauds and Ponzis carried out by bad faith actors. Which is true. But any company offering 19.45% to anyone that buys their magical made-up dollars and puts them in another magical made-up bank that they also own is probably best avoided. Thankfully as the vast majority of this has no real world utility, the only people who got burned were the greedy and foolish few who went all in. 

Most of this is happening either in the wider Ethereum ecosystem or alternative Layer 1s (other ‘challenger’ ledgers), not on Bitcoin, the OG cryptocurrency. Bitcoin is the Ur-token, but also occupies a special place in the cryptosphere and I don’t want to mention it here because (a) I son’t want to cause offence to the believers and (b) I believe there are some unique qualities about it that will mean that it has a pivotal role to play in our future financial system, whatever that looks like after the current dumpster fire..

Meanwhile, the world keeps turning.

 

It’s not for you. Yet.

The third and final aspect covered here is probably the most important. Whilst a troop of bros in developed markets were participating in the shitcoin lottery, decentralised financial technologies were quietly proving their utility far from that madding crowd. IOV Labs’ focus was on non-speculative use cases in developing and middle income markets, providing services and stability otherwise unavailable to aspirant lower and middle classes in those countries. While global mainstream media – particularly English-language media – was focused on the headline grabbing froth, something substantive has been fermenting beneath the surface. And it’s borne out by the numbers. At the end of 2022, Chainalysis, one of the most respected crypto data firms, published its latest global crypto adoption report, looking at penetration, usage and value adjusted for PPP. And the top nation? Vietnam. Followed by Philippines, Ukraine and India. The only developed major nation in the top ten was the US, coming in at number five.

This data puts into numbers what becomes very obvious when you spend any time in this space, away from the speculative hype. It’s not for you. Not yet anyway. The problems that the technology in this still-nascent space is currently solving are not rich-country or rich-people problems. You need some combination of tight currency regulations, over-regulated or inaccessible banking services, crippling inflation or general instability to have a reason to look beyond the fragmented landscape, pitiful UX and non-existent regulation to persevere. Essentially, if you can get Monzo, it’s probably another 5 years before you ‘get’ blockchain. And when you get it, you may not even know that that is what you are using, no more than many of you would have ever heard of TCP/IP before reading this (if you have even got this far…!)

From Latin American savings and loan platform Tropykus to emerging market business lending platform Goldfinch or Kenyan digital wallet BitPesa specialising in cross-border transfers, this technology is solving problems that you probably don’t have if you are reading this, whilst at the same time, pushing forward technology that you’ll almost certainly benefit from soon.

But like I said earlier, fuck knows how.

In Praise of the Office

In March 2020 I returned to the UK after a year and half in China and a little over six in total in East Asia. As well as returning with stories, scars and a new respect for the Singapore legal system, I also swept back to Europe alongside Covid-19. It was quite a way to be upstaged. My intention had been to spend my first 6 months or so picking up freelance work whilst looking for my next ‘3-5 year thing’, but in April of last year, that initial plan of an early summer of relaxed coffees with old connections looked increasingly impossible. In that environment, I jumped on the first ‘safe bet’ that was hiring and was a ‘good-enough’ match for my skills; a fast-growing market research ‘tech disruptor’. Though the role was fully remote, the company was (is) full of brilliant, smart people and at its heart, a central premise that I believed in. But fast forward and my experience of remote work was a year of relentless hours, cramped kitchen table video calls and, eventually, burnout, that has left me reflecting on what is a job really for and what we all lost when we all left the office.

Summer 2020 was a glorious one and as we lived our lives outdoors in sun-dappled parks, commentators were quick to celebrate the end of the office; no more cubicle, commute or gossipy chat. But newspaper columnists are more often than not solitary scribes liable to their own egocentric bias. I would also note that as we ploughed on into the depths of lockdown, the quality of their work began to erode with the sharpest minds resorting to observational commentary on park dog walkers or YouTube workout gurus. Even culture’s silent voyeurs need something to ‘voy’. Meanwhile their analysis of the shifts in work that the pandemic forced upon us all were limited to office-based professionals and focused only – at least at first – on the perceived gains, rather than the very real losses. People were able to perform their tasks just as adequately at home. They would save money and time on the commute, as well as by forgoing the flat white or the deli salad box. At the same time employers were looking at resilient short-term production and the opportunity to shed expensive city-centre property portfolios, along with their accompanying facilities bills. And as our days began to start earlier and our lunch breaks compressed, they were extracting more from us for the same pay.

From the employee’s perspective, this purely economic analysis of the socio-cultural institution of ‘work’ is myopic. Just as we don’t eat at a restaurant because we are simply hungry, or wear the clothes we choose just to stay warm, we don’t work just to make money. Work – and I would include child-rearing in the category here – provides purpose, structure, belonging, friendships; it generates social capital and plays a key role in our mental health. Historically we have seen this most clearly in industrial communities in the 19th and early 20th century, where mines and factories gave rise to football clubs and bands, unions and clubs, hobbies and associations.

Many of the 21st Centuries own White Collar Proletariat – the Powerpoint wranglers and Excel tweakers of the modern knowledge economy see themselves as somehow above this; that all they need is a oat latte and a good broadband connection to thrive, but after the last year and a half how many deep down truly believe this is the case?

I would argue that any company thinking about a fully remote world is entering into a short-termist lose-lose for both employer and employee where ‘jobs’ are turned into ‘tasks’ and any immediate gains in efficiency are outweighed by long-term mortgaging of true productivity and innovation. Below I’ve outlined a few of the reasons why…

Erosion of social capital and company culture
It’s really really difficult to set norms when you can’t see how other people behave and what is expected. Yes, this can be done remotely, but it’s hard work over video calls and for my own team, it was when I started during the depths of the pandemic bringing them into a WeWork for an ‘essential’ office day at least once a week that we really began to gel. At the same time, successful collaboration needs trust. For many more senior members of staff, they may already have built this but it is depleted during time apart and as new people join, that existing capital is also diluted. In this case, absence does not make the heart grow fonder.

Higher Barriers to collaboration
If you ask a quick question you need to book a 15 minute call, the barrier to doing so increases. People are more likely to struggle through than trouble someone when there is a level of formality to doing so. For my own team, we combated this with an ‘open link’, a bookmarked Google Meet that was always available to jump into, even just for 2 mins. Anything that took more than two replies on Slack would be dealt with instead verbally in a minute or two. And Slack is awful, with it’s constant pings, it is more often abused than well used.

Death of innovation
Yes, you can probably get people to produce more Powerpoint slides without the distraction of a 15 minute chat by the coffee machine; but will they decide to replace the deck with an employee podcast whilst sitting at home ploughing through charts? The sparks that come from those serendipitous connections are real and while not every office is designed to do this well, this is an argument for better spaces not an atomised workforce

A lost generation
All of the above has the biggest, most disproportionate impact on those at the start or early stages of their career. Informal learning, mirroring of professional norms, demonstration of company culture and behaviour are all vital to those starting out, and comes from being around others, especially those with more experience. For senior folk who are excited about 30 mins longer in bed or extra time with their kids, they are pulling the ladder up behind them. We learnt from being in that environment themselves, and I’d argue it’s our responsibility to show up and pass forward this knowledge.

Rant Over.

What this is not is an impassioned plea for a return to the bad old days. I have been lucky enough to have mostly worked for agencies or in tech businesses where the office environment was very intentionally vibrant, with spaces for collaboration and inspiration. I believe everyone deserves better offices and no-one deserves to be forced into even the nicest corporate HQ 5 days a week. But even before the pandemic, people were already flexing. We need to move beyond the atomised task rabbit, performing the rote-learnt elements of their role home alone and the cubicle farm. We need flexible working, better offices and face to face collaboration both for the health of our colleagues and the wealth of our businesses.

Talent and the power of doubt

Sitting in a windowless conference suite in Tokyo last year a few weeks into a new role at a new company, I listened to a company chief sketch out the conundrum which he saw the business in. He explained, that morning, to the half-bored, half-hungover leaders and middle-managers that, because ‘we had optimised for IQ,’ we were inevitably short on emotional intelligence. In his eyes, because they had hired so many (allegedly) ‘brilliant smart people’ such as those assembled in the room, that we were low on empathy and understanding. This was, in his view, because ‘EQ and IQ tend to be inversely correlated. I have to say the blinding idiocy of this has stuck with me for a long time and makes it hard for me not to think I am in the wrong place.

Then again, it’s probably statements like that which mean I am exactly where I am needed…

I fundamentally disagree with this assertion for a number of reasons. Not least of which is that it is heavy enough with implicit gendering that you could throw it into the deep end of the school pool for swim-test day. Likewise even if we were to assume that a certain kind of analytical business-focussed brains did preclude emotional smarts ( and that is a fucking big pass…) then it would be an admission that they were hiring only one very specific strain of what could be considered intelligent. Countless studies have shown that a diverse group of average or even ‘below average’ (whatever the fuck average means) people outperform a monoculture of overachievers. Not the smartest move. But there is a third element here that I want to think about – doubt.

Now, doubt can be seen as an unwanted side-effect of EQ, but I would argue that doubt and emotional sensitivity are part of the same thing. If you wrongly assume that you are hiring the most intelligent when you hire the most self-assured you create a self-fulfilling prophecy. And you may not hire the smartest people.

Think of it this way – how smart can you be if you are really sure? Would you stake your next three months salary on that thing that you are sure of? Your entire career? A relative’s life? Fantastic if you can. The world needs believers. The world also needs clear-headed analytical thinkers that can take emotion out of a decision when they need to. But their EQ in many way is unrelated. And with emotion comes doubt. It is the awareness of others, other possibilities, the consequences of other convictions and beliefs, even if they could be wrong.

The very best people I have worked with have combined self-awareness with doubt. They know what they are good at, they understand their abilities as well as their limitations and are unafraid to articulate them. But they do not ‘believe’ their own hype. They may light fires at work, but they never suck the oxygen out so that there is no room for alternative viewpoints. The very best leave space in their own minds for the ambiguities. They can be decisive when they need to, but they decide having looked at something from all side and through the eyes of others. They are hugely intelligent because they harness their emotional understanding in order to do that. It is that same understanding that allows them to hire people who aren’t like them, diametrically opposite even, because they can see what they bring.

Be wary of anyone that claims to be certain.

Struggling with cultural relitavism

Fail to plan has been freelancing in Pakistan. For the past week I have been in Islamabad and Karachi, trying to get a handle on Pakistan’s affluent youth and the contradictions at the heart of their current mentality. More on that later this week if I have the time while I am writing up this project here in Dubai. This initial post is a more personal reflection.

During this trip to Pakistan, I was lucky enough to lead a few groups and carry out a number of at-home interviews, arranged by the client’s Business Intelligence team to try and give me a handle on the culture and more specifically, our target audience. In a country where the scale that reaches from richest to poorest is quite so stretched and this is quite so obvious after the most casual of observations, we knew that those we were talking to were very much of the top third of that spectrum. The client wanted us to focus on an educated, affluent, 14-24 year old target, to get a handle on their hopes, fears and aspirations, as well as their attitude to the internet and their mobile phones. Knowing we were in a country with around 12% net penetration and all the consumers we spoke to were home broadband users gives you some idea of how high up the socio-economic scale we were operating.

One interview particularly made it very difficult for me to maintain the Critical Theorist’s orthodoxy on cultural relativism- that people’s lives should be viewed within the context of their culture, rather than from the viewpoint of one’s own. One of the girls that we had an at home visit with, let’s call her Sabeen, was 18, bright, engaging and well educated. She said that she loved maths, and that she enjoyed school. But at the end of this final school year, she was stopping. Not to join the workplace or go to university, but to be married, (and ‘be’ rather than ‘get’ is important here- it is a passive act for her). Now even bearing in mind the standard ‘family support network’ ‘culturally traditional’ ‘successful track record’ ‘marriage is used for different reasons’ ‘family knows you better than you know yourself’ smattering of arguments, I found the interview with her at times uncomfortable. Faced with Sabeen’s confused smile when I asked her, when she said in five years time that she ‘will be’ married, whether that was that she aspired to as as well as believed, I struggled to hold on to that relativist position. This was not something to be questioned, it was a statement of fact, something operating on level below conscious choice, not even a default, but something preordained.

Sabeen said she wanted to be a teacher, or to at least tutor primary school children while she is waiting to be married, but she wasn’t allowed out to do that. She was up at 6 making the family breakfast, and after a morning at the girls college she would be back at midday to make the family lunch. Cleaning in the afternoon, then school work, then the family’s dinner. And her mother was at home, and they had household help. It wasn’t that they needed her assistance, its that it was part of her preparation, her training. Her two younger sisters would step up to take this role in her place when the time came as they transitioned through puberty. Her two brothers had the family computer in their room. She said she wanted to use it to study, but that they would not let her without their supervision and only for short periods of time. Her friends went out for gelato and did other things that middle class Pakistani girls in Islamabad did. They didn’t ostracise her for it, but she did not participate. Not could, ‘could not’ would imply an option. This was not atypical of the many of the girls in the groups, but this was the most pronounced.

She smiled almost beatifically, serene. There was a smart young woman, who wanted to teach but instead was following what had been set out for her. It wasn’t even a case of accepting her fate. That implied that there could be another option, that at some point that alternative route was blocked off. It was breathtakingly beautiful and breathtakingly sad. I wanted to scream, to shout that she should be able to do what she wanted, fulfil her own potential, every single trite, western liberal cliche that I had tried to check at the door. I bit my tongue and smiled and nodded, avoided leading questions, suspended my disbelief and probed in a dispassionate, detached but interested way, but it was one of the hardest, most fascinating days at work I have ever had. Often you know something, but you can’t truly understand until you experience it, until you meet it, you can’t comprehend it. I still maintain that you have to contextualise everyones’ life narratives, and not assume that your own compass is guardian of some cultural or moral absolute but it is hard sometimes when you look back at something you have experienced that is so radically different from your own norms, something that you see as wasted opportunity, to still withhold judgement.