I Think There’s a Revolution Happening

It took a minute, but thanks to the bull market of late 2017, crypto-tokens became valuable enough that the most gonzo crypto-evangelists could afford to turn their fantasies into a slick, five-minute science fiction movie. Published on YouTube in March 2018 by Aragon, an Ethereum-based governance framework, “The Fight for Freedom” is an advertisement so breathless that it barely mentions the product. Down to its screen-within-a-screen aesthetic, it sits squarely in the genre of Apple’s canonical, Orwell-inspired 1984 Super Bowl ad. The similarity is so uncanny as to suggest a subtextual whisper: Maybe next year ETH will be worth enough to make it to the Super Bowl.

“I think there’s already a revolution happening,” we hear from finance entrepreneur Mona El Isa. “We’re seeing it everywhere.” From there, the voices are mainly European-descended men, pontificating about blockchains from half-broken television sets scattered around a post-apocalyptic world, which might just be the world as it is. Around them, a diverse cast of solitary, unidentified people follow gnostic signals around them—beams of light, swarms of bees—while a parallel cast of old-world elites attend cocktail parties and secret meetings. At last, the solitary wanderers find each other in an open field, as if drawn together by the same map to hidden treasure, and walk toward a floating door that opens into light. In contrast, there are flashes of Hitler, et al.

Aragon’s purpose is to enable decentralized organizations, which are purported to operate through coordination and economic incentives rather than through top-down control. This is, in a sense, the expansion and extension of the supposed utopias of self-organization that have arisen in tech culture—the Linuxes, the Wikipedias—only now with explicit economics and politics, now ready to become the social operating system not just for geeks but for the world.

Aragon co-founder Luis Cuende says from his TV screen, “Today, we are in the first time in history that we can actually try out new governance models without the need of people getting killed.” Add venture capitalist Chris Burniske, “Human activity can be governed on this international basis, without nation states, without corporations.”

One cannot be too cheeky about such artifacts. The bombast of Apple’s 1984 ad didn’t stop the company from, thirty-four years later, claiming the world’s first trillion-dollar valuation. The promise of decentralized organizations as a transformative paradigm, as a new social contract, is real. But just as Apple’s ad neglected to warn us that in lieu of Big Brother we would get the cult of Steve Jobs and his ubiquitous designs, Aragon neglects to depict the fascinating array of potential blockchain dystopias. Where is the feudal, artificial-island kingdom under the iron fist of Peter Thiel, for instance? Where are the automated drone snipers assassinating people at the dinner table who get behind on their smart-contract payments? What about even just the dull corporate bureaucrats already using blockchains to micromanage supply chains? The germs of these revolutions are already happening, too.

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