Ethereum's Frontier Mentality Is A Hindrance, Not A Help
I have a memory that I can’t quite place. It’s a memory of poring over the Ethereum Frontier launch website, taking in all these unfamiliar words and concepts, my mind blown by the implications of someone forming an institution not governed by international boundaries. Looking at the page today on Wayback Machine, it’s all intimately familiar to me, the font, the colors, even the way the animations change as you scroll.
But I have no idea where I was. At some point, I installed geth on my laptop; if I created a seed phrase and obtained ETH for pennies, no record or memory remains. It all belongs to some time and place I do not wish to recall.
The page opens with a cartoonish desert vista of mesas and mountains, with the rings of Saturn on the horizon. Web3: The Final Frontier!
I couldn’t shake the association the entire time I was in Denver. The city feels like a jumping-off point; the Gateway to the Rockies, the mountains rising like charts, number go up. And like any good jumping-off point, I came through it ‘if not unscathed, then not unchanged’: we’ll have to see the results of my PCR test to see if I came through unscathed.
I arrived on Wednesday, and the vibe was immediately there; this was nothing like the last ‘crypto’ event I had been to, the sun-and VC-soaked debauchery that was the first week of December in Miami. No, this vibe was something different, something I fell into so naturally that it took me days to realize what it was.
The happening itself was spread out across a half dozen or so venues, some more official, some less so, along North Broadway in Denver. In so many ways, it was a place like any other in the United States, a proud highway, full of post-war optimism, now burnished by the winds of macroeconomic realities, spotted here and there with gems of cultural renewal. Hipsters laying claim to the ruins of the dream of the 1960s.
And, for one week, these three otherwise respectable blocks of Anytown Broadway USA were plastered with highly suspicious QR codes: “WORLD’S 1ST NFT BONG – SCAN ME” (don’t ever do that); a Doge-wrapped McLaren, and a long line of inflated swans (all the more comfortable for the addicts to smoke crack on). It became a place apart, and by the time Friday rolled around, it was a continual stretch of food trucks, stickers, developer jargon, and branded swag, the smoke and smell of frying food melding with a constant underlying tinge of potent marijuana.
After years in a pandemic, the intense social interaction was a revelation for many; the Denver Sports Castle, the main venue for booths and events, was six floors packed to the gills with people networking, learning, making connections, and making that bag of tokens and swag. The entire event feels like compressed time, thousands of interactions with people over the course of four days, more interactions than the last two years combined. The conversations and people keep spooling out into my mind, spreading out and sinking into long-term memory.
The structure of the Sports Castle itself became a kind of place apart from time; a structure built on the promise of the technological future, broad ramps designed to move motor vehicles to different parts of a once-gleaming showroom, now whitewashed over and repurposed; spaces that were once intuitive now strange with eldritch technology stuck into corners, defunct burglar alarms in the windows painted over. The lighting, too, lent it the air of a casino or a nightclub, the blaring daylight white of LEDs leading to darkened corners full of laser lights, fog from smoke machines, and unending live house music sets, the walls flashing with NFTs on high-res screens. If you manage to make it up to the 6th floor, you might find people 3D-printing custom devices, banging out sessions on Dance Dance Revolution, or hosting a meditation-techno party with fairy wings, flags, and candles. Get a t-shirt, it’s also an NFT! Here’s a bag of weed, it’s also an NFT! It felt like a Rainbow Gathering I went to as a child, people making pancakes under tents in the forest; or the parking lot at a Dead show, for that matter.
It was sometime on Friday or Saturday that I came up from the “Shill Zone” to the fourth or fifth floor, and as I came around the ramp, the beanbag areas were full of people. I stood, transfixed, watching a group of thirty people in a perfect circle, all sitting cross-legged and listening intently as a man on one side of the circle, up on his knees, gesticulated and spoke passionately. Several people around the circle nodded along, totally engaged. I turned, and saw a group of my coworkers engaged in another, much smaller circle. They were clearly hashing things out. On my way into the building, I had stopped to get some food, and had sat there on the sidewalk, catching my breath in lungs unaccustomed to the altitude, cherishing the sustenance and listening to freestyle rap with a backup band, riffing on crypto-freedom.
“Ethereum was not made to make you rich. Ethereum was made to make you free.”
Gitcoin was handing out those stickers; there I stood, overwhelmed thinking about John Perry Barlow, cowboy, Grateful Dead member, digital revolutionary and descendant of Mormon frontier colonizers. I thought about how wrong Hunter S. Thompson had been when he said, “If you go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, you can almost see that high-water mark–the place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.” The counterculture wave did not roll back. If it peaked in California, then it slowly rolled down, in rivers and then streams and rivulets, across our whole society. The Dead and the energy of the sixties didn’t die; or if it did, it laid its head down in a riverbed of roses, and suffered a sea-change: into something very rich, and very strange.
What brave new world is this? I hear echoes in it of the old one. Barlow isn’t the only Mormon to have tried to reckon with the blood that’s left on your hands after conquering a new frontier. One of Barlow’s contemporaries, Orson Scott Card, wrote one of the greatest science fiction series of his time, and its true, underlying theme is genocide, colonialism and survival. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the technology, feeling like we’re Living In the Future, because you’re using an Inter-Planetary File System and working across borders with other crypto-natives to farm yields on new metaverse lands you’ve settled, and before you know it, you realize that you’re using the master’s tools to try and build a house of liberation, and something doesn’t feel right. That website’s slogan says it in bold white letters: “ETHEREUM FRONTIER RELEASE – A SAFE DECENTRALIZED SOFTWARE PLATFORM”.
I wasn’t there when they made the website; maybe they were just “tapping the sign,” as it were, and re-emphasizing that the Ethereum network, at the time, was not a safe place; it is, in fact, a Dark Forest with spaceships full of buggers plotting trajectories of energy to blow up planets. So they were right to warn people.
A coworker of mine, new to the space, told me that the event made her understand what people meant when they said that Web3 is about community. And it is. The fact that the blockchain is a dark forest doesn’t mean we can’t have community; in fact, it means we must have community. The frontier mentality is a hindrance, not a help. Talking about ‘settling the frontier of Web3’ makes for catchy marketing copy, and it also invokes a pernicious poetics of violent appropriation.
The dark forest has a clearing in it, full of people taking care of each other. And there’s room for everyone.