Yesterday, in a Twitter thread that turned heads, the co-creator of Dogecoin Jackson palmer reiterated he had no interest in participating in crypto, arguing that the technology is “inherently right-wing.” But in a juxtaposition for the ages, yesterday legendary filmmaker and pro-black lawyer Spike Lee praised crypto as “the digital rebellion” against a financial system that has historically oppressed people of color and women. He did so in an advertisement for crypto company ATM Coin Cloud.
It’s a debate that no one is going to resolve for good anytime soon. But behind it, there is a bigger and more interesting question: can technology even have a political bias?
It’s hard to understand, but at its heart is the distinction between form and content. the form of a painting, for example, is a painted square that hangs on the wall, while its content can be just about anything. Rewind the debate five hundred years ago and you would have heard Palmer and Lee wonder if the technology of hanging a painted canvas on the wall was inherently authoritarian – which might sound a little silly, but is still a subject of debate among historians and art critics.
There is a whole intellectual tradition centered on analyzing the bias inherent in various technologies, especially communication tools (and crypto is indeed a communication technology). Scholars trace the debate as far back as 370 BCE, when Plato claimed in “The Phaedrus” that relying too much on writing would have negative social impacts, including weakening people’s memories. The debate really took off in the mid-20th century, when the audiovisual and electronic media revolution drove academics Marshall mcluhan declare that “the medium is the message” – that the form of a communication technology has shaped its social impact far more than its content.
McLuhan made his most subtle remarks in his analysis of the printing press. We are generally taught to view this invention as the gateway to a new era of mass literacy, the Protestant Reformation, and even the rise of democracy. But McLuhan argued that the form of print promoted a particular linear and logical way of thinking that paved the way for managerial capitalism as much if not more than it promoted democracy.
This highlights a category error by Palmer and some other critics, notably a scholar David Golumbia. In his thread, Palmer argues that the crypto as a whole is “controlled by a powerful cartel of wealthy personalities” with “shady business ties.” I also hate the seemingly incessant manipulation of crypto systems by bad actors, but that’s a claim on the content of these systems while Palmer’s conclusion that “cryptocurrency is an inherently right-wing hyper-capitalist technology” concerns their form.
As McLuhan argued, there is no straight line connecting the two. A system or technology can be manipulated for the benefit of the powerful without necessarily being “inherently hypercapitalist”. There is a good argument that crypto empowers those who already have power due to its resistance to regulation and taxation, but similar arguments could be made for most innovations that extend human power. Existing elites tend to find ways to transform innovation for their own ends, arguably a bias built in human civilization rather than a single technological innovation.
“I think [Palmer] the forest is missing for the trees, ”says The Blockchain Socialist, a crypto advocate who hosts a podcast dedicated to far left applications of blockchain technology. “There are a lot of right-wing elements in the current makeup of the space, but if he still describes himself as ‘mainstream socialist’ then surely he should be interested in the potential for radical political change. [such as] via DAO [decentralized autonomous organizations] to facilitate the democratic management of digital commons.
Alex Gladstein of Human Rights Watch focused on the potential of a deep element of the technological form of cryptography: uncensorship. Many authoritarian governments around the world exercise control over their populations through financial restrictions. The same technology that enables the scams and manipulation that Palmer hates also offers a way around these restrictions, whether it’s for grassroots survival or decentralized funding of resistance movements.
Spike Lee’s pro-crypto message, while condensed (or watered down) into an emotional tone, also ultimately focuses on the form of fintech rather than its content. Within two minutes Cloud room point, Lee states that “old money … is completely broke,” pointing out the literal white faces on US currency and denouncing the larger system “systematically oppressing” people of color and women.
Similar points have been explored in depth by Isaiah Jackson, author of “Bitcoin and Black America”. Jackson’s argument centers on how the centralized technology stack of the legacy banking system has led to systemic injustice, thanks to its inherent quality of concentrating power in the hands of bankers. These bankers, who are predominantly white American ruling class, used their concentrated power to enable practices such as redlining, which perpetuated de facto housing segregation well in the 90s and in the process deprived the black community of a huge source of generational wealth.
Jackson, in essence, argues that given this history, technology that is not inherently controlled by the powerful is an attractive alternative for marginalized people. Basically, this argument holds even if Palmer’s claims about the influence and manipulation of powerful people are also true. Much like with printing, the transformative power of blockchain networks is too deep to be perfectly positioned on any contemporary political spectrum, especially early in its evolution.
Crypto contains multitudes, for better and for worse. This is a new thing in the world, and its consequences will be profound and often even directly conflicting. Dismissing this complexity is perhaps less a bold political stance than a retreat from the constant work of guiding policy through an era of relentless innovation.