The Crypto Syllabus will furnish intellectual resources to help understand many of the phenomena grouped under the “crypto” label, from blockchains to NFTs to DAOs to CBDCs. It’s a collaboration between The Syllabus, a knowledge curation initiative, and its sibling institution, a new non-profit called The Center for the Advancement of Infrastructural Imagination (CAII)*.
We will be publishing interviews, reading lists, bibliographies, lists of experts that the media should interview – and much more. Do subscribe to the newsletter! Our hope is to curate – but also enliven – this global conversation, while adding the necessary critical dimensions to it. We are also partnering with various media outlets to carry our interviews in languages other than English. (See, for example, here, here, and here for our Spanish partners; French, Portuguese, and Italian translations are on the way).
Why did we launch the Crypto Syllabus? The debate on crypto-related topics has been dominated, almost exclusively, by a very tight coterie of voices. The critics of crypto have not done this field a service by being excessively dismissive and polemical; it won't suffice to dismiss it as mere fraud or a bubble. Some more intellectual work is required.
However, it's the true believers that worry us the most. In today’s bizarre world, the main organic intellectuals of the crypto sphere are the venture capitalists, who, in the absence of an active pushback from progressive circles, have established themselves as the voice of common sense on all things digital.
We aim to change that – by changing what counts as “common sense.” (Yes, we have read our Gramsci.) We are fully aware of the difficulties involved. This is why the Crypto Syllabus will function primarily as a network hub, a distributed think-tank, that would enable, deepen, and improve the work of journalists, academics, and intellectuals, who are still committed to piercing through the hype and analyzing the crypto world critically, without any ideological commitments to the “creator economy” or the emancipatory power of “web3.” We want to give those who are still able to think critically the intellectual resources they cannot get elsewhere.
The longer version is that we aim to organize, highlight, and dissect some of the best critical writings about all things crypto, all while providing what we call “entry points” into the subject matter, through which more complex and elaborate understandings of various phenomena, from blockchains to NFTs, can be gained. We do understand that most journalists and critics simply don’t have the time to go through 50 books and 200 articles on the history of financialization or the geopolitics of global payment systems or the use of market-based instruments in the context of development aid or fighting climate change.
This why the debate on crypto – and it’s an important one – is so intellectually impoverished: it’s as if the world starts with Satoshi Nakamoto or, for those with a historical bent, the birth of cypherpunk. But does it? What if we were to take a long durée perspective and make the necessary connections to what we know about the geopolitics of the global payment systems or the history of the intertwined relationship between Wall Street and Silicon Valley, or the checkered history of technocratic, technologically- and market-mediated interventions to “fix” climate change? What if we were to link the legal imagination implied by the blockchain, with its desire to replace institutional intermediaries and trust with algorithms, to the broader structural changes in the culture of law, its dematerialization and its desire to replace the third parties – mostly the State – by any means possible?
By conducting in-depth interviews with experts, our goal is to feature and amplify interesting and occasionally dissident voices who, while not entirely dismissive about the potential of many of these technologies, are nonetheless critical about many of their current implementations as well as the effects they are having on society at large. Neither us nor the people we interview deny that some of these technologies might have valid political uses beyond the neoliberal and libertarian universes from which they originally emerged; the world is too complex of a place for that. Progressives would be dumb not to use the very tools invented by their adversaries against them.
We don’t think, however, that the existing efforts to appropriate these tools from the left – whether on Reddit, podcasts, or various Discord subcultures – have done sufficient intellectual legwork to properly grasp these phenomena historically, sociologically, and politically. In our view, they can’t be grasped theoretically – by yet another close reading of Deleuze & Guattari – or practically, through the application of folk wisdom that equates some advances in terms of decentralized collective ownership, based on the cooperative model, with effective transformation of the global capitalist system.
Who, in 2021, could credibly argue that the cooperative model, whatever its benefits to the nice people of the Basque country, is the right answer to the global capitalism represented by BlackRock or SoftBank or the Big Four consulting firms? And if one doesn’t have a proper analysis of capitalism, why believe that decentralizing and DAO-fying the cooperative model is going to produce any outcome favorable to progressive causes?
Thinking politically – and doing it strategically – means thinking through the opportunity costs of various possible courses of action. It requires saying that, in light of the problems ahead, Strategy A is better than Strategy B. It very well might be that the world of crypto does offer some minor benefits to those of us concerned with rampant inequality or the climate catastrophe or the seeming ideological collapse of social democratic ideals. But such benefits have to be assessed against all the other possible courses of action – and, also, by seeking greater clarity of the problems that this strategy is meant to resolve.
While we remain open-minded, our current assessment of the crypto-sphere is that it’s mostly a set of solutions in search of the problems to be solved. The progressives shouldn’t dismiss the occasional utility of these tools and infrastructures to their political struggles. However, they should be much more demanding of those advocating for the new “crypto-left.”
The latter must be asked to provide both a diagnosis of the global capitalist system as it stands right now – are we sure they are aware that BlackRock, SoftBank, and McKinsey actually exist? – and to specify how their chosen crypto-based solutions are going to change this system more effectively than all the other alternative courses of action.
Is strategizing about DAOs, tokens, and NFTs going to produce more benefits to progressive causes than pressing on with the project of democratizing central banking or articulating public policies that, once implemented, could actually do something about chips, 5G, and artificial intelligence – i.e. those parts of the stack that are not easily replaceable by crypto? They might – but such arguments need more than rhetoric to be credible.
For now, our hope is to provide the much-missing political, intellectual, and cultural context to discussions about crypto. We don’t take this subject matter lightly; we are convinced that, for better or worse, this topic will dominate the public debate for years to come. All we can do is to deepen this debate by providing easier reference points for those who are genuinely open-minded about the issue.
~ Evgeny Morozov
* CAII has a busy plan for 2022; the Crypto Syllabus is just one of its many public-facing initiatives. Given the sudden interest in the subject, we have decided to accelerate our plans and launch it in 2021 already. CAII will make some of the infrastructure that powers the Syllabus open to the general public while also stimulating debate about government policies needed to create viable public alternatives to the privately run digital infrastructures, regardless of whether they self-identify as Web 2.0 or web3. We don’t believe that the idea of “public goods” can be reduced to crypto-funded and heavily tokenized charity initiatives – one unfortunate semantic consequence of the current uncritical attitude towards crypto for the public sphere at large.