In 1984 — the book, not the year – the means by which the evil totalitarian “Big Brother” regime maintains its power is through something called “doublethink”. It is the practice of holding contradictory beliefs in tandem: “war is peace”, “freedom is slavery”, “ignorance is strength”, “2 + 2 = 5”, to use the examples from the book. It worked because when our minds—our sense of logic, our morality—are compromised, they’re easier to control.
Considering the events of the last few months, you might as well interpret the doublethink to mean things like “the metaverse is the future,” “people are going to pay millions of dollars for crap art,” or “this crypto billionaire definitely has mine in mind.” best interests.” It’s a trivial reference, but it’s the only one that makes any sense Somehow, somewhere along the way, the American public was led to believe that these things could be true even though they were, well, no.
On Nov. 11, the 30-year-old CEO of cryptocurrency exchange FTX, Sam Bankman-Fried, resigned after his company filed for bankruptcy. Prior to his implosion, Bankman-Fried (colloquially referred to as SBF) was considered a genius boy in the cryptocurrency world, not just because of his billionaire status, but because he was widely regarded as “one of the good guys,” someone who advocated greater government regulation of cryptocurrencies and has been a leader in the effective altruism space. Effective altruism (EA) is part philosophical movement, part subculture, but by and large it aims to create evidence-backed means of doing what is best for most people. (Disclosure: This August, Bankman-Fried’s philanthropic family foundation, Building a Stronger Future, awarded Vox’s Future Perfect a grant for a 2023 reporting project. That project is now on hiatus.)
Instead, Bankman-Fried did the opposite: he squandered the savings of more than a million people and may have committed fraud. In conversation with Vox’s Kelsey Piper, he essentially admitted that the do-gooder persona was all an act (“fucking regulators,” she wrote, and said he “must be ‘good at talking ethics’ because of” this stupid game we woke up the Westerners by playing where we say all the right shibboleths and so everyone likes us”).
In terms of corporate wrongdoing, the SBF disaster is probably on par with Enron and Bernie Madoff. Here’s a guy who marketed himself as a benevolent billionaire and convinced others to invest their money with him simply because he was worth $26 billion (at his peak). He’s partnered with celebrities like Tom Brady and Larry David to make cryptocurrencies, an extremely risky investment that relies on shaky technology, look like the only way forward. Both Brady and David, among many other famous people, are now accused in a class action of defrauding investors during the FTX crash.
But there have been other examples of technological doublethink in recent history. Over the past year, Mark Zuckerberg has campaigned so hard to mainstream the “metaverse” that he changed the name of one of the world’s most powerful companies to reflect his ambitions. However, his metaverse, called Horizon, would end up looking like a less fun version of The Sims, a game released in 2000 (but the Sims had legs too). The strategy, at the time of publication, has not paid off. The company lost $800 billion.
The ironic thing though is that anyone with eyes and brains could have just told Zuckerberg that Horizon is terrible. Not only is it ugly and functionally useless, but it’s also expensive (VR headsets cost at least hundreds of dollars). People have actually told him that – since its launch, the platform has been widely mocked in the media and on line – it’s just that Zuckerberg didn’t listen.
There’s this thing in technology where entrepreneurs tell themselves that their job is to innovate. They are the builders, they say, paving the way for the next generation of Rubes to follow them, years late, into the future. But often what they are doing is following wherever the money is, wherever the divine venture capitalists decide to turn on the faucet. They believe they can predict what will happen simply because “that’s where the money is” and end up being surprised when the money goes into something totally useless.
The most compelling argument I’ve ever heard about Web3 is that “Well, that’s what all the smart people are working on.” In February, I attended a meeting for crypto-curious women in a trendy expensive hotel bar where everyone was very friendly and engaging. The part that stood out to me the most was when the organizer said into the microphone, “Whether we like it or not, it’s happening.” The tone was that since all these financial bros were getting rich on cryptocurrencies and NFTs, maybe we could reach out to them.
What wasn’t said, but what I heard, and what I always hear when someone explains Web3 to me, is, “Yeah, we know this all sounds fucking stupid. We know that most NFT art sucks and the idea of someone paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for it doesn’t even make one bit of sense. We know that the whole system is basically a pyramid scheme and that it’s bad for the environment and that no one has ever come up with a good use case for it. But that’s where the money is.”
I don’t think anyone who has invested in cryptocurrencies is an idiot; in fact, I thought the opposite. After attending the meetup I was convinced that enough people would accept this type of fear and FOMO marketing that in a few months I would be paying for my coffee in Ethereum. Sure, I really couldn’t figure out what was so useful about cryptocurrencies or DAOs or whatever, but these women seemed smart and normal and people were make lots of money.
The problem is that engineering is pretty bad at teaching the fact that marketing isn’t just about TV commercials and nice packages. NFTs weren’t marketed based on how good they looked (which was: not at all). They were marketed by rich dudes, or supposedly rich dudes, who positioned themselves as the only ones smart enough to know where the world was going. “You think it is As soon as a jpeg?” they seemed to ask. “Enjoy being poor.”
But any woman with a Facebook account could have informed them that this is precisely the strategy used by the multi-level marketing companies that sell protein shakes and leggings. Every get-rich-quick scheme is an exercise in doublethink: “It may not make sense in any of the logical ways you’re used to, but look at my new car! You may have one too!
Did anyone really think a billionaire could be benevolent? Did anyone think Horizon was the future? Did people think that Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter was going to happen in a normal way? Probably. We lie to ourselves all the time. In a world where liberal arts and humanitarian studies colleges are increasingly demonized as “wokeism factories,” it’s the technologists who are being made to look like the rational ones. Those who criticize them end up seeming naive, or ignorant, or fearful of progress, so much so that sometimes, we end up believing ourselves instead of believing our eyes.
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