Ads for blockchain, NFTs and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin seem to be everywhere. Crypto technologies are being promoted as a replacement for banks; a new way to buy art; the next big investment opportunity, and an essential part of the metaverse.
As a cybersecurity and social media researcher, I’ve found that behind the hype is an ideology about social change: Hardcore enthusiasts argue that crypto will get people to trust in technology rather than government, which they see as inherently untrustworthy. This ideology leads people to encourage its use while downplaying its risks.
The true believers
My colleagues and I studied almost three months of discussions on Reddit forums about cryptocurrencies to try to understand how people talk about crypto and Bitcoin. The loudest voices on the forum were a group of enthusiasts who called themselves “True Bitcoiners.” Unlike technology enthusiasts, “true bitcoiners” didn’t talk about technology, or about their own use of crypto. Instead, they talked about trust and corruption.
These crypto enthusiasts often cite examples of what they see as government corruption and corporate corruption. They recognize that society depends on governments and corporations setting and enforcing rules, and they complain that people are stuck with these “corrupt” institutions. Corruption, they say, is an inevitable flaw in humanity and leads to trying to control and mistreat others.
The enthusiasts see Bitcoin, blockchain and other crypto technologies as providing an alternative to the corruption. They argue that these new technologies are “trustless” and don’t depend on institutions. You can buy and sell things using bitcoin without checking with a bank or using government-issued cash.
Blockchain, the technology underlying cryptocurrencies, keeps records of ownership and transactions without requiring trust in anyone or any institution.
Pushing an ideology
These beliefs about who should and should not have power in society embody an ideology. An important part of the crypto ideology is that this change can’t happen unless people use crypto. The technology and the ideology are tied together.
For many of these enthusiasts, recommending crypto to other people is not just a technology recommendation. To them, buying and selling crypto is a form of political and social activism. They argue that buying crypto will remove corruption and change society to trust technology over government.
This ideology is a more extreme version of technolibertarianism, which seeks to replace government with technology. Like technolibertarians, true bitcoiners want technology to control society. But they focus on financial and economic control more than civil liberties. And because promoting crypto is part of this ideology, crypto has often been compared with a religion.
An important aspect of any ideology is the way it emphasizes some dangers and downplays others. True bitcoiners emphasize the problems with government corruption. But they downplay the financial risks of crypto. The price of Bitcoin fluctuates wildly, and many people have lost money buying crypto. Wallets are difficult to understand and use, and fraudulent transactions are difficult to reverse.
Enthusiasts frequently downplay the technology’s risks to people and society. They also dismiss the valuable role that governments and corporations play in protecting people’s money, providing insurance for bank accounts and returning money that’s been stolen.
Crypto technologies don’t necessarily eliminate corporations or avoid government control. There are private, corporate blockchains and many government regulations about cryptocurrencies. As I see it, simply using the technology doesn’t necessarily lead to the social change these enthusiasts seek.
Rick Wash receives funding from the National Science Foundation and from Google. He is affiliated with Association for Computing Machinery and the USENIX Association.