Crypto for Activism — Amir Taaki and Micah White at DevCon5

Micah White with Amir Taaki in Osaka, Japan at DevCon5

I recently chatted with Amir Taaki, a legendary activist and programmer known for developing darkweb marketplaces and joining the Rojava revolution in Syria. We spoke about “Crypto for Activism”—the revolutionary potential of cryptocurrencies and what the crypto community can learn from activism. Watch our conversation and read the transcript below. May this inspire your crypto-activism!


Micah White: All right. Hello, my name is Micah White, and this is Amir Taaki. And we are doing a session on crypto for activism. I want to explain first the format that we’re going to do. It’s going to be a little bit more interactive than some of the sessions that you’ve had so far. So I’m going to give a 10 minute brief introduction to some ideas about activism in crypto. Then, Amir and I are going to have an on-stage discussion for about 20 minutes. And then we’re going to have questions from the audience. And so while we’re talking, think of your question, and then line up at this mic and we’ll just kind of go into a free-flowing discussion. I also have copies of my book for free. At the end of my talk, just go grab them over there. They’re in a stack. There’s about 20 copies, so first come, first serve.

Micah White: Okay. Are we ready? Great. So my name’s Micah White. Briefly, I just want to tell you my kind of story to situate myself and my context. I am a lifelong activist. I started doing activism when I was 13 years old. And I did lots of things. I went to Palestine to direct action non-violence. I basically tried to just … Every year I did a new kind of campaign. Eventually, I worked my way into a magazine called Ad Busters, and in 2011, during the kind of peak of the Arab Spring, we put out a call for something called Occupy Wall Street. And very quickly, the call was picked up by activists in New York City, who started to self-organize, and they went ahead and created, basically, the movement. So I’m one of two people who came up with the original idea for Occupy Wall Street. We picked the name, the date, and that kind of stuff, and then there’s about 200 people in New York City who actually organized for the very first day of the movement.

Micah White: But I’ve also been kind of lurking in the crypto scene for a long time, because around the time that we were coming up with the idea of Occupy Wall Street, Bitcoin was very new. I was paying attention to Bitcoin. I was an early kind of adopter of Bitcoin. I got my first five Bitcoin for free from the Bitcoin faucet. And so I’ve been in the scene for a while. I remember when Counterparty versus Ethereum, I remember the first Ethereum announcement and that kind of stuff. And so it was just kind of recently that I started to come out of the crypto closet, as it were, and to talk about cryptocurrencies in activism. And recently, when I was invited to give this talk, I actually went ahead and learned Solidity. So I have a basic understanding of Solidity to give more depth to this conversation.

Micah White: All right. So let’s get into it. So one of the things that I think is a very tantalizing question is that we know that Satoshi embedded a reference to the financial crisis in the source code for Bitcoin. So one question I’ve been thinking about is, in some ways, is Bitcoin a better form of protest than Occupy Wall Street? Which of those things was a more effective response to the financial crisis, Bitcoin or Occupy Wall Street. And as we kind of think about that in our minds, I want to point to some of the ways that activists can think about how to use Blockchain for activism. So if you’re an activist and you want to use Blockchain, what are some of the models or ways of thinking about how to do activism on the Blockchain? So we’re going to get into that now.

Micah White: So there’s basically four models that I want to think about. They are: new economic logics, new funding mechanisms, new social contracts or governance, and adversarial smart contracts. So let’s go through those one by one. So new economic logics, I think we’ve seen a lot of these. Right? So it’s very easy in Solidity to create programmable money that violates core concepts of capitalist economy. So you can have, for example, deflationary tokens, extremely easy to burn a certain percentage of tokens upon transfer. You can have sortition tokens, where people are rewarded randomly based on the health of the economy. So this is like Shuffle Monster, it came out recently. Or you can have redistributive tokens. You can have tokens that implement a Tobin tax or a financial tax, which is something that has been talked about in the left for 30 or 40 years, but only with, I think, the emergence of Ethereum, is actually possible to encode.

Micah White: So there’s some problems, though, with economic logics. The first is that activists are not writing smart contracts to a blank slate. Right? Ethereum is still the base currency, even if you just look at the gas cost, you still have to pay in Ethereum. So you’re still basically inheriting an economic logic from Ethereum that itself might be unfair. The second thing is it’s hard to enact progressive policies that rely on knowing who is rich and who is poor. Right? We know this is a problem, so obviously if you’re a wealthy Ethereum holder, you can split your wallet into many different wallets to appear like many different poor people to benefit unfairly from a progressive system. And this is the problem of identity that a lot of people are talking about how to solve. So it’s very easy to appear poor in Ethereum, and only the rich can really prove that they’re rich. But anyone can pretend to be poor.

Micah White: This makes a lot of the kind of leftist policies very difficult to implement. The third problem is that the most popular economic logics have turned out to be basically Ponzi schemes. Right? So this has left a lot of people in the community very jaded about the idea of creating redistributive currencies. So I created a very simple redistributive currency called Sparkle, and one of the first reactions was, “This is like Proof of Weak Hands.” You know what I mean? This is basically a Ponzi scheme, which I thought was very interesting. I didn’t think of it as a Ponzi scheme, but I think that what that’s saying is there’s basically a jadedness about new economic logics. Still, I think they’re very promising.

Micah White: Okay, let’s go on to the next one. The second area of kind of possibility is new funding mechanisms. Right? So within the activist community, there’s a growing sense that we need to escape the dominance on risk-averse philanthropic organizations and foundations. Right? That we need to escape the non-profit industrial complex, if you’ve ever heard that phrase within activism. And I think that Ethereum presents some interesting possibilities. So two examples, we have rDai, if you guys have been following this. So it’s like cDai, but instead of earning the interest, you’re able to identify a beneficiary of the interest. Right? So you can deposit your Dai, and then you can withdraw it anytime. But the beneficiary gets to keep the interest. So this is a simple example of how you could basically have people stake large amounts of money, and then interest is given to a non-profit that they support.

Micah White: The other one, of course, that’s really promoted by Vitalik and others is quadratic funding. So the point here is that basically we can create new ways of moments funding themselves on the Blockchain. And so my proposal in this category would be something like movement coins or protest coins, coins whose existence is to fund social movements. And I would love to think about that with you.

Micah White: Okay. Moving on to the third thing, and then we’ll get into our discussion. The third category is new social contracts, new forms of governance. Okay? So activists, especially within Occupy Wall Street, we talked about creating a real democracy, consensus based assemblies, and all these kinds of collective decision making. But when we tried to enact it in the real world through our assemblies, obviously it collapsed. We weren’t even able to make the simplest of decisions. But within Ethereum, there’s been a lot of work around these decentralized, autonomous organizations. We have the YangDAO, [inaudible 00:07:22] DAO, MetaCartel, Aragon, et cetera. Here, though, I think we’ve started to learn that just because you have a DAO, it doesn’t immediately eradicate power imbalances, nor does it necessarily mean that decision making is more equally distributed.

Micah White: So there’s been a lot of questioning about, for example, not to pick on anyone, but the concentration of decision making within the Maker Stability Fee or something like that. That’s an example of how, just because you enact a DAO doesn’t mean you’re necessarily creating a more democratic or libratory form of decision making distribution of power. But here, I think there’s still tantalizing possibilities, and I’m personally really interested in the emergence of kind of sortition based decision making, where people within a community are randomly picked in order to make decisions. This gets back into the problem of identity and how do you identify people, but there’s something called Humanity DAO that’s trying to verify individuals, verify humans. So I could imagine a system where you tie up with Humanity DAO in order to enact sortition based decision making.

Micah White: And the fourth kind of category that I want to think about before we get into our discussion is adversarial contracts. And this, I think, is the most exciting and the most purely and essentially activist way of thinking about cryptocurrency. And so I mean adversarial in two senses. First, adversarial contracts are ones that are inherently, in themselves, a form of protest. Okay? So under this category you might think about privacy coins. Privacy coins might be conceived of as inherently a form of protest against the existing status quo.

Micah White: And the second kind of form of adversarial would be adversarial in the sense that we’re seeing develop in machine learning. Right? So people have developed certain objects that … Like there’s a 3D printed turtle that appears to a machine like it’s a gun. So this is another concept of adversarial. So under this, you would think about smart contracts that interact with other smart contracts or the basic Ethereum virtual machine in ways that produce political consequences, unintended political consequences. So they’re adversarial in that sense. I think this is the most promising direction for activism on the Blockchain, and there’s a lot of kind of thinking that needs to be done about this. And I look forward to kind of talking about it.

Micah White: But now I want to move into a discussion with Amir Taaki, who has a lot of experience, I would say, creating adversarial concepts on the Blockchain and is, himself, also an activist. So thank you.

Amir Taaki: Yeah. Very interesting to be with Micah here, because I was also involved in Occupy from very early days. I think the main issue now inside of cryptocurrency is we seem to be repeating the same mistakes that have been shown to us throughout history, in the history of technology, and even in the history of activist movements. And we’re not learning from those same mistakes. We’re just repeating them over and over again. As a way to segue into that, the point three you made about the third form of how you can use the technology had new forms of social contracts. And you said that in Occupy, they wanted to create a new form of government, which in the end didn’t really create any real social change. It just ended up being a new way of managing things. And just because we create a DAO or we create some new structure doesn’t eradicate the power imbalances. So maybe you can talk a bit about what gave Occupy its power and why that didn’t transfer to real social change, and maybe some of the contemporary examples about that happening as well.

Micah White: Yeah. Well, this whole question about Occupy Wall Street and whether or not it resulted in political change, whether or not it was a failure, is one that’s really complicated and difficult. So the book I wrote is called The End of Protests, and I was one of kind of the first people to talk about Occupy Wall Street as a constructive failure, not a total failure. Obviously it did good things, but the movement failed to achieve what we wanted, which was a revolutionary change in the nature of power. We wanted to basically achieve what the Arab Spring had achieved, which was overthrowing Mubarak, but we wanted to achieve that around the financial industry. We wanted to overthrow the power of money over our democracy, which we obviously failed to do.

Micah White: I think that in terms of, for the crypto community, thinking about decision making and why our movement kind of failed, I think there’s a couple things that we did wrong that I think the crypto community can learn from. First of all is that we were unable to distinguish between who was in and who was not in the movement. So anyone could come up and just say, “I’m an Occupier,” and be a totally disruptive presence. Right? This, I think, gets back to this question of kind of identity. How do you tell whether or not someone is actually a beneficial part of the movement and is not? And right now, I think, within the crypto community the main way that it’s been addressed is this concept of, “Well, whoever has the most coins, they are part of the community, and then they get 99% of the vote.” And I think that is one way to solve it, yeah, because the early adopters accumulated all the coins, they get to make the decisions. But that in itself is also a solution that’s not giving more power.

Micah White: So I think it’s an unsolved problem, but I think that there is something about crypto. I believe it’s a solvable problem, and I think that it probably could involve some of the new concepts that are being involved within the DAO. But yeah, I think it is important not to be naïve. Just because you’ve created something new, does not mean that it’s inherently going to create positive social change. And in some ways … And we can get into this, I think Blockchain and cryptocurrencies are perhaps the most evil technology ever created.

Amir Taaki: Yeah, definitely.

Micah White: Right? In some ways they are the most unequal distribution of wealth. I mean, think about how unfair it is. I just told you I got five Bitcoin for free in the early days. In itself, that is extremely unfair. It’s unfair to have a system where people got Ethereum for a very, very, very little bit of money and now can cash out. Even at $190, they’re making massive profits.

Amir Taaki: Yeah. Not only that, there’s this social credit, Sesame Credit system in China now, where if you talk with the wrong person, because they’re monitoring everybody’s chats with WeChat, if you’re late for an appointment, you get a lower social score, meaning you cannot rent an apartment, you cannot get a train ticket. There’s inside parts of China now where you cannot go two blocks without having your iris scanned, entire systems monitoring and managing human beings as tools, as human resources. I see a lot of that rhetoric inside of Blockchain going, “Oh, me and my friend, in the future we will have a smart contract between each other.” These are really scary fundamental systems of control. I actually saw a Blockchain project recently, which was about having people’s credit scores and debt ratings on a Blockchain, so the credit card companies … It’s like your data about your score with money would become permanent in a permanent global database. Even if it’s decentralized doesn’t mean that people are free or there’s no power.

Amir Taaki: So you talked, actually, about, number one, new economic models. And you mentioned a few things, but the interesting point, I think is that we should start to look at the technology, because you said a rich person can pretend to be a poor person. We should start to think that these models that we create can be quite oppressive, and instead we need to think about the ideas that are driving us and how we make tools for individuals to empower human beings to shape the world around them. What type of human beings we’re empowering rather than a perfect system that allocates a little space of freedom and equal resources to a bunch of people, because I think that other view is a bit totalitarian.

Micah White: Yeah. Well, I think there’s two ideas here. So one is this question of … A lot of people in the activist community kind of push back at me for even talking about crypto, because they see it as an inherently oppressive technology. But I think instead, if you look at the history of technology, obviously it always has a dark side. Paul Virilio talks about there’s always an accident associated with technology. And personally, I think that cryptocurrencies are perhaps one of the most evil technologies created. And yet, at the same time, they hold this tremendous possibility, this tremendous revolutionary possibility.

Micah White: So at the same time as you have the ability … Yeah, I think it’s easy for us to imagine a world very soon where everything about ourselves is encoded on some sort of immutable Blockchain that some government out there is reading, and it involves … Basically, Blockchain is a tremendous tool of surveillance, yes. But at the same time, I think that activists still have this window of opportunity. It’s still so new. It’s amazing to think that Ethereum’s, what, five or six years old? It’s still so new that there is a possibility that we could turn things. But I think, at the same time, there’s a question about how much libratory possibility there is, because of the very nature of the system. So I don’t know, I don’t want to just say that it’s impossible, but I also think it’s important to kind of have a skeptical view. But yeah, it’s tricky.

Amir Taaki: Yeah. Whenever I go to any of these speeches where people are talking about the synthetic, derivative, some people can get easier mortgages, I’m [inaudible 00:17:52] thinking, why aren’t we leveraging that to speculate on government bonds and use them to dump them in mass? We literally have amongst us the capability and power to crash national economies. A lot of the thinking is on really low level. You have the old rich, who they raise their kids from generations in particular ceremonies and rituals, which are honing their dynasties to maintain power. And you have this nouveau crypto rich, who they just want to buy yachts and Lambos. If we want to be a power, we want to actually be a political power, step it up to a real level, we have to really think big.

Amir Taaki: And the main issue I’m experiencing now is there are all of these crypto companies, and they’re just focused on their brand, their little niche that they’re carving out. And they’re all trying to one-up each other, and it’s kind of the same thing that I experienced in Occupy. I went to Occupy in the beginning. It was amazing. Loads of young people from all over the country, they intuitively feel something is wrong, and they came there because they wanted to change something. And they arrived there, and what did Occupy offer them? It said, “Okay, let’s have a discussion of what we’re actually doing.” And you know, that momentum over time kind of dissipated. Some of them got normal jobs. Now some of them are into drugs. I don’t know. But that energy kind of just dissipated.

Micah White: Yeah. Well, again, I think there’s two things here. And I think this is in terms of applicable to the crypto community, is one is that the experience of social protest teaches us that we mustn’t be naïve about the power of the status quo, because the power of the status quo is so tremendous that … For example, look at the fallout of the Arab Spring. Who would have thought that overthrowing Mubarak would result in a government even more regressive than Mubarak? The Sisi government is worse than … And if you’re an activist in Egypt, your experience in 2019 is worse than your experience in 2009.

Micah White: So this relates to the crypto community. I think that in some ways, when we get into a new thing and we’re like, “Yes. We’re fighting against the status quo,” we become very naïve about the possibility of actually damaging that status quo. And the status quo is amazing at coaptation. So very soon, you find that you’re all of a sudden being absorbed. And this is happening in the crypto community through succumbing to the idea that we need to submit to regulation. I see this very much, that we should already be submitting to regulation. And I get that, because there’s a lot of pressure to do so. But it’s already the death knell.

Micah White: I think the second thing that you’re bringing up, and I think that when we think about, “Well, why did Occupy happen? Why do social movements happen?” Is that social movements happen when you create a new form of protest that people suddenly believe is going to create social change. Right? So one of the questions that plagues activists is this question of, why is it that sometimes people rush into the streets and sometimes they don’t? So in the American context, there’s been gun violence for years. Why is it suddenly that March for Our Lives emerges? Or Occupy Wall Street, people would wonder … In the weeks and months before Occupy Wall Street, there was actually protests on Wall Street. There was actually a march on Wall Street that went nowhere. And then why is it that it took off with Occupy Wall Street? It’s because we presented a new kind of social protest that people suddenly believed, “This is going to work.” And then when they stopped believe it’s going to work, then they left.

Micah White: I think crypto’s in that golden moment. Or maybe it’s already ending, we don’t know, where some people are drawn to the community because they think, “Oh, this is a new form of, if not protest, at least changing the world that hasn’t been tried before.” But I think you’re right that there’s a window of opportunity that closes. And it might be closing now where suddenly people start to think, “No, this isn’t a space where change is possible. Instead, it’s a space where we’re trying to replicate existing models.” I love DeFi, and I’m all in putting stuff into Dai and all this kind of stuff too, but ultimately, what that’s doing is replicating, in a certain sense, the existing models, which I think is what, as activists, we need to push back against and try to imagine new models. But it’s very difficult to do so.

Amir Taaki: Yeah, well, what is the state? The state is ideology. It’s the military and the administration. It’s a system that uses human being as tools, as resources. And the ideology that we live under now is the ideology of liberalism, which is an ideology of nothingness. It’s an ideology which is a-historical, which is that we’ve reached the end of history. What I see happening inside of crypto now is 90% of the projects are going to fail, because they don’t know. They don’t have a vision of the society they’re trying to create. It’s all very vague and wishy-washy. And something I read, actually, is that now Chinese companies are actually edging out Western companies globally, because Western companies are just concerned with their own personal profit, whereas Chinese companies have a core of communist party cadre who kind of steer all these companies towards a shared strategic objective.

Amir Taaki: The point is not that we need to create a system of management where there’s a boss and the boss is telling someone to do … No, it’s not that. It’s the way that humans work together is based off of storytelling. Storytelling is something fundamental from the very beginning of history. We actually understand the world better in terms of stories than we do in abstract models and mechanisms. And having a story or a narrative which is an explanation of how did we get here, why is the world the way it is, what is the world that we’re trying to create, is something that can allow many groups of people to come together to change the world. And if we’re trying to create a world which make people to be free … And I see it a lot of the times. There’s a lot of projects which is … And you’ve heard of this paper called The Tyranny of Structurelessness.

Amir Taaki: The same thing happened in Occupy, you know? You go to a meeting, and there’s all different sorts of people. There’s a hippy person, I don’t know, a pacifist person, this guy, and they believe this thing and this thing. There’s nothing shared between those people. How can you build a democracy when you don’t share anything together? You don’t even have a common basis on which you’re beginning your work. And that’s why authoritarianism emerges. It doesn’t matter what structure you create, necessarily. The technology, actually, the way I see it, is like a complicated artifice we use to create the old power. It’s really an extension of ourself. And there is a constant competition between different groups with different philosophies vying for power to shape the development of that technology. It’s a mistake to see technology as this static thing that can just stay there and never change.

Amir Taaki: The technology is actually shaped by us, by our motives. And we have to be clear about that. And all of this news about Venezuela, Syria, Cyprus and so on, it’s fake news. There really isn’t any major adoption of crypto. We need to be analyzing those markets. We need to be breaking them down, seeing where there’s an opportunity, how we can develop the tools to exploit those opportunities, to grow, to actually make something that’s useful for people. That’s why the narrative is so important, and the philosophical level in crypto community, the intellectual level is so low, and that’s why it was so effective. There’s a lot of speech and focus now on structures and mechanisms … Sorry, on mechanisms and techniques, but there’s very little joining the dots. How do these make a structure or infrastructure? You know? We can’t just in small parts.

Micah White: Yeah. Yeah. But I mean, at the same time … All right.

Amir Taaki: Shit, sorry. I got carried away.

Micah White: Yeah, I mean, I think you make a lot of good points. But I also think, at the same time, one of the narratives around crypto that I think is true and is also beautiful and revolutionary is that crypto does allow … I think, and one of the base reasons why Occupy failed or a lot of social movements run into trouble is this question of sovereignty. And I think that with Occupy Wall Street, we basically had this kind of magical thinking that if we can set up assemblies in the streets and it’s a more perfect form of democracy, then naturally, sovereignty will flow to us. And naturally, our governments will have to listen to us. And naturally, the police won’t be able to … And I think that one thing, that turned out to be not true, obviously.

Micah White: But there is something about crypto that does have an inherent kind of sovereignty. For the first time, it is possible for people in this room to come together, identify a new form of economic logic, distribute a token that embodies it, and have it exist without a state having to get involved. So I think that that is beautiful and does hold a lot of potential. But I agree with you that there’s this whole other side which is the creation of what does that look like. Right? And I think its’ much easier right now to … I think a lot of crypto, for better or worse, it’s focused around this idea of, “Well, how do we speculate?” You know what I mean? How do we create speculative currencies that make money? Which is a very different question I think than how do we create sovereignty and self-sovereignty, all these concepts that we hear about in crypto, which I think are the most powerful but are kind of so hard to actualize.

Micah White: In about a minute we’re going to take questions from the audience. So if you have a question, I hope that you will line up here. We already have a question. Good. And we’re going to go into questions in about a minute. Unless you want to right now, because I think questions are a lot more fun.

Amir Taaki: Yeah, we can go to questions.

Micah White: You want to do questions? Okay. So everyone just line up, and then you know, common courtesy. Ask a question, not a long speech. But go ahead.

Speaker 3: Amir, the question is for you. About a year ago at Devcon 4, the speech was about political apathy. You mentioned that people are not voting, and then we saw a year later the emergence of all the scandal of Cambridge Analytica. Now, we have-

Amir Taaki: Of what?

Speaker 3: Cambridge Analytical, the documentaries coming out, and how they manipulated people from Facebook, the ignorants that are actually making it happen and vote. I would like you to comment about what can the crypto community actually do to make a change socially? What are the first steps that you think that are going to make a difference, because we still need to vote? Whether we like it or not, we still have be able to look at our government and decide who’s going to be in power. So if you could comment on, first of all, the political apathy, and then what can we actually … In your mind or your mindset from all the discussions you’ve been having, what can we actually do to help to make a change?

Amir Taaki: Well, all of the modern concepts of the computer, like the network socket, the firewall, were all invented in the 70s with the development of Unix. Computers have not changed in over 50 years. The computer devices that we use, they’ve got faster, they’ve got smaller, but they haven’t changed. And fundamentally, the technology that we’re using is built for consumers, for individuals. Even something basic like sharing a file is still really difficult. The whole point of civilization is bringing humans together to be able to collaborate on a large scale. So we need to think about the technology. How do we build technology? How do we build a new paradigm of computing that can be used to support a new type of society, a new type of civilization? Every revolutionary movement, its success is dependent on this ability to shape the development of technology.

Amir Taaki: Actually, we’re here in Japan now. There’s two provinces, Koga and Iga, which is where the ninja originated from. These provinces were democratic, self-governing provinces within feudal Japan, and they fought a war against the samurai. The ninjas were people that, they were able to development technology from common, everyday items that they could use to wage a guerrilla, insurgent war against the samurai, who were the defenders of privilege and power. So we’re in Japan, which have a very nice legacy about how technology was used to … And we’re going into a very scary world. We can’t be ignorant about technology, the way technology’s being used.

Speaker 3: How can we beat Facebook, where majority of people-

Amir Taaki: Okay. I think Facebook is irrelevant. Facebook is not an empowering tool, but the problem is that Linux, free software, all of these movements, they’re just trying to copy the dominant paradigm. They’re not developing their own system of thought. They’re becoming trapped in the system that they’re trying to fight against. Same thing with crypto, recreating the same system inside of us. We need to create a new system, and we need to recruit the people into that new system.

Micah White: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s excellent. I would just add to that, though, that one of the things that’s so difficult and one of the things we’ve learned from social movement creation is that the ideas that are the most powerful and revolutionary are not seen. And it’s very hard to see them. So when we came up with the idea for Occupy Wall Street, and when I told people the idea for Occupy Wall Street before it started, no one believed me. No one told me it was a good idea. Similarly, with Ethereum, we know that the ideas that are the most revolutionary are not seen. So it’s not just coming up with the new ideas, it’s also having the capacity to know that we can’t tell what they are, necessarily, and to go against our kind of knee jerk thoughts about what they should be. So next question.

Speaker 4: So I think that it’s definitely clear that Blockchain technology is super empowering and that it gives us a lot more power from inside our homes and in front of our laptops than we had before. But one of the ways that it really restricts our ability to use the technology to do whatever social change we want is that it has network effects. And therefore, we have to kind of do it along with other people who may have very different political agendas than we do. Even inside the Ethereum community, we’re much less politically united, for example, than inside the Bitcoin community. But imagine if you’re a community outside of cryptocurrency, and you want to use the technology. You have to have a certain amount of network effect. But right now, people who are outside the crypto community, because crypto was launched and basically seeded by radical, revolutionary cypherpunks and libertarians, see the technology itself is being associated with that politics. And therefore, they’re not even trying to form network effects around another instance of the protocol that is used for their political goals.

Speaker 4: And so right now, there’s basically no major left-leaning cryptocurrency. It just doesn’t exist. And no major left-leaning movement is interested at all in starting a cryptocurrency, even though, just from a tech point of view, it doesn’t seem obvious why would it be helpful. So what do you think we could do to help people with different political views use this Blockchain and not have the Blockchain revolution be relegated to radical, right-wing politics?

Micah White: Yeah. That’s a good question. I mean, I think in some ways the sad answer is that activist culture is broken. Right? And so activist culture has certain assumptions about what should and shouldn’t be done. And when you go outside of those assumptions, you get canceled and punished. So even within activist culture, there’s a tremendous pushback against, for example, during Occupy and over the years … It’s kind of breaking down now, but there was a reluctance to engage in any form of electoral politics. But I think that crypto is also one of those kind of no-go zones. It’s a no-go zone for activists, because it violates kind of the social rules of activism. So I think one way … Part of this talk is to break that down. More activists need to talk about crypto and to break it down.

Micah White: But I think the other thing that I find so inspiring about Ethereum, Bitcoin, and these kind of things is that when you build a social movement, you do need a lot of people. You need network effect. When you’re creating the internet, you need people to use your services. One thing about crypto is that you don’t have to wait for anybody. If you go onto compound finance and you look at how many people are actually borrowing on compound finance, it’s like 600 people. It’s very small, because … So what I’m trying to say is that there’s something about crypto because of its connection to being a money in itself that it doesn’t need to wait for lots of people.

Micah White: So I guess I would push back against this idea that we need to get mass adoption in order to have a revolutionary effect. And I would instead say that the challenge is to create that revolutionary and activisty use of Ethereum, and then just move forward and not wait for anybody. And right now, I think that’s what’s lacking. So it’s that part that’s lacking rather than adoption. I don’t know if that kind of jives with your feelings about it or…

Amir Taaki: I totally agree with you. Activist or left-wing politics has reached a dead end. We need to redevelop our thoughts and go beyond all this left-right paradigm.

Micah White: Yeah.

Speaker 5: If I’m trying to do as much social good as I can-

Amir Taaki: Can you talk louder?

Speaker 5: Louder?

Amir Taaki: Yeah.

Speaker 5: If I’m trying to do as much social good as I can over the course of my lifetime, two strategies that come to mind are Bill Gates style, launch a crypto technology that isn’t inherently activist and accrue a bunch of wealth and then deploy it later, versus spending time, most likely with fewer resources, building activist tech. How would you think about those and other alternatives?

Micah White: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think my answer would be you have to look at what happens to people who pursue the first path. So Nelson Mandela says, for example, where you sit is where you stand. Which means, basically, if you find yourself in a position where you have a billion dollars, the things that you’re going to support and stand for are not going to be the things that you would have supported when you had no money. And that doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person or anything, but everything is influenced by your position. So I think that adopting a philanthropic model within cryptocurrency and relying on wealthy whales to kind of fund this ideal society, but that they themselves aren’t building an activist tech is kind of the wrong way to go.

Micah White: I think that, instead, we need activist smart contracts that are themselves, the interactions with them is the form of protest. I think that’s what is lacking. I mean, yeah. That’s the direction I want to go. I want to create the first smart contract that’s banned for purely political reasons. And I think, when you think about that, what would that look like? What would that be? That’s a whole avenue of thought. So the contract itself is protest, not, “Oh, I’m going to invent a new form of Dai, and then get rich, and then fund activists.”

Speaker 5: Wow. Thank you for that answer. That really has my head spinning. But my original question was, to your point about stories versus systems and how people find story telling much more natural, what ways have you come across to tell stories that help people engage with the complexity of systems without getting overwhelmed?

Amir Taaki: There’s two books I want people to read. One is Manifesto for a Democratic Civilization by Abdullah Öcalan. He wrote a series of five books. Only two have been translated to English. This is the foundation of our philosophy for our organization. And the second book is The Myth of the Machine by Lewis Mumford, who is a philosopher and historian of science and technology. And he connect that political philosophy to the technology. And so these books form the foundation or base of a movement, of a technology movement that can make a revolutionary change in our system, but we have to bring it to the contemporary point with contemporary knowledge and examples. And we also have to start to build a roadmap and start to think about the technologies that we want to build, what kind of platforms, how are we going to reinvent the operating system, what infrastructure and hardware do we need to create that we can deploy these technologies in places when opportunities present themselves. And we need to start forming groups around these philosophies.

Micah White: Yeah. And I would just add briefly to that, and then we’re going to be shortly out of time, but I think that, generally, speaking, a social movement is created out of three things. You need a new tactic that people believe will create change. You need a contagious kind of mood. And then you need something that’s outside of any of our control, which is the right historical moment. Right? So I think that cryptocurrencies and smart contracts, they can be that new tactic. And I think that they can also be a vector for spreading that kind of mood in a certain sense. But there’s also this whole question of the right historical moment. So what I like about smart contracts is that they exist and they just kind of wait. You know what I mean? They’re on the Blockchain and they wait.

Micah White: So I can imagine the deployment of an activist smart contract that no one pays attention to, but then all of a sudden, something happens in the world, and this smart contract becomes the foundation for this whole eruption of social protest. So I guess what I’m trying to say is there’s also this whole element of things that are outside of our control that we need to tune into. So we just ran out of time.

Amir Taaki: Yeah.

Micah White: Thank you so much.

Amir Taaki: The two books, write this down, is Manifesto for a Democratic Civilization by Abdullah Öcalan and The Myth of the Machine by Lewis Mumford. This book by Öcalan is the best book that I ever read. You can’t read it like a story book. You have to study the text. It talk about the different historical events and authors. Anyway, I just wanted to end with that.

Micah White: Yeah. And there’s free copies of my book over there. So thank you very much.

I change the world by changing protest. Learn more at and

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store