Parametricity

The Coinbase post was 100% right. Here's what you can do about it

Posted at — Sep 29, 2020

Recently there was a minor controversy over a blogpost from Coinbase’s CEO discouraging employees from thinking about politics, and encouraging them to focus on profit-making. I really appreciated this post, because I think it can be very clarifying for those employees who think their company can be a pure force for good. The Coinbase blogpost gives the honest truth that in the final calculus, corporations whose primary goal is profit-maximization can only incidentally and in small ways advance any other aim.

At the same time, there is a lot of promise for good in the actual technology underlying the crypto industry. This post will argue

  1. If work is organized through for-profit corporations, there will be strong pressure from management and capital to distort positive aspects of the technology in favor of profit-making
  2. The naive utopianism which has sustained the industry so far and helped produce some good technology is no match for this pressure
  3. The only realistic way to combat this distorting pressure and focus on the socially-beneficial aspects of the technology is for workers (the other human factor of production apart from management and capitalists) to use their collective power to push back.

This argument is not surprisingly somewhat controversial among executives and VCs, but happily that same group loves free speech and hates cancel-culture, so I assume I will not be attacked for expressing it.

What is the web and what should it be?

What should the web be? It should be a medium for personal communication, organization for people in projects, art and creative expression, etc. that is oriented around the goals of individual and collective flourishing. That would be ideal.

In reality, it is not operated that way. It – like almost everything in our society – is operated as a profit-extraction machine in the service of a small group of people. This machine started off performing the above functions (of course, already distorted by its origins as a technology for the military and academia). Soon, an industry of for-profit companies sprung up around developing the internet. Many of these companies became large enough to have a decisive influence on what the web would be.

As the years went by, the parts of it that did not contribute much to profit generation (like weird personal websites) were scrapped under the influence of these companies, and new pieces which enhanced profit generation were added. It happened this way because there is enormous pressure from management and investors to focus on profit-generation to the exclusion of all else.

Of course, because these modifications were made primarily in pursuit of profit with other reasons being secondary, this resulted in a bunch of unintended (or un-“cared about”) negative consequences like

All of these things are natural results of a system that cannot “see” the concept of social good and can only see profits. These problems just do not matter to the system, and only could in the event that they interfered with profit-generation.

How to push back

Let’s say you are a worker at a crypto company who sees this history and want to make sure that in crypto, socially useful aspects of the technology are prioritized rather than those that make the most profit. What should you do?

First, I think it is necessary to deal with the most popular response, which is a utopian faith that the decentralized nature of some crypto technology will inherently stop bad things from happening.

Crypto-utopianism

There’s a lot of utopianism in crypto. This ranges from the lowest Bitcoin-booster all the way up to people like Vitalik.

This quote is somewhat examplary:

These three white men talked about the protests erupting across the United States. To his credit, the Russian-Canadian Buterin spoke broadly instead of attempting to comment on inequality in American politics. He said the current generation is facing a global “crisis of legitimacy,” concerning both corporations and “many types of governments.”

“The challenge here is can we create systems that allow some groups of people to cooperate without that downside of a centralized or trusted actor having to be in the middle,” Buterin said.

Crypto-utopianism usually includes a suggestion that crypto will replace existing systems (which are bad because they’re “centralized” or some other vague reason) and be better because they are “decentralized” (whatever that might mean).

These analyses give crypto projects a sense of grandeur and importance which is motivating to developers and investors alike. Unfortunately, if your goal is to push back against the existing profit-maximizing power structures, you need to have a better analysis than “centralized bad, decentralized good”. It sounds good, but it doesn’t actually constitute a plan to defeat the Facebooks of the world or even to resist pressure from investors.

The crypto-utopian prescription for all that ails the web is some new technology. Technology is great and a necessary part of the puzzle, but unless Glenn Weyl has a way of forcing Facebook to use quadratic voting for corporate governance, it’s not useful yet. The existing power structure can always pick-and-choose the new technology that best advances its goals. If you have goals which are distinct from theirs, you need to build power that is capable of a serious challenge.

What kind of power do they have?

What kind of power does the existing “power structure” consisting of senior management and capitalists have? It has

Profit-maximization is the “prime directive” of the existing power structure and as a result challenging it inevitably provokes a fight. This fight is usually waged (on their end) by making use of all the above tools and more.

What kind of power do you have?

What kind of power do you, a worker at a crypto company, have to resist all of the above? On your own, basically none. If you make too much trouble, you will simply be fired and then you’re out of luck. Some small number of people can try starting a company (which I have done) but you’re still subject to some of the same kinds of retaliation as funding can be withheld, which either “fires” the company or redirects it toward whatever profit-maximization opportunity is available. And even if you have an independent revenue stream, you will be competing against firms that are willing to do whatever it takes to maximize profits.

As a group however, workers have an enormous amount of power. It is sometimes considered controversial to say so, but VCs and senior management cannot actually do anything without workers. As such, if workers organize together into a strong company or industry-wide union, they can make demands of the existing power structure and refuse to participate in the production process (i.e., strike) if those demands are not met. This power can be augmented with legal resources, platforms of their own, etc.

If you are interested in building power with your fellow workers to advance your own goals rather than those of the profit-maximizers, both within your company and across your industry, I recommend reaching out to Tech Workers Coalition who can provide further guidance. You can also get in touch with or join your local DSA to build your analysis, help push more broadly for a world beyond profit maximization, and get support.