Ship of Fools
Five days on a cryptocurrency cruise
What follows is one of the strangest pieces of journalism I have ever done. It was originally published at Breaker magazine, a crypto-focused outlet which has since folded, taking the archive with it. People keep asking me what happened to it.
Here it is. As ever, most of the content on this substack is free- but if my writing is worth something to you, and you have the means to become a paid subscriber, I‘d really appreciate it. Despite my best efforts to self-optimise I still live in a body that needs to be housed and fed.
Draw me your map of utopia and I’ll tell you your tragic flaw.
In ten years of political reporting, I’ve met a lot of intense, oddly dressed people with very specific ideas about what the perfect world would look like, some of them in elected office—but none quite so strange as the ideological soup of starry-eyed techno-utopians and sketchy-ass crypto-grifters on the 2018 CoinsBank Blockchain Cruise.
It happened like this.
Two months ago, an editor from BREAKER called and asked if I wanted to go on a four-day Mediterranean cruise with hundreds of crypto-crazed investors and evangelists. We’ll cover the travel, he said. Write something long about whatever you find, he said. It was 2 a.m. and I was over-caffeinated. I remember explaining that I know almost nothing about either cruises or blockchain, in the way that Sir Ian McKellen, in the criminally underrated series Extras, explains that he is not actually a wizard. Five days later I was at the port of Barcelona, boarding a ship. By which point it was way too late to wonder for the umpteenth time about my life choices.
I knew about bitcoin only as an investment vehicle favored by several essentially sweet nerds close to my heart—and I knew, too, that cryptocurrencies are the pet untraceable funding model of the far-right. I was told there would be an overall “Burning Man theme” to the adventure, guaranteed by the presence of Brock Pierce, the cryptocurrency mogul, former child actor, and one-man art installation about peer pressure. (More about him later.) I was anticipating evenings spent listening to crypto-hippies describe the angel-faced space elves they met when they took DMT. I was expecting to fetch water and painkillers for half-conscious corporate executives with dust in their perfect hair and no idea how to get home. I was expecting to get a bit carried away and end up shouting about the government and chalking poetry all over the walls. I was expecting to hear very rich men talk without blinking about tax planning and sacred geometry. I was expecting corporate-branded swimwear. I was expecting to meet smug Californian polyamorists, about whom smug European polyamorists like me are relentlessly judgy. Reader, all of these things transpired, but by the time they did they were a blessed relief.
Let’s step back a moment. For those of you still idling by the side of the cryptocurrency bandwagon, here’s a brief primer, based on a week’s frantic pre-trip cramming. Blockchain is the technology behind cryptocurrencies, which are peer-to-peer electronic cash systems unregulated by any central authority. The system bitcoin, pioneered by an anonymous genius (or geniuses) going by the handle “Satoshi Nakamoto” in 2008, was the first digital currency. Those who bought bitcoin at the start are now on-paper squidzillionaires. Other, newer currencies like Ethereum, Ripple, and Bitcoin Cash, are emerging—and there are obvious reasons to get behind the idea of decentralizing the financial system. Beyond money, blockchain has lots of exciting potential applications with very few actual users. For instance, in October, artist Kelly Donnelly released the feminist anthem “I Am She” using Ethereum, making it, in her words, the “first unblockable music video ever released … meaning women living in censored regions like Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, and Turkey have been able to watch the video.” Sounds good to me.
In the short term, though, that’s not what most big players care about—and the major social change blockchain has brought about so far is that a small number of people have become very rich indeed. As blockchain skeptic David Gerard writes, “the cryptocurrency field is replete with scams and scammers. The technology is used as an excuse to make outlandish near-magical claims. When phrases like ‘a whole new form of money’ or ‘the old rules don’t apply any more’ start going around, people get gullible and the ethically-challenged get creative.”
CoinsBank, the company organizing the cruise, has left little welcome gift boxes in each of the rooms. They contain: painkillers, Alka-Seltzer, several condoms, the world's flimsiest pregnancy test, and a half-bottle of Jägermeister.
A huge bitcoin price crash occurs a few hours before we set sail. As I board, I am surprised to find that nobody seems to be particularly worried. CoinsBank, the company organizing the cruise, has left little welcome gift boxes in each of the rooms. They contain painkillers, Alka-Seltzer, several condoms, the world’s flimsiest pregnancy test, and a half-bottle of Jägermeister. It’s the kind of thing you’d leave at the bottom of the chimney for Skeezy Uncle Santa, hoping he’ll stuff a new sex doll under your tree.
The women on this boat are polished and perfect; the men, by contrast, seem strangely cured—not like medicine, but like meat. They are almost all white, between the ages of 30 and 50, and are trying very hard to have the good time they paid thousands for, while remaining professional in a scene where many thought leaders have murky pasts, a tendency to talk like YouTube conspiracy preachers, and/or the habit of appearing in magazines naked and covered in strawberries. That last is 73-year-old John McAfee, who got rich with the anti-virus software McAfee Security before jumping into cryptocurrencies. He is the man most of the acolytes here are keenest to get their picture taken with and is constantly surrounded by private security who do their best to aesthetically out-thug every Armani-suited Russian skinhead on deck. Occasionally he commandeers the grand piano in the guest lounge, and the young live-streamers clamor for the best shot. John McAfee has never been convicted of rape and murder, but—crucially—not in the same way that you or I have never been convicted of rape or murder. I do not interview John McAfee. He interests me less than he scares the shit out of me, though his entourage seems relaxed. They’re already living in the crypto-utopia behind his strange pale-blue eyes.
The only genuinely happy person I meet on this trip is Femi, a forklift driver from Birmingham who wears a Dogecoin T-shirt and proudly shows me videos of him practicing with the samurai sword he bought with his bitcoin stash. I ask him why he’s so proud of his selfie with McAfee, given the guy’s not-unmurdery reputation.
“Well, yeah.” says Femi. Then he grins. “But he’s just a legend, isn’t he? And his wife’s really nice.”
I cannot fault this reasoning. Over the next four days I find myself drifting back to Femi and his unstoppable optimism whenever I get the urge to throw myself overboard.
On this half-empty passenger ship with its swirling ’80s carpets right out of The Shining, there is very little sober talk of blockchain’s obstacles or limitations. Nobody mentions how wildly ecologically unsound the whole project is—some estimates have bitcoin burning as much energy as the entire nation of Ireland for a relatively small pool of users. Instead, the core and only existential question is which of the various coins and ICOs (initial coin offerings) will make you the richest the fastest before dawn.
Freedom here means freedom of money, and only freedom of money—and what freedom of money means is the freedom to amass great stocks of it without being taxed or traced. Occasionally, people even talk about this on panels, though nobody is really here for the conference part of the conference.
“Any money launderers in the room?” Bitcoin rockstar Bobby Lee definitely picked the wrong crowd for that joke, but he tries again in case we didn’t hear.
“A lot of you money launderers out there? It takes one to know one.” Still nobody laughs. “We have to spread the word that if you want to live in a free country you’d better have freedom of money,” says Lee.
The crowd remains subdued until John McAfee takes the stage in a white suit jacket, an aging pornstar’s haircut, and a miasma of self-belief. He gives a speech about how all taxation is theft, and he is as captivating as any big-tent revival preacher. The crowd goes wild, the only time I see this crowd do so without copious free booze.
The attendees mob the aisles to get closer to their heroes—entirely ignoring the "beautiful ladies" who the host tells us have just taken the stage for the "women in blockchain" panel.
After his event, the attendees mob the aisles to get closer to their heroes—entirely ignoring the “beautiful ladies” who the host tells us have just taken the stage for the “women in blockchain” panel. It’s a shame, because they miss moderator Olga Feldmeier’s summation, delivered in a pitch-perfect Russian lilt: “Being a woman in blockchain,” she says, “is like riding a bicycle. Except the bicycle is on fire. And everything is on fire. And you are going to hell.”
The men who make up the majority of the paying attendees largely ignore this panel, except when Tatiana Moroz, a minor pop star and cryptocurrency entrepreneur, cheerfully suggests that when it comes to technical skill, “maybe women just don’t like that. We’re natural communicators, we’re fun to be around.” That one gets a big clap.
I understand why people might want to hire a boat and stuff it with investors: to make money. This cruise measures its takings in old-school pounds and dollars. None of the ship’s bars take bitcoin—fittingly, the only thing you can do with it here is gamble. What I don’t understand is why anyone thought this would make the whole thing look less like a Ponzi scheme with a sleazy post-cyberpunk aesthetic.
It’s only my first day, but it’s clear this is not the Burning Man-style celebration of the liberatory potential of decentralization I was promised. This is a locked-room, hard-sell pitch session to a literally captive audience of high-roller crypto investors, whose only escape is the lifeboats. The whole place smells of aftershave and insecurity. But if you want to know how power actually operates in any community, watch the women.
Of the 400-plus passengers, many—I’d guess at least 150—are “hostesses” from Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, and many are offering services unspecified. Most blockchain events have a gender balance problem. The cruise organizers have allowed the decentralized free-market to solve that problem the best way it knows how. Not enough women? Just hire some. Not as actual employees of your company, god no. To stand around looking delicious and fascinated. What else are women for? [Ed: CoinsBank, which also offered rooms for “18+ only” ladies, did not reply to multiple requests for comment.] The sea-swell swaying hallways are full of moody Eastern European teenagers in impractical heels. “We’re here as…as help,” one of them tells me in the elevator. She doesn’t look up from her phone. That evening, one guest tells me that male attendees are having room numbers discreetly sent to them on Telegram—the social network of choice, I learn, for pump-and-dump crypto schemers.
Later, in the sweet-sterile smelling formica nightmare of the open diner, I meet two young American women, trained actors and former event hostesses who have graduated into blockchain marketing. Lucy and Donna won tickets to this event, and now, on day two, they are pissed off, exhausted, and my new best friends.
Everyone’s got to hustle.
Lucy and Donna are enthusiastic about the technology and aware of its problems. They are also tall and beautiful in the same way that the Ukrainian hostesses are tall and beautiful, which does not make their jobs much easier on this trip—but at least they get to choose their own clothes, unlike some of the English-speaking representatives, who have to squeeze into bitcoin-branded swimsuits. Lucy looks like a jaded ’90s-era Christina Ricci and wears a tight yellow Nasty Gal two-piece. She is blunt about how the money is mutilating the good intentions of “people who have made a lot [of it] very quickly.” She tells me, “There’s almost a celebrity that comes with it,” that when people find out she’s in crypto, “they instantly want to be my friend. If you’re someone big in the space, it’s almost like this cult.”
Donna is upfront about what a hard job hostessing is. She’s been paid to go to plenty of parties for work. “Everyone’s always acting, and toward the end of the party I’m just like, ‘If I have to mingle with one more…I have to, I’m not gonna lie, have at least two drinks in me.'”
“We’re young, pretty girls,” says Lucy, “and sometimes the guys in business can be a little bit intimidating, so they might feel more comfortable talking to a younger woman. They might think ‘Oh, she’s not gonna school me on something.’”
A large man with blackened front teeth follows Donna to the buffet, asking why she’s eating fries, why she speaks English, and if she’s a hostess. He finds our table and plonks himself down in the middle of some choice shit-talking, annexing Donna with his body. She attempts to put him off politely, but the problem is that to do so she has to talk to him, and that’s all he wants.
These glamorous models seem to have been hired to give the ship—and the passengers' selfies—the glitzy appearance of the boom times of 2017.
The next morning, the gym is full of bored off-duty ballerinas in company T-shirts, slogging listlessly through barre moves. Ed Sheeran on the speakers tells us he’s in love with the shape of us. I reckon my brilliant plan of getting investors to talk to me by being one of the only girls on a boatful of nerds needs revising.
I am not 10 feet tall and 22, but I am a tiny hyperactive white woman with weird hair and poor boundaries, so I revert to an old standby and start serving full manic pixie dream girl. It’s not exactly an act. I’m a terrible actor. It’s just about dialing up the parts of my personality that men tend to find most delightful, giggling a bit more, scratching my arse a bit less, and hoping nobody Googles me. It helps that I don’t have to fake ignorance of the crypto-scene drama. I only have to pretend to care.
I’m telling you all this because it’s important to understand how power works in a social situation like this. My method is no less contrived than anything the hostesses are up to. In fact, I’m rather dishonorably relying on them to throw my punk-little-sister schtick (I’m 32) into sharp relief. The men I meet are only too keen to tell me how refreshingly different I am from the other girls here. They’re right. I’m different from the other girls in that I’m older, have more social capital, and am probably getting paid more. That means I can afford to have less patience.
A great many of the men here tell me they aren’t comfortable with the fact that attractive women are being paid to act like they want to be here. None of the men, however, are moved to complain above a whisper, except one young Australian crypto-bro named Swanny who bounces off the casino walls in a off-brand bitcoin hoodie and yells, “Fuck this, this is disgusting! We just want to talk about crypto!”
All of this is a sign of a micro-economy in trouble, as Muhammad Salman Anjum, an investor who eats dinner alone by himself in the buffet hall each night, explains. He has a pragmatic take on all these beautiful young women having blockchain exhaustively explained to them by schlubby-looking guys who can’t believe their luck. ”One of the elements in blockchain is about fundraising the ICOs. So you can guess why they are here—to pamper the investors. Because it’s tough now.”
In 2017, Salman says, it was relatively easy to raise funds for a nine-figure ICO. Now that crypto prices have crashed, demand on “the supply side of the ICOs is booming, and the demand for the investors is shrinking.” Since the actual mood at this moment is conservative-going-on-terrified, these glamorous models seem to have been hired to give the ship—and the passengers’ selfies—the glitzy appearance of the boom times of 2017.
One of the ways men bond is by demonstrating collective power over women. This is why business deals are still done in strip clubs, even in Silicon Valley, and why tech conferences are famous for their “booth babes.” It creates an atmosphere of complicity and privilege. It makes rich men partners in crime. This is useful if you plan to get ethically imaginative with your investments. Hence the half-naked models, who are all working a lot harder than any of the guys in shirtsleeves.
The cruise’s panelists all tout decentralization’s promises of shared responsibility, community, and freedom, but the version I see here means that nobody knows precisely who is responsible for all of this. It’s nobody’s specific fault that we’re trapped on a floating live-action walkthrough of how un-trammelled free-market capitalism can be bad for women, given that money and power are things women tend to have less of.
This is not how blockchain events usually go. I know this because enough people who have made very different life choices tell me so within the space of the week that I believe them. But look, I’m new here. This is all I’ve got to go on. And this is the most unimaginative, boringly chauvinist take on techno-utopia I’ve ever been paid to have a terrible time at.
By midnight on day three, the booze-infused insecurity is dialed up to 11. There is a pirate-themed ‘Russian dance party’ on deck. A hallucinogenic light show pulses over the black Mediterranean all around us, to the frantic heartbeat of music that sounds like a robot toddler having a tantrum in a trash bin. Models waft around listening to shouted explanations of Ethereum; investors spasm vaguely across the deck and neck drinks that were as free as they were, meaning that someone else had paid. Let us never speak of this dance party again.
This is the most unimaginative, boringly chauvinist take on techno-utopia I’ve ever been paid to have a terrible time at.
Therapy does not come for free.
The next morning I realize that everyone on this boat is pretending to have a really good time, and doing the things that they imagine rich people do for fun: gambling, drinking, being entertained by beautiful women. But nobody seems relaxed. This isn’t the lazy entitlement of people born to money. It’s the anxious, aggrieved entitlement of the suddenly rich, of people just waiting to be told they don’t deserve everything they’ve ever been told to want. Utopia feels very far away.
The culture of any community reflects its economic reality and blockchain is fueled largely by FOMO. By the fear that an astounding half-understood opportunity is on the edge of slipping from your grasp. I get it, really I do.
I, too, was a lonely intelligent child who knew the special horror, as most lonely intelligent children do, of thinking both very little and too much of themselves at the same time. I am as susceptible to fear of missing out, to the seduction of being surrounded by people who tell me I’m important, as any other elevated nerd. Lucky, then, that this ship’s sort of fun is explicitly designed to exclude people like me. Women, I mean.
The few women on this boat who aren’t being paid to perform fun are having very little of it. I meet Ashlie Meredith, of MouseBelt, who tells me how disappointed she was with the women-in-blockchain panel. “When I heard this rumor that these women had been paid to come here—what I thought was, if they have money to pay women to be here to party, why didn’t they pay for women to be here on some sort of scholarship?”
She is skeptical about all the evangelizing. “When these women talk about how it’s a new industry, there are not as many barriers, we can build it to be how we want it…I just think that’s bullshit, because the crypto space didn’t just evolve out of nowhere. A lot of the evangelizing of it came from places that are actually hostile to women, like 4chan. Blockchain doesn’t need more women, it needs more feminists.”
“I guess neither of us are a lot of fun to be with,” I say, quoting the women-in-blockchain panel. She giggles, then grimaces.
Not every guy is having a blast. Josh, an Australian activist and hacker who was sent on this cruise “as a treat for work,” is not enjoying himself. Why? “Because of chauvinism, misogyny,” he says. “I’ve witnessed people who are supposed to be thought leaders in this space talking over women on panel discussions when the woman was right.” He gestures to the hostesses, who surround us on the neon-drenched deck. “And they—they don’t wanna be here, it’s work for them. It’s just another misogynistic exercise to make us nerds look like we’re cool in the photos. It feels a little bit like a brothel. It’s gross.”
Still, I am at least wearing the fresh socks provided by CoinsBank, the one genuinely useful freebie in this cacophony of sleaze and kitsch. Who doesn’t need fresh socks? These ones come with an uplifting message for each day, and a schedule reminding us where we’ll be. It’s Saturday, we’re about to pass by Monaco, and the message on the socks is: “A Man is Always Right.”
On most ideological bandwagons, there is usually a distinction between grifters and true believers. The grifters are in it for the fame and the money and will say any old bollocks to get either. The true believers accept the money and fame as an inevitable proof of their genius. And then there is a rare subset of incredibly dangerous sociopaths soaked in Dark Enlightenment nightmare libertarianism for whom grifting is true belief. For many of them, including not a few on this boat, screwing over other people for your own gain is not just a side effect of economic philosophy, or proof of concept. It is a sacred calling. To them, the presence of thieves and Ponzi scheme dealers means the new free market is thriving.
Roger Ver is a true believer. “My ideal future,” he tells me, about 10 seconds after I turn on the recorder, “is that each individual has 100 percent complete control over their own money and they don’t have to get permission from any politician or banker or anybody at all to send or receive that money with whoever they want anywhere in the world. I’m trying to build the tools to enable that for everybody all over the planet.”
He’s not a libertarian; he prefers the term “voluntaryist.” “The idea is that all human interaction should be on a voluntary basis or not at all. For example, for this interview you asked me to have an interview, you didn’t tell me that I have to. Yet so many people don’t seem to apply the same moral standards to governments, when governments force people to do things against their will.”
It takes about half of my allotted 15 minutes to clock Ver as a hard introvert. This would be more obvious if it weren’t for his college-sports-star good looks, with those scary too-perfect American teeth and the perma-tan of a person who will always be considered an expat, never an immigrant. He is legally a resident of St. Kitts, presumably for tax purposes. But he’s not fantastic at eye contact, and his body language shifts as soon as I ask about the favorite science-fiction books he mentioned in passing on stage.
I think this is the first time all week he’s met someone else who has read Robert Heinlein. It’s the first time all week I’ve met someone who is actually interested in talking about economic philosophy. Or feminism.
We have a short, interesting discussion about whether gender justice is possible in the state of nature, and I ask how voluntary-ism makes sense in a culture like this, where rich men have a lot of power and young women have much less. Then Ver tells me something that nobody else on this boat—and very few men I’ve ever met—have the courage to say. “I don’t know,” he says. “I have to confess that I—I guess, personally I don’t care about gender at all,” he says. “But I think the main reason for that is because I rarely meet with people in person. Almost all of my interactions are behind email and keyboards. And I prefer it that way. Everybody thinks that I’m some extrovert. No, I’d rather just be at home alone in front of my computer.”
My editor tells me Ver is a notorious hulking ego-monster, but my first impression of him is that he is actually very shy. I don’t see him on the dance floors or partying in the poker room. Correlation does not equal causation, and for all I know the guy has been hip-deep in Ukrainian models somewhere offstage the whole time, but I suspect not. I suspect he has been doing what he normally does: having arguments on the internet.
It is the closest thing I've ever seen to a live-action Twitter flamewar.
Later on, he takes part in a heated, well-attended showdown debate with star bitcoin maximalist Jimmy Song on the relative merits of bitcoin vs. Bitcoin Cash—the Hatfield-McCoy feud of this self-contained culture. It’s billed as a genteel Lincoln-Douglas style exchange of views. It takes about 10 minutes to become a raging, cringeworthy shitshow. On stage, Ver gets angry and then flustered and petty, demanding to know whether his opponent has ever read Adam Smith cover to cover. It is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a live-action Twitter flamewar.
Ver loses the debate by any measure, partly because his brain is permanently set to spreadsheet mode, but mostly because he seems to have forgotten the iron law of performative debate, which also happens to apply to dating: The person who cares most always loses.
Eventually, Song storms off the stage, refusing to participate in what he calls “TMZ-style gotcha politics.” He is replaced by shirtless bitcoin analyst Tone Vays, who waves a water bottle and gamely tries to save the day. All of this is distressing. I get to ask a question.
“I came here to find out about the politics and vision of cryptocurrency,” I say, testing the mic, “so I’m wondering if you can both tell me why I should believe in it having seen what I’ve just seen.”
The question does not compute. Instead both Ver and Vays try to persuade me that their coin is the best to invest in.
I find myself thinking about what some philosophers call prefigurative politics. Simply put, this is the idea that part of the way you create a better world—whatever that means to you—is to live as if you’re already in it. That the work of creating a new kind of society can’t be separated from the work it takes to survive in this one with your principles intact. Taken to its extreme, it’s a sort of sympathetic magic: I saw this in the Occupy movement eight years ago, where small autonomous communities sprung up like mushrooms in the financial capitals of the world, with soup kitchens and free libraries and a defiant, programmatic gentleness for those brief months before they were stomped out by local law enforcement.
Put more simply, you can tell a lot about someone’s politics from the parties they throw. For a lot of the men on this floating shindig, indeed, for a certain strain of libertarian-shading-to-far-right thinker, freedom simply means freedom from consequences.
Lukewarm dishes of platitudes and heaving trays of blue-sky thinking are available at the all-you-can-eat-crypto-libertarianism buffet, but there is a rotten aftertaste. A grip in the guts. There are standing tubs of hand sanitizer in every flat surface—norovirus being the Ragnarok of the cruise industry—and yet it is impossible to feel uncontaminated.
The atmosphere of celebrity is especially infectious. And the celebrity of celebrities on this boat is Brock Pierce, who is another sort of idealist altogether.
There are a hundred reasons you probably shouldn’t trust Brock Pierce, and if you’re me there’s the added fact that he‘s like a condensed composite of all the sketchy Burner boyfriends my sisters tried to warn me about. He’s five-foot-three, permanently dressed as a cowboy, and drifts about waggling his fingers and bobbing his chin to the miniature sound-system he carries around. Brock Pierce is a minor deity of FOMO. For what it’s worth, I like the guy. I meet him when he joins in the game of Coup I produced as a Hail Mary attempt to make friends with nerds.
Coup is a bluffing game where you confound your enemies by pretending to be richer and more powerful than you are. A lot of people on this boat are very good at this game. I adore and suck at it. Pierce wins handily, while explaining how he’s descended from the same Percy family who kept trying to assassinate various Queens of England seven centuries ago.
Everybody around Pierce seems to want to protect him, mostly from himself, and his own capacity to unzip his heart and home and ersatz kaleidoscope of crypto-spiritual philosophies to everyone he ever meets.
“I know how to play the game of self-interest; it’s boring,” he says. “I’m over it.”
He then gives me a metal pin that represents “Metatron’s Cube,” the symbol of his “future of now family community,” he says, launching into a little explanation of sacred geometry. “It’s one of the most powerful symbols in existence. That’s the seed of light, that’s the genesis pattern of creation. Where all life comes from.”
This is no less bonkers and a lot more good-hearted than the five talks I’ve just sat through where people in suits declared, and I am barely paraphrasing, that bitcoin will go up forever, taking everyone in the room with it until we leave this mortal plane and ascend into the ionosphere where ICOs rain chocolate money and there is no death.
Pierce tells me that none of “his people” are motivated by money. “Which is why we’ve been blessed with more of it than anyone else. The more you make money your focus, the less of it you’re going to get—in this very weird way, unless you’re a crook. These are the people I feel the sorriest for. These people who have all this money but nothing else, they’re the poorest people I know.”
I’ve met poorer, but it would spoil the mood to say so. Pierce is playing Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” from his portable speaker; there is dancing on the deck in the middle of the day.
Everybody around Pierce seems to want to protect him, mostly from himself, and his own capacity to unzip his heart and home and ersatz kaleidoscope of crypto-spiritual philosophies to everyone he ever meets.
“Satoshi was a woman,” Pierce announces on stage. This does not go down as well as he hoped. Pierce really likes women—but then, he really likes everyone. He even has forgiving words for his former business partner and erstwhile alt-right strategist, Steve Bannon. In Pierce’s world, everything happens for a reason and everything will ultimately work out for the best.
Due diligence obliges me to mention the child sex scandal involving Pierce’s former business partner Marc Collins-Rector, who pleaded guilty to transporting minors across state lines for sex. Pierce, who was also named in sexual misconduct lawsuits that were all settled or dismissed, denies any wrongdoing. He doesn’t like to talk about it—who would?—but the whole murky business slides right into the overall Brock Pierce story, one in which the yearning for approval, combined with the tendency to assume good faith and better intentions in everyone, rarely goes unpunished. Even if you’re rich and famous. Perhaps especially then. Pierce, like many of the crypto-hippies, has the special quality of innocence I’ve only ever observed in wealthy young white men, one that is captivating and frightening at once.
Like Ver, however, Pierce does have an ethical center buried under the saucer-eyed crypto-mysticism. For many others on this boat, ethics are just another cumbersome set of rules and regulations. I twice hear Pierce telling people who have clearly never licked an Amazonian frog just to see what would happen that “the first four letters of ‘EVOLVE’ are ‘EVOL.’ Reverse that and you get ‘LOVE.’”
If he was anyone else, I would suspect Pierce was trolling this entire community to see how long he could talk like the back of a smoothie bottle before getting slapped. When he isn’t suddenly remembering that people can be cruel and abusive, Pierce is almost preternaturally trusting. This is a man who would be an excellent cult leader if he only had the essential malice and attention span.
Still, when he invites me to leave the boat when it docks in Ibiza to come see the even-more-exclusive crypto conference-within-a-conference, of course I say yes.
Growing up in the U.K., the Spanish island of Ibiza was a byword for drunk British jocks on holiday, heading out to pick up exotic new tunes and entirely predictable infections. I didn’t realize it was also a stunningly beautiful place. At the end of the summer season, the crisp breeze feels like one long, calm exhale. It takes us a long time to wind our way past farms and villages to the Futurama Blockchain villa—yes, it really is called that—for the second, even more exclusive conference. Which is luxe and beautiful and utterly disorganized.
Crypto-crats mill around in polo shirts, cranky and hungry. There are exquisite chocolates stamped with the branding of various ICOs, but no other food. Nobody knows where they will be sleeping, as there has been a problem with room bookings, but there are tens of thousands of dollars of Hans Wegner wing chairs studding the new-laid turf. (Forgive me, I fell down an internet hole some months ago and got into the history of chairs. Not everyone here will appreciate classic Scandinavian mid-century design, but it makes my eyes water to see them stacked so recklessly.)
Nobody talks about the glittering shitcoin-spangled future very much beyond the stand-up sales pitches. But they don’t talk much about the present, either.
Back on land, fascism is seeping across the Global North and almost everyone here comes from some form of failing pseudo-democratic experiment calling itself a country, and none of this is mentioned, except as one more reason to buy bitcoin. Or Bitcoin Cash. Whatever. I have met many people who believe the best way to survive the 21st century is to secede from it. From gentle Dark Green anarchists living in trees and Silicon Valley preppers stuffing their bunkers with Soylent, there are people of all genders and political persuasions looking to walk the plank of the good ship Reality before they’re pushed, but I’ve never met so many so transparently trying to con as many fellow travelers as as possible on their way down.
Later that night another absolute rager gets underway by the sunken pool, and I’m bored and tired and I flop down in the veranda to play on my phone. This turns out to be a problem later, when event organizer Miguel accosts me. Apparently I have accidentally overheard some sort of cryptocurrency related super-secret business deal going down. Or I would have, had I been listening. Which I wasn’t, because I don’t care.
No, really, at this stage, I don’t care. I’m strung out and hangry and I couldn’t give two shakes of a paid hostesses’ supernaturally glossy hair whose ICO is the hottest thing. I just want to talk to someone who isn’t trying to sell me something, or buy a bit of me, or both.
None of that, though, is getting through to Miguel. Miguel is the organizer of Futurama Blockchain, and he has belatedly been informed that that lady over there is a journalist who was taking notes, and now he is demanding to see mine, which really isn’t kosher. He gets aggressive. I play him my last few recordings to stop him yelling. He calms down, then asks if I’m planning to write about—he gestures to the hostesses, plenty of whom are still draped over the furniture, talking mostly to each other, having a much better time than they were on the boat. I refuse to delete my notes about the inescapable sugar-scented fact that a lot of young women were hired to entertain the rich men in this scene. I explain that that’s not really how journalism works. Miguel is panicking. My presence here is a problem. Someone has finally Googled. And it is dangerous to be a woman who has seen a powerful man do something he isn’t proud of.
No amount of mathematics can delete human prejudice, and no ledger can logic away human cruelty.
I’m fully prepared to be thrown out. I hate it here and I want to go home. Instead, I go to an after-party at Brock Pierce’s house where, for the first time in a week, I actually start to have fun.
I promise not to write about what happens at this party, because I’m off the clock, and I keep my promises, even though it was the only part of the whole adventure that gave me any hope whatsoever for the future of humanity. The world still needs hippies, insufferable though they are—and I come out of a culture where people open their homes to strangers, try to believe the best of each other, wear lumpy jewelry, and share whatever they have. This, still, is what the crypto-burners are about. I sank into it with relief. I may have got hammered and chalked some socialist poetry on the walls. I may have listened to straight-laced, lost-looking businessmen tell me about their secret sexual predilections as hippies played the same songs hippies always play on the guitar at four in the morning. I may have fallen asleep in a puppy-pile of half-dressed futurists. I promised no more details. I feel that the details would be less shocking and more reassuring than the people they would feature seem to be worried about, but what do I know? I come from a community where sex and drugs aren’t shameful, but sexism and coercion are. A community where, when a total stranger tells you you can show up at their house anytime and stay for as long as you like, they mean it. By way of example: A girl I met at that party happens to be sleeping on the sofa behind me right now. I’m trying to type quietly.
On the veranda, in the morning haze, a member of Team Pierce, who goes by the name of Lightning, takes some time to explain to me how blockchain could help replace state control with “decentralized autonomous organizations … that can have rules that are set up and administered by computer code.” Lightning has long graying hair and and looks exactly like the sort of guy you’d call out of the desert for one last job in an action movie. He tells me that it will one day be possible to automate bureaucracy, thereby obviating the Tragedy of the Commons, ensuring resources are maximized and rules are fair. “Obviously,” he adds, “you have to spend a lot of time working on the rules and making sure everybody agrees with them.”
In the spirit of community service, Lightning shows me the way to the newly-built hippie toilets, which have nice tiles but no doors, and graciously stands guard for me. Then, finally, we head back to the conference.
Pierce is holding court in a circle of people who have never met anyone as weird and interesting, including several contest entrants who won an hour of his company. He moves from how to save the rainforests to his personal plan to revive Puerto Rico to how to heal the world with love. “We’re creating greater and greater division when we need unity. That unity is taking a moment to recognize that people have different views than you and taking the time to understand and listen, not just attack them.”
The investors are rapt. Pierce is compelling, but like any high, the effect of the atmosphere he creates wears off, leaving you confused and hungry. When the food finally arrives, I have five minutes to scarf down what will probably be my only proper meal of the day, and what is on offer happens to be a mound of jewel-like salmon caviar and a pile of lobsters.
I am reminded yet again of the stand-up-straight cod-philosophy of Professor Jordan “12 Rules for Life” Peterson, pseudo-intellectual prophet of the manosphere, who advises his acolytes that they have much in common with lobsters, including the struggle for dominance. I am reminded, watching the steaming heaps of crustacea brought out and attacked, that top lobsters get eaten in their turn by men in ten-thousand dollar suits with tax-optimized business addresses.
I haven’t eaten since last night, and there is nothing here but lobster. I inhale the lobster as neatly as possible, and it tastes, oh, it tastes like true love tasted in the heat of my early twenties, delicious and suspicious and never enough of it to touch the sides.
I found life in crypto-hippie ew-topia exhausting and mesmerizing and terribly, terribly sad. Flying home, what I most missed was the tiny rocking cabin, where everything was small and neat and storm-safe, with the hum of the ship all around you, as if you’d been sealed in a single-use packet and slipped into the pocket of god. And I remember something Roger Ver told me, right around when he was explaining why he trusted markets more than democracies. “No amount of coercion,” he said, “can solve a math problem.” That’s true. But it’s also the case that no amount of mathematics can delete human prejudice, and no ledger can logic away human cruelty. If the crypto community hasn’t realized that yet, it soon will.