What if we made the internet a pyramid scheme?

Our weekly discontents 10/25/21

Hi. I’m Max Read, and last week I started a newsletter called Read Max, which clever readers will note is a pun based on my last name. The newsletter is about the future, more or less, in all senses of “more or less.” You can read a lot more about it in the introductory post here.

What kinds of things can you find in this newsletter? Over the weekend, I wrote about a new technology for creating and structuring organizations: DAOs, or “decentralized autonomous organizations,” which sound like cool anarchist AI gamerclan terror cells but which are probably better described as “cooperatives on the blockchain.” If that still sounds kind of cool to you on first blush, you’re not alone. One left-ish promise of DAOs is that they could offer a structure for decentralized, user-owned platforms — imagine if, instead of posting to Facebook, you posted to DAObook, the decentralized alternative, in which you own shares that you can earn by posting and moderating the feed, and from which you can divest if you think it’s gotten too large and creepy.

There’s another promise of DAOs, though, which is that they might make you very, very rich. The “shares” (tokens on the blockchain) in DAOs can accumulate value and be traded on crypto exchanges, which means DAOs have been getting a lot of attention from investors, marketers, scammers, and other guys who vie for the title of “most annoying type of guy on Twitter.” If you like Herbalife posts on your Facebook page, you’ll love DAO posts on your Twitter page:

If that sounds kind of cool, you should also be aware that a constitutive feature of the DAO scene is its techno-utopian, Hillsong-via-LinkedIn, Zoomer booster culture. DAO guys all seem to be about 24 and are constantly tweeting stuff like:

Community is the culture of success. 🫂

You are playing the RPG of humankind. 💯

DAOs are the future of human thriving. 💪

We are winning. 👀

💬15 ♻️334 ❤️472

I call this “constitutive” because the whole structure of DAOs obligates you to tweet like this: The point is to make the value of your tokens go up, and it’s much more efficient to do that by tweeting constantly about how you’re at the frontier of human development and everyone should be investing in DAOs than it is to do by creating something of any practical use. Hence stuff like a guy named “Tracheopteryx” telling CoinDesk, “DAOs are a bet on the future of human organization itself.”

DAOs are one building block of “Web 3,” the blockchain-based, ownership-focused, utopian internet of NFTs, DAOs, and ethereum. (That’s “Web 3” as in, what comes after “Web 2.0,” the platform internet we’ve been occupying since the early 2000s.) If you talk to the people who really buy it, this is the future of the internet: We’re moving away from centralized, surveillance-based, black-box platforms and toward open cooperatives that also will make you rich. If you’ve grown tired of Web 2.0’s institutional lock-in, it’s easy to get excited — even more so if you’ve already gotten rich, at least nominally, from Web 3. Many of its most enthusiastic proponents are artists or creators who’ve suddenly stumbled on a way to make actual money from their work. And a lot of the rhetoric — around joint ownership, cooperation, decentralization — can be very attractive to left-ish young people.

I’m not so sure any of that holds up. There are ways to pay artists that don’t involve creating multi-billion-dollar speculative markets. There’s no clear explanation as to why a DAO structure is any more advantageous than any of the many legal forms of co-operatives, or even just getting together with some friends in a group chat — other than that loudly advertised promise of future wealth.

A line you hear a lot about NFTs and DAOs and other Web 3 applications is that they’re “scams”: schemes in which a small number of particularly plugged-in or lucky people get rich while everyone else keeps spending money, fruitlessly hoping that they’ll someday join the chosen circle. I don’t think this is wrong. But I also think that “scam” implies that there’s going to be a big moment of reckoning — a Scooby Doo reveal, an embarrassing reversal, an apocalyptic collapse. When I hear someone dismiss NFTs as scams, I assume they imagine that the NFT boom will be dimly remembered as a brief, weird, and unfortunate moment from back before the Centauri arrived in their arkships and forced us into the lithium mines.

Recently, though, it’s seemed more likely it seems to me that all this stuff is a “scam” — that it’s a more-or-less transparent scheme to shuffle money from a bunch of losers at the bottom of a pyramid to a few tweeters and investors at the top — but not to be dismissed as such. That is, Web 3 a fraud and a pyramid scheme and MLM and a waste, but not one that ends in stunning collapse and public reckoning and Amazon documentaries. It probably won’t ever go away, or be resolved, or restituted, or reckoned with. Instead will be adopted, expanded, and bolstered by the same entrenched powers we’re told it threatens.

After all: [urban-legend 911 operator the-call-is-coming-from-inside-the-house voice] The people who fucked up Web 2.0 are deeply enthusiastic about Web 3, too. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, tweets about bitcoin the way Trump tweeted about cable news. Andreessen Horowitz, one of the top three most evil V.C. firms, which is seriously tough competition, is pumping money into Web 3 applications. Mark Zuckerberg is renaming his company after “the metaverse,” which… look, I’ll confess to not being entirely sure what the metaverse is, but it seems to have something to do with NFTs, so I’m just going to include it in the Web 3 extended universe. I somehow don’t trust these people to be pioneers of an internet with a truly different balance of power and resources. Instead we’ll get disingenuous ghouls and tragic naifs alike explain that just because Mark Zuckerberg owns 60 percent of Metaverse, Inc. tokens doesn’t mean that we don’t have power over the DAO. A few likable people will get rich, almost by accident. And the rest of us will keep doing what we’ve been doing already: selling our labor for wages and writing mean things about people who have more money than us.

If you’re interested in seeing what the future looks like (“a boot selling the opportunity to get rich quick to a human face, forever”), you can read the newsletter or the accompanying New York magazine article. I hope you’ll consider subscribing to Read Max, too — and, of course, if you’re not yet subscribed, to Discontents as well.


Welcome to Hell World

Luke O’Neil

With the mayoral election for Buffalo approaching, I took a look back at all of the rat-fucking the New York state Democrats have done to their own party’s nominee India Walton. Typically one Democrat defeating another in a city election would not be cause for too much alarm among a state’s party leadership but Walton, as you likely know, is a former union organizer and community activist and nurse and more to the point a Democratic Socialist, and so now everyone is acting real fucking weird about the whole thing. Among their attempts to make her look bad was a story, seized upon with glee by much of the local press, in which it was reported that Walton had committed “welfare fraud” and hadn’t paid some of her taxes and had been caught driving with a suspended license years ago.

None of that matters at all or speaks to her fitness to govern to be clear. In fact, I’d say the exact opposite. This is the type of shit a normal person goes through in a normal life. Having been recently poor is about as good an endorsement as I can think of for a politician. You can read the rest here.

Next up today or tomorrow I’ll be running an interview with a dentist to find out what their whole deal is. Previously I collected a couple dozen stories about dental care nightmares in the U.S. which you can read here. Both those will be pay-walled but you can subscribe for a big discount of $4.18 a month with this coupon.


Forever Wars

Spencer Ackerman

You haven’t seen a new document from the Edward Snowden trove in many years – unless you read Forever Wars on Friday. And they say there’s no reporting on Substack. We published an entry from Intellipedia, the secret wiki of U.S. intelligence, expressing some serious agita about how the law might soon come for the drone operators. As it turns out, the only drone operator behind bars is Daniel Hale, for the act of opening up the hood on the mechanism of extrajudicial assassination. Free Daniel Hale!

Before that, we also reflected on the tragedy of Colin Powell, who, when the American people shouted for him to save them from the invasion of Iraq, whispered “no.” 

To be really honest with you, this week is just not going to be that epic on Forever Wars, because that took a lot of effort and I need a breather. Probably just some blogging going down. But that blogging is going to touch on war crimes trials; and how the military sees veteran involvement in January 6.


Wars of Future Past

Kelsey D. Atherton

Who does an obituary serve? When Colin Powell passed, his wake produced a flourishing of takes unlike that of any other author of the Iraq War. While Rumseld’s passing was met with at best faint praise, easily centering the unpleasant and belligerent man in the story of deaths he caused on a whim, Powell obituaries ran the gamut from fawning hagiography to qualified praise to outright condemnation. Is he an example of service to emulate, a victim of institutional pressure, a monster with savvy public relations instincts?

The day of his death, I tried my hand at the genre for Jacobin, highlighting Powell’s devotion to the institutions of war above his stated obligations to the public. A week later, I have an expanded version up at Wars of Future Past. The expansion centers on the one tangent point in my life and Powell’s: the November 2002 receiving line for the funeral of my grandfather. We were in the courtyard at All Souls Unitarian in DC.

That funeral took place after Powell had sold the Iraq War to Congress, and before he would publicly sell it to the United Nations. As fellow Discontent Spencer Ackerman has well recounted, the war was unstoppably in motion well before that UN hearing. In my expanded obituary for Powell, I look at what it meant for him to praise a late ambassador in that moment, whose legacy I grew up thinking of as about peace. Given 19 years of hindsight, it’s easier to see their work as part of a single coherent whole, the careers of company men in the business of empire.


The Flashpoint

Eoin Higgins

Labor unrest drove The Flashpoint’s coverage last week. 

Flight attendants at Piedmont Airlines, an American Airlines subsidiary, voted 100% in favor of authorizing a strike Thursday. I talked to union leader Keturah Johnson about conditions at the company.

Workers at the airline are struggling to the point that the union has set up food banks at Piedmont’s base airports in Philadelphia and Charlotte, North Carolina to help flight attendants who are hungry.

“We deserve more and we deserve better and we're willing to fight and do what we have to do to get a fair contract,” Johnson said.

Late Thursday, news broke that actor Alec Baldwin accidentally discharged a prop firearm on the set of the movie Rust, killing cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. Film industry professionals say it’s the result of a culture of unceasing, dangerous expectations.

“Coming from the top is this nonstop mentality of rush, rush, rush to be more productive, be faster,” cinematographer EricBranco said. “And I think you aren’t even aware that you have a voice to say ‘no.’”

Higher-ups use familiar language to foster a sense of unity on set, telling crew that they’re “family.” But that goes out the window when you speak up about conditions.

“Suddenly we are no longer a family,” Branco said. “Suddenly, it’s, ‘Why are you trying to sabotage this movie?’”

Plus, commentary on Kyrsten Sinema

Sign up for The Flashpoint today


The Insurgents

Jordan Uhl & Rob Rousseau

This week, after paying our respects to the late Colin Powell, who upheld ideals of integrity, honesty and respect throughout his distinguished career except for that one time when he made a small mistake which he apologized for, Jonah Furman of Labor Notes & Who Gets The Bird joins us to discuss and explain the potential strikewave happening throughout the US. We explored the divisive tier structure that companies try to enact in union contracts to split the workers, how unions fight back and what you can do to help.

We also talk movies — and Rob reveals himself to be a movie mindset practitioner — as well as some of our hopes and anxieties heading into sporpsball season.


Foreign Exchanges

Derek Davison

Daniel Bessner’s latest Foreign Exchanges column assesses the pros and cons of recent academic developments in the field of diplomatic history:

In the last three decades, the field traditionally known as “diplomatic history” has been transformed. First, it’s been rebranded. Now, scholars no longer study “diplomatic history”; instead, they study the history of the “US in the World.” The new phrase, many argue, has two primary benefits. First, it suggests that manifold different subjects, besides the interactions of diplomats, are legitimate focuses of analysis. Second, it combats American exceptionalism by underlining the fact that the United States is one of many countries in the world and that to understand the history of the former one must also study the history of the latter.

In addition to this rebranding, the field of the “US in the World” has been transformed by two historiographical “turns” that have reshaped how scholars understand the history of US foreign relations. The most important of these is known as the “international turn.” Instead of focusing on domestic actors and processes—elections, the personality of leaders, lobbying groups, etc.—those who have taken the international turn have instead trained their eyes on how foreign groups, peoples, and movements shaped US behavior in the world. In this way, scholars have attempted to “de-exceptionalize” US history by emphasizing the non-US origins of US foreign policy.


Discourse Blog

Hi gang, long time no see. Been a couple weeks since our last dispatch so I’ll hit you with some quick highlights from the latest era in Discourse Blog. 

First off, two incredibly entertaining blogs from our own Caitlin Schneider: one, on the timeless mystery of Ben Affleck’s hair in The Last Duel, and two, her latest foray into the greater iconography of the 50 states, in this case, ranking state songs

Meanwhile, we’ve also started doing Succession recaps, by way of crowning a “sick fuck of the week” for each episode. Episode 2 should post sometime later today so stay tuned.

But entertainment aside. Maybe you’re here for the politics. Sam Grasso gave us a brutal update on Joe Biden’s piss-poor record on immigration so far, and Paul Blest talked about the Democrats’ risk of encountering an all new Joe Liebermann in their own ranks.

On the media front, I took Katie Couric to task for, well, being Katie Couric, and Katherine wrote about what happens when a massive labor story becomes too big for the mainstream press to ignore

As always, there’s all that and more on the blog. Hope to see you there.