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If You Believe In Everything, You Believe In Nothing
I’ve been told many times in my life that I’m a “hater,” or a “skeptic,” or that I “don’t give things a chance.” This has been the case in game reviews, in professional situations and in this very newsletter, and it’s mostly something I hear from the mouth of someone in the process of doing or immediately after doing something stupid. Modern reporting has become obsessed with the completely imaginary concept of “objectivity,” as if we as human beings can fully remove our opinions from any given product we create and is beset with constant anxiety that you may “get it wrong” or “miss something” that often has no bearing on your actual point.
This problem ranges from the obvious political discussions where right-wing demagogues stir up miniature controversies to distract from actual reporting to tech reporters that seem intent on “giving crypto chance” for fear that hordes of cryptocurrency morons will flood their mentions with minute and meaningless critiques. It’s a natural reaction to the consistent flow of micro-critques on social media - the knowledge that anything particularly outgoing might be subject to a particular quote-tweet that ruins your Twitter mentions for 24 hours - but also an entirely made-up problem where reporters seek to “give everything a chance,” even when said things repeatedly prove themselves to be awful.
Outside of politics, nowhere is this more obvious than in cryptocurrency, an industry that has been transparently awful for a long time, yet continually covered with “extreme skepticism and cautious optimism,” which really just means “I am going to give this a chance, but I want to hedge my bets if I’m wrong.” In practice, this means that many big outlets - The New York Times being an obvious one - have chosen to not treat crypto as a quasi-legal, regularly-fraudulent non-industry, but as “the next internet,” primarily (I believe) because they want to say that they were right and got there first.
Charlie Warzel, now done with his book tour for his pro-boss remote work book and tweeting “what do I write today?” has decided to turn his steely gaze back to cryptocurrency. His piece, “The Petty Pleasures of Watching Crypto Profiteers Flounder,” is truly bizarre, made up of points that I have made and others have made significantly more intelligently about how Andreessen Horowitz and their ilk do not seem to be able to describe Web3, crypto or anything else other than “we like money.”
My problem with Charlie is not the subject matter, but that he never seems to land a single punch. He believes in nothing, meandering between quoting other people and making the vaguest possible “hmm, maybe that’s the case? I don’t know” points:
A lot of people simply won’t read a 15-page whitepaper, but they will be impressed by the flowcharts. By making the language of Web3 meandering and impenetrable and by building a culture that is very self-referential, investors make criticism harder to come by. This very attempt at trying to describe just a small sliver of Web3 boosterism has itself morphed into a 3,000 word newsletter because this stuff is so dense to navigate.
It isn’t, though! None of this is fucking dense! Stop pulling punches, Charlie!
My frustration here is that this is actually a fairly straightforward subject to write about, with the complexities existing less in the technological and more in the societal. Andreessen Horowitz invests in companies that they know will have tokenomics that will lead to a listing that they can then dump into the retail markets - I’ve talked about this several times - and they stutter when asked for anything approaching a “real” answer because they do not have one, because one does not exist, and the reason it doesn’t exist is the interesting part of the conversation. Hey Charlie, you seem capable of getting people to talk to you for The Atlantic, why don’t you fucking ask one of them perhaps?
Maybe it’s because he doesn’t - like so many others - want to rock the boat too much. That’s the only reason I can imagine he’d have done an interview with, and I quote, “a crypto true believer,” which he somehow left out of a paragraph in his piece about “the frustration of crypto-boosting media.” Probably because he doesn’t want to call attention to paragraphs like this:
As a technology writer, I try to balance healthy skepticism of new tools and products and platforms with the understanding that technology will evolve whether I like it or not. I don’t want to buy into the hype, but I think it’s also worth keeping an open (or at least curious) mind about movements that are growing in power and popularity.
If you have ever written “I’m a skeptic, but-” you have lost. If I have done this previously, I too have lost, because this is the coward’s song, sung by cowards, written by cowards. I understand that hedging one’s bets is important - I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again - but the moment that you have to defend your own skepticism, you are effectively saying that you don’t believe in anything you’re writing. Charlie may not love cryptocurrency, but he seems terrified of saying he doesn’t love it.
Let me be very blunt: nobody cares that you’re balanced. Nobody cares that you’re “a cautious optimist” any more than they care if you’re an avowed skeptic. The average person critiquing your work is not going to go easier on you because you couched your beliefs with some nebulous conditions about how you’re both open to and closed off from a particular mindset. If somebody disagrees with your work - especially in something polarized and insane like cryptocurrency - you can write the single most bulletproof article ever and they’ll find a single sentence that they don’t like.
Take this point:
I feel like I’m always speaking to either a zealous true crypto believer who will cede no ground, or somebody who basically thinks crypto is so morally bankrupt that even discussing it is odious.
I am sick and god damn tired of people saying some sort of version of this. It is intentionally positioning the writer as “the middle ground” as they actively side with the cryptocurrency industry - by which I mean humoring them for actual meaningful reason. It is also suggesting that those that critique cryptocurrency are all inherently polarized and biased and a major part of the “odiousness” of the conversation. I am also still waiting for Charlie to follow through with the “plan to do a similar chat with a big-time skeptic,” though this piece from months later with an American University law professor sort of rises to that muster?
As a sidenote, it’s also fucking abominable journalism that Charlie chose not to interview Zach Weinberg, the “crypto skeptic” that inspired this entire piece, and instead talked to the guy who posted the clip of Zach’s podcast. Why wouldn’t you talk to him? I can only guess, and my guess is unkind: you’re scared of being too critical! If that’s not the case, it’s just silly, which is almost worse than being a coward.
In any case, there is no reason to humor every idea under the sun, no matter how much money it may make, and no matter how “popular” it may be. And if you’re a reporter that’s been reporting on tech for many, many years, why do you have to suddenly turn off your instincts and “give something a chance”? Warzel is far from the only person to make this mistake and, by and large, has not made the mistake of writing positively about ponzi schemes of different shapes and sizes.
But he has also failed to hold the actual people accountable that need to be held accountable. Despite this newsletter being about investor and writer Packy McCormick and Andreessen Horowitz, neither of them seem to have been asked a single question - and yes, it’s totally fine if they refuse to comment, because that also says something about them. And despite the subject matter, Warzel has failed to make a point of any kind - other than “huh, maybe there’s no real product underlying any of this stuff,” a point that I think 40,000 people have made in less words and with more clarity.
This is the “balanced coverage” problem of modern writing - the fear of being wrong, or being right in a way that might ruffle some feathers. The irony of Warzel’s piece is that it’s about as rigorous with the points it makes (other than quoting someone) as McCormick, vaguely dancing around thoughts that might approximate opinions but never quite landing on one. Take this for example:
What I love about this comment is that it speaks to the frustration of sifting through crypto-boosting media. I don't doubt that there are might be some interesting blockchain applications down the line coming from people who aren't just profiteering but who want to build a better web.
Even now, so many years into this, so many critiques into this, thousands of words into a piece about other pieces that say Web3 is good with no actual proof, we still find ourselves at a point where a writer is justifying themselves. I do not know Charlie’s mind, nor do I believe he is a bad or malevolent person (and that’s a necessary thing to say, because if I did think that it’d change the context of this piece!), but I think that he (and many other writers) are terrified of coming down on things too hard, for fear of reprisal, or being wrong and being made fun of in the future.
There is also a vast difference between a “skeptic” - someone who is skeptical for a series of reasons - and someone who just arbitrarily hates everything (a “hater”). What’s far more common is that people assume that when you immediately take umbrage with something you’re a “hater,” because our culture has somewhat swung toward factionalistically defending the things we like as if they define us as a person. Who cares!
The thing is, nobody remembers the people that were right in a positive sense. Had BTC gone to $150,000 since Kevin Roose’s piece, nobody would be turning to him and saying “you really nailed that one, dude.” Nobody remembers the reporters (despite this being a case where I wish they would!) who tried to be “right” about Theranos - they remember John Carreyrou, who discovered it was all a fraud. All the people who were “right” about Uber being the next big thing are footnotes to Eric Newcomer’s coverage for Bloomberg or Mike Isaac’s Super Pumped. And in both of these cases, those who called out the obvious problems were given significantly less oxygen than those loudly declaring that “Uber is the most bestest company in the whole world” right up until the company went public. Only in the last few years have we seen real, meaningful criticism of Uber in major outlets - mostly because, despite everything, everybody “gave them a chance.”
Even then, at least Uber has a business model. Theranos promised a lot, and took direct advantage of the skeptical optimism of the technology and business press that had never really got used to looking under the hood. Absolutely nobody wanted to be the person to critique these rocketship companies - to be the odd one out that was saying something negative at time where positivity was expected - as they knew nobody would agree with them.
The cycle is repeating with cryptocurrency, I’d argue, because of all the money floating around it. To call out this industry as bluntly as one needs to, you need to be ready to upset a lot of people that are making a lot of money out of what may genuinely be nothing. Charlie’s piece accurately describes the curiosity and confusion around this industry by saying things like “ I feel like I’m being DDoS’d by marketing language,” without the necessary follow-through of “what do the people in question have to gain from doing this?” or, say, asking the people in question.
And without asking the people in question, you should straight up say what you think they think, and give them the opportunity to answer. This is a massive powderkeg waiting to explode, where billions of dollars has flowed into companies with no business model or utility, where the need to create a company is subordinate to marketing a quasi-security.
The reason that Packy McCormick and other people can’t describe what these companies do in straightforward terms is that these companies oftentimes don’t know themselves, and have created the token as some kind of incentive that never quite functions like one. It is scary, and isolating, and ridiculous to come to the conclusion that a massive scam is happening before our eyes, where venture capitalists have found ultra-fast capital multipliers based on spurious to non-existent business models, dumping billions of dollars onto unsuspecting retail investors. Saying this is willfully admitting that there are big financial entities that have found a massive loophole in our financial system, one that directly exploits desperate people on cryptocurrency exchanges. Saying this stuff is difficult, and saying it when you have any kind of platform is even harder, because it requires you to actually choose an opinion and stand by it.
If your principal drive behind your reporting is “making sure you have a take on something without looking stupid,” you are never going to take any of the risks or ask any of the actually interesting questions. And when you’re in a situation where you’re effectively educating your audience about something new and potentially dangerous, it’s your job as a writer to take risks, to ask the questions that actually need answering, and to come to a conclusion so that the person reading your piece didn’t waste their time.
It is a massive failure as a writer to automatically assume that anything within technology is good, and needs to be given a chance. If something sounds stupid and does nothing but got lots of money, there is no reason to assume that said money is proof that this is a good or moral business, if such a thing exists. While there may be lots of good technology, any profit-seeking enterprise should be at the very least met with mild skepticism, just in case you miss something harmful, and something that has no apparent utility or purpose but makes rich people richer should be met with outright suspicion if not ire. Choosing the path of least resistance - to “give something a chance” that has so clearly been given a million chances before - is pathetic.
I will fully admit that this piece is somewhat inside-baseball ax-grinding, but I am really, really, really tired of seeing mass media reporting on cryptocurrency fail to critique it meaningfully. This is not something where a few people are going to be disadvantaged if it all goes up in smoke - people are going to lose their shirts, and the people involved are going to be rewarded with millions if not billions of dollars of profit. Holding them accountable is both a necessity and a societal benefit, and failing to use your position to do so is, at best, an act of cowardice.