The news that Tesla had invested $1.5 billion of its corporate cash in Bitcoin had all the components of a perfect storm for tech enthusiasts: Elon Musk tweets, magic internet money, and a graph pointing up and to the right. Just like his Twitter follower count, after the announcement:
Crypto advocates were euphoric. Tesla’s move would be the tipping point for Bitcoin, and crypto in general, to hit the mainstream, Bitcoin boosters crowed. Indeed, crypto’s usual antagonist, Wall Street, cheered along this time. And if App Store ratings for Coinbase are any guide, enthusiasm for crypto investing among the retail crowd is at an all time high:
But the news provoked a backlash from an unexpected demographic: software developers. Check out this thread at developer watering-hole Hacker News, for instance. It generated 1,271 comments. Here are some highlights:
“Bitcoin is a mystery to me. Somehow it's hailed as revolutionising the economy, by replacing currency with a worse kind of currency.” — rzodkiew
“How is there a network effect if people aren't using Bitcoin to make or receive payments? Bitcoin is no more useful to me if my friend uses it versus a stranger. "Meme effect" is more like it -- the more hype there is, the better it is for anyone holding coins. The value comes from convincing enough new people to keep buying in. It's like a ponzi scheme in that respect.” — eli
“There's a lot of very very smart people who are totally lost among the trees on the technicalities of Bitcoin who don't get this one simple aspect. It's never happening.” — vp8989
The backlash has not gone unnoticed in crypto-land. Here’s what one Ethereum core developer — the folks who make the whole protocol work — experienced on Twitter when the Tesla news broke:
My timeline is interesting:— Péter Szilágyi (@peter_szilagyi) February 8, 2021
Post 1: Tesla, Bitcoin, Mooon, Mars
Post 2: Musk brought shame to Tesla
Post 3: Crypto is going mainstream
Post 4: You life is not about making money
What lies behind this apparent antipathy to crypto in what we might call “traditional” tech? I turned to a longtime developer who straddles the crypto world and more conventional tech circles named Lauren Garcia. The Bay Area native is developing an advertising system that swaps intrusive tech for blockchain tokens. She has also worked at places like Yahoo and DuckDuckGo over the years.
Garcia says crypto is “the most polarizing subject” among her fellow developers. In one incident, a longtime collaborator expressed shock when he was told she was working on a crypto project. “I thought you were a good person,” was his sign off.
Garcia attributes the tension to a clash of values: between well-off tradtechers who associate decentralization with open-source projects, who inevitably turn to Big Tech for patronage; and crypto millennials who believe they can tokenize their way to a decentralized internet.
“Open-source folks have complained that there’s no way to monetize their work, and it’s true - I’ve spent hundreds of hours developing open-source work that gets no compensation,” she says. “It’s always been this unsolved problem, and the default is these open-source contributors get paid handsomely by a startup or enterprise company that can afford to support that project. It’s a patronage model, and the patronage comes from Big Tech.”
By contrast crypto is a grassroots movement with a hodgepodge of projects that get generated by enthusiastic young developers. Crypto projects have the advantage of being able to raise capital seemingly out of thin air, through mechanisms like initial coin offerings.
“The projects that get funded are what people are interested in,” Garcia says.
Garcia might have a point. The researcher Nadia Eghbal observed in her book ‘Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software’ that open-source developers generally complain about funding, but that the money problems were just a symptom of something deeper at work. Eghbal diagnoses the underlying issue as a disconnect between open-source developers’ utopic conception of their work and the reality they inhabited.
You see, open-source software was supposed to be a huge collaborative effort where developers would contribute code voluntarily to a commons, gifting their creations to humanity. But Eghbal discovered that open-source projects were becoming increasingly centralized, relying on a handful of developers instead of a broad cohort, even as the projects themselves gained massive adoption.
Eghbal calls this model of open-source development “the stadium,” where a coterie of software developers are encircled by occasional contributors. The devs are in turn encircled by ever expanding rings of software users, who simply consume the software. Stadium models, Eghbal writes, operate on access to the key developers’ attention.
“Much like a lake that requires paid licenses from fisheries to reduce overfishing, an open source project can require companies to pay to “appropriate” attention from the project’s developers,” Eghbal writes.
The roots of the angst on Hacker News and elsewhere in the developer world might simply come from the fact that crypto people figured out a way to get themselves paid. Traditional devs might not like the fact that this solution requires spinning up — sometimes legally questionable — tokens and trading them, but the crypto market is worth well over $1 trillion dollars by now, according to TradingView data. The coin slingers might be on to something.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint the cultural divide between tradtech and crypto devs precisely, it’s clear that cryptocurrencies have proved to be a divisive and polarizing topic in just about every sphere it touches, from finance to politics and even to that supposedly most neutral of realms — technology.
About the Data:
Thinknum tracks companies using the information they post online, jobs, social and web traffic, product sales, and app ratings, and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue, and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales.