How did UFOs go from the territory of fringe theorists at best and severely disturbed people at worst—to front page material for the New York Times and the subject of increasing intelligence, defense and political interest throughout the United States government within 16 years?
That’s the question Gideon Lewis-Kraus dispatches in his lengthy New Yorker piece on the subject. The tale is deeply reported and artfully composed. It plumbs the depths of a sub-culture populated with believers, sceptics, and active dis-believers, its own lexicon of incidents, events and histories, and which—against all odds, appears to have exploded into mainstream thought and culture, reaching the highest levels of society and government.
If all of that sounds a little familiar to you, my fellow travellers in the crypto-sphere, that’s because I think cryptocurrencies—and their attendant cultures—have a lot in common with how UFOs went from fringe phenomena to a thing that the government pays attention to. (For good measure, Lewis-Kraus also wrote a salacious profile of the Tezos protocol for Wired some years go). Here are some parallels I noticed:
The New Yorker piece describes one key event that UFO believers believe must happen for their interests to be taken seriously. It’s called Disclosure, or the point at which the US government reveals the evidence they have collected over the years on UFOs. Here’s the relevant passage: “Ufologists have perpetual faith in the imminence of Disclosure, a term of art for the government’s rapturous confession of its profound UFO knowledge.”
What’s the crypto equivalent? Take your pick. Among Bitcoin believers, there is the concept of “hyper bitcoinization”. This is the point at which Bitcoin replaces everything else as the de facto world currency. Here’s Bitcoin Magazine explaining it: “Hyperbitcoinization is the inflection point at which Bitcoin becomes the default value system of the world.”
According to Bitcoin people, this event will lead to a fundamental change in the way the world economy is structured, from its current inflationary model to one that’s deflationary. This is because everything will be priced in Bitcoin rather than fiat currencies, meaning that everything will be measured with a deflationary yardstick.
That’s just Bitcoin believers. Crypto’s coin tribes are numerous. The second biggest tribe, that of Ethereum believers, hold an article of faith called The Flippening. This is the scenario in which the total value of Ether in circulation, colloquially known as its “market cap,” rises beyond the equivalent value for Bitcoin. At this stage, Ether would be more valuable than Bitcoin, in aggregate, for the first time in history.
The flippening is the subject of much analysis among investors and developers alike. For the traders, it’s a question of which asset to go long on, and which to short. For developers, it’s a question of where to channel their energies. Several websites have been created for the purpose of monitoring an eventual flippening, which includes calculations for metrics like the value of fees paid to miners on each cryptocurrency, and each coin’s daily trading volume.
Ethereum came closest to flippening Bitcoin in 2017, when it was valued at 83% of Bitcoin’s total market value. Many Ether believers—like the advocates at the Bankless newsletter—think the seminal event will occur this year. A change to Ether’s protocol means that the supply of circulating coins will be reduced with each transaction, meaning that, in theory, the price of coins should rise. Ether is currently at its most valuable level against Bitcoin since 2018, at about half of Bitcoin’s total market value, according to Flippening Watch.
Then there are “the debunkers.” They are not to be confused as mere non-believers in UFOs. Instead, these are people who actively work to overturn the claims of believers. “But a small fraction of nonbelievers, known as “debunkers,” mirror ardent belief with equally ardent doubt,” the New Yorker piece explains.
The debunkers are led by a man called Mick West, who made his money in video games and then spent time engaging in edit wars on Wikipedia over all sorts of topics, from chem trails to homeopathy and even the existence of vegetarian lions. Eventually, he landed on UFO and their believers. West even created website called Metabunk, which crowdsources the debunking powers of groups of skeptics. “A small part of the reason why I debunk now (and still occasionally address ghost stories) is anger at the fear this nonsense instilled in me as a young child,” West explains to Kraus-Lewis, recounting his childhood belief in the paranormal.
Switch over to crypto-land, and you have a similar coterie of active deniers. Known as “no-coiners,” they seek to shoot down cryptocurrency enthusiast’s visions of the future—and seem particularly opposed to the febrile claims of Bitcoin believers. As CoinDesk executive editor Marc Hochstein described in 2018, no-coiners are not simply people who don’t own coins. Instead, they are people with an “epistemic certainty” that Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies will fail.
Famous no-coiners include the author David Gerard (don’t miss this classic profile of Gerard in Decrypt) and the journalist Amy Castor. They congregate on the sub-Reddit r/Buttcoin, and happily declare themselves no-coiners. Among their talking points: Bitcoin is a ponzi scheme that relies on a stream of money from neophytes to allow holders to cash out; the Bitcoin rises because it’s bid up by the supply of the stablecoin Tether, which is itself conjured up out of thin air; and that cryptocurrencies are an essentially useless technology that only continues to exist so that people can speculate on it.
Lewis-Kraus’ encounter with the debunkers is instructive. Of speaking with West, he says: “West is a thoughtful, intelligent man. His e-mails feature numbered and lettered lists and light math. Everything he told me was perfectly persuasive, but even an hour on the phone with him left me feeling vaguely demoralized … He seemed unable to envisage that someone might find solace in the decentering prospect that we are not alone in a universe we ultimately know very little about.”
Finally, among UFOlogists and cryptocurrency believers alike, there is a fascination with official attention. For the UFOlogists, like the scrupulously sober protagonist of the piece, Leslie Kean, their wish was for the US government to create a program that collects and analyzes data on UFO sightings. Similarly, crypto believers leap on any sign of endorsement from mainstream figures in finance and technology: whether it’s Michael Saylor, the CEO of a hitherto obscure listed company snapping up Bitcoin with his corporate treasury; or Elon Musk embracing—and then disavowing—Bitcoin on behalf of Tesla.
If you’ve read Lewis-Kraus’ tale to the end, you would know that Kean’s wish: a dedicated government program for UFOs has come true. A raft of incidents are now public acknowledged as unexplained phenomena by the government. Yet, the debunkers have simply redoubled their efforts to overturn these scenarios—sometimes correctly.
For crypto hodlers and no-coiners, the dynamic is surely similar. Every endorsement or price rise is greeted with cheers from one camp (Tesla bought Bitcoin!), and intensified skepticism by the other (Bitcoin is bad for the environment!). The marker for epistemic certainty keeps moving further ahead, no matter where it lay before.
As one unnamed intelligence official tells Lewis-Kraus toward the end of the story, holding out for an ultimate signal of vindication carries its own mortal dangers: “There are guys who spent their lives studying stuff like Roswell and died with no answers,” he says of true believers. “Are we all going to die with no answers?”
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