At home in the anti-cool — crypto and the next counterculture

September 14, 2023
If crypto is to reshape how people see the world, it will be rising values of decentralisation, permissionlessness, and openness that show its impact.

Beneath the undercurrents of crypto culture lies a foundation of social and technological subversion. Above it is a countercultural movement that traces back to the punks and hippies of the 20th century.

Western countercultures of the 20th century – punks, hippies, and the like – stood in stark contrast to mainstream society. Typically characterised by defiant forms of self-expression, these subcultures often challenged the status quo in their aesthetics, their politics, and ultimately, their philosophy.

Originating in specific geographic locations and nurtured in isolated social networks, detachment was as much a cause of 20th century subcultures as it was a consequence. New ideas grew in a feedback loop air-gapped from normal society; entry came only from extensive effort to overcome the scarcity of opportunities to get in.

In contrast, cultural niches in the internet age seem quaintly nostalgic. Many more original niches can be found in the sheer volume of content uploaded daily to the digital commons, and compared to the barriers which delimited 20th century subcultures, their barriers to entry are nowhere to be seen.

Detachment was as much a cause of 20th century subcultures as it was a consequence.

Internet subcultures form along non-geographic lines. They hide in plain sight, communicating through esoteric and increasingly self-referential memes. To participate you may have to decipher a seemingly nonsensical language, but you can literally, for better or worse, participate in your underwear.

Crypto culture may be the first subculture in the digital age that straddles both cultural paradigms. While there is more information available about crypto than most other subcultures, the technical barrier to entry is a moat far wider than most others online. In this sense, crypto is more akin to the 20th century subcultures than the internet niches which followed them, keeping out the passively curious, and the subtle feedback, direction, and mollification they would bring.

Punk emerged in the mid-1970s, a line in the sand to reboot youth culture as a site of provocative fun, protest, and imagination. Photo: Catherine Laz.

It is further camouflaged under a canopy of truly unappealing qualities. Crypto casinos undermine the disruptive potential of decentralised finance, which is equally discredited by abuses from those who better understand the tech and systemic risks caused by those who create it. Cleverly-marketed NFT projects make the mainstream laugh at how much one spent on a JPEG that you can “right-click save”.

The same drive which helps fuel the ecosystem, the well from which profits seemingly spring out of nowhere for the lucky or unscrupulous few, is so off-putting from the outside looking in that the ecosystem is easily dismissed. Yet much like how the values of self-expression, holistic health, and environmentalism spread from 20th century counterculture to the mainstream, crypto culture thrives under the noses of those unknowingly destined to use the technology.

Fifteen years since the first Bitcoin block was mined in 2008, the full evolution of crypto culture already requires many books to document. It has always found a home in the ‘anti-cool’, leveraging its humility to reconcile self-deprecating cheesiness (think unicorn logos and the slang of ‘informal respect’ which turns ‘sir’ into ‘ser’) with technological subversion, namely an ideology of decentralisation, permissionlessness, and openness, where the question of whether its libertarianism is left or right wing remains undecided. Its breadth of semantics and beliefs reflects a sophisticated subculture beneath the surface.

Led by the NFT, the blockchain ecosystem exploded in popularity in 2020, when global attention translated into booming participation. Even those who formed communities as late as just six months prior soon became superstars in their own right. Some became iconic. For all the talk of subverting the old, a creative class system has already formed. There are already multiple “eras” of crypto culture — so much that the early cultural signals already seem buried. This is not only inevitable, but healthy.

If crypto is to reshape how people see the world, it will be rising values of decentralisation, permissionlessness, and openness that show its impact.

Wide adoption demands that the subculture becomes more and more diffuse. Looked at through the prism of culture, programmable blockchains like Ethereum could be described as an open media storage platform with built in commerce tools, where the distribution is up to you. The technology is ultimately culture-agnostic.

The real far-reaching cultural explosions haven’t happened yet, but I would not be surprised if crypto’s anti-cool vernacular become widely-used anti-establishment expressions, as the permissionless nature of the technology spreads and spreads. Forget the pop art Che Guevara poster, the future aspiring dissident has a Tornado Cash sticker, possibly without even knowing what it means.

Experiencing all of this in real time is comparable to being aware of hip-hop in the late 80s, or noticing the compounding energy on college campuses in the early 60s as the Hippie counterculture was forming. The driving motivations and aesthetics are entirely different, but share enough attributes to make following its modern development worthwhile.

Crypto is more akin to the 20th century subcultures than the internet niches which followed them.
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Andreas is a graphic designer turned creative coder, a front end developer turned fully green-pilled onchain netizen, and a researcher trying to understand the transformative power of the web3 revolution.

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