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The Uncanny Valley of Crypto
I've spent the last week on vacation at my grandparents' cottage, thinking about the uncanny valley of crypto.
We've had a little wooden eastern Ontario cottage in my family for six generations, so there's a lot of really really old stuff in it. Extremely old. Like, don't-touch-that-or-it-will-shatter old.
One of the most interesting old things there is a wall of weird looking tools from the early 1900s, many of which I can't identify the use for.
These tools got me thinking about the uncanny valley of crypto.
An uncanny valley is the wide degree of difference we humans feel when looking at a human-like robot and an actual human. Imagine a human-looking robot, then imagine the human who the robot was modeled after. Which one makes you feel totally skeeved out and a little scared? Probably the robot.
But no matter how close you can get the robot to look like a human, it will always freak you out a little bit because you know it's a robot.
That's the valley.
In other words, the fake mirroring the real can never make us feel like we do when we interact with the real.
Like those tools on the wall (the real) sometimes the tools of crypto (imitating the real) feel like an uncrossable uncanny valley.
This uncanny valley is something I only feel when I step away from crypto for a bit. It's something new (I admit I don't step away very often).
Does crypto and DAO work ever feel really really far away from the rest of the world?
Like, you take a week off and you feel like crypto is just....poof, gone.
You go to the grocery store, you pay in cash. You go for a run, past neighborhoods with mailboxes and those little yard flags and SUVs parked in the driveways. You eat dinner and watch the sun set and read a book written before anyone knew what the internet was. You don't see anything related to crypto. Your laptop sits in a corner, and because the lid is closed, the world of crypto and DAOs no longer exists.
It still feels like crypto and DAOs are extremely far away on the line of....stuff out in the world. Like, my day-to-day work with DAOs couldn't be farther away from the tangible, physical world we live in.
It feels like this:
Why do I sometimes feel like I'm on another planet when working in the DAO space? Not in a weird hierarchical way, more like in an echo chamber way. Like an isolated bubble way.
I know we need to experiment and iron out processes and figure out how to run DAOs in a sustainable, profitable way before we can take them mainstream. And I'm incredibly excited for the years of experimentation and innovation we have ahead, and have never been so excited to work every day.
But it's weird to step away and turn it off for awhile, because it feels like when it's off....no one would notice.
I know people say this about new technologies: it feels like you're in the darkness for awhile. But, was the dot com bubble so incredibly far away? Was the first instance of the internet light years away from normal life? I don't know.
This feeling of distance is exacerbated by the fact that, at my family's cottage surrounded by old tools and no internet, I'm reminded by the sheer physicality of the old way of life. Every tool was something you touched with your own hands which then touched the earth. Every interaction with another human being required some sense of physical place—whether writing a letter or making a phone call or knocking on a door. The dark forest is not the dark forest of Ethereum, it's an actual forest filled with trees that can be harvested for wood and poison ivy that needs to be avoided and morels you can find in some mossy places to roast for dinner.
There's some kind of fierce nostalgia for this hyper-physicality, a nostalgia that veers in the opposite direction of the hyper-digital lives we lead now. Something that makes me feel kinda weird about all the metaverse stuff. Something that makes me just want to take a red canoe out on a cool misty morning on a quiet lake.
It's weird that I feel this nostalgia, because I've never known a world that's not digital. I grew up with the internet—school lunch tables were littered with colorful-cased iPod Touches and early iPhones. So the nostalgia is definitely not nostalgia, because I've never lived that pre-digital life. The nostalgia is something else.
Nostalgia for a solely physical world feels more like it's emerging out of the collective human consciousness than my own brain. Maybe reading too deep into Levin's grass cutting scene in Ana K (my professors talked about that one for hours). Or the times when I got tired of the loud city noises of my college dorm and needed to escape into the bucolic countryside of New England or the quiet antique furniture shops of Donna Tart's books. Maybe it actually is some kind of collective consciousness that I can't be aware of. Whatever it is, I felt it this week.
At the end of July, right before I went to my family's cottage, I hosted an Aragon twitter space with CityDAO. They're building a city around the concept of web3 higher education. I loved that twitter space, partly because I got to pull up a map on my computer and look at a map of Wyoming and zoom in on the area that CityDAO bought their first parcel of land. I got to talk about the physical terrain of the land, the little bumpy dirt road they have to drive in on, the windy high desert plains, and the moon-like features of the lesser-traveled places in the American West. We talked about how only certain cars with a high clearance can drive there, how the road is impassable in the winter, the land heavy with Wyoming snow, and that for some reason the Bureau of Land Management doesn't let them pave it.
I got out of my theory brain for a bit, my analogy brain. I didn't have to say, "You could compare it to...." which is my default when trying to understand the intangible. I just talked about a real piece of land that actually exists out there in the world.
That moment felt like jumping into a cold lake. I was talking about physical things and how they would affect real people. I was talking about the little college town I grew up in, and how the town around it grew to support the university, and that was their goal with CityDAO. I didn't have to turn on the analogies or the assumptions or the when-this-happens-this-will-come-next's. I just talked about tangible things in the present moment.
It's been a restorative week. But it's also been a weird one, grappling with the feelings that come with a pursuit that feels necessary and worthy, but also as far away as Andromeda.
I got to embrace those feelings, let them wash over me. It felt good, necessary. I can repeat "bear markets are for builders" as much as I want, but it still won't capture this sheer distance I sometimes feel when doing said "building."
I've been enjoying these questions. It's necessary to question things, and it makes me better at the work I do. I've just been letting myself kind of....bask in the questions, and seeing where they take me.
Will crypto cross the uncanny valley? Will it move from sorta-weird-and-not-for-most-humans, into this-is-just-as-normal-as-IRL? I think so, I hope so. But, if we're not critical and questioning every step of the way, I'm not sure we'll ever get there.
Here's to looking for that bridge.
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