Yeah, Crypto UX Sucks

And That's OK

Have you ever wondered why every app looks and feels the same?

Rounded sans-serif fonts… packaged as a custom wordmark, like Goldman Sans (i wish this were a parody site but alas…)

Bold “whimsical” statements and provocative images…

Minimal interfaces and stripped down choices…

Clean workflows…

Everything looks and feels the same. Simple. Sleek. Safe.

Neutering Choice

As humans, we are wired to create, seek out, and reinforce patterns. And for some reason, this has permeated every element of the modern Silicon Valley design aesthetic, leading to a hellscape of pastel tones. It also doesn’t help that every app just emulates the most popular features of every other app like some twisted non-stop mash-up game where every app just becomes some frankenstein blend of every other app and then, issues a credit card. Because of course. And every startup at some point uses the same ten brand and design consulting firms, like Red Antler who literally created the blanding trend (a perjorative twist on branding, get it?) and is single handedly responsible for ruining adverts on the NYC subway.

Most apps we interact with rely on trained behavior patterns and behavioral loops that are designed to eliminate choice and friction, and to push you one step closer to the ultimate desired action - enter data in form. buy. subscribe. like.

What these apps are really trying to do with their bland design is remove the challenges presented by choice in a world where we already feel overwhelmed with information.

It’s the illusion of careful curation without actually curating anything, because you don’t even have choice to begin with.

For those who haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend reading Kyle Chayka’s “Welcome to Airspace” on why every hotel, AirBnB, home on apartment therapy, or otherwise commercial space now looks the same. Homogeneity in design space provides comfort and psychological safety. Sameness as a service minimizes the friction of moving between spaces. There are literally hundreds of startups funded to the tune of billions of dollars that will let you homogenize your space and turn it into AirSpace, like some twisted venture funded gentrification service that is delivered, as you by now will guess, via a blanded neutered app that looks like every other app.

Fucking great.

The Sameness is the Trap

I guess this post is a direct response to a statement I hear all the time.

“Crypto UX / UI sucks!” which is then immediately followed by “We must fix it and make it better / easier / faster / more intuitive to use!”

I must admit that I too, once, fell into this trap of believing that if we could fix THE UX! THE HORRORS! then the problems and challenges of crypto would melt away, and we would ascend to a utopian dream-land of sameness and blandness in soothing pastel colorways. Let me get some of those Figma designs and add in some Intercom chat and Shopify integration and add some nice Typeform flows mmhmmm.

Mass adoption here we come! Billions of people in “Africa” will use this app and be saved from the terrors of correspondent banking and Western Union! Pre-booking my chalet for Davos 2022 now.

All because this UX be smooth like buttah.

Crypto UX does Suck

But it does not need to be “fixed.”

Fixing implies there is a template.

Fixing implies there is a standard.

Fixing implies there is something wrong.

The whole point of crypto is opening up a design space that has previously been inaccessible. And in that process, a lack of consensus creates permission for new modalities outside of the bubble that started in Silicon Valley and has been exported to every start up and tech company around the world.

Instead of reinforcing the bubble, which by the way is INHERENTLY EXCLUSIONARY in its design, let’s shatter the bubble and reject the notion of standards entirely.

Money and banking hasn’t changed in three millennia, since Julius Caesar stamped his face on a gold coin (see here for that rant) and humans began building fortresses around these mounds of shiny metal like Gollum fiend-ing over the precious. Because pieces of shiny metal were all we had to transmit value over vast distances of space and time, we built an entire civilization around extracting, storing, securitizing, and later leveraging these shiny pieces of metal and later, literal pieces of paper that were memes representing the might of nation states.

What we’re trying to do in this little corner of the world is basically dismantle three millennia of that way of thinking and being, and reconstruct something entirely new that includes a re-design of social philosophy, monetary policy, compute infrastructure, energy infrastructure, payments infrastructure, and so much more.

Yes, crypto UX sucks if you compare it to (insert app name here). The complexities of going from building fortresses around humanity’s gold to building digital citadels around bitcoin’s mathematically verifiable promises are profound. The UX is an embodiment of this struggle. And that’s ok.

Lead me to the Promised Land, ye Designers

To engineer an effective solution to an incredibly complex, systemic problem is not easy. The thing that makes the crypto ecosystem so unique and so creative is the lack of consensus and norms, which by nature extends itself into design and user experience. There is a massive surface area to play with, because we’ve never built stuff like this before, and it still isn’t clear who we’re building for. If we’re building for institutions, shoving bitcoin into a fortress is certainly appealing in the short term, as evidenced by the fetish for HSMs and “cold storage” involving armed mountainside silos and heavily armored guards.

But over the long term, the design space needs to stay flexible.

Instead of cramming it into a narrow set of pre-defined standards of what experience should be, perhaps we should treat the crypto design space as emergent, evolutionary, and disruptive.

The audience who is actually using this stuff is incredible tolerant - users are willing to deal with any number of faults and shitty design in order to get to the underlying product or use case. Look at the DeFi design space, people are getting rugged on a regular basis for a myriad of code bugs and design flaws yet this doesn’t deter anyone - it just makes the space even more exciting because there is so much complexity that anyone with more than two functioning neurons in their brain can’t help but be utterly obsessed with it.

Not because it’s the same, but because it’s so different. And it should stay that way.

If we want to disrupt the experience people have with money, banking, and finance, we need to design an entirely new set of user experiences and behavioral loops. Trying to cram something so interesting into a narrowly constrained design space predicated on current user behavior is not only non-sensical, it’s destructive. Instead of normalizing, we should encourage deviance and bravery in design.

So reject your desire to be basic af, and take a walk on the wild side.

Who knows what we might find if we stay a while.

Thanks to Reggie James for feedback - your aesthetic is inspiring.

Bitcoin is a Collectors Items

Just a random thought post. It’s interesting to talk to other investors and hear them talk about what is “expensive.” With bitcoin especially, people often say “well, isn’t $20,000 expensive?” or “WHAT! it’s too expensive!” I’d argue expensive is relative.

With trillions of dollars of cash sitting on the sidelines looking for return and trillions more being pumped into the market by governments around the world, nothing is too expensive. Instead, what’s more important is finding that which is unique. That of which we can print no more. That which is finite.

Make it Super Rare

Let’s just look at the auction records that have been shattered in the last month. This is one month.

  • On Nov 27, a 1939 comic book which marks the first appearance of Batman sold for $1.5 million.  The record was previously $1.075 million for a copy of the same issue, which was graded higher than this copy. "I'm not at all surprised at the result,"said the selling firm "After all, this is one of the best copies you will ever see of one of the most important comic books ever published."

  • On Dec 5, a Michael Jordan rookie jersey sold for $320,000. This is the most expensive Jordan jersey ever sold, topping another Jordan jersey sold in July for $288,000.

  • On Dec 11, a Wayne Gretzky card became the most valuable hockey card ever sold at $1.29 million. The card last sold in 2016 for $465,000.

  • On Dec 14, Steve McQueen’s Le Mans watch sold for a record-breaking $2.2 million, which is 27 times the price last paid for the watch in a 2009 auction.

  • On Dec 15, the crypto community shattered their own records when digital artist Beeple raised $3.5 million in an auction for his art, with a single buyer spending $777,777 in the final auction. This year alone, over $150 million in NFTs has changed hands.

  • On Dec 20, a Pokemon card trade shattered records at $900k for a rare set of Charizard cards, going to a buyer identified only by a Pokemon fan blog handle. Said the buyer “I consider the card not only nostalgic, beautiful, and historical, but also a fantastic investment.”

  • On Dec 22, a legendary Honus Wagner baseball card was sold for $3.7 million. A similar card traded for $3.2 million just a year earlier. The buyer stated “50 or 60 exist in the world… These don’t come up to sale and I had the opportunity to buy it and I did.”

This is what it all looks like - $12.5 million for 7 collectibles in just one month - and just a very small sample of the millions of rare collectible assets coveted by investors and fanatics alike. The universe of collectibles continues to expand as the money printer continues to brrr.

Bitcoin at $100,000 isn’t crazy. It’s actually one of the most logical things I’ve ever heard.

In 2019, Porsche produced 280,800 vehicles. Each vehicle sells for over $50,000. There is more demand for Porsches than ever.

In 2021, only 328,500 new bitcoin will be mined. Currently, a bitcoin sells for $26,471.

Would you rather have a Porsche or a bitcoin?

Anyways - I’m not conflating the value of a car or a baseball card with the value of a bitcoin. I’m just pointing out that what we may have considered “expensive” doesn’t feel that way forever.

Just watch - the auctions are only gonna get crazier. There’s too much money and only so many jets, cars, watches, card, canvases, NFTs, and other assets to buy.

It’s only a matter of time until people figure out that bitcoin is the ultimate collectible.

The Ministry of Truth is Coming

Memory holes, thought crime, and internet censorship

Since the advent of the republic, governments have tightly controlled money and financial services. In a world where material wealth dictated status, surveilling, regulating, and censoring financial flows was the preferred way to maintain control and order.

In today’s world, material wealth is no longer the only substance that defines status. Information is power. Ideology is power. Narrative is power. The internet has created a new medium where anyone and everyone can create narratives and through these narratives, status. And that threatens the fragile control that nation states have spent trillions of dollars on guns and steel to ensure they maintain control.

Today, financial services regulation is comprised of an alphabet soup of agencies and regulators that oversee various aspects of the global financial system. There is no alphabet soup of agencies that regulates information… yet. But rest assured, fellow citizen, it is coming.

Two Plus Two is Five

Many of you will recognize the Ministry of Truth as one of several ministries tasked with administration of duties in Oceania, the dystopian setting for Orwell’s 1984. In Orwell’s world, the Ministry of Truth is tasked with propaganda, and serves the opposite of its stated purpose. It is responsible for the necessary falsification of historical events - the re-writing of history - and is the arbiter of what constitutes “truth” in Oceania. Whatever evidence does not suit the latest version of reality is disposed of down a "memory hole" to be incinerated, erased from consciousness forever and ever.

But, did you know that the Ministry of Truth is in fact an agency that exists in many modern nation states under somewhat different names? The Ministry of Information existed in the UK during both the first and second world war, where it focused on monitoring public sentiment and creating and distributing propaganda to support the war effort and the government’s policies. Fun fact - the MOI famously created the slogan “keep calm and carry on.”

Many countries today have ministries responsible for preserving, editing, and archiving history, distributing that history via the school system, and serving as a source of “truth” when it comes to constructing a national identity. In many instances, these ministries are also tasked with stamping out un-truths or falsehoods that are damaging to public morale. It will not surprise you that most such explicitly named agencies are located in authoritarian states. But you would be foolish to believe the Ministry of Truth doesn’t operate in Western Democracies. It just hides under a different veil.

Think about what we’ve experienced over the last nine months. While there has never really been a single version of the truth, the impact of a global pandemic coupled with an explosion of online communities has resulted in thousands of splintered views of truth, which are propagated across space and time at unprecedented speed via social media. How do you know what the truth is in a world where truth is on trial?

Censorship is Coming

In a world with no modern, well-organized intelligence organization, no rapid long-distance communications, no surveillance cameras, no massive sets of information about individuals, abberations in the perception of truth were tolerable to the status quo. There have long been communities who have selected a different reality and a different truth, and have sheltered themselves from technology and other forces that might shatter their meticulously constructed world. Likewise, because their impact on default reality was so minimal, these communities have long been ignored, since their impact on society at large was negligible.

But what happens when large swathes of the population start questioning the voracity of the truth machine?

When it comes to truth, we have two critical forces more powerful than our laws or our forms of government. Technology and economics.

Technology has enabled the dissemination of information at unprecented scale. And it has lowered the unit economics for manufacturing new truths. Conversations that used to happen in private can now happen in public, and reach critical mass very quickly. And so the two vectors of attack that now present themselves to governments looking to regain control of the narrative are precisely these - technology and economics.

Let’s take the anti-trust suit filed against Facebook by 48 states and the FTC, where they claim that Facebook abused its dominance in the digital marketplace and engaged in anticompetitive behavior. While I’m no fan of Facebook, I find this argument spurious at best, and malicious at worst. While some may welcome, and even cheer the news, remember that this is only the starting point of a much larger effort to curtail the use of new technology and to drastically increase the costs of compliance to a point where creating truth that violates consensus becomes prohibitively expensive.

Consider also the EARN IT bill, which seeks to mandate that internet platforms “earn” their Section 230 immunity, which means they cannot be held liable for the content on their platforms (unless it is child pornography or otherwise illegal content, which they can and are held liable for.) In the proposed bill, which is a brazen assault on encryption, this immunity can only be earned through compliance with policies set by a “commission” comprised of people who are not elected, but appointed. Fun thing is - the attorney general can at any time move the goal posts required to “earn it” - it being Section 230 immunity - and effectively eliminate this provision. In reality, earn it is a bait and switch bill that aims to leverage tide of anger over eliminating Section 230 immunity because people don’t like the truth on display on social media to effectively attack encryption.

Section 230 is about censoring what’s said in public.

Earn it is about monitoring and censoring what’s said in private.

Imagine a world where technology providers have to make every single piece of information on their services available to law enforcement - every single bit and byte and pixel - and to proactively monitor and filter all of it and feed it back to intelligence. The economics of a post EARN IT internet make truth incredibly expensive.

I’m from the Government and I’m here to help you

At the end of the day, what it comes down to is what type of world we want to live in. Throughout human history, truth has always been destabilizing to societies. After all, there are many versions of reality depending on the lens through which you’re examining the world, and some of these versions of reality challenge the status quo. I tend to believe that more truths is better - it forces us to question reality and develop strong filters. And perhaps the best version of the truth should be the one that wins hearts and minds, or perhaps our new reality means multiple truths will exist at the same time.

Our governments don’t seem to agree. They seem intent on attempting to use technology to suit their own aims, to root out thoughtcrimes, and to eliminate threatening truths before they reach the public sphere.

As Orwell so beautifully said “during times of deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”

I, for one, will not ask the commission for permission.

Unintended Architecture

What We Desire is What We Build is What We Become

Recently I’ve been taking little moments to explore a different side of New York, the city I’ve called home for the last six years. When you see a city empty of people, you begin to understand the importance of architecture. You get to see the bones of the city, and you begin to understand what gives the flow of people shape, rhythm, energy.

You see, what we imagine becomes what build. And what we build manifests itself into what we experience. This is most immediately apparent in physical space, and many of us spending 24 hours a day in our homes are appreciating this now more than ever. But more importantly, when you build something, it doesn’t affect just you. It affects everything around you, diverting and re-directing flows of people, ideas, atoms, and stardust.

When we study ancient civilizations, we often rely on architecture to deduce how our ancestors lived.

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An image of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, sourced from thetravel.com

From architecture, we can begin to understand what our ancestors valued, what they worshipped, what technology they had, what knowledge they possessed, the relationships they had with themselves and with one another, and with nature and the divine.

But it also happens in digital space, and in spiritual and cultural space. What we build becomes what we are. And what we are influences what we build.

Architecture Dictates Form

Design is a universal language, one that transcends space and time. From form, we deduce function.

Architects design space for social experience. As a discipline, architecture combines the rigid rules of physics, mathematics, and material science with the fluidity and freedom of art, design, philosophy, and sociology.

This is why I love architecture - it reveals so much about the state of our world. It reveals our capabilities, our intentions, our desires. It changes our moods, our psyche, our way of moving and living.

The way we build has profound implications for the way we experience the world around us. If we build things that are open and inclusionary, we support the idea that we are a collective. If we build things that are exclusionary and divide people, we perpetuate the idea that we are separate tribes and groups.

In other words, borrowing from the Pritzker Prize, which is like the Nobel prize of architecture:

Society produces buildings, and the buildings, although not producing society, help to maintain many of its social forms.

These boundaries between rigid and fluid, between and closed, between restrictive and expressive,  they can be physical - as in walls - but they can also be technical, political, emotional, and spiritual.

The present moment we’re experiencing is shaping our desire for the future. Maybe you’ve noticed the feelings you’re having about space and your desires for specific types of space. A desire for more expansive spaces and more open spaces. A drive for deeper connection with more empathy, patience, and compassion. A shift from transactional to emotional relationships. A forum for open communication and expression, or a shift from more formal scheduled conversations to more casual unstructured discussions on forums.

The New Architects: Digital Space as the New Frontier

The way we experience the world is no longer shaped only by the physical spaces we inhabit. The boundaries of our communications, transactions, and movements are defined by the digital infrastructure around us. With the proliferation of new platforms, new mediums, and new tools, we have built new operating systems for art, technology, finance, design, knowledge, communication, and more.

Think about the subtler architecture that is driving your behavior, driving your emotions, driving your beliefs. You’re reading this page - but how did you get here? Did you even know you wanted to be here before you arrived? Or did you wind up here, in spite of yourself?

The new architects shape your life in the digital world, controlling the width of the aperture through which you view the landscape around you, blurring and shifting the focus without you realizing it. They also shape your desires, your aspirations, your dreams, the products of your effort, your energy, and your precious time.

  • They’re building the infrastructure and interfaces that allow you to navigate, search, communicate, transact, and store information.

  • They’re calculating what information should be served to you and in what order in order to maximize your utility (to them as a human click farm)

  • They’re creating boundaries around what can and can’t be done, what can and can’t be said, where the lines should be (hint: it looks a lot like the old world).

  • They’re lobbying to destroy what little restraint they still have to exercise in their quest for domination and money and power.

And what’s so insidious in all of this is that the new architects can make you feel as though you’re living in a new world, in a new culture, when in fact nothing has changed at all. The new world is just a reflection of the old world, twisted and bent and warped, with more carefully crafted narratives that are perpetuated across more mediums.

I guess in a way, the future can never really escape the past. Because human knowledge is cumulative, everything new exists within the context of the old. From this point forward in human history, it will likely be impossible to forget anything, ever again.

But the fidelity of human history will still be subject to question.

Just like men kept letters to themselves for centuries, men and machines will hoard truth and twist it to the shape of their desire.

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We live in a world that is defined by a certain set of rules and a certain architecture which has been ossified as more and more gets built within the existing system. To build a new system, we must fight to escape our predecessors not only with new products and services, but with new institutions, new policies, and new social and cultural values.

As a total aside, I think about this Ribbonfarm post at least once a month. It hits hard.

As Harold Bloom stated in the Anxiety of Influence, we must fight to escape our predecessors. What was possible in the past dictates our understanding of what is feasible in the future.

And this is what keeps me up at night. The gatekeepers of our world, whether the old, moneyed, political elite or our younger, omnipotent digital overlords, they have every incentive to keep us out or, even better, to make us believe that by changing our vision of the future, we can join their ranks. And if we build with their blueprints, the end result is the same.

Building Meaning: The Trajectory for Bitcoin

There’s this really interesting thing that happens when you’re building towards a vision. In a way, I think of entrepreneurs as people who create a reality distortion field. They paint a vision for a different version of reality, and if they can get enough people to believe in that vision and provide capital and influence, then it might actually become reality. In today’s age of influence, I actually think a founder’s most important job isn’t technical or skills based. It’s their ability to create a reality distortion field that is so strong that everyone who comes into contact with it cannot help but fall into the same distortion field.

In a way, I feel bitcoin has hit this point.

There are now millions of people who live in a distorted reality, one where bitcoin is a global store of value and a global financial network. We are in the midst of a renaissance, for people who have historically been excluded, for people who believe in something totally different, for people who have been left out of the design for the future. The battle now is for the narrative, what that future will look like.

This is why the march of Wall Street and Main Street into bitcoin is so dangerous, because it warps and changes our view of the future, sidelining our initial ambitions with something watered down. The presiding generation, the gatekeepers, they have to let the new thing happen. It’s a natural evolution, but people will inevitably fight it because it threatens their status. For the new generation, the challenge is wildly confusing — how do we allow this revolution to take place without watering it down?

As Karl Marx famously said “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” For a long time, we were pretending to be revolutionaries, and it was great fun because having an enemy is the best.

But now, we’re no longer the revolution. We’re becoming the establishment. When everyone is talking about bitcoin and Jamie Dimon says “I was wrong, bitcoin is amazing” and you deposit your bitcoin in his vaults, and there’s no one left to fight, what do we strive for?

Building for the Future

This is why I believe the future needs to look totally different than the past. We have to build new architecture, new idols, new ideals, to realize a new world.

What may come in the future doesn’t look like why it did in the past.

We have to break down those barriers and silos to make this possible. And that’s what architects do. Architects use science, math, design, and reason to build bridges, to build spaces, to build transitions from one world to the next.

Architects use tools with intention. From form, comes function.

Be careful what you aspire to build, and for whom.

You see, what we build manifests itself into what we experience.

Don't Stop Looking

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.

-William Blake

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we got to this point.

I’ve been asking myself “why now?”

I’ve been perplexed by the radically different ways in which people can exist in completely different versions of reality.

And I found myself thinking about how we experience the world.

Les Amants (Lovers)' Prints - Rene Magritte | AllPosters.com

The internet makes our lives really convenient, but it also streams all these painful realities to everyone, in real time. The natural reaction most people have had is to isolate themselves and to train themselves to ignore these painful realities. To build a wall so big and so wide that the scaries can’t get through. To push it away. To push it down.

Prior to CoViD, most of us were pretty good at drowning out the pain of reality. We could easily retreat into our own illusions and remain blissfully ignorant of the world around us.

So we create illusions. We tell ourselves stories. We build systems and communities and narratives that prop up these illusions. And somewhere along the way, we start believing these illusions. We end up forgetting the world and ourselves.

As we further dissolve the boundaries between our single physical self and our numerous digital selves, this line between reality and illusion only becomes blurrier. Muddier.

Over the last few months, as the world ground to a halt, we were suddenly forced to confront reality. The illusion stopped shimmering and beckoning to us, stopped inviting us to waste our precious, precious time on tigers and trailer parks and bullshit narratives. In the midst of a pandemic and an economic melt-down and a failure of leadership and a collective identity crisis, reality snuck up on us and sucker punched us all in the face.

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It’s like a mass application of the Ludovico Technique - unable to close our eyes, unable to look away, unable to hide from stark and ugly realities about our world, but also about ourselves.

So why now?

Have we reached a critical level of discomfort?

Are there now enough of us who can no longer look away from reality?

Would the killing of George Floyd have had the same effect if it didn’t occur during a pandemic that was disastrously handled and resulted in 1 in 5 Americans being unemployed?

Our illusion was comfortable enough for enough people for a long time. But when the illusion became just as uncomfortable as reality, and when we were all forced to see the truth, the whole thing came tumbling down.

Terror and Desire The Temptation of St. Anthony from Hieronymus ...

aside: there is, indeed, a Hieronymous Bosch painting for every situation imaginable

So this is where I am.

We can’t stop looking. At ourselves, at our neighbors, at our companies, at our world. But mostly, at ourselves.

More confrontation is inevitable.

Not all of it is external. The most important confrontations will happen silently, in private, in our own minds. But the outcome is going to be explosive.

No amount of money will help you escape from reality. No amount of content can keep the existential angst from creeping in. So the only thing that we can do it to look at the ugly truth.

And when life is no longer easy and comfortable, when we can no longer hide in the illusion, and we find reality sucks, then we have to change.

It’s exciting. It’s scary. Don’t stop looking.

And maybe it can be beautiful.

You will not be able to stay home
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip out for beer during commercials, because
The revolution will not be televised

-Gil Scott Heron

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