Their use is too cumbersome and the community is far too idealistic – these are common criticisms of crypto currencies. However, we should not dismiss crypto because of its techno-libertarian-millennial enthusiasts. Embrace it because of them.
We frequently hear two complaints about our bullish opinion of crypto. The first is that crypto is too much of a headache to use for it ever to become mainstream. Decentralised applications are slow, clunky, and impossible to make sense of to anyone without a degree in computer science, say our sceptical friends in traditional finance.
The second is that the crypto community, with its puzzling zeal for radical decentralization wherever possible is so idealistic and immature that it alone is reason enough to dismiss cryptocurrencies. As a fundamentally user-unfriendly tech, popular only with kids who’ll soon grow out of it, it’s doomed to failure or so the argument goes.
We disagree for reasons we’ve already articulated. But upon reading «Just for fun»1, the autobiography of Linux founder Linus Torvalds something else struck us which we hadn’t hitherto been able to put our finger on: the power of an idea.
Because crypto evangelists do have a big idea. It is that the evils of the world are caused by the over centralization of power, that decentralization of power is always and everywhere the solution, and public blockchains are the enabling technology. Enthusiasts believe that cryptocurrencies are the medicine for a sick world.
This idea is so powerful because it embodies the social values of the crypto community. This is why crypto enthusiasts will happily see major usability shortcomings as a minor detail, when compared to the near spiritual act of merely using that technology. For most, using web3 makes them feel like they’re part of something bigger, something which has meaning and a social purpose. They feel empowered, sovereign, and that they are building a better future. So for most web3 users, when taken holistically, the concept of ‹user-experience› transcends narrow concepts such as ‹ease of use›. Google, Amazon and Instagram are easy to use. But they do not make you feel like you are part of the revolution.
Now, you may or may not agree with what that deeper meaning is, and you may or may not share in the cosmic experience of using crypto to transact with others in the community. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you recognize the power of this feeling, and its ability to move mountains. Because that has largely been the story of Linux.
Today, it is the world’s most widely used operating system on computer servers. Thirty years ago, it was the personal project of an obscure computer science undergrad in Helsinki with nothing better to do during a long Finnish winter. It was never easy to use, and to this day still isn’t recommended for non-technical computer users. But it turns out that ease of use wasn’t as important as the cosmic experience of its evangelical users.
The first ever user review of Linux following its 1991 release was a positive one. Torvalds reminisces: «I remember one email whose writer said he really liked my operating system, and he went on for at least one paragraph to tell me how nice it was. Then he explained that it had just eaten his hard disk, and that my disk driver was flaky or something. He had lost all the work he had done. But he was still very positive».
Can you imagine downloading someone’s software, losing all your files and folders because of it, and then mailing its creator to thank him and tell him what a great piece of work he’d done? Me neither. But that was the power Linux had over its users. Indeed, it set the tone for things to come.
In 1993, when Linux v0.95 introduced networking, the upgrade created all sorts of problems for its users, who had different set ups and time-outs, which restricted the network boundaries computers could connect to. It seems that many (most?) users of this version had serious problems getting it to work.
But, «Nothing could put a dent in Linux’s popularity. We had our own Internet newsgroup … and it was attracting hordes. Back then the Internet Cabal, the folks who more or less ran the internet, kept unofficial monthly statistics on how many readers each newsgroup attracted … Of all the newsgroups, alt.sex was the perennial favourite ... We made it to the top five sometime in 1993. I went to bed that night brimming with self-satisfaction, excited by the fact that Linux had become almost as popular as sex».
The reason Linux was becoming so popular despite its many problems was because users loved the ideals that the open-source movement it triggered represented. «The hackers – programmers - working on Linux and other open source projects forgo sleep, Stairmaster workouts, their kids’ Little League games, and yes, occasionally, sex, because they love programming. And they love being part of a global collaborative effort dedicated to building the best and most beautiful technology that is available to anyone who wants it. It’s that simple. And it’s fun.»
In short, Linux users loved being part of the revolution. «One of the reasons that the open-source philosophy and Linux both have major followings in universities is simple: the anti-establishment sentiment. It’s the Big, Evil Microsoft Corporation & Wicked, Greedy, Too-Fucking-Rich Bill Gates vs the We’re-In-It-for-the-Love-and-Free-Software-for-Everybody».
Interestingly also, experts dismissed Linux very early on in its life, not dissimilarly to the way experts dismiss cryptocurrencies now for being too cumbersome to use. But that’s another story. So, the moral is this: don’t dismiss crypto because of its starry-eyed techno-libertarian-millennial enthusiasts. Embrace it because of them. Look at what they did for Linux.
1) Linus Torvalds & David Diamond (2001) «Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary», New York City: Harper Collins.