New cryptocurrencies are aiming to democratise the arts and aid social mobility, but in this emerging white and male-dominated space, are we simply bringing over the same inequalities from our physical world?
In the past year, terms like “Ethereum”, “Dogecoin”, “NFTs”, and “buy the dip” have gone from fringe Reddit tech-speak to pop culture lexicon. CryptoTok has exploded with teen finance gurus peddling meme coins and stunting their six-figure digital wallet. Even the London underground was controversially plastered with adverts declaring it was “time to buy” Bitcoin.
No matter how exhausted you may be from the sheer ubiquity of it all, cryptocurrencies have become interwoven into society’s fabric – regardless of the multiple crashes they’ve experienced in the last few months.
Understandably, it’s a statement that begets a collective groan. Over the last decade the term has become synonymous with the internet’s seediest crevices and anarcho-capitalist white bros looking to get rich quick. From the now-defunct online black marketplace Silk Road, which allowed visitors to buy narcotics, weapons, and other illegal paraphernalia, to the 100,000 Bitcoin millionaires as of February 2021 (74 per cent of those being men, and 71 per cent white), the crypto phenomenon has been wrought with capitalistic and opportunistic sentiment.
Yet for all the talk of investing in it, since its inception there’s been a set of stalwart supporters who believe that crypto – or rather, the technology and ideology underpinning it – can actually change the world for the better.
In research paper Bitcoin’s Academic Pedigree, Arvind Narayanan and Jeremy Clark outline a map of the 20 years of preceding ideas that went into Bitcoin’s architecture, arguing that its birth resembles the crux of the original dream of cyberspace: a “civilisation of the mind… more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before”.
Case in point: Bitcoin’s inventor, the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto, minted the first coin in the peak of the 2008 financial crash – two weeks after Lehman Brothers went bust on January 3 2009. At a time when people were questioning the role that money played in the crisis and, more importantly, the role that governments and banks played in money, the idea of a decentralised, peer-to-peer network – i.e, the foundational tenets of the cryptocurrency – were not only revolutionary, but actively being called for.
“Technically, there is no money in blockchain (the decentralised ledger for all transactions across a peer-to-peer network). The system created its own cryptocurrency in order to exchange goods and services on that network,” says Thomas Webb, a digital artist whose work explores social dynamics within virtual worlds. “Pegging cryptocurrencies against the dollar and making a fuck ton of money was never the intended use of it. It was designed to upend a corrupt, broken system.”
However, despite the following decade seeing the space be colonised by entrepreneurs motivated by money, not mission, more and more young people are now starting to become aware of the innovative ways they can utilise blockchain technology.
Instead of minting coins purely for profit, goal-oriented coins are being developed around the world to better marginalised communities.
There’s Veggiecoin, a currency that allows users to donate to animal charities. Doge Floki, a coin that supports Stem Learning, a York-based company which teaches school children learning coding and robotics. LGBT Token empowers the global LGBT community by enabling members to verify and protect their identities in countries where they face oppression, while also featuring smart contracts – programs stored on the blockchain that run when predetermined conditions are met – that automatically donates money to LGBTQ+ charities. To name just a few.
“As creatives ourselves we see the importance in allowing people better access to creating and selling their goods, and the blockchain offers many ways to do that,” says one of the co-founders of Hedgehog (or H$), a community coin started by an enigmatic collective of South East Londoners.
Although the team had minimal technical prowess, the 20-something developers created Hedgehog as an alternative to the plethora of scam memecoins. Their main goal with Hedgehog is to “democratise the arts, offering musicians and creatives an alternative to high distribution fees”. Ultimately, they want to give power back to unrepresented artists, help showcase their work to a global audience, while simultaneously directing cash flow to local scenes.
As for the future, they’re working towards a decentralised gallery and library application called Spike Gallery and De Fi respectively. They hope this will allow people to trade and exhibit art and to hold information on the blockchain, instead of algorithmically-challenged social media platforms or at exclusive galleries that take an eye-watering 50 per cent cut.
However, just because traditional gatekeepers and dodgy middlemen are eradicated, it doesn’t mean the space is automatically progressive. “If we’re entering into a decentralised age, and we’re not tackling racism, misogyny, classism, the issues that plague us in our real world plague us in the digital world,” says Moyosore Briggs, a Nigeria-via-London crypto artist and 2020 British Fashion council new creative.
Briggs entered the crypto space in February 2021 and has fast become a mainstay in the NFT community. “The way I thought I was going to be having Hot Girl Summer in a bikini on a boat in Dubai,” she says on her recent pivot, “and now I’m at home, in my sweatpants on Reddit and Discord being like, ‘Have you seen the new NFT drop?’”
Before getting into NFTs, the 22-year-old was a self-portrait photographer who predominantly made money through print sales. Now her NFT work has been showcased in Times Square, and she’s making triple the amount she used to.
“With NFTs the possibilities are just endless, and the fact it’s all digital, which is exactly where our futures are going, means this is what I have to get into, especially as a Black artist who finds the traditional systems harder to break into,” she continues. “However, the space is still extremely white and male-dominated, and as it becomes more powerful, there’s a real chance that existing inequalities will worsen.”
It’s what Diana Sinclair – a Black, queer artist and curator from New York – has been trying to battle through founding Herstory DAO, an artist led collective with investors and collectors which aims to incubate, preserve, and collect from marginalised creators in a space.
Through the DAO, the 17-year-old has already onboarded 25 Black women through canvassing on Clubhouse and Twitter. Additionally, Sinclair recently organised and curated The Digital Diaspora, to help boost the visibility of Black crypto artists, as well as educate members within the DAO on how to build generational wealth for themselves.
“We’re talking about pushing each other almost like a study group to read and watch videos on this stuff like staking or yield farming,” explains Sinclair. “Black people have been asking for reparations for decades now, and it is becoming evident that it’s never going to happen. We’ve got to start looking at how we pre-distribute wealth and resources, rather than redistribute it, and crypto could be a space to do that.”
“We’ve got to start looking at how we pre-distribute wealth and resources, rather than redistribute it, and crypto could be a space to do that” – Diana Sinclair, Herstory DAO founder
Whether digital currencies will ever replace “real” money is debatable – after all, they’ve already been banned in countries like China, Nigeria, Russia, and Columbia, to name a few countries. However, that doesn’t mean they won’t continue to gain momentum, nor the technology and ideology underpinning them.
“There are 100 million kids playing Roblox, exchanging in Roblox bucks. In 20 years when that generation is 30 to 40, using global cryptocurrencies is just going to be an extension of that for them,” says Webb on its future adoption. “Everybody knows about crypto now, everybody has a wallet, way more than a few years ago. At the moment, it’s still really gamified with people just in to make money. But you’re also seeing lots of people beginning to learn about crypto applications, with some seriously exciting stuff happening as a result.”
As French sociologist Jacques Ellul once said, “There are no political solutions, only technical ones; the rest is propaganda.” And the technology that is being popularised through crypto such as the blockchain, and the smart contracts which run on it, could radically improve the lives of marginalised people across the world.
“I think that it’s important that people of colour and people who are systematically oppressed are aware of the advancements of technology, so they’re not just swept away by it,” agrees Sinclair. “Crypto is a white male-dominated space for a reason, because this is where in the future: shit is going to happen, money is going to be made, and change will come about.”