05 Gullibility, Crypto Cults, and The Second Great Awakening
"We have no system of our own, nor of others to substitute in lieu of the reigning systems... We wish, we cordially wish, to take the New Testament out of the abuses of the clergy..."
By Danver Chandler
"We have no system of our own, nor of others to substitute in lieu of the reigning systems... We wish, we cordially wish, to take the New Testament out of the abuses of the clergy, and put it into the hands of the people. And to do this is no easy task...” - Alexander Campbell, The Christian Baptist Vol 1, p. 120, 1824
A short FTX story.
The result of a type of pervasive, weak thinking, has reared its head.
FTX, the former centralized exchange who's founder, Sam Bankman Fried (SBF), filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy just this November, has left the entire crypto industry reeling.
"FTX is going to be great because SBF has the right DNA." Someone in the crypto industry once said to me in 2021.
Then, last year I traveled to Lisbon to attend the Solana Breakpoint conference. While there, I was asked by my team to find FTX team members, and engage with them in order to form a partnership in some capacity. And as life would have it, I went to the wrong hackathon location, but was helped by a hotelier who gave me an entire tour of the correct hackathon venue across the street. My team was co-sponsoring the hackathon. I'd crafted these pink and black shirts with a secret message in binary. Find Your Meaning.
I moseyed along the walls of the old horse stable exterior after my tour, and then I stumbled upon a group of three strangers who quickly introduced themselves as a lead Solana developer and two employees from FTX. Lucky me, I thought to myself. Because FTX was also co-sponsoring the hackathon, I knew that they were looking for that stable horse building too, and now that the hotelier was gone, I could give the tour instead.
Once I gave them the tour, including the stunning view of the April 25th bridge across the Tagus, I distinctly remember the FTX team, a brunette woman (Was she Caroline? I really don't know.), and a taller brunette gentleman standing together in Lisbon, tight lipped as I asked, "Oh, so how's it going at FTX?"
Their response was cordial and I sensed the armor, a fortress-like wall because they weren't readily sharing much of anything - no drive to network or chat. And my intuition instantly knew, Nope, no partnership here.
Later that afternoon or the next day, I called my team and shared, "There's not going to be a partnership with FTX. I tried to chat with them, and they're walled. I can't explain it, but it's just that I'm not feeling they'll be open. I don't know what to say, really." I was so glad when my team didn't ask me to hunt them down or to push the partnership efforts further. Meeting those two persons and sensing that cold feedback was uncomfortable. And because of that tense interaction, I was left no longer compelled to use FTX, though I had been previously encouraged to do so. Lucky me?
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As FTX imploded just weeks ago, the DNA of SBF surfaced again online, albeit in the negative and racist forms where images of Fried's lineage was cast as untrustworthy, and Kanye's recent remarks seemed to fuel latent, unjust rage. I called my very highly opinionated, politically active, former pharmacist, though now retired, aunt to update her on what was happening. She commented with might, "What kind of dumb ass bases their reasoning for sending their money to someone on some dumb ass DNA shit like that? The hell is wrong with people?"
She's not wrong.
What I'd shared with my aunt was the fallacy that I'd heard for years in this industry from people I'd met and who casually shared, DNA ∴ Trust, DNA ∴ Credibility. It's almost a recurring mantra, in which literal DNA is lauded as the indicator for an individual's path in life. But it is, instead, a nasty belief that rests on the laurels of one's ancestors. It's a limited, damaging, fixed-mindset belief. And it's this weak thinking that seduces us to no more than those rats who were lulled, in droves, into rivers.
It's time to retire this type of weak thinking. We're all capable of venturing through life across a number of paths based on a number of seen and unseen factors. @owocki's visual beautifully illuminates:
But it is important to also acknowledge that our life's journey can be challenged by impeding systems that we may or may not be equipped to overcome. Blockchain technology aims, in part, to make it harder for people to be exploited, aiming to help the individual journey through life with fewer of the challenges that might thwart them from reaching their fullest potential.
Yet the exploits continue. Why?
Thesis. Nestled in the heart of the Second Great Awakening is the story of rugged individualism ushering in a new religion that promised a personal relationship with God. It was a religion for those who had previously been deemed damned within the tradition of Calvinism. The movement became a message of acceptance. The impact? Democratization. The end of slavery. More women taking up space in society. But the movement was not without exploitation, where excessive devotion to the charismatic became a new entryway for corruption. In Web3, the story tracks similarly to this 1820 movement. So how does the innovation of blockchain begin to counter continued corruption?
In the religious movement of the Second Great Awakening, more people ran to churches, and in particular, women, the enslaved, and the poor. The goal of this movement was to convert masses of people who'd not been exposed to the strong, established religion that existed on the Eastern front of the colonies to a new religion, one that valued one's personal religion and relationship with God. It was a celebration of having one's religious power within them, and access to a loving God that valued them at a very personal level. Compelling. This conversion played out as one becoming more active within the religion, and in particular Evangelicalism, a form of Christianity seeking to make heaven on Earth, or millenarianism².
Today's Web3 movement aims to craft something similar. It is uprooting old regimes, and rewiring new paths - the path to personal ownership of information, the path of democratization, and of money and so much more. So the social and cultural shifts seen in the Second Great Awakening almost sounds similar to some aspects of today's Web3 movement. "Convert the Web2 world to Web3 and we'll be in our utopia," and "Let's get women and let's get BIPOC folks on our Twitterspaces pronto!"
The Second Great Awakening successfully fired against the old establishment, Calvinism¹, a belief that you're born destined for hell or heaven, and that there's nothing on Earth you can do to escape that fate. Cue entry of Web3's Calvinists, "It's in his DNA," dishing out social-media sermons that are no more than epithets of archaic reasoning.
The parallels are chilling, right?
In the end, the impact of the Second Great Awakening was huge. It led to a more democratized America that ushered in the Abolitionist movement which led to the end of American slavery and other changes that still impact that nation today. But its movement was not without consequence.
Within the Second Great Awakening, corruption arose in the form of the Apocalyptic movement³ - overpromise, underdeliver. It resulted in an increase of proclaims that Jesus was returning to fulfill the Heaven on Earth belief. One particular movement, Millerite, stated Jesus would come to Earth in 1843 through the clouds. But by October of 1844 leaders charged that Jesus was stuck in the clouds, and fervent prayer would release him. Following the disappointment, members fled to other religions.
Our vulnerability makes us ripe for exploitation. You may know of the U.S.-based cult, the People's Temple, who in 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana provided (by force to some) flavor-aid juice to its followers for "revolutionary suicide". The juice contained toxic levels of cyanide. All 909 members including ~300 members under the age of 17, died on the same day in the fall of that year.
People's Temple cult leader Jim Jones, similar to those preachers in the Second Great Awakening, charged against the establishment and its systems. For this, he gained followers. Jones crafted the narrative that appealed to his members' needs and emotions. He, just as the Millerite leaders, also appealed to personal values.
Those who exploit others in the crypto industry have been successful just as much as cult leaders have been successful at wielding their own power against vulnerable populations for personal gain. Appeals to quick money and instant profits. Appeals to raw trust. Appeals to emotions. The hype. The robbery. The follow up message in Discord, "sorry guys..." Harvard calls these emotional motivators, the behaviors that you make which signal to exploiters they can make money off of you⁴.
And just as much as the Second Great Awakening succumbed to its own internal abuses, losing the protective religious checks and balances for speaking against the traditions of the day, crypto's got no moat. It's outside the walls of the traditional financial systems, and it too has no internal checks and balances, no decentralized regulation of its own. So how can this new movement armor itself from thieves?
Checks & Balances
Decentralization was to act as its own system of checks & balances in the blockchain industry, but as we're still tethered to parts of the past -old systems- we know it requires something more.
Decentralization alone is not enough to keep the industry upright. We boast DYOR 24/7, but even that's not enough to shield us. In this great digital experiment we're uncovering the reality that the challenges we face in crypto are reflections of challenges traditional finance faces too - the innate challenges of our very own humanity, where some adults with lots of power opt to exploit and corrupt on an even larger playground. It's not just the story of FTX, it's the story of: so-called investors robbing retail, hackers, rug-pulls.
Putting power back into the hands of the individual is no easy task. But I wonder, specifically, what is this FTX devastation truly teaching us?
Should we walk away, failing to discuss this obviously painful topic, we might find our minds become attracted to and habituated by cues of the past. We may find that we give way due to fatigue. Or worse we may continue to ground our reasoning in unreliable signals:
Genius ∴ Trust.
DNA ∴ Trust.
Celebrity ∴ Trust.
[insert your personal marketing weakness] ∴ Credible.
[insert propaganda technique] ∴ Believe.
From the Second Great Awakening, we know that corrupt players were present as a result of the powerful impact the movement had on society. So we know that those same characters of the past will appear in our present-day too. They are infiltrating where our digital and human vulnerabilities lay. But we also know something more from the past, that the continued positive efforts of The Second Great Awakening, with its religious experimentation, yielded amazing outcomes - the Abolitionist movement and the end of slavery, improvements for women and the poor, and so much more that brought about new freedoms, and new opportunities. So too, Crypto's experiment continues.
Special thanks to Sena Gürdoğan for providing feedback on early drafts of this piece
- Ryan Reeves. “Second Great Awakening.” YouTube, 9 July 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2LTugtRQEQ.
- Noll, Mark A. The Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianity. Eerdmans, 2007.
- Khan Academy. “The Second Great Awakening - Part 1.” YouTube, 2 Sept. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=wnaLjLOAwkc.
- “The New Science of Customer Emotions.” Harvard Business Review, 23 Sept. 2019, hbr.org/2015/11/the-new-science-of-customer-emotions.
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