Rigorous Research and the Art of Good Writing

Author: Luca Prosperi

Editor: Kate Lee

Graphics: Tina He

I used to believe the secret of good writing resided within the writer. During those times I wrote very little.

I heard from others that the formula was instead to be found within the reader. Those were typically prolific writers. But their dramatisation of other people’s lives came with inebriating effects, and most became victims of their own courtship. I learned that many prolific writers are lonely.

With time I understood that a good story is necessary for beautiful writing, one that takes its time to burn through the clothes and the skin.

I was in the middle of my thirties, young and strong and proud, when I got sick. The white-stain-on-your-chest-X-ray-type of sick. And so I met pain, first, and then fear, hope, and fatigue. Pain makes for good writing, too.

Through the long months of isolation and chemotherapy, I saw the face of generosity,  love, and care. I benefited from undeserved luck while others didn’t, and I tried to sustain ignorance and nonchalance without nausea. I saw my own death, too, uneventful and unimpressive, and at the bottom of all that, I saw myself. Young and old and dead and alive. I saw time. Many had told me that facing illness at a young age brings a new perspective on the future. I learned that such an epiphany, if there is one, has nothing to do with clarity about one’s future, but rather everything to do with the density of one’s past.

With the benefit of the empty space left by my own life temporarily retrenching, I started Dirt Roads, a newsletter that analyses the way financial value flows through complex systems. In a sector almost fully oriented toward the reinvention of pre-existing concepts and process, Dirt Roads became a memento on the importance of the past while trying to navigate the present.

Before becoming a researcher, an investor, and a builder in decentralised finance, I spent the previous 15 years in the traditional one. Here you go, again, the past. That experience helped, a lot, because joining forces with innovators and visionaries can be frustrating if you have already lost all remaining tolerance for bullshit, like I had. Dirt Roads became a useful tool to extract meaning from the tumultuous and utopian developments of tech and finance, and to refuse to indulge the tendency to blindly worship prophets. As my writing evolved, I settled on formulas that started to repeat themselves while never losing sight of the concept that no one can be sure whether what you cannot see truly exists. Its superpowers: a matter-of-fact technical mindset based on first principles and observable quantitative metrics, an aversion to simplification and exaggeration, and as much brutal transparency as I can stomach.

I haven't always been successful in applying that formula to my work and, when I lost some rigour, I got hurt. On October 21 of last year, I wrote enthusiastically about the protocol Klima’s ambition to corner the carbon credit market. I backed my enthusiasm with a financial investment, perfunctorily noting the tech and legal details around the tokenisation of real-world contracts, as well as $KLIMA token price levels. Those mundane details turned out to be the epicentre of the whole investment thesis, and I lost money. $KLIMA’s adjusted price fell from around $4,000 to $200 (a drop of 95%) and hasn't yet shown signs of recovery. I also learned that others, smarter and less self-concerned than I, made all the money that the rest of us lost. My analysis of Klima’s carbon green hole remains my least rigorous and most flawed; ironically, it is among my most popular pieces.

The pieces that I wrote without fear, reverence for others, or self-concern have been more successful. In December, rowing against the current, I exposed the significant flaws behind the Abracadabra project, a platform that allows users to take insanely high leverage on certain investment strategies with much lower yield and (theoretically) risk. Among the latter was excessive centralisation, with five out of the six votes required to execute crucial and sensitive operations concentrated in the hands of the controlling team. Two months later, someone named Sifu, one of those multisig holders––i.e., a key decision-maker––was revealed to be Sir Michael Patryn from QuadrigaCX, or actually Omar Dhanani, or whatever his original name was. A serial fraudster of gigantic dimensions—if you want to know more, Netflix has you served. On the automated exchange Curve Finance, the main liquidity gate to and from Abracadabra’s stablecoin $MIM, people rushed for the door. Narrative and market conditions have stabilised a bit since then, but $MIM still represents 68% of Curve’s liquidity pool––so although the coin pitches itself as a perfect substitute for the U.S. dollar, the market thinks it is not. I’m convinced that the issue behind Abracadabra’s turmoil wasn’t the idiosyncrasies of human behaviour, but rather the bad design and fragility of its incentive structure. In the long run, incentives win against everything else, and incentives can be scrutinised beforehand.

But sound analytics don’t win elections, and not many readers cared about the Abracadabra piece. People don’t want to be reminded of the ineluctability of things; they want to ignore their limits and explore the limitless space of the rationally implausible. People want both tax cuts and budget deficits, the coziness of welfare support combined with the ruthlessness of unbounded capitalism. They know well that it is logically impossible, but that doesn’t make it less desirable.

Readers are people and writers are people, too. And where readers crave optimism, writers salivate for recognition. Two sides of the same rusty coin: the exaggeration of our own importance as individuals, the denial of the vastness and carelessness of the universe, and the inability to face our own death. I am exaggerating, but only a bit. There is a lot of self-referencing at play, with writers feeding their insecurity by serving readers who are doing the same by worshipping others. A happy and oblivious reader makes for a happy and successful writer. It is somewhat recursive. The catch is that in the long run, nobody cares––neither about oblivion nor success. But a vast majority of popular writing is not so much about the future as it is about amusement in the present. Most popular writing is like an Avenger movie: colourful, explosive, unrealistic, entertaining, and ultimately irrelevant.

So what’s left for good writing? the good reader would ask. To be a channel, a bidirectional warp across spacetime, a phone call that doesn’t care about being asynchronous, I would answer. Good writing can be one of the most powerful vectors for intergenerational and interspatial shared living. This is no little thing. Good writing should aim for popularity over a much (much) longer time horizon.

History has had rare moments when politics, ethics, demographics, and climate conjured to create a space of fecund cultural exploration and great writing. We had it in Paris in the 1920s, where Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, Joyce, and others all sat around the tables of the same cafes and ingurgitated the same brands of spirits. We had it also in the deplorable yet limitless Berlin of Kastner and Stefan Zweig, in the same city that less than a decade later would plunge into the horrors of book-burning and goose-stepping. For some reason the moments of intense social and cultural development seem destined to rapidly decay into wealth polarisation and social unrest. The correlation between the highs and lows of human endeavours within a compressed time span seems almost scientifically predictable. The Great Decentralisation wrought by cryptography and web3 technology is following a similar path. I believe we are in the midst of another of those rare moments of conjunctural perfection that can lead to good writing; our duty is to make the most of it while conditions allow.

My aim, as a writer and curator, is to make Dirt Roads an open door to an environment where we can turn down the volume, ignore the reflexivity that pervades the public domain, and engage in respectful criticism. Today, we can set the rules of engagement of the room we operate in and let that room mould us. The same concept surely applies to every realm of human knowledge, but I am humble enough to narrow the call to action to our own sector, finance and technology. Rather than prizing immediate (and temporary) recognition, we could hack the rules of communication and knowledge sharing to reinforce durable responsibility for what we have said, and how. Rather than adopting the most effective techniques to hide ourselves while attracting attention, we could equip such a room with ruthless honesty, and a sense of pride about who we are and what we represent.

It can hurt to stay idle while others frantically move around us. It feels unnatural and unnerving. Yet if we accelerate a film fast enough, while rapid movements become trajectories and ultimately almost invisible blurs, it is only those who stand still that remain visible to the eye.

The future of work is coming, and we are all its contributors.

Newstand is where we begin to define this new world of online collaboration. We’re calling for writers, artists, technologists, and researchers across all disciplines to share radical ideas about the future of work enabled by crypto while applying a critical lens.

Newstand is a publication from Station, a toolkit for Web3 digital communities to give power to the people. Station uses its own platform to curate and onboard writers for Newstand.

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