Real Talk: Digital Objects & Ephemeral Selves

“Real Talk” is an experimental series of raw, unfiltered, unedited exchange between friends over the span of a month.

There’re way too many presumptions in the space and not enough conversations. The two friends — who also happen to be writers and founders — came together on one of the last days of 2021 to have a conversation.

Tina is the co-founder of Station Labs building Station Network.

Reggie is the co-founder of Eternal, a next-gen social network inspired by shared objects and third places. He recently launched a NFT collection “The Armor of God”.

The conversation was initially done on a participatory document where friends visited our shared space. You can play with the original conversation here.

T: So you just launched a NFT collection.

R: Yeah. It was based on the Full Armor of God. Ephesians chapter 6. You know, obviously, as one of my closest friends, that I’m Christian. But I feel technology rarely provides avenues of expressing faith. But since the beginning of art, that’s always been a primary vibe. Looking towards the divine. So that was the really simple goal there. Just putting out a project that was unapologetically Christian and beautiful… on-chain lol.

T: The way you put it in your piece The Armor of God — “in a previously hyper secular expression of technology, web3 has reignited a very open sense of (generalized) spirituality”. What uniquely does web3 afford that opens up this new possibility for spirituality?

R: Mmmmm. That’s a good question. I think in a very wide sense, web2 was mechanically very single player. Particularly in social and the way we think about online production. Web3 has put people in a very cooperative - multiplayer mindset. Even if it’s primarily language-based. DAO’s, NFT Collections, DeFi Pools, etc… that all takes far more than 1 to make it a reality. That’s the new congregation. That’s the new spirit… it’s very outward now.

T: Every multiplayer game has the concept of guilds, groups, collectives. Players know how to find others who can either complement or elevate their skills or social standing. We definitely see religion-like behaviors in games — like how fan fiction is written around a certain IP. In comparison, the craft in storytelling and world-building in crypto is still in its infancy, yet the fervor of the collective imagination already matches that of gaming, or even, religion… Makes you think whether it’s because we’re lonely that Web3 is becoming so valuable, or it’s because Web3 rewards such cooperatives for narrative creation, that we feel such a strong urge to belong.

R: I love some of those points. I think John Palmer tweeted recently that “your lore game is weak”. Referring to NFT projects that are constantly narrativizing their work, or worlds. This is funny because like, when was the last time you heard the word lore used in tech??? Literally never before this. In gaming, the concept is very strong, that’s a world-building medium. Lore across religions is strong, partially as a function of age… I’m getting a little sidetracked but the point brings me to this thought that I wrote about a while ago. Every generational company is built after a catastrophe – and I wrote how Trump fractured truth like never before (although it was happening long before him) – lore generation and a shared aesthetic through NFTs/DAOs/whatever is trying to find a shared narrative. I think that’s at the root of all of this… can we get back to a shared sense of reality… literally buy into it!

T: “Buying” into a shared sense of reality. That’s a concept that students of the Internet, or more specifically, the “metaverse”, use as an instrument for critique, that a ‘sense of belonging’ has become a quantifiable capitalist construct. Others argue that such belonging has always been a market phenomenon, where the existence of in-group and out-group and the demand to be included in the former has prevailed throughout human history. Some of these NFT clubs are instances of the previous generation of frats and sororities, with a programmable, legible, and participatory treasury.

R: Yeah I mean… we make choices that shape our reality from non-reality all the time. The media we consume, where we hang out, the homeless person we choose not to see. I like looking at fashion for this economic sense of belonging, at the highest level there are two primary modes of grouping. You’re either buying the uniform or you’re creating (clothes, video, etc)/styling yourself into the group. But even breaking that out more you see how many ways there are to “buy-in”. And this is the thing, you can buy in, in so many ways culturally. Writing. Engineering. Hosting. As well as the economic forms. We have to create the infrastructure for all these. It can’t be as binary as the frat house. In the same way, a lot of our primary cultural institutions are much wider than they seem. The economics should supercharge all the other outer rings!

T: The delineation of “buying the uniform” and “creating/styling oneself into a group” are two paths one can take now in the metagame of crypto. You can either create a cult whose value accrues to a token, or you can “buy-in”. In many ways, crypto makes it much easier for people to create their own ‘value system’, so-called ‘play-to-earn’ games. The rewards span from status symbols such as the conspicuous ownership of a sticker (POAPs) to longer-term rewards, namely ownership of the project in the form of tokens that usually entails staking mechanisms that ensure growth gets reinvested in the same ecosystem of projects.

R: Ughhhhh but I hate how most people talk about play-to-earn. I think at this point, I just have an aversion to the term itself. Most play-to-earn (that I’ve seen) is  mechanical DeFi wrapped as if it’s a game. No, that’s just really boring work. So now you have a cuter work-to-earn… which is still a job. I do like the way you’re framing it though at a higher level. I think that spiritual truth has always been there, you could always put in that creative effort to breakthrough. I think what’s different now is the mechanics of accruing value to a new org or object. Before you still had to bang on the institutional doors. And if you didn’t have someone on the other side of the door, you’re still kind of screwed. Now, the ability to make a project and link it to your wallet on-chain. I mean, it’s nothing short of revolutionary for anyone that wants to create an object – digital or physical. And I want to see more of that physical work happen on-chain as well. But I agree, what it also means for a supporter to gain value alongside the organization is very new and can happen at inception.

T: I love how you finished my thoughts there — I was going to end that paragraph with the issues of “play-to-earn” as of now. With that said, the critics of the “play-to-earn” game also flatten reality into some type of moral judgment on labor exploitation. There’s some truth that that argument — as most workers for DAOs these days get paid below minimum wage. What really matters is the very fact that a new class of participants gets to experience the rise of an asset class at an unprecedented global scale with legible skin-in-the-game. These people were invisible in the past. There’s something spiritual just about that — on giving someone the dignity of identity, whose participation and interaction history on-chain isn’t compressed into some preconceived concept of legitimacy. What’s really stunning about this migration is that the whole movement gives everybody a second chance — first digitally, and then maybe physically. There’re skeuomorphic imaginations of how that could play out. For example, minting a piece of clothing and putting the claim to that design on-chain is cool and all, but I wouldn’t say that’s something that web3 uniquely enables nor it’s that compelling. I know you’ve been meditating on this deeply having worked on projects such as Bitmap. Would love to hear your thoughts on the physical manifestation of on-chain identity, or how physical interactions and creations can morph identity on-chain.

R: What you’re putting down is so good. I’m going to start on the DAO point because I care about it a lot. You’re absolutely right, they are not getting paid equitably for their labor. There are a lot of reasons for that, but I think it’s important to talk about organizational maturity. Most of these DAOs are babies. When starting Eternal, we had enough money to pay rent and some basic groceries. This was covered by a very generous angel investor, for a whole year. It was just me and Luca so it was ok. When a DAOs Discord has 200 people and 5 actual contributors, the optics get really weird. Using the startup analogy, that “underpaid” nature would be expected. There’s a lot to bridge there and think about. Another thing is how we are thinking about contributing more broadly, to these decision structures… anyone that has built software knows how often scopes change, unforeseen roadblocks turn into a week-long wrestle, and more. Actually… Do we want to go down this DAO contribution rabbit hole or not? There were two things in your previous thought I wanted to respond to but I don’t want to take up that much space!!!

T: It’s so funny you mentioned that “most DAOs are babies” and the reference to your own startup experience. Just now that some of these babies are born with a $1B treasury, and it gets confusing. It’s easy to conflate the success of a project or product (PMF) with the success of a DAO — the former is much easier to quantify and speculate on, versus the latter demands a much broader range of interpretations. In the example, you gave — “DAOs Discord has 200 people and 5 actual contributors” — it’s difficult to gauge whether they really have **something** unless there’s some sort of EV of the 200 members or 5 contributors. On the other hand, there’re DAOs whose only purpose is to aggregate capital for leverage and share profit whose sum is much greater than the parts. Essentially, if DAOs are new kinds of entities that look to replace traditional corporate structures by moving legal binding documents on-chain, then grouping all the DAOs within the same narrative arc will look silly in the future. Just like how “NFT projects” and “PFP projects” are sometimes used interchangeably in conversations. DAOs, NFTs, and new types of data structures enabled by Web3 are supersets of many of the use cases we’re seeing now. And when those use cases substantiate into the real world, they can’t escape the laws of physics and human nature. All the DAO contribution problems that you outlined — scope changes, time expectation changes — are just startup problems. The solutions to those organizational problems have been solved before. The “underpaid” culture is the growing pain that DAOs are going through as they start thinking from first principles again about the role that capital, labor, and narratives play in building long-lasting value. As you’re building Eternal, a product with a community and world-building angle and a company that is venture-backed, I’m curious how you think if you were to build Eternal as a DAO, how would you change the way you constructed capital, labor, and narratives? Or would you not change a thing?

R: That’s a really interesting question. I think there are a lot of ways we could have constructed capital differently. We could have raised it by putting our avatar creator on-chain, and instead of it having a cap, it would have been similar to reserving your username. A verification of identity. That way it’s like a never-closed rolling capital raise. From there it’s still about the core team of contributors. That sense of “recruiting” I don’t think changes, maybe there’s a bit more buy-in for pt contributors. But for a project like ours, you need a full-time dedicated squad. The BIG QUESTION becomes how do we communicate timeline and what’s the tolerance for experimentation with the community that minted. This is where I have complete freedom right now. We’ve built 7 different versions of Eternal on our product side of what we do. There’s this phrase “designing yourself into a corner”. I think there’s an undiscussed risk of DAO’ing too fast, or raising through community -> and “community’ing yourself into a corner”. You have a whole host of stakeholders, on a fully permissionless market, able to ditch you if you take a creative turn not previously expressed. Or if a challenge is bigger. Or whatever. This is a style thing with the founding contributors. But I haven’t seen it discussed and I think it’s the primary change of how I / anyone else in this position would have to think about a big project like that with a DAO. PartyBid had the right idea. Extremely tightly scoped, well-defined, mechanical product. If you look at more worlding product ambitions, those developments have either been extremely underwhelming or haven’t come close to MVP ready. I have a lot of thoughts on both. But I think the nature of underwhelming products is that you made a speculative promise, and in order to pursue something else, that comes with the risk of community trust falling.

T: “community’ing yourself into a corner” hahaha. There’s a paradox at play. We also see the opposite —when a product has been focusing on building in private for way too long, it becomes more difficult to integrate the community with the infrastructure to have them contribute effectively. More Web3 companies or DAOs are likely going to take a somewhat hybrid approach — a core team that focuses on building and a much wider periphery of supporters. The potential energy in a group that’s ready to be converted to kinetic energy when it’s time.

The more important point you brought up is one around faith. Can we program in faith in these relationships that form in the early days of a product/DAO? In venture capital, illiquidity and LP’s time horizon serve as programming for ‘faith’ — I trust you that you will create value at some point, and it could take some time, so it’s okay if I don’t see returns in the foreseeable future. That feature has been removed in crypto, but recently restored again with all the staking-centric protocols. By letting go of my liquidity, I’m earning yield signaling my allegiance to the (3,3) psyops. Right now, these projects have to tell the type of grand narratives startups have been telling venture investors to attract capital upfront, but without the incentive design/infrastructure/’faith’ programming to protect interests on either side — builders or funders. If the community knew that they’re signing up for a journey for the long haul — and there’s protection for their capital— would a pivot really crumble that trust so easily?

R: That’s a good question. My bias here is when I think of product, or when I talk on product, I have a very consumer mindset you know. I think that informs a lot of my opinions. I would say it breaks down with the Defi framing you shared. And maybe I need to adjust my thinking to understand how this can have a core nugget that’s true across mediums or genres. Staking is one of those mechanics that’s so “in-simpatico” to the feeling you’re describing. It is infrastructural faith. I like the metaphor of staking and stored energy waiting to become kinetic. I think the question becomes a spatial one, in terms of representation. Of individuals, their contribution, their time spent. I think the crumble, like I mention in another piece, is a part of the speed and ephemerality. It’s very easy to ditch a decision, to unstake - swap - swap again - stake somewhere else. It’s very hunter-gatherer of us. Maybe that river isn’t flowing, maybe we should check out a different stream for a while. Maybe I’ll keep a line here just in case the fish do come. I’m trailing now, but at the core, I think my point is on the nature of the medium. It pays to be steadfast with your tokens, but the medium is actively working to get you to divert your energy supply elsewhere. Crypto is still media. We can’t forget that.

T: I’ve always admired how you connect digital experiences with the primal propensity of humanity. We can design experience with the most grandiose presumption of human capacity, or one that manipulates completely the synapses of our own programming. Your point on ephemerality reminds me of the work of Byung-Chul Han, a philosopher, and a cultural pessimist who views technology as a force that dematerializes and dissolves our reality. The reality, according to his definition, represents strictly experiences in the corporeal realm. He argues that technology has irreversibly permeated our survival instincts to hoard information and data. In crypto, that’s the next alpha, the next airdrop, the next token.

To quote him directly from an interview recently with Art Review:

“Objects don’t spy on us. That’s why we trust them, in a way that we don’t trust the smartphone. Every apparatus, any domination technique, spawns its own devotional objects, which are used to promote submission. They stabilize dominion. The smartphone is the devotional object of the digital-information regime. As a tool of repression, it acts like a rosary, which in its handiness the mobile device represents. To ‘like’ is to pray digitally. We continue to go to confession. We expose ourselves voluntarily, yet we’re no longer asking for forgiveness, but rather for attention.”

I remember you often referenced “hands” in your writing. Hands are the carrier of sacred objects. The hand can hold a cross, a bible, a gun, an iPhone. But soon we may come to a point where we no longer hold anything — as we transcend beyond physical objects as biometrics and wearables advance. Through the lens of a materialist, we can even argue that our relationship with “sacred” objects is coming to an end. But what you’ve been advocating for your writing, and why we’re having this conversation, stems from a new type of faith that manifests through a new form of digital medium.

While I don’t necessarily share the pessimism of Han, nor do I find his definition of reality comprehensive, I do find disconcerting crypto market’s revelatory, reflexive and amplifying power that polarizes people to extremities. The IQ curve meme is almost symbolic of people’s radical acceptance of the lack of nuance. No one wants to be the overintellectualizing, crying soyboy in the middle of the curve. As much as we’re early in technological development, We’re also still early in developing social understanding in an increasingly complex and reflexive system constructed by the collective faith for a revolution. In other words, we haven’t asked enough: what does all of this mean?

We’ve learned from history that reductionist ideologies are incredibly powerful political apparatus, that if abused, can be detrimental to humanity’s progress. Crypto’s potential to enhance human freedom, mobility, creativity, and rapid wealth transfer, attracts some of the most brilliant minds to migrate. Yet conflating the success of a movement and humanity’s progress is quite dangerous, especially when not enough people are untangling the messy questions around faith, meaning, and purpose of what we’re creating. The game-theoretic optimal strategies of participating in the space are one that will collapse simply because people are never purely rational. I’ve found the work you do important because you’re never afraid to confront these questions head-on.

What I’m taking away from this conversation is that one conversation isn’t enough and that we need to start infusing the metaphorical and symbolic understanding of the space in the oftentimes over reductionist, literal understanding. Any last thoughts before this conversation turn into a book?

R: I love this exercise because it really puts our relationship on full display. The Byung-Chul Han idea is so provoking because to me it is incredibly half-right. Technology is a dematerializer, there’s no doubt about that in my opinion. Kevin Kelly writes about that extensively. But that abstraction doesn’t dissolve reality. It amplifies it and gives it divergent and infinite creative direction. We have to be able to see that, embrace it, and do more. That’s what we are here advocating for, while trying to draw an eye to the negatives we can’t dismiss. McLuhan has this quote where it’s like “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.” YOU AND I NEED TO CONTINUALLY STAND UP AND SAY: IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THAT, YOU DON’T HAVE TO FEEL THAT WAY. That’s our job. We’ve done that through our writing, our individual work, our friendship, and  open-sourcing this conversation.

(Separately I do like the difference between objects not spying on us vs our smartphones and that’s why we don’t trust it. Also has that element of, because i fear you spying on me I have to give you attention so you don’t sneak up behind me. I will put my gaze upon you! Ha! Oh… wait… dammit… it still wins.)

But let’s return to faith, I think that’s where we should close this out. All of this web3 wave is an incredible mass exercise in faith. That’s why the term “vibe” has been used more in this technical era than ever before (previous to this, was the erosion of faith-based language in the tech-community… so they rely on vibe for lack of language). And why is that? Because Ethereum is a nation. Maybe I’m being “Imagined Communities” pilled right now. I brought it with me to LA and cracked it open two days ago.

But it’s real. A core initial idea in the text is birthed out of an understanding that the majority of members in your community are not legible to you. You have a general concept of what they do and how they live, as a function of living within the same border. Well now ETH is that border, and we have a language of our actions (stake, swap, contribute, bond, sign) and our structures (DAO’s, wallets, tokens, contracts). This is all working together to produce the basis of faith. That although I cannot see this other identity, I have faith this contract we sign together will progress the nation. That core thing that is progress is (to use the bell curve meme), will number go up.

In my opinion this will continue to erode meaning-making, and give power to one type of activity -> market making. If the market is the meaning, there is no nuance. It’s then a question of who has the hyper leverage to influence what meaning means to everyone else that put their faith on X. That’s why getting rugged is so damaging. It’s the realization you put your faith somewhere that took advantage. WITHIN OUR SHARED NATION.

I have plenty of concerns. I think there is plenty to address. Crypto/web3/whatever has a SEVERE lack of quality critique. But we have to return to your question in bold daily: what does all of this mean? If we fail to ask ourselves that question, we will continue to be worked over by the medium itself. 

It’s not “just happening to us”. We are building it daily, setting new rules daily. We have all the power. Love you, come out to LA, talk soon.

To be continued.

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

If these are questions you’d also like to explore, we invite you to become a contributor to the Station protocol or to participate in our research efforts through Newstand, Station’s publication focused on exploring the possibility of work in an era of hyper connectivity and fluidity.

Station Newstand is open 24/7. We’re inviting writers, artists, and researchers across all disciplines to push forward radical imagination around the future of work unlocked by crypto. To apply, simply connect your wallet to Rinkeby Testnet, create a profile, and attach a link to your writing sample.

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