Decemberween ’23 — Technology Cult Documentaries

About a month ago now, I had a chat with a peer at work. We were talking about the way that one of our cohort had started research into the NFT Marketplace, and it was a rough place to be because he had to open every talk and presentation with ‘I know, but,’ and that was just fundamentally rough as a place to be as a researcher. We got talking about it and I mentioned, offhandedly, how all of the conversation around these things were obviously fake to me, and something like this followed:

Haven’t any of these people seen a cult before?”

“No, uh, I do think that that’s really a you thing.

And this stuck with me. I know about cults because I was in one. I had to dismantle the experience for a long time to get a handle on it. And right now, the way that cults had formed in digital spaces, meant that that kind of weird social experience might be so decontextualised people might not even notice them.

Fortunately, Dan Olson of Folding Ideas has done some great documentaries about cults that coagulate on the internet.

Line Goes Up – The Problem With NFTs

Here’s the first, like, fundamental and foundational reading for this set of documentaries. Line Goes Up is a late 2022 piece that sought to tackle the idea of NFTs, non-fungible tokens, an online phenomenon that seized 2021 and spent every day of the years since then getting worse. This piece is not just about the idea that NFTs were an economy made up of sequentially staggered grifts feeding on one another, but also about the way that the offer promised, the ideal expression of what the NFT marketplace offered was itself terrible in its actual optimal expression.

Like, while this whole documentary does break down all the real world examples of how the NFT ecosystem is full of liars, cheaters, scum, and all the ordinary predatory behaviour of rich people consuming poor people based entirely on their anxiety, but even then, if everything the system promised could happen and would work, the result would be awful and suck shit.

This is where it starts.

Contrepreneurs: The Mikkelsen Twins

Next Olson presented this piece, Contrepeneurs, which is about flooding a low-interest undescerning marketplace for ways to scrape money out of the Audible advertising/subscription ecosystem. In this case, this is just a simple case of showing how there’s a grifting economy that’s made out of interconnected grifters that kick hapless marks around between them.

This is an example of the exploitation systems here. The entire point of this kind of system is a turbo-charged version of the other cults, where the grift doesn’t want to have anyone engage for too long. If everyone has a few hundred bucks to scrape out of them, then this kind of system wants to get you in long enough to shake those hundred bucks out of you, then throw you away where you won’t be present to disturb any of the other incoming marks.

This is an important kind of setup: This is a thing you need to know about. This is what a centralised grift, around a centralised grifter, looks like. There’s an ecosystem, there’s a system, but this kind of grift wants to burn through people. The people in charge don’t want you to stay around too long. They don’t want you to be too enfranchised unless you hit it lucky and get successful some other way. If you succeed, you hang around and work as a billboard for other grift subjects, but if you fail, they don’t want you once they’ve fleeced you.

But that’s when there’s a grifter, with a grift, and their grift is trying to maximise the grift as a business.

The Future is a Dead Mall - Decentraland and the Metaverse

But what if you lose the central operators and just make the grift a decentralised ecosystem for other grifts? What if you aren’t grifting individuals but trying to make a grift ecosystem that self-perpetuates? Well, in that case you wind up with the story of Decentraland and the Metaverse.

Metaverses frustrated me when we started to hear about them at work because I could tell you at a glance it was a dumb idea and wouldn’t work. The whole idea of VR overlays of reality are just informationally impossible, and anyone who tells you computers are near it are just lying to you, or don’t know that they don’t know what they’re talking about. I’m always going to assume the former, rather than the latter.

Here’s the extra wrinkle in Olson’s work, and it does build on another (not-appearing-in-this-post) documentary about Why It’s Rude To Suck At World Of Warcraft. That’s a much more conventional form of documentary and it’s pretty good, and it lines up literally with my actual thesis. But it does build on the work of an academic writing about persona and the Magic Circle…

… and that academic is my phd supervisor.

Anyway, this is about the way that Metaverse experiments have created a set of self-radicalised cultists who are convinced they’re going to get to exist in a space that doesn’t have to deliver or actually represent the thing they tell themselves it’s doing. It’s interesting because this is a cult – it’s cult behaviour. It’s people who have to recruit and who have to convince themselves of the unreality in front of their face, because the alternative is breaking their own personal magic circle.

It’s a dark form of play.

This is Financial Advice

Alright, here’s the newest one, the biggest one and the one that seems the most fantastic.

There is a cult on reddit of self-selected, generally unpredictable and somewhat dubiously connected to reality, anti-capitalist hypercapitalists (I know) who are convinced they are going to end the world through the relentless and constant purchasing of Gamestop Stock.

Gamestop is a company that runs videogame stores, here in Australia Electronics Boutique, and in some places, Thinkgeek. They own a British brand too, I think. They’re basically the last major vestige of a company that can’t really work in a digital distribution business very well. And right now, their stock price is spiked up well above any sensible value, because there’s a literal cult of people buying that stock. They have a claim of new revelation, they have a claim of messianic figures, they have rituals and coda and doctrine and beliefs and the entire thing is based on a fictional reflection of a true thing: the stock market is full of shitheads.

The long form video steps you through it, and has a truly gut-lurching twist at the end when you find out that something that seems parody isn’t.