Last month, at the Seven on Seven conference in New York City, crypto entrepreneur Matt Liston and artist Avery Singer launched a blockchain church. Called 0xΩ, the religion was in fact a consensus protocol for the Ethereum’s blockchain. By contributing a stake in 0xΩ, Liston and Singer said, church members could vote on what best represents their religious identity. Practically, it would help collectives manage donations more democratically, reach agreements, and better identify honest leaders.
Members of the audience were allowed to be the first to join the church: spectators were offered slips of the highly-inflated Zimbabwe dollar and Weimar Republic’s Reichsmark inscribed with private and public keys people could use to generate a wallet and enter into the religion right there at the event.
To add a ceremonious vibe, the duo handed out 40 hard copies of the project’s sacred text, the Flame Paper, while dressed in fire-patterned shoes and money-patterned clothing. Later, when I asked for a copy, Liston declined, saying that the document would never go online.
In a way, it’s easy to laugh the stunt off. But this was also an exercise in truth-telling: the cryptocurrency world might have just got its first church — but in a way, it was always a religion.
The cryptocurrency sector has all the hallmarks of religiosity: the mysterious identity of bitcoin’s founder Satoshi Nakamoto has turned him into more of a spiritual force than anything human; Roger Ver, Bitcoin Cash’s proudest promotor, openly refers to himself as “Bitcoin Jesus”; stickers of one the major figures in Ethereum, Vitalik Buterin, depict the Russian-Canadian whizkid under a radiant halo; privacy coin Zcash was launched after a modern ritual dubbed the “Ceremony” and included five anonymous “Witnesses”.
Crypto Twitter is awash with dogmatic proclamations, inter-token heresy, and evangelists pushing bold prophecies. Like modern-day missionaries crypto-investors spread the gospel of this or that token in hopes to convert more people to using their cryptocurrencies. Liston actually touched on this point, calling bitcoin the first “purely capitalist religion”.
“In our secular culture, we have sort of replaced religion with capitalism or, rather, this rampant consumerism,” Liston told me. “0xΩ isn’t a direct critique of that, but I think it’s definitely a clear point to make.”
But according to Amber Baldet, former head of JP Morgan’s blockchain project Quorom and current CEO of crypto startup Clovyr, there is something about cryptocurrency that whets mystical fervour more than your run-of-the-mill capitalist venture. “It takes a certain amount of irrationality to believe that the world could be dramatically different, and a certain amount of dogmatism to hold fast to that belief while everyone else says you’ll likely fail,” she says. “So, it’s not surprising that blockchain and crypto communities tend to look cultish.”
Cryptocurrency is not even the only technology to have given rise to a cult. In November 2017, former Uber engineer Anthony Levandowski launched the Way of the Future (WOTF), a church in which AI “will effectively be a god”. Like 0xΩ, WOTF aims at democratising participation in the AI-based project. It will naturally attract specialists in the field, but Levandowski is also interested in incorporating laymen into the fold via his nonprofit. “The church is how we spread the word, the gospel,” he said. “If you believe [in it], start a conversation with someone else and help them understand the same things.”
The Church of Perpetual Life, “the only supplemental science-based church in the world,” is another manifestation of convergent innovations and religion. The project’s mission states that they “hold faith in the technologies and discoveries of humanity to end aging and defeat involuntary death within our lifetime”.
It’s all becoming very strange, but it may just be humankind’s modern attempt at answering the same questions once addressed by religion. Michael Connor, the curator of Seven on Seven and artistic director of Rhizome, underlined what mutual faith can serve in the first place: “With 0xΩ, for instance, one of the principal values they’re interested in is collective consciousness and using technology to connect people.” The Church of Perpetual life, for its part, replaces Christian afterlife with cryonics, calorie restriction, and supplement-fuelled longevity.
According to Ruth Catlow, co-founder of the Furtherfield gallery — which focuses on the intersection of art and tech — new technologies, in general, tend to bring together the perfect storm of dreaminess that necessitates fierce religiosity. Blockchain technology and artificial intelligence aggregate groups of visionaries, developers, investors and evangelists who in turn invent words and concepts that describe their new system of beliefs, Catlow says.
“The new words and behaviours can seem like deliberate mystifications,” she continues. “The foreignness of the ideas and values that they generate can be alienating and downright alarming for those who are not directly involved. In the case of blockchains, the injections of capital, speculation, and volatility fuels a heady excitement. Belief has an important role to play because reputation and markets play a big part in the ongoing investment in blockchain cultures.”
The similarities between the murkiness of religion and technology are also clear. Both blockchain and religion are hard for the layman to understand — whether for scriptural intricacy or technical complexity – and this makes them excellent for moving the masses along the rails of hype and or salvation.
That does not mean that dressing the hyped tech du jour in a religious frock goes down well. Some of the viewers of Liston and Avery’s project were unimpressed; someone complained that 0xΩ even had a platform to present their ideas in the first place. After the launch, the project has gained some traction online. Liston says that the combination of a blockchain and religion has captured “some kind of meme magic”. And that, right there, is the state of the blockchain, circa 2018, summarised in a sentence.