How researchers get heard

Tressie on Crypto

The discourse on crypto isn’t known for civility, or subtlety, or ambiguity, or privileging questions over answers, or appeals to experts, or being grounded in cultural history.

So when you come inside from the latest Twitterstorm on blockchain, it’ll probably take you a couple of minutes to figure out what sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom is trying to accomplish by including all the above elements in her three recent essays for The New York Times on the culture of crypto — part of her weekly column for the Times.

Eventually it hits you: These are, in fact, essays — a word ultimately descended from the Old French essai , meaning “trial, attempt.” Cottom is interested in why minorities she knows — people one might think would be suspicious of schemes in the shape of pyramids, to paraphrase her — are in fact often highly crypto-curious and crypto-literate. But instead of jumping to a conclusion, she’s using the essay form to read around, call around, and then trial out loud what might be going on. This is classic essay form, in which arguments are provisional and take a back seat to exploration.

Which doesn’t mean that Cottom doesn’t land on some fascinating insights on why crypto has a mesmeric hold on some people. For instance: She early on in the series posits crypto as a species of American folk economics, a manifestation of what sociologists call a stylized fact,“observable phenomena that can be counted but cannot be easily explained.”

Crypto is existentially stylized: While it has high market value, very few people (even its ardent supporters) can explain why that should continue to be so. But that doesn’t matter, as Cottom points out, because the high value (whatever it is that day) gets touted endlessly, both by the media and by influencers, with the repetition and seeming widespread adoption becoming proxies for crypto’s truth and inevitability. We think we understand why crypto is the future because everyone else seems to understand — a kind of knowingness conflated with “being in the know.” It’s a weird but potent form of FOMO, folk economic thought at its most manipulable, stemming from what she calls a “very human impulse to describe complex economic processes in lay terms.”

And that’s just the beginning: Cottom leads us through a parade of paradigms — how crypto embodies American faith in technology; how it channels American anti-intellectualism and distrust of experts/outside critiques, which has also been a feature of tech culture since its invention; how crypto promises to organically solve the problem of the unbanked; and how crypto entrepreneurs avoid regulation by talking about their inventions as either code or market-making — which is less likely to be regulated in any particular context.

It’s quickly clear Cottom is skeptical about crypto’s enduring benefits for anyone save the already wealthy. But that opinion (which we would automatically call her point of view) matters less than her actual point of view, which is where she’s coming from — a sociologist, applying her expertise to understand something in the world so that the rest of us can understand it better, too. Is anyone else on the big platforms talking about how crypto manifests all these strains of American cultural history?

We’re so accustomed today to public experts (and everyone else) making arguments (and getting into arguments) that we forget there are other expert modalities besides argument. But public experts explore as well as conclude. Cottom’s approach is the perfect antidote for crypto advocates’ claims that blockchain is a clean break from the past and its encumbrances. You might have to walk around something a number of times and in a number of ways before you see that it, too, is nothing new under the sun.