I’ve had a rather unusual and slightly weird experience this weekend. I went to a cryptocurrency conference.
Or so I thought. I don’t really know how to explain it, it just wasn’t what I expected at all.
I’ll start from the beginning. I write about crypto and blockchain a lot, but apart from that I also have a dayjob in a completely unrelated sector. A couple of months ago I, somewhat unaware of the fact, started telling people that I work as a writer-slash-copywriter. Last week, a company I work for kind of went under and I’m kinda unsure if I have a job anymore, but to be honest I couldn’t care less. Writing full-time now.
All my friends know about this, and one of them messaged me the other day, asking if I wanted to go to a crypto-conference in Moscow. I’ve never been to a cryptocurrency event (I’ve never been to any kind of conference to be honest), the event looked kind of promising and, most importantly, it was free.
I sent the link to our Chief Editor, she immediately replied with ‘I opened this and I can’t stop laughing’. She said the conference looked like a ‘a retreat for tolkienists, reenactors and IT-evangelists’. To be fair, that’s exactly what it looked liked. As I sat there listening to the presenters and making notes on my phone, I couldn’t help but write down the thought that kept racing through my mind: ‘armchair crypto-anarchists’.
I’m not going to disclose the name of this conference, but I’ll tell you that it had the word ‘crypto’ in its name and happened just a couple of days ago.
It took me a while to find the entrance, as it was sandwiched in-between a grocery store and an ‘everything for 99 cents’ shop. Upon registering I was given a badge, picked up some Pirate Party stickers (I have no idea why) and was offered to buy a t-shirt for 0,0025 Bitcoins. Thanks but no!
I walked around for a bit. There were two big conference halls and a couple of smaller rooms reserved for workshops. I went into one of them, quickly realised that it was way too technical for me and left. I never came back to those small rooms, because I just felt bad for standing up and leaving in the middle of the workshop which lasted for 3 hours and all the people judging me for it.
So the first impression was a weird one. I felt completely out of place, and my very painful hangover was certainly a big contributing factor to the weirdness. I went to one of the big halls, sat down somewhere at the back and listened. After about 10 minutes I realised that all that talk didn’t actually have a lot to do with cryptocurrencies or the blockchain technology. We’re in Russia, so it was mostly about politics.
One of the speakers was talking about freedom of speech on the internet. In particular, he pointed out that the same practises we experience in Russia are actually being implemented in most European countries, but out there they do it ‘carefully, using lubricants’. That’s an actual quote. It was followed by ‘If you’ll go to a developed country, say to, God forbid, Estonia…’.
Tony Robbins was in Moscow several weeks ago, basically scamming people out of their money with his confidence and charisma. This was a free event, so I guess there was no place for neither confidence, nor charisma. One of the speakers said ‘I’m not saying this in a literal sense, I’m actually not saying anything in a literal sense’. I left the room and went for a cigarette after he said ‘I don’t know if you’ll be interested to find out that…’ for the second time in 5 minutes.
Outside, I found myself people-watching. It was a very interesting mixture of questionable haircuts, rather large men on equally large scooters and overheard conversations about ‘sexual minorities’ that I wish I’ve never had.
For several hours that I spent there, I heard the word ‘crypto’ maybe 2 or 3 times. I haven’t heard the word ‘blockchain’ even once. That is partly because I was avoiding lectures that looked like prolonged Medium articles, where a blockchain-as-a-service startup is explaining what’s wrong with the industry they’re trying to ‘disrupt’ as a promotion of their product. To me, the most amusing part of every talk are the questions from the audience. People definitely came prepared. Here’s my favourite one:
‘The state is like a hatchet - depending on who is handling it, it can be used for chopping wood or chopping heads off’
‘So, uh, here a joke: a professor in logic is in a lift. The lift stops on some floor and the guy there asked the professor: are you going up or down? The professors says: yes.’ I kid you not, the entire room was dead-silent for a moment, and then one guy seemed to have gotten the joke and clapped exactly 5 times.
At some point, when one of the speakers was done, a member of the conference staff took the microphone and delivered this gem: ‘Misha, you’re next. What do you mean you didn’t know? Wait, you’re doing it without powerpoint slides?’
And that Misha guy said so many incredible things. He started off by saying that he actually wrote a 50-page long-read which he is not going to try and deliver within 30 minutes. It was all about anonymity and proxies and stuff like that, but at times he made some interesting detours:
‘Child pornography is bad, guys. Selling drugs is bad too’.
‘By the way, speaking of drug addiction. How many of you here know what *name of a dark web marketplace* is?’. I looked up from my phone and saw what my teachers in school used to call ‘a forest of hands’. Every single person raised their hand up. Everyone.
Once he was done, the same conference staff couldn’t resist the remark: ‘Well, your question about *name of a dark web marketplace* was definitely a highlight, especially since everyone here reacted and automatically raised the hands’. Wow.
After this I went to a discussion led by the chairman of the Pirate Party of Russia titled ‘Anonymity: a line between fanaticism and adequacy’. This was hands down the most interesting part of the whole conference for me, I heard a lot of strong and interesting opinions, and I saw a couple of kids who couldn’t have been older than 15 writing down literally everything that was being said. These two guys are the future...
The venue for this talk was the second ‘big room’ of the conference. Personally, I wouldn’t really call it a room. It was a staircase. An actual staircase with pillows on it.
As if this wasn’t surreal enough, The Chairman opened the discussion with a couple of anecdotes. Apparently, to make a donation to the Pirate Party of Russia, you need to be verified by video-calling by one of their staff and you have to show them your passport. The Pirate Party, passport, ehmm - oh well!
He also said that some people complained about the registration process for this event. In order to register, we all had to state our full names and provide an e-mail address. Apparently, a lot of people complained about that, to which the Pirate Party simply responded ‘just use any name you want for the registration’. Funnily enough, some people weren’t satisfied with this simple, yet elegant solution and went through the entire Terms & Conditions section of the registration service provider where they a sentence that said something along the lines of ‘users are not allowed to provide misleading information’. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, this story is ridiculous from start to finish, isn’t it?
The rest of the discussion was rather fascinating. Here are some of the thing different people from the audience said:
‘The only way for an ordinary human being to avoid persecution and sanctions is to stay anonymous. Otherwise, you can’t really express any of your opinions. In Russia, people can’t adequately react to things that seem alien to them, this includes other races and sexual orientations. There are no debates, the reactions are more like a neurosis or a public hysteria. There’s no discussion, which means there’s no awareness, which means there’s no reflection, which in turn means there is no understanding of things and that leads to incorrect decisions being made’
‘The less efficient the government is, the more it wants to know about its citizens’
‘When we leave our homes and go outside we’re fully anonymous to people around us. We sell our personal data in exchange for some kind of information or a service. Why do I have to void myself of anonymity on the internet considering I don’t share my passport info with random people on the street?’
‘Comparing to Europe, we have a lot more anonymity, but less security. Will you be willing to trade your anonymity for real security?’
‘You can only lose your anonymity once’ (LOL)
‘This isn’t really a question of security, it’s more about the terror of consciousness’ (what?)
‘The government thinks it created us simply by giving us passports’
Some actually made an effort:
‘People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both’.
The Chairman of the Private Party went:
‘That’s a great quote, who was it by, Winston Churchill, right?’
The guy went: ‘Yeah, that one - Churchill’
The quote is actually by Benjamin Franklin.
As I was leaving the conference, I walked past the table with free cookies and overheard someone saying ‘In the U.S., for example, they have TWENTY SIX security services’. My hand released the crunchy loot and began walking faster.