On Kool-Aid, Cautious Optimism, and Joining Uniswap
If you’ve ever interviewed for a job, you’re probably familiar with the question “tell me a bit about yourself”. The first time I answered this question was for a summer internship during my sophomore year of high school. It went something like this:
“H-hi! I’m Spencer. So uh, I’m a high school student in the Bay Area, and I’m passionate about iOS development and building things. I think hackathons and startups are super cool and I find it so cool to be able to come up with an idea and design and code it. I love building things. Oh, I just want to make things that people want. I would love to work at your startup and experience true Silicon Valley. Heck, Silicon Valley should be its own country.”
Of course, I’m parodying a bit for effect. But imagine the worldview of a high school kid who’s spending his lunch break reading Paul Graham essays and skipping class to go to tech events where he hears Jason Calcanis talk about his angel investment in Uber, Jack Dorsey play his favorite Jazz track, and Balaji Srinivasan call America the “Microsoft of Nations” (I still can’t believe the latter 2 were the same event). I was drinking the Silicon Valley kool-aid, and it was awesome. Towards the end of high school when I was writing my college applications, I started to sober up a little and reflect on my somewhat distorted worldview.
I spent the last couple of months interviewing for a new job, and my script went something like this:
“Hey! I’m Spencer, great to meet you. I grew up in the Bay Area, and I drank the Silicon Valley/Tech Kool-aid quite early on… I learned how to make iOS apps in high school and got involved in the hackathon and startup scene. At my core, I enjoy coming up with ideas and building things, almost like my 21st century LEGO. I was lucky enough to go to New York for college, which shaped me to have a more balanced worldview. I studied computer science and sociology, and worked at… ”
I’ve recently found myself using this word “kool-aid” more frequently, in two contexts: 1. talking about my upbringing in Silicon Valley, 2. crypto. As I started to dive down the crypto rabbit hole this past year, I would joke with friends and peers that I’m “just drinking the crypto kool-aid”. Sometimes I’d meet someone who’d proclaim they were into Bitcoin since 2013 or Ethereum since 2016, and I always felt a mild sense of inadequacy since I’d bandwagoned on the ICO hype train in 2017, but promptly flaked after the crash. I even went on a date where I was asked “so were you early into crypto?”, to which I responded, “if you’re asking if I’m rich, the answer is no.”
My parents are both engineers by training, and I’ve been occasionally sharing my explorations in the crypto world with them. Last week, my mom reminded me that I brought up Bitcoin to her back in 2013. I thought about it for a second and recalled my group presentation about Bitcoin for my AP Computer Science class in 2013.
Can I add “Bitcoin since 2013” to my Twitter bio?
At that BTC price, the universe was definitely signaling something. Anyway, as the story goes, I then didn’t look at cryptocurrencies until summer 2017 when my friend and roommate quit his internship to dive into crypto. We’d spend our nights talking about Bitcoin and Ethereum and Filecoin and ICOs and scams, and sometimes I’d sneak him into the DoorDash office for free lunches. Then I went back to school for my sophomore year, where I took possibly the most formative course in my academic career. It was a required course called Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West -- a western philosophy reader course. We started with the ancient Greeks and then followed the progression from the Bible and Augustine, to the social contracts of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, to Adam Smith and capitalism and Marx, to the American and French revolutions and individualism, to Nietzsche, Du Bois, Gandhi, and Foucault.
One of my primary takeaways from the course was how to think critically about humanity and try to consider as many perspectives as possible. Nietzsche’s principle of perspectivism resonates with me, that my perception and knowledge of something is always bound to where I’m looking at it from. When you study other perspectives and views (an idea, an argument, a work of art), you refine your understanding. I was struck by Adam Smith’s writing – not just by his astute observations of the efficiency yielded by the division of labor, but also by the double-edged sword he knew he was suggesting. Deep into the Wealth of Nations, he acknowledges the negative externalities of the division of labor:
”The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations… naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become… his dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues.”
At the risk of being ostracized for drawing from Marx, that quote sounds quite Marxist to me! History has shown that Marx certainly didn’t get it right (in fact, very wrong), but his critical theory taught me to think about the negative externalities of progress, especially technological progress. German sociologist Max Weber asks us, what have we lost with the increasing rationalization in modern society?
In a world run by smart contracts, we risk trapping ourselves in Weber’s Iron Cage – living life in a world run by systems based purely on efficiency and rational calculated control. As a young socially conscious technologist, I struggle to reconcile my technological optimism with critical theory. I used to fully buy the Silicon Valley narrative that tech is the great equalizer, the angels of society, and that my disposable style camera app was Making the World a Better Place™. I still believe in the power of technology, but approach my work and worldview with much more cautious optimism. I believe in a thoughtful bias towards action.
This past July I finished a fellowship at the MIT Media Lab, where I attempted to work on problems that social media is causing in the world. That problem space was too easy for me (jokes), so I cast a fairly wide net of companies and industries to talk to. I wasn’t fully bought in on crypto, and was interviewing at exciting startups in healthcare, fintech, and e-commerce in addition to crypto.
In my final interview at Uniswap with the founder, Hayden asked me a simple question: what interests you about crypto? I hadn’t really prepared a response to that, so I gave it some thought before improvising a response. I talked about how I’m fascinated by how technology shapes society, citing how Gutenberg’s printing press turned Europe on its head, how the telegram and telephone enabled global one to one communication, how the camera transformed artistic expression and depiction, how the internet connected the world and so much more. I talked about the TCP/IP reference books on my family bookshelf and how the future of web3 is all about open standards of digital value. TCP/IP standards laid the infrastructure for the internet in the 1970s, and I believe that token standards like ERC20/721/1155 will lay the infrastructure for this next era of the internet. After I said that, I was impressed myself!
Perhaps in this current time it’s disadvantageous to quote from Peter Thiel, but I recently re-read parts of Zero to One and found his commentary on the Dot-com bubble relevant.
“Dot-com mania was intense but short–18 months of insanity from September 1998 to March 2000. It was a Silicon Valley gold rush: there was money everywhere, and no shortage of exuberant, often sketchy people to chase it… One 40-something grad student that I knew was running six different companies in 1999… Everybody should have known that the mania was unsustainable; the most ‘successful’ companies seemed to embrace a sort of anti-business model where they lost money as they grew. But it’s hard to blame people for dancing when the music was playing.”
Deja vu, anyone?
An investor who I’ve gotten to know recently gave me one piece of advice when I was deciding whether to work in crypto. He told me that much of what has been happening in crypto is a bubble, or even a scam. He told me that when the music is playing and the kool-aid is flowing, you have to drink enough of the kool-aid to get buzzed, but not drunk.
Carlota Perez’s theory of the connection between technological revolutions and financial bubbles is quite apt in our current environment. It certainly is a bubble, and there are scams and sketchy people, but I’m cautiously optimistic for the future of crypto and web3. I had a conversation with a friend about the negative externalities associated with crypto, from climate to rationalization to anonymity. I wondered if there was any technology that didn’t have negative externalities, and he proposed Edison’s lightbulb. I was sold at first, but then the skeptic in me voiced how fossil fuels are burned to generate electricity for lightbulbs. He countered and said that the alternative of using fire is worse, and that light has enabled so much more human progress. How can we limit the negative externalities in crypto?
Crypto and web3 has been incredibly fun and rewarding so far. Since going all-in in the last two months, I’ve gotten to spend a weekend in the Hamptons and learn that you can’t use imports when deploying to mainnet while being served by a private chef, participate in gibberish conversations about NFTs, pitch some of my favorite chefs on DAOs, and join an exciting global community building the future. While I have strong conviction that the work in crypto we’re doing now is part of the future, many open questions and challenges remain to be architected, debated, forked, and built. I’m personally hoping to bring a bit more of my internal dialogue around tech optimism and social change into the public sphere, and I look forward to having conversations with others.
It’s time to build, with cautious optimism.
Join our incredibly talented, creative, and small team at Uniswap! We’re building exciting new things and hiring across many roles based in SoHo and remote (especially engineering).