Our Sunday Long Read this week finds freelance journalist Laurie Penny discovering that hell is not just other people, it is specifically other people trapped on a four-day cruise talking about cryptocurrency, and also John McAfee is there.
Two months ago, an editor from BREAKER called and asked if I wanted to go on a four-day Mediterranean cruise with hundreds of crypto-crazed investors and evangelists. We’ll cover the travel, he said. Write something long about whatever you find, he said. It was 2 a.m. and I was over-caffeinated. I remember explaining that I know almost nothing about either cruises or blockchain, in the way that Sir Ian McKellen, in the criminally underrated series Extras, explains that he is not actually a wizard. Five days later I was at the port of Barcelona, boarding a ship. By which point it was way too late to wonder for the umpteenth time about my life choices.
I knew about bitcoin only as an investment vehicle favored by several essentially sweet nerds close to my heart—and I knew, too, that cryptocurrencies are the pet untraceable funding model of the far-right. I was told there would be an overall “Burning Man theme” to the adventure, guaranteed by the presence of Brock Pierce, the cryptocurrency mogul, former child actor, and one-man art installation about peer pressure. (More about him later.) I was anticipating evenings spent listening to crypto-hippies describe the angel-faced space elves they met when they took DMT. I was expecting to fetch water and painkillers for half-conscious corporate executives with dust in their perfect hair and no idea how to get home. I was expecting to get a bit carried away and end up shouting about the government and chalking poetry all over the walls. I was expecting to hear very rich men talk without blinking about tax planning and sacred geometry. I was expecting corporate-branded swimwear. I was expecting to meet smug Californian polyamorists, about whom smug European polyamorists like me are relentlessly judgy. Reader, all of these things transpired, but by the time they did they were a blessed relief.
Let’s step back a moment. For those of you still idling by the side of the cryptocurrency bandwagon, here’s a brief primer, based on a week’s frantic pre-trip cramming. Blockchain is the technology behind cryptocurrencies, which are peer-to-peer electronic cash systems unregulated by any central authority. The system bitcoin, pioneered by an anonymous genius (or geniuses) going by the handle “Satoshi Nakamoto” in 2008, was the first digital currency. Those who bought bitcoin at the start are now on-paper squidzillionaires. Other, newer currencies like Ethereum, Ripple, and Bitcoin Cash, are emerging—and there are obvious reasons to get behind the idea of decentralizing the financial system. Beyond money, blockchain has lots of exciting potential applications with very few actual users. For instance, in October, artist Kelly Donnelly released the feminist anthem “I Am She” using Ethereum, making it, in her words, the “first unblockable music video ever released … meaning women living in censored regions like Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, and Turkey have been able to watch the video.” Sounds good to me.
In the short term, though, that’s not what most big players care about—and the major social change blockchain has brought about so far is that a small number of people have become very rich indeed. As blockchain skeptic David Gerard writes, “the cryptocurrency field is replete with scams and scammers. The technology is used as an excuse to make outlandish near-magical claims. When phrases like ‘a whole new form of money’ or ‘the old rules don’t apply any more’ start going around, people get gullible and the ethically-challenged get creative.”
A huge bitcoin price crash occurs a few hours before we set sail. As I board, I am surprised to find that nobody seems to be particularly worried. CoinsBank, the company organizing the cruise, has left little welcome gift boxes in each of the rooms. They contain painkillers, Alka-Seltzer, several condoms, the world’s flimsiest pregnancy test, and a half-bottle of Jägermeister. It’s the kind of thing you’d leave at the bottom of the chimney for Skeezy Uncle Santa, hoping he’ll stuff a new sex doll under your tree.
The women on this boat are polished and perfect; the men, by contrast, seem strangely cured—not like medicine, but like meat. They are almost all white, between the ages of 30 and 50, and are trying very hard to have the good time they paid thousands for, while remaining professional in a scene where many thought leaders have murky pasts, a tendency to talk like YouTube conspiracy preachers, and/or the habit of appearing in magazines naked and covered in strawberries. That last is 73-year-old John McAfee, who got rich with the anti-virus software McAfee Security before jumping into cryptocurrencies. He is the man most of the acolytes here are keenest to get their picture taken with and is constantly surrounded by private security who do their best to aesthetically out-thug every Armani-suited Russian skinhead on deck. Occasionally he commandeers the grand piano in the guest lounge, and the young live-streamers clamor for the best shot. John McAfee has never been convicted of rape and murder, but—crucially—not in the same way that you or I have never been convicted of rape or murder. I do not interview John McAfee. He interests me less than he scares the shit out of me, though his entourage seems relaxed. They’re already living in the crypto-utopia behind his strange pale-blue eyes.
The only genuinely happy person I meet on this trip is Femi, a forklift driver from Birmingham who wears a Dogecoin T-shirt and proudly shows me videos of him practicing with the samurai sword he bought with his bitcoin stash. I ask him why he’s so proud of his selfie with McAfee, given the guy’s not-unmurdery reputation.
“Well, yeah.” says Femi. Then he grins. “But he’s just a legend, isn’t he? And his wife’s really nice.”
I cannot fault this reasoning. Over the next four days I find myself drifting back to Femi and his unstoppable optimism whenever I get the urge to throw myself overboard.
I don't blame her. Any truly transformation technology throughout history can be applied to either sex, killing, or theft, and the all-time great social advances, like the internet, are tied to all three. Crypto is definitely the theft part, judging by the people surrounding it, and it's tiresome to hear people talk about it all the time, but as soon as somebody figures out how to use cryptocurrency for sex and or murder, it'll really take off.