I come from, on my mother's side, a large Roman Catholic family. Of my grandparents' 11 children there is, as best I can tell, a wide array of orientations to religion in general and Catholicism in particular. But while I have not been present for heated conversations about religion—politics are a different story!—one place where my mother's siblings typically align is that money reflects the intrinsic value of work. My own brush with this came when I was in high school and lived with my grandparents one summer. I packed a bag, left my home in a comfortable suburb of Chicago, and moved to Springfield, Illinois, into my grandparents' basement.
On the day I arrived, my grandfather laid down ground rules. He and my grandmother fasted on Sundays. If I wanted to eat that day, I'd need to fend for myself. I was to be back home at night before an hour that I honestly cannot remember, but at the time seemed eminently reasonable. And I would need a "mode of employment" so that I would learn the value of hard work. One complication was that I was 15 and could not drive, no small complication in getting from my grandparents' town house, newly constructed on the auto-oriented west side of town, to anywhere I might earn a wage. Another was that I was living four hours from home in a town where the only people I knew aside from my grandparents were my cousins. Nearly all were younger than me and unlikely to be hiring.
Yet another complication was that my grandfather's speech followed a pattern difficult to comprehend to my ear, attuned to the hard vowels and rhythmic over-pronunciation of the Chicago dialect. He kept on saying "mode of employment," but I heard "motible employment." This all happened before the Internet was widely available, and there wasn't a decent dictionary on the old Macintosh II I had hauled down or on my grandfather's new-at-the-time Gateway desktop. When I could not find "motible" in the dictionary on the stand in the den of my grandparents' house, I assumed it had something to do with a word I had learned in biology class: "motile," a way to describe organisms that could move themselves around from place to place.
I remember my grandfather leveling what felt like weeks of threats to force me into a job detasseling corn, especially unappealing not only because of the excruciatingly early hours but also because of the epic hot summer the Midwest was enduring at the time. That July, 739 people in Chicago died during a single heat wave. The heat is seared into my memory because during the few weeks before I finally found a job, one of my uncles, whom I'm fairly certain was doing his best to shelter me from the effects of my grandfather's good intentions, hired me to uproot a row of dead arborvitae shrubs. After about 30 minutes of forcing a shovel into the sunbaked ground, I realized I had perspired so much that everything I was wearing was dripping wet. Indeed, it was the humidity in combination with the heat that made that summer so deadly; sweat could not evaporate to cool people down. My brush with heatstroke did not deter my grandfather, who doubled down on his suggestion that I should seek a job detasseling corn to schedule a job interview with a farmer he knew. Determined to prove my ability to live on my own terms at the mature age of 15, I finally gave in and called my mother, though first I had to gather the courage to ask for permission to make an expensive long-distance phone call. When she picked up, I was on the verge of tears.
Crypto's wild speculative cycles are making it possible for some to acquire vast sums of money while doing little, if any, actual work.
"He wants me to have motible employment, and I don't want to detassel corn!" I wailed, sitting on the floor of my basement room, the phone's coiled cord stretched as far as it would go from the hallway.
"He wants you to have a job," said my mother, whose lack of sympathy in this particular situation was made up for by unrelenting practicality. "If you don't want to detassel corn, then go get a job on your own."
What I ended up with that summer, found through a classified ad in the local paper, was luxurious in comparison. For the interview, my grandfather dropped me off at a dying strip mall on the south end of town. After a brief chat with a smarmy 50-something man wearing a greasy pair of glasses, I had a job. And what a job it was: cold-calling people across town and hard-selling them on a $50 coupon book. When we got someone who expressed interest—and on a good day this happened maybe twice—we'd tell them that our delivery driver happened to be "in the area," which was true if you considered the entire city to be "the area." My boss showed up on their doorstep 20 or 30 minutes later to seal the deal. It was a business model that only makes sense if you can pay 15-year-old kids minimum wage. A couple of days in, I realized that the promise of commissions in the classified ad would take not only sales skills but also a willingness to stretch the truth that I did not possess.
To my grandfather's credit, that job did teach me a lot, though perhaps not in the way he had imagined. He'd done well in life, the kind of pulling-yourself-up-from-your-bootstraps story that is central to the middle-class identity of many Americans. He'd gone to dental school and served in World War II in the medical corps; though he never talked about it, there were whispers growing up that his experience treating the wounded had left deep scars on his psyche. As a young man in the Great Depression, he'd worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps, helping pave roads in Springfield's Washington Park, designed in the same style as New York City's Central Park. The town house where I lived for the summer was right across the street, which meant the roads he had worked to install in the park were only a short walk away. While my grandfather, and, by extension, my family, benefited in many ways from the racism and sexism baked into every aspect of American life at that time, he knew the value of work because he had done it with his own hands. Even dentistry, though a far cry from detasseling corn, was a form of manual labor.
My grandfather lived well past the age of 100, retaining a degree of mental acuity and physical ability impressive for a person in their 70s. I attribute his longevity to his unrelenting work ethic, which was also reflected in his dedication to attending morning mass every day. And while I do not share his orientation to religion, I do understand the intent behind his drive for me to gain "motible employment." And recent developments have helped me to better understand his unease with the 15-year-old in his basement, able to talk about the stock market and clearly explain the cutting-edge technology of dial-up Internet, but who was both mentally unwilling and physically unfit to dig up dead plants in the heat of summer.
Earlier this year, I was in Austin, Texas, and midway through the first draft of this column, which dealt with the topic of cryptocurrency as a religion. While I was at the South by Southwest festival, I saw a headline screaming about how Paris Hilton had been "saved" by Bitcoin. On the same day, I turned a corner and was confronted with a billboard that read CRYPTO IS REAL. Oddly, memories of that hot, humid summer in Springfield came to me, and not because of the weather: It was an unseasonable 40 degrees Fahrenheit in Austin. It occurred to me that my grandfather tried his best to save me from a life ignorant of the realities of physical work, which is precisely the kind of life that Paris Hilton represents. How is it that an heiress famous for being equal parts useless and recklessly pretentious has found salvation in NFTs and crypto?
An article by a religious studies scholar lays out the basics: the mysterious founder, the expectation to prepare for some future cataclysmic event, the identity affiliations around different sects . Surely my grandfather would have recognized these aspects of cryptocurrency. But I'm not sure how he would have viewed the "work" involved in the manufacturing of its legitimacy.
Several years ago, I sat in a posh café in Saigon called L'Usine. The name was a reference to the building's use as a factory in the years that Vietnam was a French colony. Sipping a latte, I had the uncanny realization that everyone else in the café was in the crypto biz. As the afternoon passed, the guy next to me, a fellow American, judging by his accent, met with a series of people. With one he talked about the column he was writing for an online crypto magazine. With the next he talked about whether he should move his investments from one currency to another. With the last he discussed the possibility of moving to Ajijic, Mexico. Living expenses in Saigon were getting too expensive to manage with the volatility in crypto appreciation and on his income as a freelance writer. We were sitting in a place called the Factory where everyone was talking about the creation of capital, but the only work my grandfather would have recognized as work was being done by the baristas behind the counter.
We read a lot these days about "hustle," but when I hear that word, I don't think about work ethic. I think, with more than a tinge of guilt, about the summer I spent holding a phone receiver to my head, manually dialing list after list after list of phone numbers, and selling people a book of coupons of questionable value, let along authenticity. Authenticity and traceability is what blockchain is all about, and I know that its advocates see a bright future where data and goods of all kinds can be exchanged more efficiently. But in the case of cryptocurrency, this is disingenuous. Calling the manufacturing of cryptocurrency "mining" is a clear allusion to the labor-intensive processes of extracting gold and silver. It's an apt metaphor, too, because of its environmental costs. Growing awareness of this as a business risk is leading crypto companies to fuel their operations with renewable energy . But the impact of this shift is negligible, and even harmful, because every unit of energy used by crypto is a unit of energy that could have been used somewhere else. In religious terms, using renewable energy is the equivalent of an ineffective indulgence.
In Austin, at the moment when I noticed the billboard hailing our crypto salvation, I happened to be standing across the street from a newly completed apartment complex where studios start at $1,500 a month. There were people living in tents in the park immediately behind the building. The housing crisis has made the juxtaposition of rich and poor a familiar sight in American cities, but the gentrification wrought by the apartments pales in comparison to the growing cultural legitimacy of a new way of earning money that doesn't involve much work at all. I think my grandfather would probably have invested in crypto, and for all I know he may have. I am sure he would have appreciated its antagonistic relationship to regulation; this was a man who argued passionately for a flat tax and who, in his late 90s, dressed up as Abraham Lincoln and stood in a Walmart parking lot to gather signatures for an underdog presidential candidate who was never elected. What we might have agreed on, however, is that crypto's wild speculative cycles are making it possible for some to acquire vast sums of money while doing little, if any, actual work. Despite the claims, some shrouded in religious terms, that Bitcoin and crypto are breaking the back of the global money system and freeing people from repression, one clear outcome has been the creation of a new leisure class. The question is whether the immersion in something that can be explained in the same abstract terms as religion will blind crypto's adherents to its undeniably material impacts on other people and our shared environment.
1. Yaffe-Bellany, D. Bitcoin miners want to recast themselves as eco-friendly. The New York Times. Mar. 22, 2022; https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/22/technology/bitcoin-miners-environment-crypto.html
2. Laycock, J.P. Why are people calling Bitcoin a religion? The Conversation. Feb. 3, 2022; http://theconversation.com/why-are-people-calling-bitcoin-a-religion-175717
Jonathan Bean is assistant professor of architecture, sustainable built environments, and marketing at the University of Arizona. He studies taste, technology, and market transformation. [email protected]
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