7pm in Lisbon
A pseudonymous crypto correspondant’s party diary from a city Airbnb’d to the hilt for a weeklong Ethereum extragavanza.
“Stoic but driven – isn’t that an oxymoron?”
Fried rice chunks with red pepper, diarrhetic hint; face pube porcelain, tile splatter; cotton-acrylic with whiff of mold from damp conditions. These are a few of my favorite things / which come with the territory / of living among the cryptopunks / in Lisbon where the sea air is clear.
BizDev’s paid our gas fees to cross the Atlantic for November’s panoply of ETH conferences: LisCon, NearCon, EthCon, RAAVE. Don’t be fooled by the word “conference” – it’s like Basel; official events are a pretense for partying. When my flight arrives, 11a.m. local time, Zak Hap – a Californian and aspiring cult-leader, now busy scheming a divination dApp – catches me confused outside our high-rise, struggling to parse the Portuguese address syntax. It’s muggy but there’s a light breeze coming from the sea, and we head for a cafe, ferryside, where I try to recover from my redeye with espresso shots as a high-school intern pills us on Worldcoin. At skin-rippling nightclubs and Michelin dinners, on AirBnB divans that gleam in UV light, everyone’s talking about Worldcoin – the new Sam Altman project; an orb scans your biometrics, verifies your chain identity. (The iris and retina, like ear curvature, lip prints, and tongue patterns, are unique – can function as fingerprints.) These are the competing visions in Web3 right now: pseudonymity, masks; reputations built on handles – versus verified legal identities, a monolith of self. Which is “better” no one knows, but the “single immutable identity” route is palpably outré – see Meta’s real-name rules; the alarmism of mainstream media. No one who’s anyone has a facepic for a Twitter avatar.
I’m chatting with friends on a music forum about the Dean Kissick Phenomenon. “OK, why the feck are you talking about this bloke?” a member named IdleRich asks. Rich runs a record label called Invisible Sounds, which was sorta adjacent to the Fat White Family, but that scene started doing too much heroin so Rich had to leave London. I answer: “He was the most memed man in Manhattan this summer.” Rich wants to know why; I say: thousands of words of e-ink have spilled and no answer found. I say: it’s like crypto, like politics, like the flow of symbolic capital. It’s all network effects, Tinkerbell effects, and positive feedback loops. Matthew 25:29: For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. Value built on the perception of value, interest on interest. “Meme magic”; home range of hyperstition. No grounding, just pure belief. The price only plummets when people stop believing. Wile E. Coyote falls when Wile E. Coyote looks down. Tinkerbell. I tell him, these are beautiful things.
He invites us up to a member’s-only club – physically up; upstairs, up the hill, the eternal gradient ascent that defines Lisbon as city. What’s the Drake line? “Started at the bottom, now we here”. Amazing how pervasive the conceptual metaphor is, success and verticality. Everyone knows the wealthy like to occupy high ground; not everyone knows why. One: because the air is clearer. Two: because it’s easier to defend, militarily. Three, because shit runs downhill. We’ll see this when we visit Sintra tomorrow – a city on a hill, a series of castles and botanical gardens, built outside the city by Portugal’s elite. Close enough for buggy rides to the opera, far enough to keep away from mob violence. The roads that lead toward the summits wind for miles. What do you get at the top? Security, you’d think – but the hill’s there because when you have what others desire, you’re always under siege.
Not hot or not, just digits of income; not figure in the sense of figure, just zeros in bank accounts and the proxies of dress, of manner, of hygiene – that betray them.
This joint ain’t all that, though. By “member’s only club” we’re talking ex-gymnasium reno’d into a billiards bar: €3 memberships, you get some cardstock to slide in your wallet, something which says “I belong here; I’m invested in the pool”. People are chain-smoking over Sagres; someone in the corner’s shaving hash. A band called SOAPS is playing, and by band I mean a Norway transplant from Basque, with a velvet blazer and louvered shades doing a Suicide-meets-John Maus set. Afterwards, Rich throws some records on the decks and it’s weird and great – I catch Leon Russell (Stop All That Jazz), Die Doraus & Die Marinas (“Fred Vom Jupiter”).
Our company, a crypto governance startup, is hosting a party at what has been described as a “castle,” but is more neoclassical mansion, deliberately unfurnished for mixers and events. BizDev bounces over, tells us they paid €500 for a machine that makes bubbles on top of the cocktails – a “flavor blaster”. To demonstrate, the bartender makes a pink double-bubble over my tequila that looks exactly like a peach emoji, which is to say exactly like buttocks. (Simulacra – it’s just how reference works, right? As soon as one back-reference settles, it serves as new ground for future back-reference.) Zak and I separate ourselves from the party, chat with Petra, a Hillsong Church member from Santorini who we met on Pink Street last night. We observe at a distance, play 7-8-9, start rating attendees on a 10-point scale. Not hot or not, just digits of income; not figure in the sense of figure, just zeros in bank accounts and the proxies of dress, of manner, of hygiene – that betray them.
When Petra hears Andrei’s an 8, she tells us she likes him, and it’s sincere when she says it – not a cynical performance.
The next night, Jake Naviasky, a blockchain engineer with German idealist tendencies, hazards over hand-pulled noodles that pornography is a training program: you make a decision at twelve about what sort of porn you’ll watch and the rest is reinforcement learning.
Why is everyone from Web3 in Lisbon? In part: capital gains from crypto are untaxed. We’re wandering around Campolide, by the Águas Livres Aqueduct, two hundred feet tall, a Great Wall of China paid for by luxury tithes. We end up (up) in the penthouse of the Dom Pedro Lisboa, standing on a balcony the size of a ballroom, overlooking the River Tagus. In the sky’s a waning gibbous, size of a fist and the golden-orange of a Bitcoin logo. Someone makes a joke about the “waning” and the “Bitcoin” bits. Our host (henceforth “V.”) was an early ETH engineer, hangs around post-rationalist Twitter – which is how we’ve ended up here: in a museum-for-a-hotel-room, paid for with mad Ethereum money. V.’s talking about theology, faith; how the Enlightenment is the worst thing that ever happened. There were a few finance types around when we showed – suit and dress shoe guys – but as it became clear our host was horny mainly for philosophy, they hit town.
Now we’re in a half-indoor, half-outdoor smoking room, with wicker lounge chairs and an orchid perched on a wicker desk; decor vaguely Middle-Eastern. The joint we’re offered is one of the strongest I’ve smoked; I think: so this is what money buys you.
Or I’m in an apartment, chatting with Chris Goes, Hegel fan and researcher at Cosmos – another startup promising the “Internet of Blockchains”. We’re eating spring rolls and our host is passing a spliff cut with tea leaves. Chris is telling me about barter systems, his new currency-less project on the chain. I remember the last time someone tried to proselytize barter systems to me – it was a Saudi undergrad in a philosophy seminar wearing camelhair cashmere and a $10k watch; he said a barter system was the logical next step after (1) killing the bosses and (2) burning the money supply. I’m thinking this is one of those “midwit” situations: first I get the low-IQ take, now I get the high-IQ one.
We’re debating whether it’s fair to call everything a game, whether having an agent, goal, and environment – where the goal transforms the environment, for the goal-driven agent, into obstacles and affordances – is enough to claim a game is underway. If there’s a spectrum from more to less game-like activities – one-player v. multiplayer, cooperative/adversarial, finite and infinite games. If getting blunt about game rules disenchants us. One of the interesting things about Buddhism, Zak’s saying, is that its view of self as illusion opens a space, lets you give up the idea of singular identity.
Over lamb legs and expensive port, the gossip’s about who got how much money and from whom. A hundred mil for vaporware, fifty for a slidedeck, twenty for a shower thought.
Everywhere we go, people wanna know which token to invest in, asking if the gold rush ended. Everywhere we go, people wanna talk about Dune. You know that scene where the Duke presses his signet into the gold cyber-wax, to signal the transfer of Arrakis to his House? Remember how, when the Duke gets offed, his treacherous doctor makes a big deal about getting the signet into Paul’s hands? That’s more or less how cryptography works, for the uninitiated.
Portugal’s Niña discovered America and we are discovering her niñas now, in predatory glances on cobbled streetcorners, through striped linen pants; the nautical stylings of Zara, H&M, of her & me happily humping. Saturday night we’re in the glow Pink Street; we’re downing €1 beers bump into – are bumped into by – newlyweds from Ireland. The husband tells us he’s $30k deep in Shiba coin, wants an opinion: hold or sell. By Wednesday, his holding’s up $45k. A week later it’s dropped again by half.
Over lamb legs and expensive port, the gossip’s about who got how much money and from whom. A hundred mil for vaporware, fifty for a slidedeck, twenty for a shower thought. Everyone wants to know where it’s coming from, what’s possible. Searching for their ticket to the top. I consider getting into Christian theology – there’s good shit in there about envy, temptation, about coveting – or so I hear. The world is only its appearances – its proxies and surrogates; a good idea is what others believe what others believe is a good idea. Crypto locals have epithets for such speculative dynamics; they call it greater fool theory.
We’re cracking oysters with unwashed hands in a five-star lobby; do you know how oysters form pearls? An irritant gets in the internals, enters the shell; the mollusk adds endless protective coating – mother of pearl – to the jagged surface, protecting its own soft skin. I write a lot in Lisbon, which is to say I’m irritated but in a productive way, forced to deal with the world as it is.
On the metro home, some kids from the Universidade are joshing around in half-Portuguese, half-American English, a collection of memes picked up online or from movies. “There’s always a catch, buddy” one cracks in Tarantino vox. I wonder: Was there such a thing as a free lunch? Everyone’s talking about the misery of the rich, the empty eyes of Sam Bankman-Fried, the world’s youngest deca-billionaire, in a recent TikTok shoot.
Or, we're in an Uber listening to “Games” by Sans Souci. Chorus: “Why don't you play?” Sanssouci, a phrase that means “without worry,” – namesake of the famed Potsdam palace built by Frederick the Great – a choice “emphasising that the palace was meant as a place of relaxation, rather than a seat of power”.
A virus is passed around the conferences; two members of my company’s C-suite are laid out, bedridden for days. At Cascais, sprawled out on the sand, Zak convinces me to Amazon-Prime a tarot set designed by English occultist Aleister Crowley.
These dormitory brothers without hygiene, orientalising the Portuguese accents of the local meat markets, getting their fingers licked by girls from the far western point of the world – or what was, it’s all relative of course, “perspectival” – but imagine it: one day you’re the edge of the world; the next, you’re a hostel for surfers.
SUSPENDED REASON is a writer from rural Wisconsin struggling to square his country values with Web3 finance.
7pm is a new column where writers in Spike’s orbits spread gossip and stalk a city’s social scene.