You’d be excused for not following the recent brouhaha associated with Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong’s announcement that the company would no longer play politics. The statement, posted to Medium on Sunday, is a doozy.
“In short, I want Coinbase to be laser focused on achieving its mission, because I believe that this is the way that we can have the biggest impact on the world. We will do this by playing as a championship team, focus on building, and being transparent about what our mission is and isn’t,” Armstrong wrote.
He rattled off a number of examples of this, culminating in something that gave many pause: “We don’t engage here when issues are unrelated to our core mission, because we believe impact only comes with focus.”
Armstrong’s post is a direct reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement, the pandemic, the election, and the civil unrest that has become a focal point in a extraordinarily tumultuous year. In June, Coinbase employees clamored for Armstrong to vocally support BLM, which he finally did on Twitter. The reaction from so-called CryptoTwitter, a loose association of weirdos and anti-goldbugs who basically pump and dump tokens all day, was swift and angry.
“I want to say unequivocally fuck coinbase,” wrote one “trader.”
Armstrong, for his part, tapped into a growing movement inside Silicon Valley, a movement that basically says, “Fuck your feelings.” Based on his statement on Medium, Armstrong believes, probably incorrectly, that his army of coders wants nothing more than to produce clean, usable products for the cryptocurrency community.
There are three types of crypto users who love Armstrong’s argument. In order of odiousness, we begin with the bored coder who once wanted to try microdosing and enjoys the thrill of feeling like a rebel. Then we have the troll who believes that crypto will destroy all governments and allow them to become kings of a new world—a world where unpopular opinions can be shared freely. And finally, you have the rich kids whose parents told them to invest in crypto somehow and, thanks to family connections, are not in jail. All three of these groups are just fine with Armstrong’s opinions cutting political discussions out of the Coinbase workplace.
The rest of the people at Coinbase—the marketers, the designers, the coders who just wanted a job and don’t care about the mission—are probably not as happy with his commentary.
Because Coinbase is offering a generous severance package to employees who don’t like this “no-politics” mission, there is a suspicion that this allows Armstrong to lay off people without making the company seem weak. There is a certain twisted logic to it: Act like a robot to get rid of all the soft meat bags off the payroll, leaving only the other robotic “true believers.” But a company like Coinbase isn’t a tech company anymore. It’s a living, breathing entity with needs, and these needs include not posting ham-handed screeds against woke culture and quickly alienating a wider audience.
Dick Costolo, the former CEO of Twitter, weighed in on the move. He was peeved.
“This isn’t great leadership. It’s the abdication of leadership,” he said. “It’s the equivalent of telling your employees to ‘shut up and dribble.’”
“Tech companies used to welcome lively debate about ideas and society. It was part of the social contract inside the company, and it’s what differentiated tech culture from, say, Wells Fargo culture,” Costolo continued. “Now it’s considered a distraction. Me-first capitalists who think you can separate society from business are going to be the first people lined up against the wall and shot in the revolution. I’ll happily provide video commentary.”
This argument isn’t really about crypto. It’s about the old saw that Silicon Valley is changing the world for the better. The early venture caplitalists funded earth-shattering innovations, from the original integrated circuits to the internet. Now they fund image-sharing apps that let you show your face to millions of people who hate you. Even cryptocurrency is a dud, a slow-burn trainwreck whose promise of egalitarian banking for all turned into millions of dollars of dirty money for a few. There is, if you haven’t noticed, very little innovation coming out of California’s innovation economy these days.
You might think, maybe Armstrong is right. Maybe everyone needs to buckle down and code. But that ignores reality. All politics is tech now. Free speech? Tech. Inclusion? Tech. Equity? Tech. The support of the needy and unbanked? Tech. Plus, as many have noted, an absence of overt political discussion allows for wacko political ideas to flourish. A Coinbase programmer can quietly go through life arguing that women are genetically inferior to men, that eugenics was probably a good idea, and that women won’t date him because he’s too smart. And, in a vacuum, those beliefs will be embedded into company culture like cancer. Under this new “no politics” regime, no one will tell him to shut up.
To be fair, many early innovators were gross weirdos. Without naming names, the open-source movement is populated by some of the dirtiest old men imaginable. The same is definitely true of crypto fanatics. After all, transferring money to and from shadowy, anonymous wallets using a command line and encrypted chats probably isn’t the user experience 99% of humanity wants to deal with right now, but guys who think they are cyberpunks love it.
Coinbase’s refusal to allow politics to sully its employee’s feverish programming sessions is an admission that it doesn’t want to deal with the humanity of its employees. If you want to be woke, Armstrong says, go do it outside. That’s his perogative. But innovation raises all boats, affects all people. And some of those people might like to know the companies they work for and use are on their side. And ultimately, in a world where innovation is thin on the ground and the biggest news out of SV is a filter that makes you puke rainbows, wouldn’t it be nice if SV did something that mattered?