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He Fled Google to Build on Bitcoin in Texas. Canonic's Founder Warns What's Next
In the plains of the American Steppe, a company charts a decentralized future
Canonic.xyz, the online marketplace where you can buy and sell books in Bitcoin, zigged where the hodlers and hypebeasts zagged: instead of playing for the pump or platforming gif speculators, the site doubled down on building commerce driven by lasting, tangible goods created by real people for real people. Amid the scattered flecks of the crypto bubble, Canonic stands out -- for reasons that run deeper than standard tech savvy or business acumen. We plumbed the depths with Canonic cofounder @rdnxyz over DM and email.
RETURN: Crypto projects have come and gone over the past few years. Canonic has outlasted them by publishing and selling books for Bitcoin. What’s the lesson there for founders, investors, and ordinary people trying to size up the opportunity?
RDN: Bitcoin is sui generis. Our current mental models for what Bitcoin constitutes -- and the mental models we borrow from the adjacent tech business culture to push Bitcoin’s adoption -- are inadequate. This misunderstanding offers us an opportunity to think about a trait that might not be presently associated with company founders: humility.
Investors and founders need to find a source of humility. There are few things that are more important and stressful to folks than the concepts of money and God. They are shrouded with a sense of mystery. Debt and repayment are concepts that pressure us to question whether we have been behaving well in our lives and deserve just rewards.
Despite the respect that we have to show to people's resistance to adopting Bitcoin in the face of these uncomfortable mysteries, Bitcoin's stability reminds us that its value is shown to those with low time preference. So the act of unceremonious survival should take precedence over short-term publicizable wins. I think Bitcoin veterans understood that the last bull market did not have good fundamentals. If it’s hard to predict the nonlinear behavior of vanilla financial derivatives, it’s impossible to predict the behavior of crypto derivates. To me, playing in that field meant you were not a legitimate actor.
But, being so thirsty for innovative leaders, people are still making excuses for the state of the crypto market even after the spectacular but predictable implosions that began after the signal came from the Fed for a new tightened monetary regime.
I think founders and investors will be better served by thinking in terms of the older and slower business cultures of yesteryear. Value investing is out of fashion in today’s drive-by meme attention economy, and yet it is exactly what Bitcoin needs. Regardless of the fact that its most famous practitioners, Munger and Buffet, are religiously opposed to understanding it.
In a way, the same applies to people without expertise. The allure of making money will confuse you more than enlighten you. Instead, look at Bitcoin as a key that opens up learning opportunities. The more you learn, the more access to information you earn, and the more you can take risks with exposure. Think about using it, not investing.
We build Canonic.xyz to allow the average user to start using bitcoin by selling ebooks and audiobooks. Canonic lowers the amount of work required to use bitcoin. It allows you to earn Bitcoin and create a network of Bitcoin paying customers while helping safeguard the accuracy and provenance of your information. You are able to cryptographically sign the data you put on the Bitcoin chain, and prove that the content existed at a particular point in time. These capabilities will increasingly be more valuable as the symbols that make our world whole erode through “AI” et al.
RETURN: Albanians seem to be everywhere these days, from Martin Shkreli to Mira Murati. You’ve warned that the US is turning into Albania—something Curtis Yarvin has commented on as well. What’s happening and how should Americans react?
RDN: Although I don’t think the meaning I am conveying is the same as that of a guy who writes poetry to Milošević in his free time, seeing that I once had the distinction of being called the third most interesting Albanian in the world I have a sense of responsibility to navigate this question slowly.
The competition between the tower and the bazaar, the hierarchical and the rhizomatic, doesn’t produce an e/acc future nor so-called "Brazilification". Rather, it reintroduces the problems so neatly hidden under the term Balkanization.
There’s a saying: the Croats look to the Vatican, the Bosnians to Mecca, the Serbs to Moscow, and Albanians to the State Department.
Clearly the one that doesn’t belong is Albania. Why and how does it apply to our present situation? Albania was formed as a political union where blood and language served as the strange attractor. Very quickly the new political union was mired in political struggles that masked the underlying religious rift. Although modern Albania prides itself on the lack of religious struggle among its Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim communities, this track record was probably only sustained due to the collapse that came with the First World War.
How you govern a populace with competing metaphysical hierarchies is essentially the same problem as that of the tower and the bazaar. It has been answered differently by the different Balkan countries. On one side we have the Turkish, Greek and Yugoslav answer. On the other we have the Albanian one. The former decided they will not have competing hierarchies and they “exchanged” populations with the goal of preserving the religious hierarchy within their geographies.
Albanians couldn’t resort to this option. The metaphysical multiplicity was governed at the end of World War Two with a communist rationalist bureaucracy that in due time outlawed all religion. What started as a being superior to religious leaders -- the enlightened bureaucrat that would bring us progress through industry -- ended up eating these positions and forming a religious body itself. What we learned at the end of those 46 years of rabid scientific-progressive communism is that once you think all you see is all there is very soon you will start seeing even less. Rationalism and materialism is an ourobouros, a self-eating snake.
The Albanian answer was to create a new abstraction, give it a different name, and pass to it the duties and governing parameters that were previously the duty of traditional religious bodies. When that abstraction failed abysmally in its role, we supplanted it with the U.S. State Department. One could argue very effectively that only the branding changed and the essence of the Albanian Politburo was kept alive with the State Department.
Nothing is more telling about what is now the de facto religious body of the waning "postwar" world order than the way NATO chooses to justify the tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine:
This televisual boomer priesthood is at the same place Greece, Turkey, and Yugoslavia were. They have to make a choice. But whereas Greece and Turkey and Yugoslavia had the option to avail themselves of a border and continue their traditional worship, the U.S., like Albania, doesn’t have that luxury.
Will America therefore start worshiping the State Department as the Albanians were forced to? Has it started already?
RETURN: Americans used to be very confident about their relationship to their technology. Now they often seem helpless or frightened or simply resigned to whatever unfolds. Big plans meant to revitalize the American spirit fall flat. What’s it going to take to restore confident action that doesn’t unleash fresh horrors?
RDN: The total illumination of the digital has created a severe spiritual drought. There’s an underlying lie that we in the West have "solved" metaphysics. I think many intuit that re-engaging in metaphysical discourse opens up dangers we are not prepared to withstand. However, I don’t think we have a choice. We either come clean with ourselves or we will be made to confront this reality.
The late Antonin Scalia used to say that the Bill of Rights and the Constitution would be only a paper guarantee without the underlying separation of powers. Our system cannot continue to function without some level of Mexican standoff at certain levels of governance. However, this separation of powers becomes an illusion impossible to sustain in the digital age when everyone can see that something called the “establishment” controls the political infrastructure, the economy, the media, the tech companies, the military-intelligence complex, the public schools, the universities and the large urban areas.
The only alternative left is to export our political conflict and start talking about war with China, Russia and Iran. And of course, many are considering this coming conflict as the cauldron that will forge and purify a new American spirit.
I think Bitcoin, being at the center of money, technology, media, energy, and local/global governance trade-offs, offers us a chance for a particular mixture of humility and courage to emerge which can allow for a sincere and delicate conversation in the "Global American Empire" about our metaphysical roots.
Tucker Carlson freely admits that America’s Protestant rudder has come undone. Yet no one seems to have a follow-up question to his statement that “I became convinced of God’s existence. We grew up in the Episcopal church. But I would never send my kids again to the Episcopal church. Our whole world collapsed."
Of course, this problem doesn’t apply only to the Episcopal church. But no one of note wants to go through the trouble of generalizing the problem. Ultimately, I don’t think our current “Judeo-Christian” pastiche or pithy quotes from online gurus will quench many souls of their spiritual thirst as the digital medium continues to burn away the once-comfortable illusions of the boomer imagination.
RETURN: A recent infographic showed a dividing line in Europe roughly where the Iron Curtain used to be—east of which support for the sex-and-gender rainbow was low, and west of which it was high. (Albania was especially low.) Relatedly, the Financial Times recently ran an illustration for a column about how Ukraine became a flashpoint in the “culture war” with two tanks blasting each other—one shooting out the rainbow, the other the Orthodox cross. Why are the battle lines shaping up this way, and what’s really the war?
RDN: "All world religions, the genetic code of the planet’s key civilizations, are under attack." Longtime Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wrote that in June of 2021.
When Americans are presented with these words they tend to quip with questions about the veracity of Russia's newfound religious piety. Far be it for me to throw stones in a glass house, but I think we have more pressing concerns here at home. We can question who is leading this attack the same as we can question who is really in control of the U.S. government, but questioning whether this attack is emanating from the American Empire would be deeply insincere.
It’s instructive to see how powerless we have been in stopping the manipulation of foundational ontological categories like woman and man, mother and father. We all tend to intuit that “there be dragons” in this enterprise but the “tools” we have at hand are not up to the task of congealing a meaningful polity against it.
In November 2014 the British Times reported that Putin "had annexed Crimea and sent his forces into eastern Ukraine, but the moment when Angela Merkel finally became convinced that there could be no reconciliation with Vladimir Putin was when she was treated to his hardline views on gay rights.”
Of course this conflict must be reasonable. Right? About something like geopolitics or realpolitik or history? Or it might be about something that people in the East still remember clearly and the American graybeards shouldn’t have allowed us to forget: there’s actually very little about sex that is private.
RETURN: Many Americans who take the “new civil war” idea seriously probably ultimately reject it because it would hit them where it hurts—their standard of living. How do you think about the risk of serious unrest and how to hedge against it?
RDN: I’ll spare readers the “Bitcoin solves this” ritual and other tactical advice which they can find freely on the internet. I think that beyond the necessary measures -- every citizen should take responsibility for his family and community -- there is little you can do. That’s why it behooves us to have the difficult conversations as soon as possible.
As we sit in this inescapable situation, with no exit in sight, hopefully, we will be reminded that the only hedge we have left is the simple devotion to the Source of that normality we all claim to want back.
RETURN: You’re a refugee of sorts from Google. What should ordinary citizens worried about the future know about what goes on there and why?
RDN: I joined Google in 2014. At that time the company had already become a juggernaut and was going through the expected s-curve dynamics. The early employees were exceptional people at the top of the talent hierarchy. They were the “think different” types and the company was dominated by a risk-taking engineering and tinkering culture.
Last decade, this started to change. The culture of the company began to be dominated by the more “conservative” culture of lawyers and Human Resources. Around 2015 some of these new cohorts would freely admit that the company was in process of transforming into a public utility. The hiring of Ruth Porat, a seasoned Wall Street veteran, permanently sealed the cultural transition from apex tech predator to a relaxed public utility.
In the American political discourse, there’s too much import put on the categories of private vs. public and not enough on large vs. small. Google has nine products with more than one billion monthly active users. At this level of scale, a "public" corporation is more akin to a governmental organization. The barrage of voices attesting to the lowering standards of Google Search is a reminder of this reality.
The key point is that AI and algorithms without Bias are a logical impossibility. The only question is about the aesthetic the defacto priesthood wants to optimize.
This means folks should look at Google with the same mix of nonchalance and cosmic horror that they feel when they are at the DMV.
RETURN: What’s next for Canonic?
RDN: The future of Bitcoin will be decided among the plumbers, electricians, construction workers, and priests of the American Steppe. That’s where you will find us.
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