The hyper-local side of crypto- POLITICO

With help from Derek Robertson

There’s a novel experiment unfolding in the bucolic Berkshire mountains of Western Massachusetts — one with implications for where, and how, crypto might work its way into day-to-day life.

At the Berkshire Food Co-Op in Great Barrington, Mass., you can see which local farm grew your produce, pick up a “reclaimed wheat stalk eco mug” and, as of this harvest, pay for it all in cryptocurrency.

The currency isn’t Bitcoin, with its high carbon emissions, or the many private cryptocurrencies backed by venture capitalist. Instead, the co-op is working with a pioneer of the farm-to-table movement to use a technology often associated with unfettered global capitalism for a different end: radical localism.

The launch this spring of the Digital Berkshares cryptocurrency marks the latest step in a decades-long effort to foster a self-sufficient economy in the Berkshire Mountains, a popular retreat for affluent, educated Northeasterners.

As globalization has continued its steady march, that autonomy has remained elusive. But now, as the rise of blockchain technology prompts a broad rethinking of money and a widespread push for deglobalization gains steam, the effort’s backers have found a new opening.

To exploit it, they’ve enlisted the help of only-in-the-Berkshires early adopters like a ukulele factory, a wandering jester and a prominent local witch.

But the currency’s backers insist it’s more than a quirky pet project. The same technology that’s launched a thousand get-rich-quick schemes, they argue, can also help America’s rural regions get rich slowly.

“We’re not in a three-year project or a five-year project,” said Berkshares overseer Susan Witt, who, as the co-founder of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, has been trying to break the dollar’s monopoly on American money since the 1980s. “It’s more like a 50-year project.”

Witt has been closely involved in two previous schemes to launch a Berkshires alternative to the dollar, one of which is still in circulation, and considered a success in the obscure world of local currencies. When she started to attend crypto gatherings, beginning with the Miami Bitcoin conference in January 2016, Witt, now 75, recalled being the oldest person in the room, wearing pink among a sea of hundreds of young men in black. “I loved it,” she said. “I was learning so much.”

Because of Berkshares’ status as an alternative money pioneer, she enjoyed a minor celebrity among crypto enthusiasts, and Witt said she feels a kinship with some of the anarchist impulses — which favored local control — that fostered Bitcoin’s development.

But she also looks askance at the financial speculation and globalizing tendencies that surround the technology, and said she rejected several offers to convert Berkshares into a cryptocurrency. But she ultimately decided that her ambitions required going digital with Berkshares: A digital system would enable more and larger transactions while generating detailed data about how the currency is being used.

The result: Digital Berkshares went live in April with the launch of a smartphone wallet app, and is now one of the most interesting experiments in grassroots use of crypto as a real alternative monetary system.

For the full story, and the update on how it’s going, read Ben’s dispatch from Great Barrington on POLITICO Magazine.

Who is Sam Bankman-Fried, and what is he doing to Democratic politics?

POLITICO’s Elena Schneider answers that question in a profile today of the multi-billionaire head of the crypto exchange FTX, as he continues to commit not-insignificant chunks of his fortune to Democratic campaigns across the country:

“…in the last year, he’s hired a network of political operatives and spent tens of millions more shaping Democratic House primaries,” Elena writes. “It was a shocking wave of spending that looked like it could remake the Democratic Party bench in Washington, candidate by candidate. Looking ahead to the 2024 election, he has said he could spend anywhere from $100 million to $1 billion.”

You might have noticed one number missing from that ledger: 2022. Elena reports that Bankman-Fried is reluctant to make as big of a splash in the midterms, telling her he only plans to spend about half of the $40 million he spent on this year’s primaries in the general election. (“Only.”)

Bankman-Fried also cautiously guards against being too closely tied to the crypto world that helped build his fortune, and especially being seen as such: “Despite having said nothing about crypto, and only been talking about pandemic prevention, to say explicitly, ‘just to be clear, there’s no crypto angle,’ there isn’t some hidden crypto agenda here,” he told Elena. “If there’s been a fuck-up, which there has been, it’s been not realizing as early that I needed to be egregiously explicit and repetitive about that fact.” — Derek Robertson

Would-be Twitter competitors like Peach or Mastodon have usually followed a predictable cycle: A fair amount of hype followed by little in the way of an enduring footprint.

One recently-launched social media platform is hoping to skirt that fate by introducing a truly sui generis, unpredictable element to the mix: cohost, an ad- and algorithm-free social media platform that allows users to incorporate CSS into their posts.

For the non-code-savvy, CSS (short for “cascading style sheets”) is a language that grants visual qualities to HTML input. That sounds dry, but in practice it allows for more creative cohost users to create quick-loading, elaborate interactive visuals within the browser: With just a quick search upon creating an account and logging in, I found a simulation of fridge-magnet poetry, Windows 2000 Professional, and even a classic Game Boy Advance game.

The site wasn’t built specifically as a platform for such gizmos — its stated purpose is to “give you ways to express yourself and stay in touch with your friends” — but their prevalence is a good reminder of how people use new technological tools like 3D art, the blockchain, or even in the boring old internet browser in this case, in unpredictable ways. — Derek Robertson

Stay in touch with the whole team: Ben Schreckinger ([email protected]); Derek Robertson ([email protected]); Konstantin Kakaes ([email protected]);  and Heidi Vogt ([email protected]). Follow us on Twitter @DigitalFuture.

Ben Schreckinger covers tech, finance and politics for POLITICO; he is an investor in cryptocurrency.

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