How Daft Punk Sold Techno to the World: A Map for Crypto

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Preface: I was sitting in the coworking space at Zuconnect in Istanbul thinking I should maybe write about connecting Daft Punk to crypto when at that moment the song “One More Time” started playing through my headphones. I took this as a sign from the divine that this needed to be written. So here it is.

We create our own rules, so everyone can create their rules, which means there are no rules anymore.” - Thomas Bangalter

Growing up, the genres of music I would mostly listen to were rock and metal. The harder it went and the more complex the rhythm, the better. I think playing classical violin for so much of my youth, I felt the more “real” the instrument, the more skill it took to play and deserved respect. It wasn’t until I went to university that I made a serious effort to expand my musical palette. However, I did have a soft spot for some electronic music artists and that was especially true for Daft Punk. I didn’t really understand why, but once while perusing through their music videos for their critically acclaimed album Discovery after being primed with the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, the connection became clear.

The blue-skinned humanoid rock stars that were characters throughout the animated movie Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem that was essentially one giant music video for the entire Discovery album were the perfect embodiment of Daft Punk's ability to blend futuristic electronic sounds with a touch of nostalgia. The characters may have looked like rock stars and played rock instruments, but I was clearly hearing electronic music, not rock, a more popular music genre when Discovery was released in 2001. Each song in the album spoke to my musical expectations from being an avid listener to rock and seduced me with a soft suggestion that “hey, maybe I should give this electronic music stuff a try.”

While I was a bit too young to remember and really witness the release of Discovery, the historical context of 2001 including the 9/11 attacks and continued globalization makes it clear from our vantage point today that this time was the start of a generational shift. This was the beginning of Daft Punk selling techno to the world. But what does this have to do with crypto?

They don't make music videos like they used to.
They don't make music videos like they used to.

The French Seem To Hate Representational Thinking

A lot of French artists are involved with electronic music, but the only connection between us is that we're all French. We're not making the same type of music, and there isn't any traditional French influence.” - Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo

In my book “Blockchain Radicals: How Capitalism Ruined Crypto and How to Fix It,” my main conceptual framework was based on Deleuze’s critique of representational thinking. Deleuze's critique of representational thinking is, in simple terms, the tendency for people to try to understand new things, concepts, etc. by imposing models of the old on top of them. He sees this as a limiting or incorrect way to understand the world and is often problematic. He describes this way of thinking as "thinking like a tree" or arboreal thinking which is core to a lot of western philosophy, and which largely comes from Plato and the platonic ideal.

The example that I give in the book to properly understand this comes from a video by Jonas Çelka where he uses the drum machine to explain Deleuze. The drum machine was conceptualized as a representation of having a drummer with a drum set come to band practice. Ideally you would have your drummer come to practice but you can't, so you use a drum machine. The drum machine was viewed as a lesser version of the ideal drummer with a drum set. However what actually happened in history was people took the drum machine and used it in ways that a drummer with a drum set could never play and thus created new genres of music, pushing beyond its conceptualization as a representation of a drummer with a drum set.

Applying Deleuze to the drum machine we can say that this way of thinking was limiting and not actually a “correct” way of thinking about the drum machine. Instead of thinking like a tree, for Deleuze we should instead be thinking rhizomatically or without a clear center or platonic ideal, like in the way the roots of potatoes take shape. This means thinking in ways that destabilize hierarchies and binaries through creativity, multiplicity, openness and collaboration.

Is it ironic that Deleuze is a French philosopher, Daft Punk is made up of French DJs Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo, and I wrote my book mostly while living in Paris? I don’t know, but it was a bit freaky when I realized.

Representation as Invitation

"Homework [...] was a way to say to the rock kids, like, 'Electronic music is cool'. Discovery was the opposite, of saying to the electronic kids, 'Rock is cool, you know? You can like that.” - Thomas Bangalter

While the US was a bit slower to accepting electronic music in part due to the passing of the 2001 RAVE Act (Reducing American’s Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act)  sponsored by Joe Biden, forcing house and techno underground, despite its Chicago and Detroit origins, electronic music gained momentum throughout a Europe that had begun to settle more into a European Union that stressed individual national identity less and embraced a liberal form of acceptance across nationalities through free trade and movement. By now we can say that electronic music is mainstream. A compatible music genre for a music industry that needed to increase profits as P2P file sharing services like Napster had cut their revenues in half.

While Daft Punk is a French duo, they would say that there is nothing about their music that is French and that “the French touch really does not exist.” You wouldn’t even necessarily know that they were French because the duo doesn’t speak out often and in public they wear their instantly recognizable helmets. In their February 2021 announcement that they had split, they released an 8-minute video entitled “Epilogue” and gave no official reason for the break up.

Their mystique and anonymity is a part of their appeal. While rock, even though most often bands made up of a collective of musical artists, had focused on the individual stars in the band and their dramas, electronic music de-centers the specific human playing the music because of the ease in which someone can sample and remix others’ music. Daft Punk’s reflective helmets invited a new generation of music listeners and artists to co-create a new culture that was paradoxically not tainted by the past’s traditionalism and gave space for those who still clung onto previous musical cultural expectations.

The use of representational thinking is essential to the discipline of marketing. It is used to help people "understand" new products or concepts to be “sold.” Daft Punk used this to help make sense of electronic music to a wider audience through the imagery of the rock band in the music videos for their Discovery album. I and many others were sold on electronic music through the imagery of the rock band, an image that I was more familiar and positive towards.

It was with Deleuze’s critique of representational thinking that I was able to see how Daft Punk played with representation to disrupt traditional notions of music genres without framing electronic music as some form of transcendence beyond other music genres and identities. Using their instruments, which included drum machines, samplers, and vocoders, in ways they may not have ever been meant to be used, they challenged the conventional separation between electronic (futuristic and artificial) and rock (traditional and authentic), suggesting a more fluid and interconnected musical landscape that rock enjoyers were a part of. The song Aerodynamic on the album even included a rock solo! The vast majority of guitars used in rock at this point were electric for guitarists to amplify their sound and add effects through pedals and no longer played “traditionally.” Pink Floyd decades before them had already started using electronic instruments and high production performances for their audiences which set the stage for the electronic music festivals to come.

Their use of anonymity gave the feeling of a collective authority to remix and match the aesthetics and literal sounds of previous generations’ music. They did not try to transcend the past but instead recognize the immanence inherent to music production, standing on the shoulders of giants while riding the zeitgeist of the growing trends that have led to the digitized world we live in today. You can see this clearly in the way they sampled songs like More Spell on You by Eddie Johns for their leading song for Discovery, One More Time. Daft Punk showed us how to use representation in a much more generative way than crypto has largely been doing the past decade. So how do we be the Daft Punks of crypto?

Crypto Daft Punks

“From the beginning, with our first album, we wanted to make the music that maybe was lacking around us - the music that we wanted to hear.” - Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo

Created with DALL-E + Canva
Created with DALL-E + Canva

By and large, the representations brought forth in the beginning of crypto have been authoritarian and restrictive in nature, disallowing a space of conceptual experimentation outside a certain Overton Window of right libertarian acceptability. The current Bitcoin space is a pernicious example of this. Rhizomatic thinking is hard to come by, but this is not the entirety of the space by far and I’ve tried my best in some writings on post-capitalist use cases and in Blockchain Radicals.

Using this framework in the book, I note that representational thinking is endemic in crypto. Since the beginning, bitcoin was presented as peer-to-peer cash which soon after the narrative changed to focus on bitcoin being a “digital gold” as its hard-coded limited supply mimics the scarcity of gold on earth. Some may say “code is law” to justify unintended uses of “smart contracts” which are not attached to any real legal system. Before they were DAOs, they were called Decentralized Autonomous Corporations, a clear link to the right libertarians that heavily influenced the space thinking everything would be better run as a corporation.

Representational thinking is a common marketing tactic in crypto to transfer a particular view and understanding of something to those who may not know much. The digital gold narrative for bitcoin was a great way to attract “gold bugs” who believed the end of the gold standard was the start of the current decline (While I have some sympathies, I think it has much more to do with the start of neoliberal economic policy becoming the norm). By buying bitcoin they were able to reiterate their own political identities and beliefs to themselves and those that sold the narrative happily took their money for it.

However, just like the example with the drum machine thought of as a representation of a drummer with a drum set, the representational models used in crypto are limiting and incorrect. Crypto is clearly not money in itself, nor is bitcoin literally digital gold because no gold is physically backing bitcoin that can be redeemed by the owners of bitcoin.

But this isn’t a bad thing! Just because the representational model of the drum machine was limiting, drum machines are still useful, just like crypto. And using metaphors to understand new things is not necessarily a bad thing either, we just need to be aware that there is no perfect metaphor because they inherently abstract away things. After all, all models are wrong but some are useful.

The newest representational model used to understand crypto is crypto as coordination (the third section of my book) and is much more inviting compared to the gold bug, hyper financialized, accelerationist imaginaries of crypto, but it is still the minority and has some of its own kinks to work out. The full spectrum of the affordances for action for crypto and blockchains could not have been predicted at the beginning and we cannot predict with complete assurance what that will be in the future from today’s viewpoint.

What it means then to think rhizomatically, or to be a Daft Punk of crypto, is to think more in processes rather than in things. In the realm of crypto it is not to start from “what is crypto?” but from “what can crypto become?” This means setting aside whether crypto is sound money or the future of finance but instead that it is and can be a free market wild west and a protocol for post-capitalist economic infrastructure and a disruptor of calcified institutions, a multiplicity of seemingly contradictory things when wielded by certain maps of the world. Crypto is and can become any of these things and it is our collective responsibility to steward and cultivate the best it can be. Rather than trying to pigeon-hole a rigid “crypto is..”, we must find ways to navigate the limitations of representation in language and show that crypto is multiple and we have the power to choose which path we want crypto to represent.

Crypto may have been in part forged by the hands of free market fundamentalism, but technology is not a loyal child as we have seen with the drum machine. Blockchain being inherently a directly economic technology, there is an imperative that we create a space to invite people to explore non-capital based affordances of action, else we shut the door of exploring its full potential and only recreate the same of what we have or worse on a new technological medium. Trent Van Epps from Protocol Guild recently wrote a piece explaining and defending the Ethereum commons that gives me a lot of hope. To be a Daft Punk of crypto is to create and advocate for the crypto-economic systems we want to collectively be a part of. Daft Punk offers us a better map for navigating the crypto adoption territory.

Big thank you to Scott Moore, Eric Alston, Michail Stangl, Scott Morris, and Giulio Quarta for feedback on early drafts and Io for the inspiring conversations during Devconnect in Istanbul.

If you’re interested in having some social pressure to read the book, I am starting a book club for Blockchain Radicals. As well if you prefer audiobook, the audiobook for Blockchain Radicals is coming out February 6th, 2024.

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