Notes from Devconnect in Istanbul
I’ve been in Istanbul all week, at Devconnect, which I was told is supposedly the quieter, more insider-y Ethereum event (compared to the broader Devcon or carnivalesque ETHxx events), but if so, this is a lot of insiders. And the insiders have their own insiders. It’s inner circles all the way down. There’s a couple of large onions worth of backroom conversations and skullduggery going on, several levels deep, to some of which I was even invited.
Rather apt, as I’m sure others have noticed, that this event is happening in Istanbul, the place that invented the Deep State, and the origin of all those pesky Byzantine generals who provide the historical raison d’être for the whole crypto scene.
My hotel room is on the 11th floor, with a grand view of spectacular sunrises over the Bosphorus (I rarely complain about anything, but I scored this room after complaining about loud nightclub music making it impossible to sleep in my original second floor room; I should complain more).
The city entirely lives up to its mythos. I’m reading a lovely book about it, A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes, which really drives home the extent to which this city has been at the center of the world for nearly three millennia, through Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and modern eras. No other city comes close. Not Rome, not London, not Paris, not Beijing, not Delhi.
The city feels curiously finished. Like its story is over. Its past so full, and so thoroughly processed, there is not even room for the present qua present, except insofar it is a determinate function of the past. Small sign — a tour guide told us that Turkey has the highest per capita ownership of metal detectors in the world. Everybody here has a fishing rod, to fish, and a metal detector, to search for antiquities which keep turning up everywhere.
I’ve been to other cities of comparable antiquity, but never encountered this vibe of utter completeness, like a living museum that is not aware it is a museum. In the introduction of my slow-moving After Westphalia series, I wrote:
It was only after I visited Europe that I understood why Europeans say what they do about India, that it is a land of contradictions. That cliche says more about Europe than it does about India.
Europe is a land of tautologies: the experience of the continent corresponds closely to the visceral idea of it. It is the harmony of the idea of Europe that is historically exceptional, not the disharmony of the idea of India.
For an experienced reality to so closely match your idea of it, and at such a large scale, requires not just boundaries — in both space and time — but an ordering consciousness within those boundaries; one that is acutely aware of itself.
Appropriately enough for a city that bridges (literally) Asia and Europe, Istanbul feels neither tautological like Europe, nor self-contradictory like India (allegedly). It feels like a land of resolved contradictions. The vast horrors of brutal warfare between civilizations seem not just in the past, but reduced to a kind of ritualized memory of conflict, endlessly rehearsed and performed by the city itself, not just for tourists, but for itself, like an old man lost in memories. Istanbul seems to have placidly slid into its end-of-history phase while the rest of us are kicking and screaming trying to resist.
The fault lines among the various historical eras seem to have settled into quiescent, dormant ones, with all the tectonic energy spent (though apparently the city gets hit with a major literal earthquake every 250 or so years, much like my much younger home city of Seattle, to which it bears a remarkable resemblance at the moment, thanks to the visual spectacle of ferries plying waterways shrouded in incessant rain and mist).
These are mere impressions of course; the sensed vibes of a narrow week-long slice in a history that stretches back millennia. So I’m probably wrong. And certainly, I don’t mean all this literally.
There are live and lively conflicts shaping life in this city, same as anywhere else. The city is at the center of continuing ritual hostilities between Turkey and Greece. There is lively maneuvering around the future of the Straits of Bosphorus too. Turkey is treaty-bound to keep the straits open for free, which is historically anomalous since it has historically been a major revenue source for the varied empires that have controlled it, and is making up a cunning plan to create an alternative artificial canal as a sort of fast lane that you have to pay to transit. It’s a weak theory. Unlike the Straits of Malacca, or the Suez and Panama canals, the Bosphorus is no longer as central to world affairs as it once was. Control of the waterway between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean is no longer even as consequential as it was back when Ukraine was part of the USSR. The famed Russian Black Sea fleet is no longer the consequential global naval force it once was.
Still, I can’t shake the feeling of completeness, finishedness.
Which is why it feels so strange to be here for Devconnect. Ethereum, depending on who you ask, is either a wishful dream of a world computer, or the beginnings of a real one. Whatever you think of the story of Etheum, or crypto in general, it is the opposite of finished. It has barely begun.
I was here mainly to host a session related to my Summer of Protocols work, but also ended up doing a talk and a panel at the Autonomous Worlds event, and am due to do another at the Censorship.wtf event later today (Devconnect is more a popup city of independently organized mini-conferences than a single event; somewhat like a Venice Bienneille type structure). The two events represent opposite ends of the spectrum of conversations here. The AW event was all about wild speculation around entire onchain worlds built out of the dark magic of zero-knowledge proofs. The Censorship.wtf event is all about gritty current realities involved in securing and governing Ethereum as it exists today, in an existential fight for survival against nation states, central bankers, and so on. I also attended a clubby unlisted event on the future of Ethereum, and a few backroom meetings with movers and shakers.
In technological time, Devconnect clearly belongs in 2050. But in terms of historical trajectory, if we were to make an analogy to the history of Istanbul, the event probably belongs in classical antiquity, when the Persians and Greeks were at war.
I’ll probably be chewing on learnings from this week, about both the future viewed through the lens of Ethereum, and the history of the world viewed through the lens of Istanbul, for a long time, and have more to say later about both. But for now, I’m in a rare mode of just sitting back and soaking in a whole lot of new context. This is a part of the world in space and time I’ve never spent time in, and it’s been refreshing.
I’ll leave you with two pictures. The first is a picture of the Hagia Sophia, which is exactly as spectacular as advertised…
And the second a picture of one of the tens of thousands of cats which roam the city, and have clearly been its true owners and stewards since antiquity. I know this because I learned from the Bettany Hughes book that the ancient Greeks used to worship the goddess Hecate here with dog sacrifices. Clearly this is a history that has been engineered by cats (kedi in Turkish, the only word I’ve learned).