I'm Salim Virani. I used to design peer learning programs, and these days I'm having fun building stuff.
Remember that day off socials for #blacklivesmatter? I made that a year because of a tough lesson I learned in humanitarian work: Don’t be part of the problem!
So imagine the weird twists and turns that got me into the blockchain world.
To be honest, it didn’t really start with altruism. I was minding my business when I got a call from a long-lost little cousin:
“I just made retirement money trading shitcoins - can you help me start a business with it?”
“Sure, just show me that shitcoin thing… oh wow, I’m making money by watching memes.”
I’d heard of this Ethereum thing before. I even played with it and wrote some Solidity years ago. But back then it was slow and really more a proof of concept. Now, I saw it had lived up to its promise.
I saw the wild and scammy shitcoins on the edge of the crypto world. But at the center, Vitalik was writing about a better world, and there’s a small army that BUIDLs it.
Behind all the get-rich-quick #crypto bro schemes are a different group: people designing new incentive structures to displace the broken ones in our society.
In the past, whenever something new was developed, the money- people got involved and made the makers play by their rules. Consistent story across art, science and culture
But with blockchain, the makers get to keep setting the rules. How? Incentive Judo!
For the money-people to participate (and gain), they have to play by the rules set by the makers of that system. Those rules are hard-coded into the blockchain and can’t change once they’re set.
And the media for innovation is directly economic itself. One person described blockchain projects as, “if you’ve thought up your own version of utopia, you can run it as an experiment using blockchain, and see how it actually works.”
So these new incentives are designed to redirect the natural efforts of money people to fund the new system.
Those familiar with my work know I’ve had varying success in raise the bar in a few areas:
Many ceilings I hit were caused by broken incentives. A few years ago I wanted to leave all that behind, and start a new chapter as a maker. Well, Blockchain kind of merges the two, and lets me tackle these problems as a maker.
Take my 4 years focused on humanitarian engineering projects in Africa. I was warned: If you’re coming in as a foreigner, through foreign-sponsored programs, you’re part of the problem.
But hey, my dad’s from Tanzania, so it’ll be different for me, right?
The “part-of-the-problem problem” is spelled out books like Nina Munk’s The Idealist and Maggie Black’s International Development.
They spell out show how the development industries stratify, and all new efforts end up falling into the same old broken organisational structures.
The Development Industry is full of cliches like easily-duped donors, and Dilbert-like NGO bosses constantly making silly “drone-strike” decisions from their London/DC offices. Another unused well or empty school built by 20-year-olds on voluntourism holidays, paid for by their rich parents in some G8 economy.
Good intentions become bad results.
I reached out to some African investors and founders: same warning.
Everyone knows the incentives are broken, and to various degrees turn a blind eye. Some are self-serving, others cynical and others try to push through and at least do some good. But anyone who’s been “on the ground” long enough knows the dysfunction.
The industry even has it’s own version of Cards Against Humanity, called Jaded Aid. It’s very very bleak.
After a few years, a program I had built was commandeered by Dilberts in their London office. It was weaponized against the people it was built to help, all for a certain Royal look like he was helping Africa.
Who me? Part of the problem?
Jaded Aid question: Sustainability will be ensured through razor-sharp focus on ___________
Is there a card that says, “Helping a Royal who’s made zero contribution impress journalists at palace parties..”
Even though everyone gets cynical, in the end if you work for an NGO, you chose a career helping others.
The problem is in the incentive structures, and how fund-raising responsibilities are divided from the actual results. Each have separate measures and rewards.
The result is obvious: counter-productive behaviours grow from where your colleagues have different rewards.
Healthcare’s an example with more blatant corruption.
You might have heard about this thing called The Pandemic. (That time when everyone went inside and you remembered to call your mum.)
A few of us started a project called Air Collective, making air-tight masks to protect front-line staff in hospitals.
You’d be surprised how many hospital managers would turn away free protective equipment! After talking to the doctors who worked for them (and wanted the masks) we learned they declined because business-as-usual for them requires a kick-back.
Imagine being so used to kick-backs from your suppliers that you walk into work past your colleagues and friends on the COVID front-line, and don’t even think twice when turning down “a new supplier” who’s offering equipment to save their lives.
This taught me a lot about how corruption works (and personally, how hard I could grind.)
Side note: I’m really proud of that project, but I could only do so much since I don’t speak Bulgarian. My co-founders Bozhana and Nato ran the marathon.
They protected about half of Bulgaria’s hospitals, likely helping save hundreds of thousands of lives.
We can complain all we want about corruption, but a life-time hospital manager in Bulgaria has seen shit we haven’t.
We can call these people unethical actors, but will we take on their job?
I’d rather empathise, and help create alternative systems with better incentives.
My last few years, I dropped education to go back to being a maker myself.
This meant learning things like functional programming, containers, weird databases, weirder things like blockchains, and about 80 million js frameworks.
My goal was to ship something new every week or so, treating code as an artistic form. I got to that point, releasing work anonymously and having fun watching people interact.
In the last 6 months, solidity and ethersjs became part of my toolkit.
It’s amazing what options open up when you’re not worried about making money from your work. So many startups out there would be way better if they just thought of them as one-time software-based interactive art projects. The money-incentives almost always end up contradicting the user goals in everything from communication, personal growth and education.
All these bad situations where I’ve come across broken incentives, well, I see a silver lining. I can start working on projects that create a better alternative. Crypto offers flexibility that didn’t exist before. It opens new collaboration models that could be more aligned to what people need, rather than the cookie-cutter organisations like NGOs and startups that end up being Procrustean beds. Sure, they have done good, but it’s clear we’ve also hit a ceiling and can see how they limit decisions and also do harm.
All this is not so cut-and-dry for me either. Jackson Palmer, the founder of Dogecoin, has said:
Despite claims of “decentralization”, the cryptocurrency industry is controlled by a powerful cartel of wealthy figures who, with time, have evolved to incorporate many of the same institutions tied to the existing centralized financial system they supposedly set out to replace.
This time will be different, right?
Are our choices really limited to being an ineffective complainer or a misguided fixer? Will I just be part of the problem again? Well, this time I’m stepping more carefully. Maybe it’s useful to bring a more battle-grizzled perspective to these projects.
Well, that kinda covers it for me. I skipped a lot of fun stuff like making MMA games, hiding out at my mum’s house, and uncomfortably huge tomatoes. Maybe we’ll get to those later.
How about you? Still out there? What you up to these days?
I’m working on a communication tool for loose community groups and unconference-style interactions. It focuses on individual autonomy rather than top-down coordination.
I recently became a Kernel fellow, where I was exploring models for self-directing communities of care, the history of economic cultural norms, and the connection between mimicry, memes and our sense of belonging.
In the past, I designed peer learning programs for Oxford, UCL, Techstars, Microsoft Ventures and The Royal Academy Of Engineering. I also played a role in creating the Lean Startup methodology, and the European startup ecosystem. You can read about this here.
Choose happiness (2021)
Emotional Vocabulary (2020)
Project portfolios (2020)
The history Of Lean Startup (2016)
Entrepreneurship is craft (2014)