How culture drives foul play on the internet, and how new “upcode” can protect us

The world of online misdeeds is an eerie biome, crawling with Bored Apes, Fancy Bears, Shiba Inu coins, self-­replicating viruses, and whales. But the behavior driving fraud, hacks, and scams on the internet has always been familiar and very human. New technologies change little about the fact that illegal operations exist because some people are willing to act illegally and others fall for the stories they tell.

To wit: Crypto speculation looks a lot like online sports betting, which looks like offline sports betting; cyber hacking resembles classic espionage; spear phishers recall flesh-and-blood con artists. The perpetrators of these crimes lure victims with well-worn appeals to faith and promises of financial reward. In Fancy Bear Goes Phishing, Yale law professor Scott Shapiro argues that technological solutions can’t solve the problem because they can’t force people to play nice online. The best ways to protect ourselves from online tricks are social—public policies, legal and business incentives, and cultural shifts.

Shapiro’s book arrives just in time for the last gasp of the latest crypto wave, as major players find themselves trapped in the nets of human institutions. In early June, the US Securities and Exchange Commission went after Binance and Coinbase, the two largest cryptocurrency exchanges in the world, a few months after charging the infamous Sam Bankman-Fried, founder of the massive crypto exchange FTX, with fraud. While Shapiro mentions crypto only as the main means of payment in online crime, the industry’s wild ride through finance and culture deserves its own hefty chapter in the narrative of internet fraud.

It may be too early for deep analysis, but we do have first-person perspectives on crypto from actor Ben McKenzie (former star of the teen drama The O.C.) and streetwear designer and influencer Bobby Hundreds, the authors of—respectively—Easy Money and NFTs Are a Scam/NFTs Are the Future. (More heavily reported books on the crypto era from tech reporter Zeke Faux and Big Short author Michael Lewis are in the works.)

“If we are committing serious crimes like fraud, it is crucially important that we find ways to justify our behavior to others, and crucially, to ourselves.”

Ben McKenzie, former star of The O.C.

McKenzie testified at the Senate Banking Committee’s hearing on FTX that he believes the cryptocurrency industry “represents the largest Ponzi scheme in history,” and Easy Money traces his own journey from bored pandemic dabbler to committed crypto critic alongside the industry’s rise and fall. Hundreds also writes a chronological account of his time in crypto—specifically in nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, digital representational objects that he has bought, sold, and “dropped” on his own and through The Hundreds, a “community-based streetwear brand and media company.” For Hundreds, NFTs have value as cultural artifacts, and he’s not convinced that their time should be over (although he acknowledges that between 2019 and the writing of his book, more than $100 million worth of NFTs have been stolen, mostly through phishing scams). “Whether or not NFTs are a scam poses a philosophical question that wanders into moral judgments and cultural practices around free enterprise, mercantilism, and materialism,” he writes.

ABRAMS, 2023

For all their differences (a lawyer, an actor, and a designer walk into a bar …), Shapiro, McKenzie, and Hundreds all explore characters, motivations, and social dynamics much more than they do technical innovations. Online crime is a human story, these books collectively argue, and explanations of why it happens, why it works, and how we can stay safe are human too.

To articulate how internet crime comes to be, Shapiro offers a new paradigm for the relationship between humanity and technology. He relabels technical computer code “downcode” and calls everything human surrounding and driving it “upcode.” From “the inner operations of the human brain” to “the outer social, political, and institutional forces that define the world,” upcode is the teeming ecosystem of humans and human systems behind the curtain of technology. Shapiro argues that upcode is responsible for all of technology’s impacts—positive and negative—and downcode is only its product. Technical tools like the blockchain, firewalls, or two-factor authentication may be

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By: Rebecca Ackermann
Title: How culture drives foul play on the internet, and how new “upcode” can protect us
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Published Date: Wed, 23 Aug 2023 09:00:00 +0000

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