When I first heard about ETH Barcelona, slated to be the first-ever ETH conference in Spain, I had a suspicion that we were looking at the potential for a singular, perhaps catalytic, encounter between cultures. Frankly, the event organizers didn’t disappoint.

Catalonia: building human-shaped castles

Barcelona is a very particular place, and often those who visit for cultural interests–the art and architecture, the party scene, the ambiance–might not pick up on some of its quirks. So please forgive me a bit of background:

Historically, the region of Catalonia has been politically distinct from the rest of Spain, to varying degrees at different points in time. It has been culturally distinct at the level of language since Roman colonization; there is a local Romance language spoken there, called Catalan, spoken by about 12 million people up and down the Mediterranean coast. According to my Hebrew professor, the origins of Catalan and Spanish go back to the moment of Roman colonization: the legion they sent to the coast spoke a different dialect of Latin than the legion they sent to the center of the peninsula.

Alas, this decision taken by the Romans centuries ago resulted in some very ugly dynamics during the 20th century. The fascist government of Francisco Franco, which ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975, repressed the use of languages other than Spanish, including Catalan and Basque, a language spoken in the north of the country. 

Upon establishing a democracy, the Spanish constitution, while retaining the centralized power of the national government, ceded a number of rights to so-called Autonomous Regions, including the right to determine the language of public administration, school instruction, etc; and under this framework, Catalan language, culture, and identity has flourished. 

Their economy, as well, experienced an extended boom over several decades; these factors, combined with endemic corruption at many levels of Spanish government and a certain lingering hostility and prejudice between many people from the center of Spain and the Catalan-speaking regions, created the conditions for a movement calling for secession from the Spanish state and the creation of an independent Catalan state.

Catalan Crypto: a culture of anarchy

Maybe you can see where this is going: We’ve got an economically privileged Western European region with highly-educated people and a burgeoning tech sector that is interested in self-sovereignty. They want to build their own infrastructure, they want to decentralize power away from an authority that they perceive to be existentially hostile to their culture and interests; they need to build solutions for identity, healthcare, and voting, amongst other things.

Over the years, people I know would send me articles because hey, Oliver lived in Barcelona and he’s into that crypto stuff, I bet he’d be interested in knowing how the Catalan government wants to use blockchain for voting.

Let’s be clear: we’re talking about a culture that maintains institutions whose aim is to dress children up in fireproof demon costumes and arrange specific times for them to run through the streets shooting off fireworks.

Even the physical structure of Barcelona kind of lends itself to the crypto mindset; when the city was expanded during the 19th century, an overarching urban design plan was drawn up with the goal of creating a city of blocks, each of which has its own interior space and life; a community of microcosms, a city of communities.

There’s more, though; part of the history of the region is based around a concept of self-governance, going back hundreds of years. Syndicalist, communist and anarchist movements were very strong in Spain in the 20th century, particularly in the south of the country and in the Catalan regions, with a focus on direct local democracy. A large swath of Catalunya was governed, at one point, by anarchists elected to office; they were even in the national representative government for a brief moment. 

I used to live on a street in central Barcelona that had on it a building that was going through a process of sale and eventual demolition, but it was taking a while; in the meantime, there were probably about a dozen people living in it, taking care of the building and each other, self-organizing a community. This is what’s known as a “casa okupa” in Spain, and frankly, they were excellent neighbors, even the weird Canadian guy who took too much LSD and wore his furry suit around the neighborhood. 

Many sources point to the economic meltdown of 2008 as one of the main motivations behind the first wave of crypto-culture adoption and development. The movement known as Occupy Wall Street in the United States, or 15M in Spain, is still felt today–and suffice to say, it had its moment in Barcelona as well, replete with a slogan bound up in Catalan traditions and culture.

The independence movement came to a head a few years ago, with the Catalan government holding a referendum vote that the Spanish Constitutional Court had declared unconstitutional prior to its being executed; the Spanish national government deployed a tremendous show of force in the form of law enforcement officers on the ground to inhibit what they considered to be illegal actions on the part of Catalan government. The president of the Catalan region, following the vote, declared independence, immediately suspended it, and fled to Belgium while most of his top government officials were arrested and tried on charges relating to misuse of public funds, treason, and sedition. It’s a long story.

A Different Kind of Crypto Conference

Throughout the grim winter months of 2022, I watched ETH Barcelona take shape on Twitter. They asked what kind of speakers people would like to see; what kind of topics they would want to hear about. Democratic from the outset.

It should come as no surprise, then, that ETH Barcelona was settled on as a solarpunk, regenerative crypto conference. This is not a conference where you go to hear about exciting innovations in NFT tokenomics; people here are not concerned with degen trading strategies (especially in a bear market). People were here to talk about how to change the world. Some projects that featured prominently were Toucan, a project focusing on tokenizing carbon credits; Giveth, at this point an OG in the space, building philanthropy solutions, and EthicHub, which provides financing to small-scale coffee producers. 

The conference was held at the Barcelona International Conventions Center, on the northern end of town, an area heavily developed and expanded in order to host the Olympics in 1992. Compared to other crypto events I’ve attended, the difference in organization was remarkable. The event was staffed by an adequate number of people and security guards who were checking wristbands and attendee tags. There were clearly indicated spaces within the gargantuan Convention Center for the event with a fairly clear layout, and generous co-working spaces. There was a staffer at the door to each of the presentation rooms (the ‘Sky Stage’ being the larger, the ‘Forest Stage’ more intimate), counting attendees; if the presentation was at capacity, people were turned away. That said, the presentations were being live streamed on screens around the conference, and on YouTube, and thus were always accessible.

In line with these ‘socially responsible’ values, the display booths were built out of cardboard that could easily be recycled afterwards, and presumably was a low-carbon option in terms of transportation and setup. The snacks provided were fruit-and herb-infused water and a respectable fruit cocktail served in sealing glass jars with metal spoons: all reusable with close to zero waste. Attendees were encouraged to bring their own coffee mug and water bottle, and the coffee was provided entirely by EthicHub.

The live streams are on YouTube, and are divided between the Forest Stage and the Sky Stage.

Blockchain en Español… i Catalá

One of the things I was most interested to see was how the culture of crypto and blockchain tech was filtering out of Anglophonic cultures and into other ones, and in this regard, ETH Barcelona did not disappoint. There were many sessions being offered in Spanish, giving a window into parts of the ecosystem that are often conspicuously absent on Crypto Twitter and other US-heavy platforms. From a linguistic perspective, it was fascinating; presenters ran the gamut from absolute DeFi degens who peppered their Spanish with crypto jargon and English phrases like “token-gated” and “ownership” and “social graph” to those who had worked so hard at expressing these concepts in normal terms in Spanish that they made it look easy. 

If I went for the linguistics, I came away with the social conscience. I found the talk from Tropykus’ co-founder Diego Mazo particularly eye-opening and compelling. He argued, in no uncertain terms, that in countries like Colombia or Argentina, where consumer loans are subject to interest rates of 30-80%, “DeFi isn’t an investment, it’s survival”:

This was a theme repeated by others that I spoke to, as well, and it was a lesson I wasn’t expecting.

In a bear market, it would behoove us to remember that the revolutionary impact of the tools we’ve already created in our ecosystem is still ahead of us; the question is how we’re going to ensure it is carried out.

It’s easy for us who have been in the crypto space, and especially those of us who have been in the crypto space in the Global North, to feel dismayed by recent events–and not without reason–and to wonder how, and when, our products will again gain momentum in the market. Based on what I saw at ETH Barcelona, this is blindly ignoring the forest for the trees. Getting focused on a ‘number go up’ extractive economic model over the truly transformative and sustainable potential of a regenerative economic model is short-sightedness in the extreme.

Given everything I had suspected about “the Catalan connection” with blockchain tech, I was frankly surprised I didn’t see more democracy and state-building offerings on the menu, although Aragon’s Vocdoni was handing out branded traditional Catalan peasant hats, a subtle-not-so-subtle move. One talk I made sure not to miss was that of Oriol Caba for CatalanDAO, which began with him greeting everyone in eight different languages, not including Spanish.

His talk was solid, focusing on the nuts and bolts of community organizing. Like so many others in the space, CatalanDAO went through the growing pains of forming a DAO first, and then trying to figure out why, and what for, afterwards. There were a few comments, almost as an aside, about being forced to participate in a globalized culture that one never asked to be a part of, to the exclusion of one’s own culture, but this didn’t seem to be the main thrust; it was more about how you build a solid NGO-like structure around a DAO to help manage projects. Of particular interest were his comments surrounding onboarding–that without the onboarding piece, it was difficult to get people involved, and then give them a clear role to continue with the organization.

This made it all the more jarring when Mr. Caba ended his talk, walked off the darkened stage, and left his laptop playing a video of a man blowing apart Santa Claus dolls hung on stakes using a double-barrelled shotgun, set to the unnerving sounds of a Catalan childrens’ song.

El camí endavant - The Road Ahead

I’ve spent a lot of time pondering the connections between nation and nationalism, language and people, freedom and agency, and how they relate to the Catalan story. Not to mention historical revisionism and cultural imperialism, and just plain old prejudice.

There are no simple answers, and I don’t have the silver bullet to put through the heart of this werewolf Santa Claus. I’m not a fan of nationalism, in any context, and linguistic nationalism to me has always seemed particularly like playing with fire. I saw an anarchist slogan a few years back that I particularly liked: “La llengua i la cultura son del poble - El nacionalisme es dels polítics,” Language and culture belong to the people - Nationalism, to politicians.

One of the questions that is staying with me is what web3 might do, and whether it might not do what we expect it to do. Perhaps the government of Catalonia will spin up a blockchain for voting, and attempt to secede from the Spanish national government. Who knows, maybe they’ll be the first ones to use on-chain decentralized IDs.

But what happens when you’ve removed the state’s monopoly on issuing currency? What is the point of nationalism when you no longer need a state to create and enforce consensus? What happens when the state is no longer the issuing authority for identity? We're beginning to see the divorce of the financial system from the nation-state; this will have profound, nonlinear effects, many of which we have yet to even imagine.

What I can imagine is a second edition of ETH Barcelona; the responses I’ve seen on Twitter, and the vibe I got from attendees, was immensely positive. And with vibes like these, who can turn it down?